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Business & Economy

Q&A: Michael Cole, associate partner at Haines Watts

Tell us a bit about yourself, and your role?

I work closely with some really amazing SMEs across the North East, from award-winning architects and Michelin star restaurants, to tech start-ups and established businesses, helping them to maximise their finance function. The thing that unites these businesses, though, is their ambition.

We offer solutions to support these ambitious owner-managers as they look to meet the challenges of owning and growing a business. Traditional compliance services are really just the start; we help clients maximise their tax position to drive growth, adopt the latest technology to streamline their business processes, use management information to support smarter decision-making, and even develop business strategy as an outsourced financial director.

Everything comes back to the relationships we have with our clients. By truly getting to know business owners as individuals and understanding their challenges in real terms, we’re able to develop and deliver a service that is bespoke to the business in question.

What advice would you give to a business owner that’s navigating an uncertain period?

Oftentimes the SMEs we work with are headed up by one individual. And it can be quite a lonely environment for them.

The advice I give to the businesses I work alongside is to utilise their network.

So I would say have a look at the people around you, have a look at the support that your network and advisors can provide, and use them.

What advice would you give to business owners who are looking to keep their teams motivated during these challenging times?

Try and create that environment that allows people to be themselves, work efficiently, meet deadlines, whilst not allowing them to worry or become overwhelmed by the pressures they’re facing.

So it’s about trying to prioritise, but also it’s about empathy.

It’s about trying to understand what those individuals are struggling with, and not even always necessarily helping directly, but to be there and check in with staff and being there to have a conversation if needed.

What can business owners can do in terms of recruitment and retention? And what do you think they can do to keep motivated themselves?

The businesses we work with work operate in all different industries. Whether it’s hospitality, manufacturing or construction. But something they all have in common which we’re seeing is that they are struggling to get the right candidates when recruiting at the moment.

It’s a candidate driven market at the moment. Remote working has changed the dynamic, people are able to work for companies in different regions, and that can dictate salary and take home pay. This is then leading many to a position wherein they simply can’t compete with budgets – especially the London-bubble salaries.

Many owner managers are therefore, rightly turning their attention to look at their own offering. They have to evaluate their culture, they have to look at what they can offer an employee. We work with businesses who have introduced 4-day working weeks and we have clients who have changed their ownership structure to become employee-owned schemes which are designed to attract and retain staff.

These are huge fundamental shifts in business operations, but it could also be as simple as reviewing your benefits offering. Or better still, start collecting feedback or performing staff surveys. What are people telling you that they want?

So there is no one-size fits all, but fundamentally, what they have in common is that they are listening and they are taking action.

These initiatives help businesses to stand out in a crowded market – preparing and creating something that will help the existing workforce and the workforce of the future.

Arguably the biggest challenge is cash flow. What kind of conversations are you having with people? How would you support them? What would you recommend?

Cash flow is more important than it ever has been before.

Margins are being squeezed across a range of sectors and this is giving SME owners a headache. Profitability has been impacted and operating expenses have continued to increase. All the while, working capital is impacted when customers and suppliers who face the same issues begin to change their behaviours due to their circumstances.

Like most challenges, having visibility and being able to monitor your cash position will help to mitigate any risks. So, are you getting the right information delivered in a timely way, which allows you to make the right decisions? Cloud accounting is a brilliant way to do so.

And whilst Making tax digital has pushed a lot of businesses on to cloud accounting software, not every business is maximising those solutions. So now is the time for you to evaluate what systems you have in place, and ask are there other applications which could be connected to add value to your system. The question is are you getting the right information out of your system?

What is the biggest opportunity for business growth today?

The evolving marketplace. We’re seeing seismic changes in what end consumers or customers are looking for.

Those companies that are rebuilding in an agile way, or have changed their operating model to meet those needs will excel.

We’ve seen it a lot in the service industry, where people are crying out for that level of service. That personal touch when a service is delivered and the way in which delivered to someone is hugely important. People want to go back to face to face. And that’s where some businesses are going to thrive.

How can Haines Watts support short and long term business prosperity?

In our team, it comes back to helping to ensure that the business has the right information in front of them, to empower the strategic business decisions being made.  We can pull whatever metrics, whatever reporting they need for them to succeed.

In the longer term, we’re able to offer a holistic approach to all of our clients. We’re fortunate enough to have great communication flowing between our teams and collaborating internally means that we’re able to add value to the businesses we work with.  Whether it be VAT, Tax, succession planning or audit, our breadth of expertise under one roof means we can offer SMEs all the services they need to succeed and thrive in the current environment, enabling them to achieve their goals and ambitions.

Haines Watts