Maintaining the personal touch

November 8, 2020

While many businesses have reined in their ambitions during the COVID-19 pandemic, Armstrong Watson has continued to grow its presence in Newcastle with new client wins, additions to its team and a new office. Here, partner Chris McCourt tells North East Times about the firm’s ongoing ambitions and why its culture enables it to stand out in the marketplace.


Having grown over the past 150 years from its Cumbrian headquarters to have 16 regional offices across the North of England and Scotland, Newcastle is the most recent addition to Armstrong Watson’s geographical portfolio.

And since opening in the city in July 2018, rapidly building both its client list and headcount since that time, the business has recently expanded out of its initial site and into new sizeable premises in City Quadrant, chosen to accommodate the continuing ambitions of the business.

Corporate finance partner Chris McCourt, who joined the firm in 2019 to lead the development of its Newcastle office, immediately realised its potential. “When I joined, my first job was to find a bigger premises for us, we were already bursting at the seams in our little office on the Quayside,” he recalls.

“We found our new office earlier in the year and then moved in during lockdown. Our Newcastle team is ten-strong, so with 1100sq ft there is a lot of space, but it’s quite useful at the moment in us being able to safely return to the office as we have enough room to accommodate the social distancing requirements.

“We have plenty of capacity to grow and can accommodate up to 25 people, so this office will see us through the next two or three years. We’ve got to this point quicker than we thought, we’ve made new appointments even during lockdown and we’re looking to add further.”

With its roots in serving the North of England, Armstrong Watson has become a deeply trusted name over the course of generations across Cumbria and North Yorkshire.

The firm – which offers a full range of accountancy, audit and financial services, taking in corporate finance, wealth management, payroll, forensic and restructuring and insolvency work – has added to its Northern UK footprint with moves into major cities including Leeds and Glasgow, advising growing numbers of SMEs and owner-managed businesses across the region.

The decision to open in Newcastle was a bold move for the business, with strong competition in the local market, but the appointments of Chris and head of tax Jim Meakin – both highly respected names in the city’s professional services scene – helped it to make in-roads.

“I think it’s important that if you’re advising clients in Newcastle that you’re on the ground here. People like to deal with someone local. While we’ve got an office in Hexham, it’s not the same and we recognised that,” says Chris, who worked with Big Four and independent firms prior to joining Armstrong Watson, and was chief operating officer with the North East England Chamber of Commerce.

He continues: “We are a very established business and brand, so we weren’t starting totally from scratch, and had the support of the scale of Armstrong Watson so we could hit the ground running.

“It’s important to be part of the professional scene in Newcastle, too. You can be walking down Grey Street and you’ll bump into the bank manager of the client you’re advising or you’ll already know who their lawyers are. That can only come through being physically on the ground and part of the city.

“Newcastle is, of course, a great place to be, and we’re keen to build relationships further.”

While the continuing economic uncertainty has hampered the expansion ambitions of many businesses, Armstrong Watson is not one of them. Throughout the pandemic, the firm’s hold in the Newcastle market has continued to develop. As well as adding to their team, the firm has won new work.

During such a turbulent time for so many businesses, Chris believes Armstrong Watson’s commitment to delivering the firm’s values – trust, honesty, passion and humanity – coupled with its proactive approach to interacting with people remotely, is at the core of its success.

“These past six months have probably been the busiest I’ve been in the last ten years,” says Chris.

“The issues raised by the pandemic have forced many business owners to make decisions, and look for advice and support, and that’s why it’s so important to be visible. “I think our approach of picking up the phone to people and showing them they are important to us has made a difference. We have won clients for that exact reason. Their existing accountant just wasn’t answering the phone, and during such difficult times, it’s more important than ever for your clients to know you’re there.

“We’ve been really keen to get on the front foot and be proactive, to let people know what’s going on, and our webinars, which we started running very early into lockdown, have been really well received.

“It’s also about building relationships and not trying to turn everything into a fee straight away. We want to invest the time to get to know people and understand their businesses, and picking up the phone and speaking to them is a big part of that.

“We’d much prefer to meet them in person, and speaking to someone over Zoom or Teams isn’t the same, but we have always made sure our clients know we are here to support them, and we know that has been appreciated.”

That approach is fundamental to the Armstrong Watson brand, says Chris, with the business priding itself on the fact it is one of the biggest and most capable accountancy firms in the UK, but retaining the personal touch which is so welcomed by its clients.

“At Armstrong Watson we really take the time to build deep relationships with our clients, and recognise that is essential if we are to be a critical friend and add value to their business. For us, it’s about giving the right advice at the right time, right through the life cycle of a business – whether it’s helping someone with how to put together their first set of accounts, or supporting a business owner with their exit, we have very capable people here who will do that and ensure their clients get a great service.”

The firm’s ethos and commitment to its people is also an important factor in its reputation and service delivery, Chris believes.

“I think while a lot of businesses talk about having a people-focused culture and being a great place to work, they don’t always follow that through into practice, but at Armstrong Watson, it couldn’t be more different,” he adds.

“In the first meeting with potential employees, we’ll give them our Culture Book, which sets out what we’re about, and that is evident through the whole business. It’s a very good place to be and we have a great team. “If our people are happy, then that will flow through to the experience our clients get.”

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