We want to give our members here in Northern Ireland a platform for telling us all about their experiences as an SME in NI and their reasons for being a member of the FSB continuing our our #ThinkSelfEmployed campaign launched in July. This month we speak to Ray Baxter who runs Baxterworld an Accountancy Service with offices in Belfast, Dublin, Edinburgh & London…he tells us about his journey
My journey began in Barbour Threads of Hilden as a Trainee Accountant earning £4 per week. From there it was onwards and upwards. At one point in my early twenties I was responsible for a thousand staff which was a great learning experience in the pre-Thatcher days of militant Trade Unions. After a reconstruction of the pork processing industry I became FD of Unipork in Cookstown.
I fell out with the Unipork Board and became self employed as a consultant. My first six-month assignment as a temporary CFO for a crisp factory in the Donegal Gaeltacht was successful but I was away from my potential prospects so had no work in the pipeline.
The temptation to become employed again was overwhelming so I joined JMJ Construction in Banbridge. This took me on trips to the Middle East to visit my four Site Accountants working on large contracts in Sadaam Hussein’s Iraq. An exciting time!
After this I went back into self-employment starting four small businesses. Two failed but the bakery, run by my wife, kept the family in food and shelter for twenty-five years while I decided to focus on the Accountancy business.
I had by now realised that large Companies enjoyed superb control systems, monthly management accounts and budgets which were not available to small businesses so, as a Chartered Management Accountant, I began my mission to change this.
The world itself changed in 2007 with the launch of the i-phone, ubiquitous broadband and the technical seeds which grew into Cloud based software. As a practice we were an early user of Cloud Accountancy systems when Xero came of age. The old accountancy model began to change. Having an internal bookkeeper and an external year end accountant no longer made sense.
We developed a system where we worked in partnership with the business owners, doing all the bookkeeping stuff they hated but giving them exceptional access to good financial information. This was just like the Finance Departments of the large businesses I grew up with.
Current technology means that service providers can work anywhere in the globe. Seventy percent of our business is in London, Dublin and Amsterdam and for a while we even looked after a Pub in Cape Town!
I was persuaded to join the FSB by Ted Osborne, then head of the sales team and, like most other members, I was sold on the employment support. Previously we had been let down by one of the well-known HR providers and paid out thousands of pounds to ex-employees due to unfair decisions by tribunals. It all seemed heavily weighted against employers. It was a great relief to have insurance to cover any pay-outs and at a great value price. Since then I supported FSB as a volunteer and served as Treasurer for a few years.
FSB provide a wide range of services for small businesses. I have used the Employment Help line on a few occasions and found it extremely good. This covered both my own and my wife’s business and the advice given removed a lot of stress.
My greatest challenge at the moment is with Banks. Our service to clients requires the Practice to have online access to the Client’s bank account to download transactions and set up payments to suppliers and staff.
Setting up a new business account with all online services can take up to six months. Adding a new user has taken, in one case, a year and dozens of phone calls (with queues). Some of the problems seem due to staff incompetence but I suspect it is because of the inadequate systems they are provided with which don’t join up the dots and are hopelessly out of date.
In the not too distant future the new Challenger Banks could wipe out old Banking methods. They do not yet provide all the services some businesses need but this will happen. Look out for Monzo, Revolut, Starling, Tandem, Tide and ClearBank. If you need a bank account opened in five minutes, they can do it.
The internet related revolution that happened in the last 10 years has changed small business forever. It has made available cheap tools and information services that enable FSB members to compete more easily with large competitors. This will go further in my view. Things are now changing so fast that the flexibility and fast footedness which most small business have will give them untold opportunities in tomorrow’s world.
All of the current campaign issues are important to lots of small businesses. Going through them as they affect me, Small Business Rates Relief is potentially of significant benefit. GDPR seems to have passed without crisis like the millennium bug.
Prompt Payment fortunately does not affect me as I require clients to pay by Direct Debit and closure of Bank Branches is not important as I haven’t needed to visit my Bank in person for at least a year.
Brexit however would be top of my list. Whatever the end result turns out to be, it will certainly affect my Practice and my Clients. Business could be made more difficult with 25% of our turnover coming from the EU.
There could also be opportunities for us as our Clients will need assistance with the changes. Also, if NI ends up with a special status it could potentially be a bonanza for many businesses. I believe the big parties in NI are out of touch with the issues that affect business and we have been seriously let down by the absence of political discussion on Brexit at Stormont. It is now up to organisations like the FSB to lobby for our interests.
My advice to someone starting a business takes account of all the failures I have observed over the years. Running a business exposes you to new challenges and often to extreme competition. (Think restaurants and Trip Advisor.)
1. Make sure you have monthly accounts from the beginning. Learn to do them yourself or, better still, get a professional to provide them. If you don’t you are flying blind in a fog. You must be aware of what cash you are generating or losing (and why) before it is too late and serious damage is done. You can only fix the things you know about.
2. You must be able to provide products or services to your customer that are better than they can get elsewhere.
3. Use the best, most up to date tools and technology. Automation is key.
4. Be crystal clear as to what will attract customers to your door.