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Unblocking the red tape for Pete the Plumber

Kevin Phillips suggests that we should start with thinking about who the numbers are for, to give real accounting value to our smallest clients.

Meet Pete the plumber. Pete’s business is one of the 5.5 million small and medium businesses in the UK, which make up 99% of all UK businesses. These SMEs also, according to the National Federation of Self-employed and Small Businesses, account for 60% of employment and just over half of total turnover among private businesses.

Given this, it’s no surprise that SMEs are considered the backbone of the economy in the UK and around the world. (Globally SMEs make up 90% of businesses and 50% of employment, says the World Bank.) It therefore has a significant impact if SMEs struggle to navigate and overcome challenging economic times. From creating jobs and wealth to driving innovation and boosting local economies, especially outside of major cities, SMEs undoubtedly punch above their weight.

Of course, a perennial question is just how do you define an SME? Definitions differ from country to country and industry to industry, and typically involve the number of employees, operating revenue or assets. Additionally, some definitions include a micro category, with fewer than 10 employees.

Whatever definition you prefer, it is clear that the SME segment is far from homogenous. Peter the Plumber is likely to be a micro business, with very different operations and accounting requirements to a medium business of 250 people. Which brings me to the point of this article. As accountants, do we recognise that Peter the Plumber has specific needs from his accountancy service and are we accommodating that?

Who are you preparing the numbers for?

Let’s step back and ask who we prepare accounts for. Accounting standards such as IFRS are designed to make large, listed companies comparable to investors. And for sure, there are diluted versions of these standards, such as the IFRS for SMEs accounting standards, that aim to reduce the accounting burden on smaller businesses. But these still have an external audience in mind, whether that is Companies House, HMRC or future strategic partners, investors or acquirers. This might make sense to larger SMEs who have more complex business operations, a specific strategic roadmap, and crucially, the accounting resources to produce these numbers (and translate them into something meaningful to support the day-to-day running of the business).

Numbers that count

Now let’s consider Pete the Plumber again. Does any of this really matter to him and impact his business day to day? Almost definitely not, so is it any wonder that he probably considers accountancy services as a grudge purchase and a distraction from keeping his business going from month to month?

Can we, as accountants, do better in supporting our clients who are at the smaller, even micro, end of the SME spectrum? Should we be asking ourselves whether we are supplying them with the information they really need to succeed, instead of focusing solely on ticking the boxes that HMRC and Companies House set out?

A focus on producing numbers that only function to keep businesses compliant takes the small business owner out of their business, making them lose income while their time and attention are spent on red tape, whether real or perceived, every month. These red tape tasks are a source of frustration and anxiety for business owners who typically aren’t accountants. And then, to top it all off, all this effort doesn’t even result in data and insights that are meaningful or helpful to their business.

It’s all about the cash flow

For Pete the Plumber and most other small business owners, useful data looks like an accurate, easily understandable representation of their cash flow every month. Many SMEs succeed or fail on their cash flow. Overspend and jobs and customer service are on the line. Underspend and opportunities for growth might be missed.

This type of practical, helpful and useful information is what matters to smaller SME owners, rather than abstract accounting concepts, which sometimes even deliver misleading insights. While there is never going to be a requirement to compare these businesses with big, listed companies there is a very pressing requirement to help them to succeed.

Being a true strategic partner

This doesn’t mean doing less, and in turn, earning less income ourselves. It means using our training, experience and common sense to steer our small business clients through only the very necessary red tape and then using the rest of our time with them working as real partners in their businesses. This could include providing better visibility of actual cash flow, support on managing debtors, reducing payment lead times, and insights into optimising cash flow – all the things we were trained to do! And all the things that will grow Pete’s business, making him a more profitable client in the long run.

Should we not be asking ourselves, at every turn, whether there might not be a better way to do things, and whether we are adding real value and being a true strategic partner to our SME clients? Asking how we can make Pete’s life easier and his business stronger, and, by so doing, future-proofing our revenue streams.

To me, that is real accounting excellence to strive for.


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