Finance: They took their future in their hands, and arrived in quality street

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Indy Lifestyle Online
There is life in the realm outside the big firms, and it takes many forms. Roger Trapp meets two accountants who have found a niche, battled through tough times, built a reputation - and prospered.

The official line is that neither of the planned mergers between Coopers & Lybrand and Price Waterhouse, on the one hand, and KPMG and Ernst & Young, on the other, is intended to be an exercise in job cuts. Nevertheless, it is becoming increasingly likely that - one way or another - large numbers of partners and staff will leave those organisations, even if the proposed link-ups are not finalised.

Some will take up offers at banks and other clients that might look more enticing at a time when uncertainty at their existing employers is increasing. Others might be lured to firms slightly below the old Big Six - Stoy Hayward, for example, has put down a marker by pointing out in an advertisement in last week's Accountancy Age that many have already left larger firms for the chance of working for one with "a clear, long-term focus on a single market".

But there is another option: setting up a niche operation. That has been much talked about in the few weeks since PW and Coopers set the current trend in motion by announcing their proposals, but so far there has been no sign of any action.

However, anybody inside those four firms - or anywhere else, for that matter - thinking of doing it has a model in the shape of a practice operating under the name Rees Pollock. Indeed, as Simon Rees, a co-founder, points out, the current climate is probably more conducive to such a move than were the circumstances when he and Andrew Pollock started in 1990.

By most accounts, the current boom has at least two years to run, whereas when they spun out of the newly merged Ernst & Young they almost immediately found themselves hit by the deepest recession that the South-east could remember. That and disagreements on direction with their original partners set them back. But several years on, they feel established as a niche adviser to growing businesses.

Growth has not been phenomenal - the latest annual turnover figure is pounds 1.5m turnover, compared with the previous year's pounds 1m, while staff numbers have risen from 23 to 26.

But Mr Rees and Mr Pollock say that their reputation has risen to the point where they are getting "quality people knocking on their door", while about 60 per cent of their business is recurring work. And a good proportion of work is made up of such areas as investigations and litigation support, which generally require approval from banks and other institutions.

Moreover, Mr Pollock has built up a speciality of advising franchise groups, with such well-known names as Pirtek, a company that runs a nationwide network of mobile hydraulic hose installers, and Nevada Bob's, the chain of golf shops, among his clients.

Mr Pollock says: "This isn't about going out and selling. We do the selling when we do the work. The most important thing is to get a reputation for doing good work."

In this, the firm has sought to differentiate itself from other advisers to growing businesses by maintaining a link with Ernst & Young so that it can still offer staff trained to the standards of the leading firms.

"There is a perception that because we're small we can't be any good," Mr Pollock admits, adding that the "best sales sales force we have is our client base". And because those people have seen the firm operate - often head-to-head with people from the biggest firms - they use it again and again.

But Mr Rees and Mr Pollock believe there are other reasons why they are now doing well after a tough initial period. First, growing businesses know they understand their problems, having been through the process themselves. Second, they tend to be cautious - even in a buoyant market like the present one.

Though they acknowledge that it can be difficult to "go against the tide", they insist that if the circumstances do not appear to be right they will advise clients against deals, even if such a decision means them losing fees.

"Most of our clients have been through the recession and most of them are pretty cautious and don't want to get too exposed," Mr Rees adds.

But then, as they point out, most of them are spending their own money - not a situation that is very commonly experienced by accountants at the top firms.

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