Keir Singleton is the new Harwood Hutton Managing director, and in this question and answer session, he gives an insight into him and the future of the firm.
Q: You joined Harwood Hutton as a graduate trainee 18 years ago and are now the managing director. That’s a pretty fast route to the top.
KS: You’re right. Eighteen years is a fair pace to go from entry level in the firm to MD but I wanted to go faster! Before Harwood Hutton, I had a variety of roles, including working in an IT firm during the dot com bubble. The number and variety of jobs I had in the period before Harwood Hutton led to Richard Hutton deciding I was flighty and he instigated a claw back on my training fees to prevent me leaving before 2006. So I came with a different experience to some. OK, I was still young, but I had some real world experience of commerce after graduating from Oxford. Couple that with the technical and business training that comes with being a chartered accountant and, latterly, all the years of advising a whole range of clients from owner managers right up to corporate boards across all sorts of sectors on all kinds of business issues, and it seemed a natural next step for me to take on being the figurehead for our firm. You have to blend direction with collaboration, leadership with teamwork. I can’t claim to get it right all the time but I have the backing of my other directors and the Harwood Hutton team, which is an enormous help when dealing with challenges, both the day-to-day issues and the longer term strategic questions.
Q: How would you describe your approach to your work?
KS: You must engender respect for what you do, both with clients and with colleagues. If clients don’t respect you, why should they listen to the business advice you are offering? If you can’t get on with colleagues, being firm but fair in your approach, how can they expect to learn from you? So respect is important. With that grounding you can go forward each day, securing new clients and assignments, servicing the existing work, guiding colleagues and leaving those you engage with feeling they are in a better place, be that helping to solve client challenges or offering support to colleagues so they can do their job effectively. It is the variety I love. No two days are the same. With the Harwood Hutton team around me, I can lead from the front, knowing I can draw on the skills and deep experience around me, ensuring we remain focused on the key issues in terms of developing our firm and the relationships with our clients.
Q: What has been the impact of Covid-19 on the business?
KS: As a firm, we have always been forward looking but there’s no doubt Covid-19 meant we had to further adapt to continue effectively servicing client work. We had been a paperless office for many years before Covid-19 struck, so when the national lockdown was announced back in March, our team response was swift, without adversely affecting our day-to-day interaction with clients. We had the infrastructure to allow all the team to work from home, and the change was implemented within days. We weren’t significant users of video technology pre-lockdown, but had no issues with adapting our approach to face to face meetings, becoming proficient users of the many and varied video platforms. As lockdown measures eased, we realised the importance of putting in place a safe and secure environment at the office, so colleagues could return and clients could once again meet us face to face, if that was what they wanted to do. We have clear guidelines and policies to help maintain a healthy and secure workplace, for ourselves and clients. As a result of all the planning, the careful and considered operational changes made and the ongoing efforts of all my colleagues, our work has continued uninterrupted. That has been important with some clients needing urgent access to the various government support schemes offered, be that the Job Retention Scheme, the Business Interruption Loan Scheme or any others. It has always been a feature of our service that we understand what each client is about and the key factors they face at any one time. It is only by being alongside them and understanding their needs that we have been able to help clients with some of the most difficult decisions they have ever faced in business.
Q: What would you say are the key strengths of Harwood Hutton?
KS: There are so many, not least the technical skills we possess across the service lines we offer. It starts at the top of our firm. Each of our senior people has been providing advice for many, many years. Except for insolvency work, we offer all you would expect from a firm of accountants, tax and business advisers. We maintain our audit capability when others are choosing not to do so. We have an in-house outsourced accounting team, whose capabilities and experience encompass all the major accounting packages used by OMBs and SMEs. We offer payroll bureau services for clients, with many large local employers on our roster. We have an experienced Private Client Team, who blend tax advice and compliance work. We have dedicated specialists in areas of tax advisory, VAT, corporate finance and forensic services. What is equally important is approachability and making sure that clients can communicate with the right member of the Harwood Hutton team. You can have all the technical know-how in the world and still fail to impress your clients if you don’t know how to deliver it properly. I think our appeal as a firm was summed up in one particular piece of client feedback: “High quality proactive service delivered by people who clearly enjoy their work and want to do the best for their clients.”
Q: What do you think will be key to being a successful accountant in the next five to 10 years?
KS: I think the role of the accountant will be much more integrated with the businesses we serve. Fortunately for Harwood Hutton, we have always attracted businesses and individuals who want their accountants and advisers to do more than just tell them how the previous year or quarter has gone. I believe real value lies in providing insight through the figures, insight that then allows good decisions to be made for the future. Smart software and artificial intelligence will all have their place as the accountancy and business advisory practices of tomorrow develop, but what will remain is the need to devote increasing amounts of time and energy to the advisory work that is of most value to clients. As a firm, we will need to get familiar with new models for business, funding, payments and services such as block chain-based applications. Business is constantly innovating and adapting. That is as true of the accountancy sector as any other, and part of my role is to anticipate the changes we and clients will face, developing strategies to stay ahead of the curve, both for our contacts and for us as a firm. The accountancy practices of 2030 will be significantly different to the ones we see today.
Q: You personally have a legendary work ethic and are often the first person in the office and one of the last to leave. How do you unwind from work?
KS: Family and friends are all important. Work-life balance is a clichéd phrase but it is as relevant as ever. Yes, I work hard during the week, but I am thankful I do not have a long commute, and with a young family, life in the Singleton household is never dull. Weekends are our time, and while there are always spikes in work that mean long hours have to be endured from time to time and the odd day of weekend working here and there, I never forget my wife and family who support me most. Being local means I can attend a school play or sports day, and if I meet the family for lunch which I sometimes do when the days are long, I always describe it as the most important meeting of the day.
Q: Wind the clock back 18 years to your interview at Harwood Hutton. What do you know today that you would tell your younger self then?
KS: That it is all about the people. When you start as an accountant, you think it is all about technical prowess. For sure, that has to be a given as you train and gain experience. But over the years it is the people who have made the role so interesting, and that is something I did not really appreciate or anticipate. Every day you work and collaborate with others – clients, colleagues, suppliers, other professionals. Sometimes you are dealing with the regular day-to-day work of our firm. Other times you are faced with complex issues, thinking through innovative ways to address real business and commercial concerns. While clients and colleagues look to you to provide the lead, the collaborative effort is all important, and every day I am amazed by different people bringing different things – thoughts and ideas – to the party. In an age of AI and nanobots, long may that continue.
Contact Keir Singleton today
I always get quick, clear and definitive responses from the Harwood Hutton tax team – commercial answers to commercial issues.Robin Berry – Morgan Management
Right from the outset Harwood Hutton gave us direction and great advice – and that advice has evolved over the years as we’ve grown. We’re both medium-sized companies providing a bespoke service – one furniture, one accountancy – and the relationship works.Andy McCarron, McCarron and Co
I’m deeply impressed with Harwood Hutton’s extensive knowledge of tax arrangements for residential and commercial property landlords.Qadeer Ahmed, MD, ABA Finance
They really took their time to understand what was important to us and our business and the expertise we required. Whoever we speak to at HH, we get the same fantastic response and technical input. It’s a real partnership.Edward Finch, group MD, MRIB insurance brokers
I have worked with the directors at Harwood Hutton on a number of mutual client matters over many years. The reassurance of their clear, commercial and focussed advice is one of the main reasons I regard this as one of my most valuable professional relationships.Frank Wessely, Partner, Quantuma LLP
Harwood Hutton never seem to rest on their laurels. They are always seeking out new avenues and ways to improve their offering. A very forward-thinking company with staff who are always well briefed and who approach each task with drive.Karl Austen, MD, Surefoot Communications
We have engaged Harwood Hutton in several areas of structuring, including VAT issues, decoupling an SPV from a group structure and HMRC clearance for a transaction. The team have exceeded all expectations by being proactive, measured and very thorough.Adam Fawsitt, Director, FHT Limited
We moved to Harwood Hutton as they delivered a succinct and professional proposal. If anything, we have been more impressed post-move. They are a fantastic company to work with. They do truly differentiate. They have the skills and capabilities of a mega firm but with a personal service.Edward Finch, group MD, MRIB insurance brokers
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