Biggleswade-based Colin Airey is a chartered certified accountant keen to change people’s perceptions of accountants and to demonstrate that businesses stand to benefit from engaging the support of adaptable and progressive professionals.
Having joined George Hay Chartered Accountants back in 2002, Colin qualified in 2008 and continued to work his way up through the ranks, taking on more and more responsibility as both an Audit Manager and the Academies & Education lead, until he was offered partnership in 2019.
“My journey at George Hay has been a very organic one and, as I hurtle towards my 20th year with the firm, it is one I am very proud of; from studying and qualifying, to becoming more autonomous, taking on more responsibility and, most recently, being offered partnership and so the opportunity to develop my portfolio.
“Whilst partnership may not have been on my radar when I walked through the doors on my first day at the office, back in 2002, as my role evolved and I became more confident in my abilities, my ambitions grew and I was keen to take on more responsibility and ownership.
“Client relationships, service and satisfaction has always been my primary focus. I was aware that this was aligned with the firm’s ethos and therefore appreciated that good performance in this respect would help facilitate my own career progression, particularly as George Hay has a culture which allows for any capable individual to flourish and raise through the ranks.
“I think now is a really exciting time to be a part of the partnership, as the industry evolves and as the firm continues to evolve, adapt and grow too.
“I’m looking forward to bringing my ideas to the table, to helping to develop the practice and to ensuring that our clients remain at the heart of everything we do.”
During his time with the firm, accountancy as a profession has evolved dramatically yet Colin feels that some of the ‘typical’ stereotypes associated with the profession still get in the way of businesses truly understanding what accountants have to offer, and can even put talented people off pursuing a career in the field.
In particular, he refers to the fact that whilst stereotypical ‘number-crunching’ accountants are commonplace, businesses are unlikely to derive much value from this kind of set-up.
“Businesses obviously need compliance services, otherwise they are going to encounter costly penalties and could even be prevented from trading.
“While basic compliance is necessary though, in isolation it is insufficient to run a successful business. For a start, any number of arrangements can be compliant. What is important, is to identify the solution that incorporates the most efficient tax strategy, whilst also being effective in achieving the goals of the business and its owners.
“This demands a holistic business advisory service, built around a deep understanding of the client’s needs.”
“It’s very easy for business owners and managers to access the numbers nowadays, with the proliferation of cloud-based accounting and bookkeeping packages.
“The point at which we can really add value is when it comes to interpreting these numbers; helping the client to understand what they mean for them and then offering considered advice informed by these insights.
“The needs of a serial entrepreneur, a family business owner, a first-time business owner and someone looking to dispose of their business ahead of retirement are going to be wildly different, even if their businesses look similar on paper.”
Colin is an experienced audit manager, as well as an education sector specialist, acting for both Academies and School Centred Initial Teacher Training (SCITT) providers.
“Managing audits is something I’ve been responsible for, for a number of years and a part of my job that I really enjoy –, because it requires such a deep understanding of the clients organisation.
“Despite the fact that many businesses think of audit as a bit of a burden, it can be an invaluable tool – even for those that aren’t legally required to have one.
“What a good audit should give you, is a sense of how robust your processes and systems are, an opportunity to identify areas of weakness and the ability to make improvements that will ensure your business can always function at its best.
“Whilst audits are a choice for some businesses, a number of the audits I carry out are for academies and other educational institutions who are legally bound to be audited, to satisfy certain requirements.
“The complexities associated with running an educational institution, and particularly academy conversion, are unlike any I otherwise come across in my work with SMEs and owner-managed businesses.
“The demand for different ideas, strategies and direction within this ‘niche’, gave me the opportunity to develop a specialism and ensure that George Hay can be a trusted advisory partner for the educational sector.
“Thinking about acadamies in particular, it’s really rewarding to be able to help them to navigate the conversion process, but also to continue to achieve the best that they can within academy status long-term.”
The practice places significant importance on cultivating long-standing and respected client relationships.
With three offices, situated along the A1 corridor, in Biggleswade, Huntingdon and Letchworth, the firm is large enough to have a depth of expertise and members of the team with niche specialisms, whilst at the same time still being able to offer a personal service to clients.
Colin says “It’s really critical to us that we are not ‘faceless’. Meeting with clients at our offices, or indeed theirs, is something that benefits the working relationship and our understanding of one another. When it comes to managing audit engagements, for example, being able to conduct site visits is invaluable.
“That said, the pandemic has really pushed us to become even more adept at advising our clients remotely; more so today than ever before, geography is no longer a barrier to businesses accessing expertise and support.”
“Whether in person, or online, what matters to business-owners is the commitment to understanding what their business is about, what they are trying to achieve and the challenges they are dealing with.
“That commitment to being true business advisers, as well as accountants, is why some of my fellow partners and I have been supporting the same clients for decades; sometimes looking after multiple generations of a family business.
“I think this is what sets us apart from many of our competitors. There is definitely an emotional element to what we do – we become invested in what our clients are striving for and we want to see them succeed.”
Colin adds “To be a good accountant, you have to be personable and be able to talk to people; it’s not just about the maths. Client engagement is key and something we work hard to keep at the heart of everything we do.”
Working almost exclusively with SMEs, across a vast range of sectors, Colin notes that the Coronavirus pandemic, including three national lockdowns, has had a devastating impact on many businesses and provoked considerable uncertainty about what the future looks like, yet resilience has prevailed.
“We have been in regular contact with our clients throughout the crisis to initiate conversation, offer support and advice and ultimately, to ensure they feel heard.
“What has really stood out to me and impressed me, is how businesses have adapted to the most challenging trading conditions in generations.
“There are still lots of unanswered questions about exactly what economic recovery will look like in the coming years and, as our clients navigate this, I feel our advice has taken on a whole new importance.
When asked about his visions for the future of George Hay, Colin believes the practice is perfectly poised to react and adapt as the needs of business-owners continue to evolve alongside technology.
“We are already at a point where large amounts of data can be collected automatically and reports generated with little human input. With the development of AI in the years to come, the sophistication of these processes seems highly likely to improve”, he comments.
“Naturally, this could raise questions like ‘What can an accountant do for me?’ and ‘Where does an accountant fit into the process?’”
The answer, according to Colin, lies in the advisory input he has already touched upon.
“It would be easy to get caught behind the curve, but we’ve already laid the foundations to respond to the demand for business advisory, to continue to cement our wider offering and to fine tune those areas that we excel in.
“People’s reasons for being in business tend to be much more complex than the sole pursuit of the bottom line, although financial sustainability is often a key driver. Their motivations, in reality, can often be quite difficult to pin down.
“It’s difficult to see how AI could ever match this level of insight into human beings without having had the lived experience of being a person and without being able to cultivate the kind of organic interactions that people can with other people.
“If we continue to take care of our clients, for the most part our business will take care of itself. There’s no need to start a revolution, for revolution’s sake. The future is exciting!”