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Building accounting networks fit for a client-focused future

After becoming CEO of PKF International earlier this year, James Hickey, reflects on what networks and associations need to do to ensure effective future prosperity.


We’re at a point in time where accounting networks have existed for decades. PKF has been around for 50 years, establishing and growing a presence in 150 countries. But we, as I think other accounting organisations must do, must seriously reflect on the value we bring to the market. And a key focus of that should be the visibility of networks.

PKF has visibility, but the brand can still mean different things to different people in different places. But corporates and high-net-worth individuals want us to be visible and consistent in our offering because the global accounting firms have received lots of negative publicity.

Capability, but not visibility

We certainly have the same technical capabilities as the biggest firms, as many of our people come from that background. But while member firms are of different sizes, offerings and across disperse geographies have visibility in their own marketplace, the network or association that underpins them has forgotten to do the same themselves.

A big problem in building network or association visibility is creating its own unique offering – not easy with a disverse group of member firms, and where rival offerings all seem centred around ‘their people’.

For us at PKF a key area of focus will be on quality – we invest far more resource on quality and member inspection to try and drive a consistency throughout. We know it’s not a one-size-fits-all, and so understanding those differences is also vital.

The client question

I also see that, as with other technical professions, they’re good at spending time looking inwards rather than out. What do our clients actually want?

We need to be mindful of not focusing first on our technical capabilities but making sure we listen to our clients. If you look at the global firms, they don’t present themselves as auditors and tax advisers – they talk about creativity, growth and responsibility. They do invest tens of millions of dollars into developing their communications; the reality is networks and associations don’t have that resource so we have to be more creative and cherry-pick the best ideas and strategies.

In terms of direction, we’re going to challenge the marketplace, our members, industry and the profession. For example, from a network perspective I want to challenge celebrating long-standing member firms for the sake of it – we need to move away from being a cosy club.

Member firms must rise to the challenge

In fact, as I look to implement our new strategy, I believe that if we keep every single member then the strategy won’t have been taken far enough.

We have to be a business – and run as a business. We have to challenge members so they’re aligned to us and them.

When I recently joined PKF we said goodbye to one of our UK member firms; Cooper Parry.  It’s clearly an excellent firm but there wasn’t 100% alignment in terms of PKF-to-Cooper Parry and vice versa. Other networks would have brushed that over but we came to an agreement that we separate - and wish them luck. Our board deserves respect for that decision.

We’re currently working with agencies and consultants to develop to redefine the group’s strategy. I’m a true believer that the next 18-24 months will define PKF. That message is being cascaded down to all our firms and rings true for other networks and associations: we’ve got to think like a business and really understand the client.

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