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Building networks fit for a client-focused future

After becoming CEO of PKF International earlier this year, James Hickey reflects on the network’s current position, and what networks and associations need to do in order to ensure effective future prosperity.

We are 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 must, as I think other accounting organisations should, 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, 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 of different sizes, offerings and across disperse geographies have visibility in their own marketplaces, the network or association that underpins them has forgotten to do the same for itself.

A big problem in building network or association visibility is creating its unique offering – not easy with a diverse 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 consistency throughout. We know it is 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 are 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 do not 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 that networks and associations do not have that resource, so we have to be more creative and cherry-pick the best ideas and strategies.

In terms of direction, we are 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.

Rise to the Challence

In fact, as I look to implement our new strategy, I believe that if we keep every single member, the strategy will not have been taken far enough. We have to be a business and run as a business. We have to challenge members so they are aligned to us, and we to them.

When I recently joined PKF, we said goodbye to one of our UK member firms, Cooper Parry. It is clearly an excellent firm, but there was not 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 are currently working with agencies and consultants to develop and redefine the group’s strategy. I am 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 have got to think like a business and really understand the client. 

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