Ahead of the Digital Accountancy Forum on 17th June, IAB spoke with Christine Nicholson about 3 decades of business mentoring, an eclectic career history, and the uncomfortable conversations accountants and business owners must have. Melissa Lane Porter finds out more.
Christine Nicholson wants accountants and business owners to get acquainted with what she refers to as the ‘C’ word. “Let’s face it- if you think about the accountant-client relationship, it’s really intimate”, said Nicholson.
The ‘C’ she refers to stands for “curiosity”. Accountants, she says, can’t begin to understand business owners without being curious. “If you want to provide more than compliance services, then you have to take an interest in your client. It’s the best way to add value to their business.”
Named UK Business Mentor of the Year by in 2020, and founder of Nicholson Hall Advisory, she’s has helped business owners for over 30 years. “I’m technically an accountant but I got certified in CIMA because I absolutely didn’t want to be in practice- I wanted to be getting my hands dirty.“
She is no stranger to getting stuck in. Christine took her first business from zero to £4.5million in 15 months. She’s directed a zoo in the Middle East, worked with two royal families, and inadvertently uncovered (what was then) the largest undetonated World War II bomb.
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“We were just about to congratulate ourselves,” she recalls. “It was day three on a commercial project, we had broken ground, and suddenly Klaxons are going off. It ended up shutting down Portsmouth for three days.”
The Gap Between the Accountant and the Business Owner.
Nicholson sees a massive chasm between accountant and business owner. This is a lack of knowledge. “Few accountants are skilled at running a business. They’re often experienced at running an accounting practice and the two are very different things. You can have a really successful accounting practice without having any of the kind of normal business challenges a typical owner experiences.”
Without this knowledge, Nicholson says, it is difficult for accountants and business owners to help, let alone understand, each other. “Part of what I do is to get business owners to learn the basic language of finance to engage better with their accountant,” she says. “That means that when he’s asking the accountant the kind of questions that he really wants the answers to, his accountant will be better equipped to help him.”
“Equally because this client is probably asking the kind of questions that the accountant has been dying to be asked, the client can now get more value out of the relationship, instead of simply seeing the accountant as an overhead, a kind of noose of fees to pay.”
Nicholson is clear that it’s not just the business owner’s job to learn the language of the accountant but the other way around too. “Some of my typical clients are engineering companies, who have to invest in huge pieces of equipment and know that that piece of equipment is going to give them a return on investment. And 90% will go by gut feeling when making those decisions.
“Now their accountant can help them understand how they calculate Return On Investment, not just by using numbers but by helping them to understand risk and risk profiles.”
But Nicholson is clear that this comes more from curiosity. “When a business scales quickly it can suddenly get outside a business owner’s span of control. As a result the business gets so big that the owner feels like they’re spinning plates. This is where the accountant can actually bring some logic into it so they’re making decisions based on data and information as opposed to this gut feeling.”
Does she find it difficult to get people to implement the actions she recommends?
“I only work with those who do, so the minute people stop acting, I stop working with them. I tend to select only those ones who get it, because they have to want it and they don’t pay me an insubstantial amount of money. It’s a bit scary when you first start but you soon get used to it.”
As a Chartered Management Accountant with a law degree and a post-graduate degree in information systems management, Christine Nicholson has experience across business operations and maximising back-office activities such as finance, HR, IT and legal/statutory requirements.
She brings a wider understanding of how business works and the strategies to optimise its value, and will be presenting ‘How to get a better Understanding of Your Client’, at Digital Accountancy Forum on 17th June 2021.
Interested in attending? There are a few limited places remaining and you can register here.