Helen Twose 's Opinion

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Success: Going beyond the numbers

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Accountant who transformed her own business is now helping others to achieve the same thing

Accountants are well-placed to give small businesses the support they need, says Viv Brownrigg. Photo / Greg Bowker
Accountants are well-placed to give small businesses the support they need, says Viv Brownrigg. Photo / Greg Bowker

Necessity might be the mother of invention, but Viv Brownrigg says it's reinvention that is the necessity for accountants.

The former accountant turned mentor says about 40 per cent of accounting firms are not growing and 30 per cent are going backwards.

"When you look at the firms who are experiencing growth they have essentially done a minor reinvention of themselves," Brownrigg says.

Transforming an accounting practice is about coming out from behind the desk and helping business clients understand the numbers, she argues.

In part, the change has been driven by technology, which automatically handles much of the mechanics of accounting.

It also provides up-to-the-minute information on clients' business health.

"Here's the challenge Mr Accountant: you looked, what advice are you going to give? You can't just look; you've got to impart some advice."

Brownrigg is no stranger to reinvention, and says she gives her professional direction a tweak every seven years or so.

As a 28-year-old partner in a successful Te Puke accounting firm, she realised communication skills were what won and lost client business.

Six years later, in 1994, she stepped out on her own to establish an accountancy business that was a little less traditional in its thinking and worked more collaboratively with clients.

The practice took off, sometimes growing at 50 per cent a year, attracting the attention of the wider accounting community.

They wanted to know how she was doing it and whether the growth resulted from her technical strengths.

But, says Brownrigg, "I would describe myself, at best, as a very good accountant but not an outstanding one. I had a very good accounting team around me.

"What I was fascinated with was people and how some found it effortless to grow businesses and to manage their businesses and lead successful business and personal lives and how others struggled eternally to get there."

Brownrigg, who studied languages before becoming an accountant, likens accountants to translators, helping decipher what is missing in their clients' business life.

Brownrigg's own quest for business success resulted in her developing a systems manual to cover all the firm's procedures, from the right way to prepare a set of accounts through to answering the phone.

It was when the 20th firm rang up asking to buy her procedures manual that she realised there was a business opportunity selling it on a subscription basis to practitioners who didn't have the time to develop such a thing themselves.

Tauranga-based Business Fitness NZ was born out of that demand 11 years ago, attracting nearly 400 firms to its online manual and quickly coming up on the radar of several publishing houses.

Brownrigg tucked the offers into a drawer and set about completing what she'd started.

"There's a huge thing for me, and I suspect for a lot of business- people, to be able to finish something.

"That's never to say it's going to be perfect because perfection will kill you in business if you try to achieve it, 90 per cent is good enough. That last 10 per cent is never worth the effort. The rewards it brings is never worth the effort."

An offer two years ago from publishing house CCH, part of the multinational Wolters Kluwer group, saw her sell out. She was followed several months later by the Christchurch software company Acclipse, which provided the tech smarts (or as Brownrigg describes it, the wardrobe, with Business Fitness content being the clothes), also selling to CCH.

Having substantially achieved what she wanted to with the business, Brownrigg says it was immensely satisfying to have created something that made a difference to practitioners.

She briefly contemplated kicking back, continuing with a sideline in business coaching and consulting, but sitting in the sand dunes near her Mt Maunganui home she was spurred into action by an email from a South Island accountant voicing appreciation for how she looked out for those in practice.

Twelve months ago she launched The Accountants' RePublic, an online portal providing knowledge and training for accountants wanting to grow their business.

No longer a practising accountant (although she remains a director of the firm she established) Brownrigg says she misses the relationships with business clients but loves working with accounting firms.

"I discovered that I'm really passionate about the accounting industry because I have a real belief ... that small businesses do not get enough help to help them set up and maintain, develop and improve their businesses and that it's a real challenge for them to get that help at significant times in their business life.

"I still believe that a percentage of accountants are the right people to deliver that advice and to help them through the nightmare that it can be setting up and owning your own business."

- NZ Herald

Helen Twose

Personal finance and KiwiSaver columnist at the NZ Herald

Helen Twose is a freelance business journalist who writes regularly about KiwiSaver and entrepreneurial companies. She has written for the Business Herald since 2006, covering the telecommunications sector, but has more recently focused on personal finance and profiling successful businesses.

Read more by Helen Twose

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