CEO Q&A: Angela O’Leary, AG Associates

Business, Finance, Interviews, Ireland | Wed 21 Mar | Author – Business & Finance
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Angela O’Leary, AG Associates

In the next CEO Q&A, Angela O’Leary, AG Associates, explains how the face of accountancy and training in the sector is changing.


Q. What are your main priorities and goals in your role?

As managing partner of an accounting practice, one of my main priorities is to ensure that all deadlines are met, that all returns are filed on time and compliance with revenue is met.

We have a strong system in place to ensure that all happens but I am constantly monitoring it to see where it can be improved.

I believe every company needs to continually innovate, whether it is small amounts regularly or large efforts. This is one of my focus areas. Over the past 18 months, we have introduced Clarity, our online bookkeeping service, which is client focused. Internally we have introduced new processes to make the business run more efficiently. A part of innovation is the natural change management that comes along with it.

I also believe that providing customer service is paramount. It’s important to manage client expectations so I work with my team closely to ensure all clients’ needs are met and exceeded.

Our team is a strong one and I work with the team, both collectively and individually to make sure that everyone is looked after, feels motivated and takes responsibility to meet all our clients’ needs.

Lately, we’ve put a serious effort into our corporate social responsibility (CSR) policy. I’m heavily involved in setting it up and making sure it becomes part of the AG Associates culture.

Q. What are your biggest challenges as CEO?

As a CEO, you’re captain of the ship. It’s trying to juggle everything – from growing the business to getting money in. As an SME advising other SMEs, I have the same challenges that our clients face so it makes us relatable.

Accountancy has changed over the past number of years, in a good way. Today, your accountant needs to know IT, legal, HR, finance – it’s such a broad field and it requires that you’re up to speed on many different aspects rather than just debits and credits.

We don’t see ourselves as providing a number-crunching service. We advise SME businesses on their financials so it’s important we know specialists in their field who can help. We can direct our clients to a specialist area.

Q. How do you keep your team/staff motivated?

It definitely comes to having personal contact with each of them. I’m in the office when I’m not at client or sales meetings. I’m always around and always have an open door.

From the get go, I’ve created a culture of transparency, that staff can always approach me, even though they have line managers or project leads. That’s been important to me and will continue to be so even as we grow.

As we are a practice, we have training staff who are all supported with a mentor. However, the training doesn’t stop when you’re qualified. Everyone has a training and development plan so they can progress through the company as well.

I like to give responsibility and encourage staff to work toward that, they feel empowered to make decisions. And of course, I recognise all the hard work that they do put in. They are part of a company that is innovative and progressive, they are part of something bigger than a set of accounts.

We also have nights out – we may be accountants but we know how to enjoy ourselves as well.

Q. What are the challenges facing your industry going forward?

There are many challenges facing the accounting industry, but the major one is market saturation. Every day, more and more accountants become qualified, which is great for the industry in one way.

However, running an agency practice, often times you are compared with an accountant running a business out of a home office.

How you stand out, what makes you different and how you innovate will become key differentiators in our industry.

Accounting is ever changing in terms of legislation. You just have to listen to the budget every year to get a sense of the complexities that change year on year. It’s incredibly important to stay knowledgeable of all the changes. Our clients depend on us.

Q. What new trends are emerging in your industry?

Without a shadow of a doubt, it’s technology – moving accounts and bookkeeping to the cloud. For years I have trained accountants on accounting software. When I became an accountant myself, one of our services that AG Associates provided, and still do, is to train business owners on desk-based accounting packages.

The trend is definitely to embrace accounting in the cloud. In fact, we have just developed our own service, Clarity, to address that need of online bookkeeping.

Another trend which is related to technology is efficiency – how to make your processes more efficient, how to make your business run more efficiently. And quite honestly, it comes down to your numbers. If you know your numbers, then as a business owner, you get to make informed decisions about things. This leads to more efficiency as you’re not moving in all different directions.

Q. Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector?

Not so much changes but rather more contact with the client. One of the reasons I set up AG Associates was that I wanted SMEs of all sizes to make better use of their numbers, their financials. By being aware you can make really informed decisions rather than going with your gut feeling. While gut feeling and intuition is good, you can’t beat actual numbers, ratios and key performance indicators (KPI) to tell you the truth about how your business is doing.

Therefore, I’d like to see accountants

work more closely with business owners and managers rather than the annual face-to-face accounts sign off.

Q. As an employer are you finding any skills gaps in the market?

Yes. Lots of accounting graduates are interested more in industry roles than practice.

Yet the training you get in practice is better. There is more variety, you’re thinking on your feet, you have more customer interaction. You’re more than a number cruncher. You can really make a difference in practice with more businesses.

Q. How did your strategy develop in the context of the banking crisis and economic crisis?

I set up in 2006 working with SMEs on their accounts. I started with small companies and grew the business through referrals. I wanted to provide an affordable service to SMEs so that they could use an accountant more regularly than the end of the year.

I think this ethos of providing value, providing face-to-face advice to clients was a key strength for AG Associates during the economic crisis.

I could show business owners that focusing on their financials, not the economy’s financials, would help them run their business. I’m very conscious of cash flow – you could say it’s in my DNA!

Q. How will Brexit affect you, or have you started to feel the effects already?

Right now, everything is uncertain. We have noticed that clients working in or with companies in Northern Ireland are cautious and concerned.

Similarly, clients operating in agriculture and exports are finding it difficult to plan. It is hard to plan ahead when nobody knows exactly what Brexit will hold.

At the same time, we have clients who see Brexit as an opportunity and are focusing more on Europe as a new target market.

It’s bitter-sweet at the moment for our clients and we’re here to support them.

Q. How do you define success and what drives you to succeed?

I would define success through clients’ satisfaction and the number of referrals we get. We’ve grown through referrals over the past 11 years so that is indicative of the service we give.

What drives me to succeed is seeing clients take decisions based on their financials and seeing their business grow. That’s what drives me to succeed, to keep AG Associates growing and innovating because I know the difference in decision making.

Once you have the financials and an understanding of them, all decisions are soundly based.

Q. What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business?

One piece of advice that I received years ago was this – “Look long term, but live short term”. It can be applied to any section of your life but it holds true for business success and accounting.

You have to look at the big picture but see how you’re getting there, every day, every week, every month. It helps with focus, it really does.

Q. What have been your highlights in business over the past year?

Definitely the launch of Clarity, our online bookkeeping service. We have made our service different in that we marry the online bookkeeping with offline accounting. It’s all very well looking at numbers but the hidden magic is to understand them and transform them into useful information. That’s what we provide for our clients and we are seeing a massive demand for this service.

We were nominated for a number of awards, which is a great testament to the team and generates a great buzz around the office.

I won The Chairman’s Award at the Cork Business Awards. It was very special. We were chosen because of our new service Clarity. When announcing our award, the Chairman said “Clarity will revolutionise how small- and medium-sized business owners keep control of their finances.”

Q. What’s next for the company?

We will continue to innovate and grow the company. We start the year as a team of ten, having just recruited our latest staff member. We are very excited about that.

We will move our clients to Clarity. The feedback we have received already has been phenomenal, so we know we are going in the right direction.

We will finally embrace social media and online marketing to create more awareness of our mission – SMEs can have an affordable way to work with an accountant to know their financials regularly.

And lastly, we will offer workshops to clients and prospects informing business owners about KPIs and how they can make a difference in their business… Think long term, but live short term.

Q. What opportunities or plans for growth do you see in 2018?

We will continue to introduce more SMEs to Clarity. As I mentioned earlier innovation is important to us, as is client satisfaction. So we will look at other opportunities involving technology to make running a business just that bit easier.

Q. Where do you want your business/brand to be this time next year?

I would like to have expanded our staff and our offerings which will lead to more sales growth.

We have a number of clients outside of the Cork and the Munster area, and I’d like to continue that growth by being nationwide.

I’d like to bring Clarity to more SMEs across the country – not just the service but also clarity to business owners, helping them make the best decisions for their businesses.

There is more variety [in the training], you’re thinking on your feet, you have more customer interaction. You’re more than a number cruncher. You can really make a difference in practice with more businesses.

Spearheaded by an experienced professional, and assisted by a team of dedicated support staff, AG Associates takes the worry out of managing your accounting records. The company’s services deliver peace of mind with structured plans in place that add invaluable support to your business.