Choosing Your Accountant

What do Accountants Do?

Accountancy services are expensive and time based, but most start-ups will find the advice and potential financial benefits of hiring an expert accountant make this one of the most sensible investments for any new business. Effective accountancy support will minimize tax liabilities; avoid incurring financial penalties for failing to comply with company and tax regulations; and give confidence in reported business performance. The cost of an accountant needs building into a start-up’s budgets. You should appoint an accountant as early as possible.

There are six times as many accountants in the UK than family doctors, and more in the UK than the rest of the EU put together. Finding one is not a problem, finding one that will be right for you is.

There is confusion amongst many new business start-ups as to what an accountant actually does and this is not helped by accountants pushing add-on service which you may not need. So fundamentally an accountant produces accounts, which are a statement of a business’s performance over a particular period (usually a year) and its financial position at one time point (its year-end.) Other general services usually provided by accountants include: personal and corporate tax; payroll; business planning; and bookkeeping, whilst specialist services include audit; inheritance tax planning and trust work.

Choosing the Accountant for you.

The first step in choosing an accountant is to determine the services that you are going to use an accountant for and those that you will undertake in-house or subcontract to a cheaper specialist. What you should consider essential are:

General tax advice

An accountant is best placed to review your personal finances and expected business outcomes, and to advise on tax saving and prudent financial steps (e.g. whether you should be a limited company or a sole trader; how much of your income should be put away towards tax liabilities and the level of pension contributions you should be making; how best to take your earning in pay vs. dividends; and the most tax efficient method of financing a motor vehicle.) This is advice you need when you start in business and annually thereafter.

Preparation and submission of tax returns

Corporation tax returns and personal self-assessment returns are best left to an accountant to avoid errors and penalties.

Accounts

The finalization of the business accounts by an accountant will give reassurance to you on the accuracy of reported performance and give confidence to other parties such as banks and tax authorities.

Others divestible elsewhere include:

Bookkeeping

There are many excellent cloud computing package which integrate to the business bank account and create comprehensive electronic records of income and expenditure. These could be maintained by yourself or a member of staff or even an external bookkeeper. They usually have options to integrate VAT returns, and will enable you present a sensible set of management accounts to your accountant with him then being able to view any supporting documents immediately.

Payroll

Again there are many stand alone payroll packages available to operate yourself which are compliant. If this is going to take too much of your time because a large number of staff have to be paid weekly, then a payroll bureau is cost-effective.

Preperation

Prepare a written brief for the prospective account:

  • A personal summary of your income streams; assets and investments; mortgage and debt; pension provisions and tax history
  • A business description covering: industry; expected level of activity; employees; and funding availability.
  • These are the services I seek, and this is when I will need them.
  • This is how the business records will be kept, and the standard and detail of accountancy information available to you to undertake your service.

Selection Process

Go and see three prospective local Accountants. Ideally one who’s a referral from friends and family who have their own businesses, or by asking your bank; solicitor; or potential customers or suppliers to your business. If you can’t find any local accountants through referrals, you can always begin your search online. For example, if you live in London you would search for: London Accountants.

Once you’ve selected your favourites, contact them and ask for an initial consultation and discuss your business brief with them. Questions to ask them include:

  • Clients that they already have in your industry
  • Their experience with specific specialist services that you need (e.g. fund-raising)
  • How they can help you minimise potential tax liabilities compliantly
  • Their accessibility throughout the year if unforeseen financial problems arise
  • And of course likely fee levels for the services sought.

Then make the choice based on these meeting; the strength of the referral; and your view as to which accountant will best serve your needs.

The best way to ensure a successful relationship with your accountant over the longer term is to give him the information that you agreed to provide him with accurately and promptly. Pay him prompt, because most of his costs are payroll ones. When the accounts are completed annually make a point of going to see him to discuss them and the progress of your business. Ask him to explain anything that you don’t understand, and invite him to offer any suggestions for improvement. Remember that his fees are time based. Don’t make frequent calls to him for advice on matters that you could easily research yourself or could be addressed to a more junior member of his staff. Remember he is an accountant not a magician. Paying a large tax bill should be taken as a sign of business success in the knowledge that your accountant has done everything possible to minimise it.