Letting values shape your accounting business
Accountant & Bookkeeper Stories
6 min read
In the middle of the working day, Stephen Paul got an unwelcome phone call. His mother had been diagnosed with terminal cancer and needed to go into hospital. From that point on, everything changed for Stephen. And the ramifications have profoundly influenced every part of his life since.
Stephen Paul, founder and CEO of Valued Accountancy
When Stephen’s mother fell ill, he was a partner in an established accounting firm in the north-east of England where he’d worked his way up over 15 years. He was going out with Kate, who was soon to become his wife. His life and career were humming along nicely. But he’d suffered loss in his earlier years. His father had died when he was 12, and his sister when he was 21. Now his much-loved mother needed him – to look after her, to be there with her, to have as much time with him as possible.
That’s when it hit home that there were more important things than working 60, 70 or even 80 hours a week. What he wanted was to be able to interact with clients wherever he was – whether it was in a hospital room with his Mum, on holiday at her favourite spot in Lanzerote (one of the Canary Islands), or at home in Consett, County Durham.
Stephen with his mother on holiday
Getting work and life values straightened out
So was born. Stephen was able to buy a block of clients from his old partners and planned to slowly grow the business. But six weeks in, he signed up a £12,000 client. And from there, it just grew and grew.
To get the work flexibility he wanted, Stephen took the new business online with Xero. He also looked with fresh eyes at the service the practice was offering clients. He explains, “Instead of saying, here’s your profit and loss, here’s your balance sheet and we’re going to charge you for every single meeting, we wanted to put clients first and give them what they needed to run their business. So that we become a valued member of their team. That’s where the name Valued Accounting came from.”
Stephen managed to reduce his work time to a maximum of 28 hours a week and spend time with his mother. He says, “That was phenomenal, unheard of. When other accountants asked how the hell I did it, I’d tell them ‘You know what, put the clients first. If you care about clients, instead of the pounds, that’s what makes a massive difference’.”
Relaxing days in Lanzerote
Since his mother’s death in 2011, Stephen has headed back to Lanzerote many times. It’s somewhere he goes with Kate and their young daughters Lucy and Jessica, or sometimes with close friends. It’s a place where he can relax, and be totally comfortable being himself rather than being in the role of accountant or business owner. And it brings back memories of his mum.
Kate, Lucy and Stephen on the promenade at Costa Leguise, Lanzerote
But as much as it is a holiday, going back to Lanzerote gives Stephen time to focus and think about where he wants the business to go. It has continued to grow at an unanticipated rate, to the point where it now has 21 staff and almost a million pounds in turnover. Next year, the plan is to take the senior team away to Lanzerote for a weekend retreat to work on the business direction together.
Consett, County Durham, NE England
Equity partner at Harlands Accountants
Walking the Northumberland coast, football (Newcastle United)
Walking the talk: putting clients first
In the early days, decisions were made by Stephen alone. And one of the things that made Valued different was that it could move fast. But now, the business has developed so much that it needs more systems and processes, while still remaining true to its founding values.
“Our phenomenal growth is because we put clients first, innovate, and make changes fast. It’s given us opportunities to grow and develop. It’s what I see a lot of other firms talking about but not actually doing. Because they’re afraid of the decisions, afraid of the uncertainty. We all know in business you have to take risks. But if you let your values be your business, look after your clients and look after your team, everything else will follow.”
Stephen skims stones watched by daughter Lucy at Amble in Northumberland
An unforseen success
Stephen says one of his biggest regrets is that his mum didn’t get to see Valued as it is now. And growing up, he never imagined that he’d have a million pound practice.
As a young boy, Stephen wanted to be a long-distance lorry driver. The attraction was probably about seeing more of the world – which is what he wants for his kids. But now he regards it as the worst job in the world because it takes you away from family – and family is what he values more highly than anything.
It was while he was at high school that Stephen decided he wanted to be an accountant. Stephen remembers going home from school and his parents saying, “Why do you want to be an accountant? We didn’t even know you knew what an accountant was.” But he did his GCSEs, his A levels, and then went and did a degree in accountancy.
Consulting is where the future growth is
For Stephen and Valued Accounting, opportunities really opened up once they started using Xero. Stephen was invited to speak at events and talk to other accountants about their experiences. That led to developing the cloud integration and solutions side of the business. Valued now runs events and does consultancy work for other accountancy practices, especially the smaller accounting firms who are keen to learn from Valued’s experience.
“Let your values be your business and everything else will follow.”
“The part that empowers me is the advisory work, helping other business owners find solutions and achieve their goals. It could be that someone wants a yacht or a million pound house, or to grow and sell their business for five million. It’s working with clients to get what they want rather than just being a compliance accountant. The growth in our industry is in the consulting work. That’s where I see the next five years for us. In ten years I’ve no idea.
Kate and Stephen with Jessica on holiday in Lanzerote
Leaving a legacy
In the years ahead, Stephen’s goal is to see a lot of the world with his family and give his kids opportunities he never had.
He’s also keen to to leave a legacy, and is in the process of setting up a charity, the Valued foundation. The company will fundraise and donate a proportion of its profit every year. The foundation will be able to help people who are ill and can’t continue working, like his mum. In the meantime, Valued already helps where it can by doing the accounts for free for some non-profit organisations and for some businesses that are forced to close down.
Stephen discovered another gap through his consultancy work at a local college. He saw that self-employment wasn’t being presented as an option to young people. Yet about a quarter of the students he mentored wanted to start their own business. So he’d like to see the foundation giving them the couple of hundred pounds they need to set up.
Right now Stephen is talking to his team at Valued, with their clients and their stakeholders, about where they want the foundation to go. And in 20 or 30 years’ time, that’s what he wants to be doing – some consulting, some mentoring, and building a long-term legacy of real value.