“Accountancy is not about selling services. It’s about selling dreams”

How Feargal McCormack, managing director of PKF-FPM, gave his firm a reason for existing beyond profit…

Why does your organisation do what it does? Can you answer that question confidently? A surprising number of professionals can’t. Some tamely say they want to do the best possible job for their clients; others present an uninspiring desire to “drive the firm forward”. A few utter the first thing that pops into their minds (“make profit”) but then backtrack, seeking something a little more ‘worthy’.

Yet being able to answer persuasively, clearly believing every word, is crucial if you want to convince potential clients to back your horse. After all, an organisation that wheezes hot air like a rapidly deflating balloon when asked to define its raison d’être is hardly an attractive proposition.

One man who answers the “why” question with genuine belief is Feargal McCormack, managing director of Irish accountancy practice PKF-FPM. Feargal set up his firm single-handedly in Newry, County Down, in 1991. Today, PKF-FPM employs 120 people, runs six offices, and in 2017 recorded a turnover of £7m plus – a growth of 50% in three years. To top it all, PKF-FPM was named Practice of the Year at The Irish Accountancy Awards in 2017, and won the Irish News Managing Talent Award in the same year.

Ask Feargal why his firm exists and you get a clear, heartfelt reply. “We help people to achieve their dreams,” he says. “That’s why we do what we do and that’s what motivates us. In our view, helping people achieve their dreams is the key to a successful business.”

Feargal argues that his firm has “never sold accountancy services but simply tries to help people”. This focus on the human side of business dates back to FPM’s origins. “Business is about people, not about computers and not about audit services,” he says. “When we’re at the doctor’s, in the crèche, or at the football club, we create opportunities if we show interest in people.

“When I launched the firm in 1991 I had no clients. I leased an office and every day for the first year I walked through town to the furthest possible shop, bought a newspaper and walked back. As I walked, I talked to as many people as possible. Then I went back to my desk and read the paper! At 2pm I repeated the journey, again chatting to everyone I met! You see I’ve always known that business is fundamentally about talking to people.”

A quarter of a century later, Feargal still believes the same thing. “Professional services is not about selling features to anonymous businesses,” he continues, “it’s about creating an inspired team and selling dreams to people. For that reason, whenever a member of our staff takes someone for coffee, whoever they are, the firm pays for it. That’s because we want to encourage them to meet people.”

And because business is about people, suggests Feargal, to be successful you must prove to people that you care. To send a strong signal to clients that PKF-FPM cares, the firm introduced a guarantee four years ago. It promised to issue 100% credit to any client that received an invoice that hadn’t been agreed in advance. “Making this promise forces staff to talk to clients to ask whether they think they’re getting good value for money,” says Feargal. And he’s deadly serious about honouring the guarantee, so much so that he once wiped an £8,000 fee over a £342 dispute. “I had to make a point to my staff. Some thought their priority was to raise invoices. But their priority is always to satisfy clients. Wiping the £8,000 fee made them see that.”

Creating a “caring culture” is so important to Feargal that he prioritises it above all else: “When hiring, we look for people who help to run charities, clubs and committees. That’s how we identify the right people, so when I look at CVs I skip to the end. My mantra is: I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care. It has been for 25 years.”

Naturally, this caring approach affects the way the firm behaves to its own staff. Since 1996, PKF-FPM has concluded each year with a staff attitude survey comprising around 70 questions, mailed out just before Christmas. When everyone returns to work in the New Year, the management team performs ‘SWOT’ analysis of all departments and, Feargal claims, changes are made based on the answers. “Every single member of staff is involved,” he says.

It’s rare to find a professional services firm that has been so influenced by one person. Feargal McCormack has stamped his own values all over PKF-FPM since the beginning. His reason for doing business – to help his clients’ dreams come true and to passionately care in the process – has become his firm’s raison d’être. The simplicity and clarity of this approach are its strengths.

Yes PKF-FPM comprises a team and is the work of many, but Feargal McCormack is the man who forged its success. His entrepreneurial spirit drives the ship, and his values touch all who sail in her. This elevates the firm from a simple provider of professional services to something much, much greater. His approach confounds all expectations: this entrepreneurial managing director comes with no bravado, but responsibility, a caring approach and an attempt to imbue his organisation with traditional family values.

Let’s now return to the original question. Why does your organisation do what it does? Have you got a confident answer ready yet? Does it come from the heart? If not, maybe it’s time for some soul searching…