There’s a well-known tendency, especially among the media, to see London as the be-all and end-all. Young journalists, writers, marketeers and PRs – accountants and lawyers too – get caught up in the London bubble and forget anywhere else exists, except when they’re trying to escape to mum and dad’s for Bank Holiday. Yet the capital’s huge gravitational pull and lava flow of talent does not give it a monopoly on great ideas or pioneering ways of working. In fact, London’s massive dynamism – created by people who almost always have roots elsewhere – may even hinder professional services firms aiming to build solid foundations and a strong culture.
One non-London accountancy & advisory firm with granite underpinnings and a muscular ethos is North West-based, CLB Coopers. With continued double-digits growth year-on-year, it is a firm with decisive views on best practice. These come from managing partner, David Travis, who speaks with something akin to religious zeal about what he believes makes a great firm, describing any management team that deliberately chooses not to develop its people as “immoral”, and defining profit as “just a byproduct of caring”. Here is a managing partner who invites each and every one of the staff to team away-days, has lunch with every staff member at least four times a year (“I get so many good ideas out of it, it’s unbelievable,” he says), and – quite literally – bans partners from talking during some staff meetings. If he had to choose between a hard-working receptionist with a positive approach and a corrosive partner who brought millions into the firm, you get the impression he’d go for the receptionist every time. David has also introduced perhaps the most jaw-droppingly transparent partner payment structure in the industry. More on that later.
We base partner payments on what everyone thinks everyone else should earn
David Travis arrived at CLB Coopers in 1997 after 16 years at EY. “I loved EY,” he says, “but joined CLB Coopers because I wanted build a business – to make somewhere better. The attraction was that it was an excellent firm with a great foundation for growth and change”.
He soon realised what he was up against. “After joining, I remember meeting 24 partners in London at a gentlemen’s club and explaining to them all that I believed the next generation had to be developed to be better than the current one. An elder partner said: ‘Young man, you’ll need to understand that’s not how you make money’.” Unfortunately for the elder partner, that was the polar opposite of David’s vision. “I told him that that wasn’t my thinking. My philosophy then and now is that we use our business to build our people and our clients, not our people and clients to build our business. That’s so important to us. Everyone who comes here can achieve their aspirations and ambitions. That is our passion.”
Rewind to 1997 and David, a junior partner aged 34, was intent on starting a revolution. “At the time, the partners were so focused on their own portfolios that, as long as you didn’t affect those, you could do what you like. That’s how they let me in.”
David and his allies brought in a few people from EY and before long, some of the more ‘traditional’ thinkers decided to leave the firm, unsettled by the smell of change in the air. David then set about transforming the culture. He empowered the staff by encouraging them all to be proactive, to take ownership and to give equal value to everyone’s opinion, regardless of their grade or seniority. This has been a clear theme in the growth and evolution of CLB Coopers from then to now. “Being a partner at CLB Coopers doesn’t automatically mean you have the loudest voice. In fact, at the beginning, partners were not allowed to speak during team meetings!” This was a difficult concept for some to grasp, but it was a key step to realising that, “being a partner doesn’t automatically mean you have things ‘your way’” and that there are times when silence has the loudest voice. This approach is very different but it has undoubtedly built a strong and inclusive team culture in which everyone works together and feels valued.
Being a partner shouldn’t automatically mean you have things ‘your way’
“A key change early on,” recalls David, “was to allocate every member of staff to a team. We created seven. All staff then held regular team meetings, with partners attending as ‘guests’, and these were the meetings where partners weren’t allowed to speak. Suddenly every member of staff had a voice, and almost everything they came up with was implemented.”
The cultural shift of this dramatic idea, and other ideas like it, was huge, and those wedded to the ‘old’ ways had three options: change, leave, or plot to remove the agent of upheaval. David says: “We were moving into a very different and exciting new world. For those in the firm driven by profitability, it was a mammoth change and the vision was totally opposite to how those individuals thought the firm should be run. I understand now that several parties had loaded a gun for my head but whenever they were about to pull the trigger, I’d win a new job – and they had to put the gun away, leaving me to carry on getting everyone with this shared vision ‘on the bus’.
The firm started to blossom, growing at 30% a year, and soon people were queuing up to join. David changed the culture so comprehensively, decisively and successfully that by 1999, he was managing partner of the Manchester office and went on to become managing partner of the firm six years later. And ever since, he has continued to lead according to his distinctive philosophy and one that is now deeply embedded throughout CLB Coopers.
If all staff are coached and encouraged to attain their highest goals, then everything else falls into place; clients are looked after perfectly, the ship is happy and profit – the byproduct – flows
Perhaps the over-riding theme at the firm today is staff development and empowerment, which is not a sideline in the enterprise of serving clients and making money, but central to the whole operation. The logic is this: if staff, from the newest trainee receptionist to the most senior partner, are coached and encouraged to attain their highest goals, then everything else falls into place; clients are looked after perfectly, the ship is happy and profit – the byproduct – flows. Such an approach is also ‘right’ according to CLB Coopers’ unwritten moral code. Equally, unlike in the old days, the firm is vehemently opposed to the idea of partners driving the firm forward purely to increase profitability.
“We hold staff days twice a year,” says David. “We collect together all the new ideas from staff, go through our culture, our mission, our business plan, the financials and play a few games. From day one, we say: ‘You are empowered and, from now on, you need to be working right at the edge – at the limit of your ability and thinking. And you must always challenge. And we mean it. One of our trainees challenged us on our accounting software some time ago because he thought it wasn’t good enough. We let him go out into the market and he brought four suppliers into the office to demo new systems. We listened to him and changed the software. That trainee is now a partner.”
“Another example is when our managers challenged our recruitment and selection process and questioned their limited input into getting the right people into their teams. Now, managers and peers play an important part in the interviews. They’ll spend time with the candidate and interestingly, because they’re the ones at the coal face and know just exactly what the job will involve, they are able to ask some pretty searching questions relating to the practicalities of the job. It also helps to determine a good team fit and whether their peers think the candidate really has the attitude and mindset to be a CLB Coopers person”.
Several parties had loaded a gun for my head but whenever they were about to pull the trigger, I’d win a new job – and they had to put the gun away
So, back to that partner payment structure. What makes it unique? David explains: “None of our partners earn the same amount of money. We base payments on what everyone thinks everyone else should earn. Once a year, myself and a colleague see every partner individually and ask them how they would like to split the profits between all the partners. Each partner gives me the split for every partner including him or herself. Then we ask them to explain why they think that split is correct. That eventually gives us 12 columns on a piece of paper. Then everyone sees that piece of paper with the splits averaged out. Because it’s totally transparent, people make fair and defendable decisions. It’s the fairest process I can think of. There’s no inner circle in this business. There can’t be. There’s nowhere to put it. It simply doesn’t fit.”
And there you have one incredibly transparent payment structure, which sums up this firm’s philosophy. Progressive, brave, transparent and unique, with a sprinkling of northern pride. Would London ever be able to produce a firm like CLB Coopers?
Some gems from CLB Coopers managing partner David Travis…
“You need to understand that how you make clients feel is just as important as what you do to be successful.”
“People who contaminate the culture have to go. In the past, we’ve got rid of partners who are good fee earners but who don’t fit our culture. Firms who don’t let people like that go are too focused on the numbers. In the long run, culture is more important than the numbers. Profit is a byproduct.”
“When you’re up against sceptics and cynics, you have to believe in what you’re doing and keep going. Just work harder. Don’t let them get in the way but go round them. Whatever you do, don’t bang your head against them.”
“It’s all about having a firm foundation and letting people blossom. If you can help people blossom faster, you’ll have a better firm.”
“If you make a mistake, never try to justify it; instead apologise and quickly focus on making a ‘’WOW’ recovery’. Here’s a good example of a ‘’WOW’ recovery’. A hotel had double-booked its honeymoon suite. The second set of newly-weds arrived at reception and were given the bad news. They were put in the next-best room, apologised to profusely, given a free meal, a free weekend away and free wine – all the things you’d expect. But – and here’s the ‘WOW’ recovery – on the second night of their stay, they moved into the honeymoon suite and on arrival, saw the words “We’re sorry” written in red roses on the duvet. The couple have returned to the same hotel every anniversary ever since. That is a ’WOW’ recovery.”