“Why I broke my vow to never step foot inside an accountancy firm”

After a terrible experience as a young employee at an accountancy firm, April Bembridge came to hate the profession. Fifteen years latershe’s helping PKF Cooper Parry to become one of Britain’s most sought-after employers…

Slow. Boring. Grey. As a young woman, these are the words that April Bembridge associated with accountancy. She hated her first job in the industry so much that she vowed never to step foot inside another accountancy firm. A HR career in retail and hospitality followed and over the next 15 years April made a name for herself as an exceptional HR leader, thriving amid the youthfulness, dynamism and energy of her chosen sector. But in 2016 she had a change of heart. She broke her vow and returned to the profession that had left such a terrible impression. It proved to be a wise move. Two years on, April feels more fulfilled than ever and her work has been instrumental in elevating her employer – PKF Cooper Parry – from 91stto 32ndand now to 12thin the Sunday Times 100 Best Companies to Work For list (‘Mid’ category).

April’s U-turn and the success that has followed provide fascinating insights into leadership, recruitment and people management.

“I became aware of PKF Cooper Parry when someone who worked there contacted me,” she says. “I wasn’t contemplating a career move away from hospitality, and I was still scarred from my last accountancy experience. Nevertheless, I agreed to meet the CEO for a coffee at PKF Cooper Parry’s office, Sky View, next to East Midlands Airport. I was impressed – it’s a cool office – but I needed to know more. After all, a nice office doesn’t a great culture make.”

April was intrigued by what she heard from the CEO, Ade Cheatham. “His vision excited me because the firm seemed to be in the hands of people who thought differently from how I assumed they would,” she says. “Ade outlined a clear plan. He showed complete conviction and supported it with solid evidence. The firm needed to move fast to achieve their plans. That appealed to me because I thrive in a fast-paced, dynamic environment.”

She wanted to know more, was this vision shared by others in the firm? Did they have the same belief?. “I remember thinking: ‘This is promising, but it’s ultimately still an accountancy firm.’” She says, “There’ll be red tape, bureaucracy, blockers and barriers. Will I get the autonomy I need?”

After speaking with others, she found the vision and ambition was shared across the firm, but niggling doubts remained. “Yes, everyone was on the same page – great – but would it be dynamic enough for me? They said they were fast and agile, but were they really?”

Further chats with the CEO followed. This was a big decision for April, but the ambition of PKF Cooper Parry excited her and she decided to take the plunge and she joined as People & Culture Director in July 2016.

Her conversion from doubter to believer is an intriguing case study for anyone involved in recruitment, showing how much it can take to win over some individuals. It also raises questions: does professional services have an image problem? If so, why? How can the industry make itself more appealing to personality types who shun it in favour of sectors they see as more exciting? These are stereotypes and myths that April and PKF Cooper Parry are now working to break.

Her story after joining PKF Cooper Parry is one of success. Right away she began to make tough changes and put her stamp on the culture. The firm – already on an upward trajectory in terms of employee satisfaction – proceeded to shoot up the Sunday Times Best 100 List (compiled independently from employee surveys).

April says: “When I joined, the first thing I did was evaluate what we needed to do to support the business goals. It was challenging because in some cases we had to lose people who had been here for a long time – good people, who had made a valuable contribution to the journey so far, but the business was moving fast and the needs of the business were changing. Having people in roles that allow them to play to their strengths whilst supporting the ambitious business goals is fundamental to success. When they aren’t, you have to make changes. And quickly for the good of the individual and the business.”

This difficult but crucial area of HR is one with which many businesses struggle. Agreeing business targets is one thing but cajoling people into new roles and helping others to take entirely new paths – all in order to hit those targets – is quite another. The process demands honesty, tact, employment-law know-how and, last but not least, courage.

April explains: “From day one, my aim was to create a happy, engaged workforce, where people felt cared for and where everyone got out of bed in the morning, excited about the day ahead – a place whereeveryone was in the right seat and in roles where they could play to their strengths.

The benefit of this strengths-based approach is more fundamental than creating a greater chance of hitting your business targets, believes April. “We spend a big chunk of our lives at work,” she says. “If you go home each evening feeling down, sapped and stressed, that has a negative impact on your entire life. But if you feel happy and uplifted each day because you’re in the right role, that has a strongly positive impact. Therefore, an effective strengths-based approach actually changes people’s lives for the better. That is something I am truly passionate about and I believe wholeheartedly.”

When you have an honest conversation with someone about what gets them out of bed in the morning compared with what drains them, you quickly uncover the right path for them. If that path exists within PKF Cooper Parry then brilliant, but if not, we have to be upfront about it and talk to each other as adults.”

This straight-talking, strengths-based people policy – coupled with clear commerciality and always implemented with solid business targets in mind – has been central to April’s approach at PKF Cooper Parry, it has been vigorously supported by the leadership team and the CEO.

The commitment to people is clear. April was recently made a partner herself, recognition that giving People and Culture a voice at the top table is not only valued but critical.

But that’s only part of the story, alongside this strengths based approach, sit several other people focused initiatives. There is a big focus on wellbeing and a full People Experience Programme, called CP Heartbeat, which encourages people to take care of themselves and make life count. Then there’s the dress code – or rather the lack of it, because the only instruction PKF Cooper Parry employees receive is to “wear something”this is all about trust says April, which is why we also have unlimited holiday policy, it’s all about outputs, not hours worked. On top of this there are life coaches, available to everyone at CP: “The returns we see from our coaches in terms of productivity, profitability and team satisfaction and wellbeing levels are huge,” says April.

Put all of this inside the super cool PKF Cooper Parry’s offices – Sky View and Park View: which are more Silicon Valley than East Midlands, with their chill-out spaces, play zones, rope swings and laid-back feel.

These are not gimmicks, says April. Rather, they are part of the trust-based culture that has been deliberately developed. “There’s a psychological element,” says April. “If you trust people, give them the freedom to be themselves, be open, honest and transparent, you will get so much more back in return. None of this is rocket science but far too many businesses are afraid to let go of the reins. It’s why we take the stance that culture drives strategy, not the other way around. We believe that if you build a great culture, you will attract (and retain) the most talented people. Give them an environment where they can thrive and grow, feel valued and cared for and they will deliver an amazing ‘wow’ experience for our clients, who will in turn become raving fans. When your clients are raving fans, they stay with you and they recommend you. The result – business success. It’s simple really.”

Letting go of the reins is certainly working for PKF Cooper Parry. Hiring the services of an HR leader who hated the bureaucracy, glacial decision-making and “greyness” of what she saw as traditional accountancy – was not an easy task. But by convincing her to break her vow and climb aboard, and by drawing on her experience outside of accountancy, the firm has found a new way to accelerate change and inject greater dynamism into its culture. The stage is now set for greater things, and who would bet against PKF Cooper Parry becoming a Sunday Times Best 100 No.1?