Profile: Azets CEO Chris Horne

It’s a particularly turbulent time for the accounting industry. Not only has the pandemic brought unprecedented levels of disruption, but with a landmark shake-up of the audit sector added to the equation, the path ahead is full of challenges.

Azets’ newly appointed CEO Chris Horne must navigate the firm at a time when the industry at large is in a state of flux. However, with 25 years’ experience as a chartered accountant and more than a decade in senior leadership roles within the profession, Horne comes equipped with a game plan.

Accountancy Age spoke with the newly appointed Horne to find out more about the firm’s recent recruitment drive and how its client-first approach could define Azets next chapter.

Opportunities and goals

Azets is a prime example of a firm with many obstacles to overcome. The audit market is being overhauled, the technology landscape is changing at a rapid pace, recruitment is enduring its biggest slump in recent history, and UK businesses are still dealing with the economic fallout of a pandemic.

But when questioned on the challenges that lie ahead, Horne remains positive, preferring to focus on the potential opportunities ahead.

“The audit market is changing, but Azets as a business is very well-placed to take advantage of that. We are still focused on providing services to owner- managed SME businesses,” he says.

“The Big Four will no longer be providing services to our sweet spot – so if you’re a £50m or £75m turnover business, we’re perfectly positioned to become your auditor. That’s a big opportunity for us.”

This falls neatly into what the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) describes in its consultation paper as “competition, choice and resilience in the audit market”. Within this wider goal, directives such as “shared audits” and a cap on market share have been touted.

Despite areas such as new reporting and director responsibilities sitting at the heart of the reform proposals, non-Big Four firms such as Azets are bound to benefit from the shake-up.

Horne goes on to touch on recruitment at Azets, noting that this is “probably the biggest challenge that the whole profession faces”.

One recent study shows that 73 percent of firms within the accountancy industry are “feeling the strain” from a lack of skilled workers.

But Horne is optimistic, arguing that if the correct formula is found, there is scope for continued growth and improvement.

“I don’t want to make sound too easy, but if you employ good quality people and you give them good quality clients to work on, it all becomes quite straightforward.”

In May, Azets announced plans to recruit more than 200 accountancy graduates as trainees, all of whom are due to start in August. According to Horne, the firm also hopes to employ a further 550 people in 2022, forming part of a wider transformation strategy.

“Part of our transformation programme is that we’ve overhauled entirely the way that we give people career development, and increasingly we are pushing people forward for promotions,” he says.

“Other than very strategic hires, we want to fill almost every vacancy we have from an internal promotion. That’s the big opportunity we’ve got because most people who go into accountancy in the UK have done a degree and a professional qualification and they’re looking for a career. But an awful lot of those businesses aren’t growing, so it makes that harder.

“So, if we can ensure that we’re growing, and we can ensure that we’re proactively helping people manage their careers within the business, then that’s something we want to do.”

Streamlining services with technology

The pandemic sped up digitisation across the accounting industry and, according to Horne, despite setting out ambitious digital transformation plans prior to the outbreak, the crisis accelerated the firm’s adoption of technology.

However, while technology adoption has accelerated, investment has mainly occurred “within the client base than at the centre of the business”, says Horne.

“We have a vast number of clients, and we recognise that we need to continually streamline our service and make the way we serve the smaller clients attractive. Technology will play a big part in us providing them with more business intelligence.”

Investment in technology, Horne explains, will allow Azets to provide more granular, data-driven insights into how businesses operate, which in turn will enable the firm to deliver a more sophisticated and valuable service to clients.

“The digitisation of data and the way you interrogate that data enables you to benchmark businesses better. We can take the work that we do to provide a compliance service, and rather than use that solely to prepare tax returns, it gives us an incredible level of knowledge of our clients’ businesses,” he says.

This, Horne argues, is what true success looks like for a professional services firm.

“It’s really engaging with that SME market and providing the breadth of experience and knowledge that a large firm can provide, whilst also offering that more local and relationship-driven service.

“Some smaller accountancy firms are looking at technology as a threat, and saying they’re going to do the job for us – we’re seeing it as a huge opportunity.”

Keeping things simple

Azets new CEO believes his experience and personal leadership style will complement the firm’s culture and help guide it through a challenging period.

“My style is to keep things very simple. I think that in this complex world, it’s very important that we understand what our purpose is and why we do it.

“I’m very clear that Azets is here to improve the lives of colleagues, clients, and the communities we work in, and to do that in a sustainable way.”

This, he says, is a mantra that generated success during his time leading Scottish accountancy firm Campbell Dallas, which officially became part of Azets in 2017.

“We focused on looking after the people and encouraging them to look after our clients. That was a very successful formula with which we grew the business quite significantly and won Scottish accountancy firm of this year.”

Horne stresses that he carries this client-oriented approach with him today, noting that the main directive for Azets is to put clients at the forefront of everything it does.

“Our clients are the lifeblood of the UK economy. The SME market makes up over 95 percent of UK businesses, and that’s the market we serve.

“It’s important to me that they get that peace of mind that comes from being an Azets client. So many of them own and live their businesses, so improving them and giving them a bit more financial security does improve their lives.”

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