Keeping Accounting Simple
Bruce Earle’s clients might not recognise the beanie wearing, craft-beer drinking, fan of “the Boss” (singer/songwriter Bruce Springsteen) outside of work days at his accounting practice. But Bruce has always been one do things a bit differently.
Bruce’s business Simple Accounting Services is headquartered in a funky urban corridor, where Wellington’s French cafes cluster. Clients enter the office up the stairs of a former wool store, through one of those cafes, which delivers a stream of flat whites to client meetings.
It’s a far cry from the tiny rural town of Tokomaru, New Zealand, where Bruce went to primary school with 120 other children. “It was a good life for a kid,” Bruce says. “We used to kick a rugby ball around, climb trees, make forts, and help out on the farm.”
Then when Bruce was about 12 years old, his dad moved to a job in town as a computer programmer and Bruce started at Palmerston North Boys High. “It was quite daunting on the first day. We were living by the river and had to ride our bikes all the way through town and through traffic lights. I’d never really seen traffic lights before, so that was a big change.”
Accounting seemed like a good backstop
At high school Bruce played rugby and studied economics, maths, English, science and accounting. He was interested in business and liked money. “My mum’s cousin was an accountant and apparently she was making lots of money, so I started studying accounting, though I wasn’t sure if that’s what I wanted to do.”
Then a local firm that was looking for someone to work for them and asked the accounting teacher who was the best at accounting and computers. “He suggested me,” says Bruce, “which was interesting because I used to wag accounting and physical education classes, and go to work at the garden centre in the afternoons. I thought, well I’ll take the job, and if I don’t like it, then it’ll stand me in good stead for another role. And here I am – it’s just kept going.”
“A lot of my work centred around spreadsheets in the early days and I did some interesting things. Once I got sent to help open up a bar and teach them how to do the till reconciliations, and at the time I wasn’t even legally allowed to be in the bar because I was too young – I was 17!”
In that first job in Palmerston North, New Zealand, Bruce specialised in accounting systems. “I liked the challenges. If someone said, ‘No the software won’t do that,’ I would make it do what we wanted it to. I don’t like being told I can’t do something!”
After about six years, Bruce moved south to a job in Wellington. But when his marriage broke up he decided to move back to Palmerston North, closer to where his ex-wife and two children were now living. “I met Tash, my new wife, at my leaving drinks on the day I was leaving Wellington! So, I ended up only being in Palmerston North for about three months before moving back down.”
Going it alone from a windy garage
Balancing the demands of a big city accounting practice with having his children at the weekends proved exasperating. “I needed time off on Fridays to go and pick up my kids. So I went home to Tash and said ‘Let’s set up our own firm,’ and she said, ‘Let’s do it,’ and so we did – even though I only had one client at the time.”
At first Bruce ran the business from an office in their garage at the top of a hill in Wellington, a city known for its wind. Bruce recounts how the southerly would often come whistling under the roller door and blow his papers off his desk.
That was the start of Simple Accounting Services – a name that reflects the focus of the business. “Our clients are IT contractors, small retail businesses, mums and dads with rental properties, and tradespeople. The bigger Wellington firms I worked for were interested in looking after bigger clients. It felt like there was a gap in the market, so that’s where we went. We try to do good service, fast, and for a good price.”
The ups and downs along the way
Now Simple Accounting is a team of five including Bruce, co-director Peter Reweti, and Tash as business manager.
At one point, after acquiring another accounting firm and their city clients, there were 13 employees. But there were some issues with the different culture and focus of the two firms. Some of the newly acquired clients objected to being with a firm called Simple Accounting because they felt their accounts weren’t simple.
“I don’t think we handled the branding terribly well,” says Bruce. “Things had snowballed, so we pulled it back and we’re trying to focus on keeping things simple again.”
They let the staff numbers decline over time through natural attrition, and now when they recruit new staff, they’re looking for the right attitude. They like to hire people who are willing to adapt and do things differently.
For Bruce, the toughest times are with clients who are struggling. “There’ve been a few tears shed around this table with clients who are seriously in trouble, and sometimes it’s hard to divorce yourself from it.”
“Accounting systems are a speciality of mine so in the early days I picked up a lot of clients with QuickBooks and MYOB, but probably only about one in ten were doing it correctly. Most of the time, it was a complete mess. But fewer and fewer of our clients are on those systems now. And we do all of our end-of-year accounts in Xero, whether or not our clients use it.”
Once, Bruce was advising a lady that she probably needed to liquidate her company, “I realised halfway through that it meant we weren’t going to get paid the money she owed us at the time! There’s been a lot of that in the last few years with the economy.”
On the other side of the coin, the biggest reward for Bruce is in helping clients sort out a shambles or get out of financial trouble.
Be unique, not a copycat
Though it’s been a rocky road, Bruce recommends going out on your own. He’s seen a lot of people set up their own small accounting firms, now that technology has made it so easy.
“My main advice is don’t do what everyone else is doing,” he says. “Don’t just copy what the successful firms have done. Be different.”
Bruce also recommends working for an accountancy firm before setting out on your own. “You need someone to learn the ropes off. It’s a good idea to become a chartered accountant too – it gives you more options.”
Imagining a more relaxed future
Between them, Bruce and Tash have six children aged from 10 to 23. With five of them still at home, family life keeps them busy.
“Our youngest one is playing rugby this year, so we spend a bit of time in the club community,” says Bruce. “I go down for practises and run around with the boys. I keep getting pressured to play for a club team too but my knees are both stuffed.”
“And I like to do a lot of DIY work because I’m sitting down all day at work. I think that comes from my upbringing on the farm – if something needed to be fixed, Dad would fix it himself.”
When it comes to work, Bruce finds there’s still quite a lot of pressure. “It’d be nice to grow the firm a bit and get some more senior people so we could back off a little. Maybe I could just come in for client meetings 20 hours a week and have someone else doing the desk work.
“In 10 years’ time, I could see us having a little lifestyle block somewhere. Tash loves horses, and I can picture myself sitting on a beach. We’ll see where it goes.”