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Fees, challenges & skillsets: An interview with Matthew Dwyer

We had the opportunity to speak with Matthew Dwyer, Partner, Tax Aficionado and Tax Technologist at Cain Dwyer Specialist Global Tax Recruitment. And did we cover, A LOT!

We talked fees, why recruiting in tax today is so difficult, how to stand out and how Matthew ended up in the UK as a young ambitious Kiwi.

If you want an honest opinion of the market today and what you can do to thrive; Matthew is your guy.

Hi Matthew, thanks for taking the time to speak to us today. I guess a good place to start is your early days in the industry and the path that led you to where you are today. So, how did you get into recruitment?

I undertook a couple of degrees (Bachelor of Laws [LLB] and Bachelor of Arts [Political Sciences]) and started off, working as senior adviser to the leader of a political party in New Zealand. I moved across to lawyering with a large corporate law firm in New Zealand, focusing on litigation. I subsequently relocated to Ireland in 2005. At this point I decided to change disciplines, from litigation, to banking and finance – this was a bear market where it was easier to change career tack, discipline.  A year later in 2006 I relocated to London to work for Lovells, now known as Hogan Lovells.

However, I found that, although I really enjoyed the technical aspect of lawyering and getting stuck into legislation, I didn’t have as regular client contact as I knew I would be exposed to (early on) in recruitment – less wining and dining and speaking to people, rather a head stuck in a 200-page loan agreement! Recruitment was attractive to me as it is one of the few professions that is meritocratic. That coupled with hard work and graft to achieve success in recruitment was attractive.

So, I joined Brewer Morris with a client base of top 50 and top 100 UK accounting firms recruiting tax specialists. Following this I set up two tax desks for Brewer Morris, the ‘International’ and ‘Tax Legal’ desks. Again, merit allowed me to do this rather than blind ‘biding your time’, being in a lockstep mentality which may or may not allow for progression.”

What led you to setup on your own?

What ultimately drove me to setup, despite being very fond of my time at Brewer Morris, was that entrepreneurial spirit. Generating income for layers of management and not great with bureaucracy created the perfect storm and set my own direction. What I didn’t factor in, in the early days was the sheer hours required to move from ‘start-up’ phase to profitable phase. A few failures here and there have driven me as well. More leaders should admit their mistakes, turns they took that they perhaps wouldn’t now.

Of course, it’s not all rosy – the highs and lows are more marked when it is your own personal capital at risk, but the highs outweigh the lows.”

So, recruiters get a bit of a bad rap in every industry, and in accountancy and tax, I see a lot of complaints about high fees, and unsolicited approaches. When it comes to the tax industry, why is there a need to outsource recruitment, and how do you guys justify your fees?

Taking the UK top 50 / 100 accounting and law firms that we have worked with over the years – one of the issues is that they have relationships with broad-brush finance and accounting recruiters, as well as specialist tax recruiters. One of the stresses for our clients is that when they instruct the broad-brush recruiters, they often don’t understand tax. Try to work with specialists, this is one way to take away some of the pain.

In terms of fees, there is a grave problem with the current recruitment model. Most organisations instruct 4-5 recruitments firms on a contingent basis, per role. Here lies a problem. You’ve got 5 recruiters all with mixed messaging and duplicating work. Each recruiter is only going to put 20% (or less in reality!) of his or her time to the role.  This approach increases the number of unsolicited CVs and it drives sloppy behaviour.

By instructing on an exclusive or retainer-based approach, it won’t save headline immediate fee spend but it will decrease spend in the long in terms of more successful hires, clearer marketing and branding and informed decision making. Buyers of recruitment firm services need to focus more on retention and discussing internally, more precisely, the skillset you want and sell that to the market.”

Is it easy to recruit tax people at the minute?

No. It’s always been difficult. If you speak to some of the old hats, it’s always been difficult. I’d say it’s worse now, than it was a decade ago.  The tax industry is perennially candidate short.”

Why is that?

If we think of the recession from late 2007, one month after I entered recruitment through to 2012-13, professional services firms didn’t take the front-loading advice from recruitment firms. This would have ensured a core number of graduates were coming through the ranks. We understand divestment was a key theme, but we feel divestment should have referred to the market (or non-market, candidate short market) these very firms would be creating for the period 2012 to present.  The supply-demand issues we are ell experiencing now stem from that.

Very few professionals of what one describes, needs exist. And those that exist have had very quick grade promotions (if they are good) and inflation on salaries has increased the pricing. We come full circle, front-load and invest in your graduate hiring processes today – this is one sure way to cut lateral recruitment spend. That said, first time appointments, creating new service lines, entrepreneurial hiring are as important in creating growth in the professional services sector.

We feel like there seems to be a real issue getting young people excited about careers in tax. In fact, there seems to be a bit of an issue even making them aware that a career in tax is an option. How do we change that?

Because of the skills shortage, accounting and law firms should attract all manner of graduates i.e. Arts, Humanities, IT, Science. Obvious point but some of the most impressive tax practitioners in the UK in the last 50 years did not come from a classic background.

If we go back 15-20 years ago, we again had a candidate short market in some specific areas of taxation – as two examples – Research & Development taxes and Capital Allowances taxation. Solutions in that period involved hiring Surveyor’s into advisory positions. That was a great example of creative and successful talent identification.”

What criteria do your clients provide to you when trying to recruit a tax professional nowadays? Does it differ from the past?

Yes, it does.  I think we should celebrate tax professionals who are very technical. I think we should celebrate a professional who doesn’t necessarily want to be client facing, picking up the phone or selling.

Unfortunately, or fortunately, skillset requirements are changing. Decision makers are looking for people who are not only technical, but are unicorns i.e. are commercial and can sell. I’m not sure it’s as straight forward as that requirements.  When we find needles in haystacks, we are not there. Why? Oft there is further probing – that same decision maker will be questioning; are they too salesy or not technical enough?  It’s a dichotomy.

Is there a danger that sometimes people don’t have a clear enough idea of what they do want when they instruct you?

Absolutely.” It drives recruitment firms crazy. Either I’m getting old or I’m more pragmatic now – it is relatively normal for clients to make U-turns and not be clear what they think they want. That’s where a value-add from a recruitment firm can assist – we advise clients on where we feel the market is now and in 5 years which helps in role assessment. We always say to clients, ‘you know what, roles have a life of their own, it’s hard work finding the right person and talent strategy can change’! Expect to hire a person, skill, level that perhaps you didn’t anticipate.

Where do you think that comes from?

It’s the ‘fit, click’ factor.  No level of strategy and focus can factor in this moving ‘human’ part.

Secondly, when our grandparents said to us ‘it’s hard to find good staff, nowadays’ this phenomenon will remain for another 100 years! We are always going to have this stress around lateral tax hiring.

What skillset does a junior tax professional need to standout in the market?

Firstly, try and cram three years’ work into one! Hard work. Thousands will read this but not think twice at leaving the office at 5:30pm today…..whilst others remain there to finish the job. Work-life is critical, but work is life too if you enjoy what you do.

The tax world has gone down the specialised route, so we cut our taxes up into various quarter’s (PT, CT, TP, NIC, VAT and any other derivation!). The very best are able to in their early years get across and have a base understanding of them all. Then choose to specialise.

What do you think about tax people, marketing themselves more freely?

Yes, do this, because most tax people aren’t. This is probably because of the type of person, so the DNA of most tax professionals.  They are more technical. They don’t perhaps see worth in using social media and those types of forums.

Do things you don’t want to. Express yourself, provide an opinion even if you’d prefer to stand back. I was advised two years ago to go large on social media – it was not in my nature to, I am not a gadget guy. But I decided to give it a go. I’ve now got close to 20,000 followers on LinkedIn and was recently named as one of Twitter’s Twittering Tax Pros Top 100 globally. That was not the intention but pushing yourself can have unexpected consequences.

Do you think there is a bit of a fear of putting yourself out there?

Yes, some will have trepidation because tax is such a technical area. You might have some self-doubts as to whether what you are going to say is technically correct. The technical police may pass comment.” If one is still in fear, wade into, tax policy, proposed legislation, Tory vs Labour tax proposals. That way there is not one answer, it’s your opinion.

Name just one tax professional you admire and tell us why? You can only pick one.

Dan Neidle, Tax Partner at Clifford Chance. Some say he is the next Steve Edge. What I like about him is, he is an excellent tax expert, but he has other hats. He’s all over Brexit and Public Law and I quite admire that. He gets politics, he gets economics, and he gets history and he feeds that into his role as a tax advisor. He’s like the opposite of the siloing we have seen for the past 20 years.

He also has a social media presence, which you just don’t expect from a tax partner in a Magic Circle law firm; he rows his own boat. There will be a policy at some firms, that one can’t provide comment or quotes to the media, but he does it.  I like it.

So how could a firm really stand out and differentiate themselves from another in terms of attracting the right tax people to their organisation?

Someone in the firm – doesn’t have to be the partner –  should be thinking about thought leadership. They should be having discussions like you and me have today. And it should be regular.

The second, is social media. It’s not effective when firms start a blog or an online presence and then when you check on the feed, they haven’t posted since 2014. Use it and use it properly to reach professionals that have grown up with this platform and view it as the norm.

Accounting firms particularly, need to open equally. I don’t mean giving juniors a stake (no such thing as a free lunch!) but open to share scheme options with incentives and ratchets based on performance. It might be a 0.01% incentive, it may even be deferred but that will attract talent. They will feel like they are really a part of the fabric and invest themselves emotionally with the firm which is a great way to get people on the bus and moving broadly in the same direction. Generally, there is an aversion to offering incentive schemes beyond straight salary.”

Final question Matthew, what makes Cain Dwyer different?

Well, the stock standard response to this for 97% of recruitment firms (and rather cheesy) is this –  they all say ’we are different because we are relationship led and focused on long term rather than short term wins!!’ We don’t say that, it’s just hyperbole.

Firstly, we are clear on who we partner with, classify as ‘clients’. Once we have that strategy set – we don’t muddy it. We then apply that model to the same firm or multinational on a global basis. Most recruitment firms don’t do this – they will take from the hand that feeds them which is ethically challenging to say the least.

Secondly, we have become accustomed to saying ‘no’. Most decision makers struggle with this aspect of their role.  Consistency of thought is difficult, stressful and takes discipline, but it outweighs scattered thinking.  In limiting the number of clients, we will partner with, we know the dividends, rewards will come.

We adopt this model to provide a more focused retained search, exclusive model – a service worth paying for, rather than the comparably random nature of contingent recruitment.”

Thirdly, we get very animated talking about tax and team growth, tax talent. We hope that is infectious when trusting us with selling your brand!

Want to read more?

The skills gap is widening. It’s becoming increasingly difficult to source the right people. It’s people like Matthew who can help you recruit the right people, but keeping them is a whole other chapter.

Read more from Diagnostax

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