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Tax is Changing: Interview with Rob Scholes, Partner at Haines Watts

Hi Rob, 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 tax? I guess it started back in 93’, when I got my first job as a 16-year-old. At school, I was good with numbers and good at football, so when I quickly realised that I wasn’t going to become a footballer, a career involving a lot of maths was always going to be the way forward for me. Interestingly, the company that my mum worked for was being audited, and she mentioned to the auditors that I was looking for some work experience. I went there for 3 weeks and ended up playing for their Wednesday business league team for a year. Once I left school, they offered me a job straight away. I’m still not sure whether that was because of my football skills, or my maths skills. [laughs]

I was there for 4 years, but it was more of a training firm. There wasn’t really anywhere to go, so I ended up moving on. I made a couple of moves after that, and I think I’ve worked for 4 or 5 firms now in 24 years. I’ve definitely earned my stripes.

So, what led to you wanting to lead a firm then?

Well, I think it takes a certain type of person. It was just natural progression for me and, the truth is, sometimes it’s as simple as asking yourself, within my skillset, how am I going to earn as much money as I possibly can? And you know what? I like people and I like to lead. If you’d asked me 5 or 6 years ago, I’d have been happy where I was. I went through a few personal things. At my last firm, my late wife passed away, and that had a knock-on effect for a long time. The role I was going to step into at that time was then replaced by someone from outside the firm. Because of circumstances, I just simply wasn’t ready. Because of my personal situation, I wasn’t right to take that role. And I think at that time I kind of accepted that I was always going to be an employee.

Until I came to a point in my life where I thought, you know what, I want to do something different. At that point, I had a year out, worked for myself, and tried to build up a client base. I think I went into it a little bit half-hearted, and whilst I was still trying to figure it all out, I got a break with Haines Watts. I saw the opportunity to push Bromley on because, at the time, they were very reactive. The chance was there to drive it forward, and when you have a great team that buy into what you’re looking to achieve, it makes it even sweeter.

That’s really interesting, Rob, and that’s quite a shift from one day thinking, ‘I’m only going to ever be an employee,’ to wanting to lead people. Tell us more about that. How did that change happen?

I got into work one day very demotivated. I’d been there 7 and a half years, and I clicked on Iris and found I could go all the way back to 2004, which was when I started at that firm. I quickly realised I’d been doing the same jobs since way back then, the same role, and nothing had really changed. I thought, no chance, that’s 7 and a half years with no progression, and I said to myself, “What am I going to do about it?”

And money wasn’t an issue then. If they’d turned around and said, “You’re going to get X thousand more per year,” that wasn’t enough. The truth is, I’m not completely driven by money. It’s much more than that. The work I was doing was mind-numbing because I’d done it for so long, and the idea of building up a practice from scratch was really appealing.

The problem was, I think I wanted it too quick, and I got a little bit downhearted when clients weren’t falling into my lap. So, I was a bit naïve, but then again, we all are going into business for the first time. I also got far too reliant on the freelance work. I’d always accept a few extra days which meant I wasn’t using my time as well as I should have.

But that laser-focus of being an entrepreneur seems to have stayed with you. Am I right in saying that? Yes, and that’s my exact focus now. I’m not just looking to build a decent portfolio of clients, but also to build Bromley up to fulfil its true potential. We’ve got a couple of people in the team now that are ready for progression, and they’re chomping at the bit to get their own clients, their own portfolios. I need people that are able to service our clients, and advise them, not just provide facts and figures. My focus is the growth of Bromley, so yes, it has definitely stayed with me. I’m still entrepreneurial. I love gaining new clients and networking; probably a bit too much if you see the belly. [laughs]

One of the things I picked up on there, and which is a struggle for most firms, is feeding some of the work downwards, and bringing that next person through so that you’re able to service a growing client base. I think a lot of that’s to do with the culture in the firm. How did you go about creating the right culture in your firm?

I think going back to your point about delegation, 3 years ago I was lousy at it. It’s not that I didn’t trust anyone, but you can sometimes hold onto work, preferring to do it yourself, because it will take me 5 minutes, whereas it may take another person half an hour. Then I went on the Haines Watts Leadership Development Programme, and there was a huge shift in how I saw things. If you build the right team, delegation isn’t stressful. There are a couple of people in the team that I have no problem passing work onto. I’m also now trying to teach them about delegation too, and saying to them, “I don’t care where the work goes, so long as you oversee it and it comes back the same standard.” The funny thing is, in my experience, that hasn’t been the culture above me in other firms, but we’re seeing a big shift. You can’t just hold onto work nowadays. Not if you’re trying to grow or keep good people.

And do you think teaching your team to learn from mistakes is important?

You always learn from your mistakes, but you’ve also got to learn from things that go well. The type of conversations I have with my team are positive – it’s all about the future. They’re the types of conversations I wish I’d had when I was coming up through the ranks. No one ever sat me down to discuss partnership, or what it would take to get there. Even if they’d said, “Rob, you probably won’t make partner for 5 years, but after that there’s a good chance you will if you do this, this and this,” I’d have looked at the role a lot more positively.

I brought partnership up with a team member the other day. I wanted to know where they saw themselves in 5 years. That individual almost looked nervous about mentioning partnership and said that it’s just natural progression. The thing is, it might be, but it also has to be what you want. Being a partner isn’t for everyone. If it is, then it’s important to know from day 1 how you’re going to get there.

The fact is people leave firms for various reasons. Sometimes it’s money, but mostly it’s because you don’t give them enough opportunity to express their talents or progress. You need to have those conversations.

Completely agree. And, what do you see as the main challenges for firms right now? Short term, one of the biggest is ‘Making Tax Digital’. Getting up to speed and getting clients on board with it. It’s the costs associated with it. It’s the difficulty trying to get that value across. But things are rapidly changing, and it’s about not scaring them into the fact that they’ve got to pay more fees, but it’s educating them. That’s certainly an issue we need to address.

Another key challenge is keeping the talent in your office motivated, keeping it so that they actually want to work for you, and they’re not just doing it for a pay check. That’s always been an issue. If you’re paying your people £40,000 per year, and the accountant across the road is paying £40,000 per year, you better make sure you’ve got something within your firm that’s going to be the difference, like those open conversations around partnership, like clear progression. Finding the right talent isn’t easy at the moment.

Thanks, Rob. It was an absolute pleasure speaking with you today. if you would like to get to know Rob better add him on LinkedIn

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