A year has passed since a newly rebranded group officially gatecrashed the UK’s top 10 accountancy firms. September 2020 saw Cogital Group combine the Baldwins, Scott Moncrieff, Wilkins Kennedy, and Campbell Dallas brands under one name: Azets. What was it like to rebrand while the globe remained in the clasp of the Covid-19 pandemic? What specific changes and continuities has this combination brought those involved? And what’s next for the top 10’s young pretenders steeped in history? Chris Horne, CEO at Azets, reveals all.
Without forgetting Blick Rothenberg, which continues to trade under its own banner, Horne starts by recalling the changes brought upon by the group’s “accelerated growth through acquisition” it experienced in the build up to 2019/20. “We had a number of different faces in different jurisdictions, and traded through a number of different brands,” he says. “But actually, as the business started to need to find its own place in the marketplace it became increasingly important that we rebranded the relevant parts of our business.”
Plans were put in place for an April 2020 rebrand aimed at giving the group “one name, one voice, and one look and feel”. It shouldn’t take long to remember why this original date was postponed. However, by September the UK was by no means home and dry from the effects of the pandemic, with three national lockdowns still to hit within the next six months.
So, what was it like to rebrand in the middle of a global pandemic?
For Horne, there were “pros and cons”. Covid-19 restrictions made it harder to “ensure that our people were experiencing an Azets experience,” he says, adding that clients clearly had “other things on their minds”. However, the pandemic provided the group with an opportunity to say “in an Azets tone of voice; ‘we’re here to help you’”. Horne adds that despite limited face-to-face contact, the firm “worked really hard to make sure that the digital aspect of the brand was front and centre” for its clients, with tens of thousands of clients attending webinars hosted by the firm.
In what was a period of wholesale change across the globe, Horne is careful not to use the same term for the Azets situation. Instead, he alludes to the “refinement” that the group undertook. “It’s a nice fresh look and feel,” he says. “But I would say that the core values of the organisation, which are to look after our people and look after our clients, remained exactly the same from start to finish.
“We were very keen that the Azets of 2020 was to be built on the foundational values of the businesses that existed before. Collaboration and authenticity, respect, and having a dynamic approach; those are our values. Those are the same whether we are called Azets, Cogital or Campbell Dallas, which was the part of the business I came from originally.”
A preservation of the organisation’s key outlooks has, however, been paired with wholesale changes on the way the group is viewed from the outside. Gaining 10,000 new clients since the rebrand, Azets has cemented itself in the top 10 of UK accountancy firms. The firm has also created 500 new job openings across all levels in the same period.
“What we’ve seen as a result of that [combined branding] is a greater level of interest in our business, from both candidates that we would like to hire for their talent and … audit opportunities that we’re being asked for,” says Horne. With the changing landscape of statutory audit, Horne has seen an uptick in people “looking for alternatives”. For Azets, mainly working under one name has resulted in “a significant increase in the number of inquiries” and provision of audit services “to the larger end of the SME market”.
So, how does Azets intend to capitalise on this added attention? For Horne, the approach is two-fold.
Firstly, Horne argues that a disproportionate majority of accountancy businesses are based on “inside out sales”. This means that they only aim to sell services that they already have. However, Azets intends to turn this on its head. Among the group’s “very clear objectives” is an ambition to “provide all the services that an SME business in the UK needs”.
Horne says: “My aim for azets is that if you’re an SME, we can help you with everything you need. Whether we are providing the services directly, through a joint venture partner, or whether we are just providing those introductions, we have to position ourselves at the absolute centre of what those customers want, and that will be a broader suite of services than the traditional accountancy firm.”
Horne believes this can be achieved through targeting what is a vast SME market. “It’s an underpenetrated market, there is no significant accountancy and business services firm serving that market,” he says. While a number of independent firms do offer “very high quality” services, Horne claims that larger accountancy organisations are unable or unwilling to provide SMEs with individualised offerings.
He adds: “So, my hope would be that Azets will be the organisation that is big enough to have a broad suite of services, because we have enough clients that we can have dedicated professionals that small firms couldn’t have. But we’ll also have enough people who’ve come from an SME advisory background to care about that marketplace.”
The second prong to the Azets strategic plan, which Horne hopes will achieve 50% revenue growth within the next five years, focuses on audits. “There’s no doubt about it,” he says. “We are seeing more opportunities there. We are seeing lots of opportunities in companies bigger than [£50m in annual turnover]. We have full service audit teams across the country who can do audits of that size, and we already do audits of that size. We do already have a lot of very talented people, some from the Big Four, and some not from the Big Four, but we are seeing that as an increasing opportunity for us.”
Despite the ambitious growth intentions, which include doubling profitability in the next half-decade, Horne is cautious to avoid the narrative that Azets is turning its back on SMEs in favour of luring bigger fish. Instead, he claims that the group’s focus “will remain SME”, but the opportunity “that the changes in the market is presenting” for audits remains an area to look into.
Essentially, one year on from the Azets rebrand it seems that the group has found its footing in the top 10, and is now driving to diversify its range of services. While the pandemic may not seem like the best timing to refine a group’s strategy and outlook, driving the message of unity at a time of fractured communities and geographies proved a beneficial step to take.
Now, not only has Azets cemented its position in the top 10 under one combined branding, but it has aims to position itself as a market leader in alternative services for SMEs. Pair this with picking up larger audit clients than before, and Azets’ future changes could look a little larger than the “refinement” referred to by Horne.