Anthony Bell doesn’t always do things like the rest of the mob. And as Camille Howard discovers, it’s clear that going his own way has worked out very nicely, allowing his boutique business to beat big companies in the competitive financial services sector, while retaining the benefits of being an SME.
Anthony Bell exudes confidence. And deservedly so. As the founder of Bell Partners, a business advisory firm, he doesn’t see himself as a traditional bean counter. Instead, he’s a businessman. And a pretty good one at that, if the number of entries in BRW’s hot lists are anything to go by, finishing as the top financial services firm for the last five years.
It’s not bad for a guy still in his thirties. It would seem the 36-year-old enjoys his success, with the luxury cars, the beachside penthouse and the designer threads, but when he opted out of his father’s firm 10 years ago he could barely imagine the kind of accomplishments he would later achieve.
While there may have been some grand plan for Bell to succeed his father in his business, he wasn’t happy with what was on offer in the accounting industry. Sensing a relative lack of innovation, Bell took the largely unprecedented step of leaving his father’s firm, starting his own, and buying his father out a short time later. Not a traditional succession, but then it’s clear that Bell isn’t interested in tradition.
“The stable of products on offer then had been in place for many, many years—balance sheet work, profit and loss work, those sorts of things,” he says.
So instead of entering into a partnership arrangement with his father, he opted to direct the business more “autocratically”.
“I wanted to have a shot at it by myself.” But not wanting to lose the knowledge, skill, and experience his father could bring to his business, Bell brought him in as a consultant.
Although the succession of his father’s business may not have been planned, Bell says he has had his own exit strategy in place from the start. “Business has really changed since the 90s, where people wanted to be an accountant or a lawyer or supermarket attendant for life,” he says. “I wanted to build a pretty good business that was saleable, and the double benefit there is that if you decide to keep going with it you have a pretty good business. If your sole goal was to build something for sale, that’s a pretty good place to start.”
Again breaking with tradition, or at least the norm, Bell decided against a partnership arrangement in the business, despite the name. At the time he got his start, Bell felt the old style of firm was outdated, and limiting. “I have a problem with the partner model, not to say that some of them don’t work, but a lot of the ones I saw seemed to be just partners sharing rent.”
He saw problems with the fact the some partners were able to call more of the shots based on their equity share, which in turn can lead to uncertainty with the other employees. So, he decided on a corporate model with a CEO and someone driving the business and making the decisions based on communication and feedback from his management team. “I wanted a very clear direction of where the business was going to, with no uncertainty for anyone who works there.”
He realised he wanted all his staff to feel like they have a partnership in the business, not just those with ‘partner’ after their name. But the name suggests a little more, he adds, with ‘Partners’ referring to not only the staff but also his clients. “We’re accounting partners in business, we’re partners in our corporate structure and the way we do our work, but to staff members as well saying they work at Bell Partners, they could be seniors or juniors or whatever, but there could be some self-esteem driven by the corporate identity in which they work in.”
Bell’s staff are the most important part of his business, and he works hard to recruit, manage, train and retain the best. As well as remunerative inducements, Bell says his secret to keeping his talent within the company is to offer new recruits a career, rather than a job, with a focus on on-the-job training and mentoring offering career progression. So from an early point, a career pathway is identified for each recruit and is fostered by the rest of the team. “We had to deal with the remuneration issue, but we also had to deal with work–life balance and the type of work they wanted to do.”
This is where he uses the careers of some of the older, more senior staff to make good “poster children”, and Bell takes advantage of making an example of those who started as undergraduates and worked their way up.
In terms of hiring, he makes it his policy to recruit out of uni and develop juniors into the managers of the future. Rather than look for academic stars (they do have do be university graduates, though), he looks for the right culture fit, and says he prefers to hire a person based on “will before skill”.
“If someone’s got a great will and is a self-starter, I’m far more interested in them than someone with great qualifications,” he says. “If I can get skill and will then I’m pretty happy, but if I can get the will, I can train the skill into them.
“There’s been the odd manager that we’ve taken on at an intermediate level, but in terms of our senior management structure, they’re all home-grown.”
He says he’s not afraid to hire at senior levels if he has to, but admits he’d rather promote from his own talent base. “If we have to go out of house, I need to look at what haven’t we done enough of to bring the talent base on. And that doesn’t have to be so much about training, it could be that we’re not selecting the leaders of tomorrow properly.”
To help foster his talent base, each new staff member is put into a management group, where there’s an immediate senior, a manager, an associate, and department head. So one or two will be watched in a management group so they can be properly trained and counselled.