My Career in Tax
Simon Baines, Head of Tax at Cooper Parry
Hi Simon. How long have you worked in tax? And who have you worked for?
This makes me feel really old, but I’ve worked in tax for 35 years. I started when I was a fresh-faced 17-year-old, going straight from school into HMRC – or Inland Revenue, as it was in those days – as a “Revenue Assistant”.
Inspectors sat in rooms and I had to take my tea trolley round, knock on their door and ask them if they fancied a cuppa! So, I started right at the bottom, and over 12 years I worked my way up through the Revenue. I turned down Inspector training, because frankly, I found it a bit boring. And I decided I’d go out into private practice instead.
So, I left the Revenue and joined a small, two-partner practice in Leicester. I worked in General practice and this was at the start of self-assessment, so they mainly did personal tax at that point. And after about two weeks I thought, “What the hell have I done!? This is really hard work!”
But I stuck with it, spent three years there, and because it was a small practice I was doing lots of things covering all taxes – a real broad coverage – and gaining loads of knowledge. I learnt a lot about dealing with clients, and stuff like that. And then, in 2000, I moved to Cooper Parry – so this is my 20th year here.
I joined as a Tax Senior in Cooper Parry’s “Business Services Division”, as it was, back in the day, before being asked if I would join the Corporate Team. I remember thinking, “This is great, this is where it’s at! This is the big-ticket stuff.” So, I joined the Corporate Team and worked my way up through that to Partner and then Head of Tax.
When did you become Head of Tax?
What do you enjoy most about working in tax?
Well, it’s a good question. But it’s whether the question is, what do I enjoy most about working in tax? Or what do I enjoy most about my job?
I think it would be good to answer both, if that’s okay?
In tax, I think it’s the challenge. No two days are the same. The legislation is complex and always changing. What clients want from us is complex and always changing. Tax, for me, is about finding solutions, not reasons why you can’t do something. I think, if we’re not careful, we’re trained about what you can’t do, rather than trained to find solutions for a client. And none of our clients want to know what they can’t do. They want to know about their opportunities.
Obviously, it’s important we make sure our clients stay on the right side of legislation, but we should use the legislation for what it’s there for: finding solutions. A lot of what we do isn’t always about saving tax. It’s about protecting wealth and assets for our clients. So, making sure their structures are right, and then, if there’s any unforeseen circumstances where something doesn’t work, they don’t lose their whole family’s wealth that they’ve built up over many years. That’s the best thing for me about tax. It’s always different. No two clients are the same, no two days are the same, no two solutions are the same.
So, that’s the tax side of it. My role… I think my role has evolved over the years from being a very detailed Tax Technician through to leading our tax practice, where I have very few clients now. I’m focused more on our tax strategy, the development of our tax business, and the development of our overall business. So, growth, finding ways to deepen and broaden our specialisms, finding great people, developing the great people in our business, looking after our people, and above all, it’s about taking our business forward and building a legacy to pass on.
How has your tax practice grown in recent years?
Four years ago, revenues in tax were something like £4m. This financial year, which is to 30th April, we’ll do £10.4 million.
So we’ve more than doubled in the last four years through the development of our tax practice – a move away from generalist, to more specialist. Deepening and broadening our specialisms. Recruiting top talent. Retaining top talent, developing top talent and working with them being very clear on what our focus is, what our market is, and working in that space. We don’t want to be the best at everything because nobody can be that. We just want to be the best at what we do.
So, we’ve developed hugely and we’re now a £10m business employing 70 tax professionals in the East and West Midlands, and we’ve opened in London. We’re just looking at opening another specialist part of our business in the North, so, you know, geographically and financially we’re expanding.
How big do you see London becoming in the next few years? Is that hard to answer, or…?
Well, it’s hard to answer in a number of ways. As tax professionals in today’s world, we can work anywhere. So, whilst we have a London office, we may have a Centre of Excellence elsewhere in the UK that effectively becomes a back office. Any office in any region is about your people. It’s the quality of your people that drives relationships and ultimately defines your business.
So, yeah, our people work across the regions. I, for example, spend time in London, the West Mids, the East Mids and internationally. I’ve been to the US fairly recently, to Atlanta and Miami. And then, I’m up in the North looking at this new opportunity, so, yeah, London is a key location for us. It’s one area that’s certainly growing, but we’ll drop in and out of London. We’ll have permanent people in London, we have clients in London, we’ll have specialists in London, but they’ll also cover other parts of the UK.
Are there any particular specialist areas of tax that you personally enjoy, and why?
I enjoy working with key business owners and seeing where that takes me. So, if you take a very successful entrepreneurial business, you’ll typically have a few key shareholders in that business. I see my role as working with those shareholders and that will take me into the corporate arena, looking after their businesses, helping them to grow and realise their potential on a corporate side. But because you’re dealing with shareholders, you’ve also got their personal side, their personal aspirations, their family aspirations. And you have to marry the two together.
Quite often, a lot of businesses will focus on corporate, or they’ll focus on personal. I think they’re inextricably linked in an entrepreneurial, privately-owned business. And looking after shareholders in my role takes me to all areas of their lives.
What advice would you give to someone who’s ambitious to fast track their career in tax?
I think most of it will come down to mindset. Any number of people can be technically good and read a textbook, or legislation. What your best people will have is something different to how they approach things. They’ll have curiosity. They’ll want to understand why something’s happened. They’ll understand what a client’s business is all about. They’ll want to understand what the client’s all about. They’ll want to do something that surprises their client. They’re not just going to do what’s expected, they’ll go over and above that.
They must have hunger. They must be keen to keep learning and developing, and take a real interest in their own development, alongside that of the business. Your best people will have that hunger themselves to develop alongside what a business like ourselves has to offer. So, curiosity, hunger, appetite for growth, and you’ve got to be passionate about what you do as well.
Do you think they need to specialise in a certain part of tax as well, or not?
I think it can help. I don’t think it’s essential. It depends on your role.
It depends what type of firm, a bit, I guess, as well?
It really does. Let’s say we take someone as an early years starter in our business. They’ll cover most aspects of tax in their early years, we’ll quickly see where their strengths lie, and it’s really about getting people playing to their strengths.
So, if they’re playing to their strengths, it might be that they have a real aptitude for R&D, and at that point you would very much say, yes, they would specialise in R&D. They may specialise in VAT and then, of course, they would become specialists in that area. It may be transactional tax, but you see that as they come along, as people develop.
Alongside that, you get people that develop into what I see as “tax relationship roles”, where they have a very broad understanding of taxes and work closely with clients to help them realise their dreams. And what they’ll do is, they’ll have a different sort of ability to work with clients, understand their key issues and introduce specialists to help define those solutions. So, that’s a very different role to a specialist role and I think you need both.
Is there anything you would do differently now if you were just starting out in tax?
I don’t think you can have any regrets. I don’t think you can have regrets in life, really. I think, you know, if you focus on what you don’t have or what’s happened in the past, you’re not focusing on what you might have and what the future is. But I think the key thing for me is that everybody should have the power within themselves to fail. And if they do fail, they bounce back and they learn from that failure, because I don’t know anybody that hasn’t failed at something, and it might be just some advice you’ve given to a client that doesn’t quite work out.
You’ve got to learn from your mistakes, basically. You’ve got to be prepared to make mistakes, so that’s not having regrets, that’s the opposite to having regrets. We’re all going to make mistakes in life and in our professional life – hopefully they’re not huge mistakes, and they rarely are. It’s the ability to learn from those and grow. So, no, I don’t think you have regrets. If I changed any of my career or any of my life, I wouldn’t be who I am now.
Some of the things I often see, certainly when we’re recruiting senior people, which we’ve done a lot of over recent years and months, is this: it’s a big, big change coming out of one business into another business, regardless of what that business is. You don’t want to be thinking “I wish I’d taken that opportunity when it was presented to me” so go with your gut. If it feels right, I would do it, because tax professionals are highly sought after.
It’s not as risky as it might seem. That’s the only regret I can imagine. I was offered more money to go elsewhere numerous times. I would have regretted making that decision to leave. I went with my gut that this was the right place for me, and it’s proven to be the case, so that’s how I look at it.
That’s great advice. What do you think will be the biggest challenges facing tax professionals over the next decade?
I think a decade’s a long time to look at. You’re really struggling to go that far out. I think there’s a journey, or a direction of travel at the moment and technology plays a part of that. So, I think where we see a lot of firms at the moment will say they’ve got technology solutions. I’m not convinced they’ve got technology solutions to the extent they claim to have them.
We can all claim we’ve got technology solutions. We’ve all got some but aren’t, at this stage, replacing the human input, I don’t think. But technology is coming and it’s coming very quickly. Automation and AI will play a key role in how tax is done, certainly over the next three, four, five years. So, against the backdrop of that, I think it’s about the challenges – how do we differentiate as a business, as a tax practice from all of our competitors? Because some of the more routine work that is done, will be automated. So, you have to have something else that you go into.
If we want to win work from any business, we’ve got to have something that says, “why us?” instead of all our competitors that may go and do the same thing. That comes down to our people, what we offer and finding something unique that our competitors can’t. It will come down to our ability to build deep and trusted relationships. Most businesses will say they have deep and trusted relationships, but I’d ask the question: have they really? Or is there something more they should be giving? You know, doing something the client’s not expecting you to do. How often do people actually do that?
I try and do something that they don’t expect us to do, and really, you know, get them thinking about it and give them an exceptional experience. The biggest challenge can be how we differentiate from all of our competitors. Automation’s going to be here and part of our lives, it already is. So, yeah, we need to be unique and offer something different.
Why would you recommend working at Cooper Parry to a good quality tax professional? What do you think makes it a great place to work in, in tax?
Okay. So I could give you the sort of boring stuff that everybody could share now, but actually, I’ll start with something different to that. As a business, we’re multi award-winning. And those awards aren’t just UK awards – we’ve got world-wide recognition. We’ve got European recognition. So, global, European, national, regional. We’ve won awards for our specialist teams, so audit, tax, CF, wealth and IT have all won awards for what they do. But the real thing we’ve got that makes us different is our culture and our culture trumps strategy philosophy on life.
We believe it’s really important that our people have the downtime to recover properly. We want them operating to the highest possible performance. We want to give them the best possibility of growing their careers. You can sum it up really, the Cooper Parry DNA. It’s to disrupt the industry we’re in and smash every accountancy stereotype to smithereens. It’s to lead the way in everything we do, and ultimately, it’s to make life count for our people, our clients and our local communities. That’s what we’re all about. That’s the DNA of Cooper Parry, whether it’s our award-winning offices which have had national recognition, our award-winning culture, our technical expertise, our career development. It’s all of those, but ultimately, culture is the key part of what we do.
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