20. 05. 2024

What employers hiring accountants for small businesses need to consider

What employers hiring accountants for small businesses need to consider

An accountant is a key hire for SMEs. Here’s how to choose the right person with the right skills.

When creating and growing a small or medium-sized business (SME), one of the key appointments you make will be your accountant. That’s because accountants have many responsibilities beyond keeping financial records accurate and complying with tax law. They also help with financial planning and budgeting, use data to make business decisions and ensure the business follows important regulations – and much more.

This article looks at how to choose the right person for the job and what skills they need to bring with them.

What qualities should an SME look out for when hiring?

Initially, an SME may not need to recruit an extremely highly qualified accountant, especially if the business is relatively small. Instead, it would be a priority to find someone with strong skills in bookkeeping, payroll and tax, and an ability to communicate well and fit in with a small team.

If you are running a start-up or small company, your accountant will need to be comfortable with taking on a variety of roles and responsibilities and be able to explain financial and accounting concepts to non-financial employees.

“Having a bookkeeper in-house helps with compliance and provides a real-time snapshot of your current finances,” says Warren Mead, CEO of Sumer, a leading mid-market accountancy practice.

“An experienced accountant will perform audits, prepare taxes and provide forecasts and strategic advice to the business owner,” he says. These skills are more necessary at a slightly larger firm.

“Who you look for would depend on a few areas. You’d look at your company size, your existing team, what external support you already have, the business strategy, growth ambitions, and, of course, the budget you have available for this recruit.”

Sector-specific skills

“Different sectors require different skill sets. A security firm might seek skills for tracking contract profitability and labour costs. A printing business may need a finance technician to understand tax incentives for equipment investments, and printing job cost structures,” says Mead.

Depending on the type of company you are running, you may need to recruit someone with knowledge of your industry. For example, if you are operating in a specialised or niche industry you will require an accountant with expertise in that area. However, a career changer can also bring valuable communication skills.

For example, in his ten-year career in hospitality, Jack Bennett learnt a lot about customer service, operational complexity, effective communication and working under pressure. After studying for his AAT qualifications, Jack now works as Finance Assistant at Pobl Housing Association, a large provider of social housing, care homes and rented housing stock in Wales.

SME growth expectations and market aspirations

When thinking about hiring new members of staff for the finance function it is important to consider your company prospects, how quickly you hope to grow it and your aspirations. This will dictate the type of recruit and the skills they will need to have so that they can grow with the business.

If you are operating on a tight budget or are funding the start-up yourself, you will need to think about what level of experience you can afford when recruiting an accountant and ensure that their pay level is compatible with other team members.

For example, technical competence and adaptability are crucial skills in a small team as you balance day-to-day demands with the unexpected challenges that are encountered in a high-growth company, says Amanda McCulloch, chief executive at TMM Recruitment.

“In a small business each member of the team juggles multiple responsibilities so for a management-level appointment, hire someone who can support the day-to-day. Possibly that person should have prior experience in a similar environment because there’s an appreciation for how resources are managed,” she says. “Over time this may grow into a requirement for a Financial Controller with transactional line reports.”

Will you need help with strategy and data insights?

The software now available means that even small companies can gain valuable insights around cash flow, forecasting and market share.

“When I consider hiring new recruits for the finance function in a small business, my focus is not solely on traditional accounting qualifications,” says Peter Wood, Chief Technical Officer at Spectrum Search.

“Instead, I emphasise the importance of digital literacy and strategic insight. In the current business landscape, an accountant’s ability to leverage technology effectively is as crucial as their fundamental financial skills. This means a candidate’s familiarity with cloud-based accounting tools and their readiness to adopt new technologies are key indicators of their potential to contribute significantly to the business.”

Why is the role of technology important in recruitment?

Cloud based technology and AI are both growing rapidly and changing the role of accountants to be more strategic. Employers will need to bear this in mind when thinking about who to recruit. Accountants with technology skills are likely to command higher salaries and they will expect a firm to have invested in new software to future-proof the business.

“If technology talent is not high on the priority list for small companies looking to hire accounting and finance staff, then it should be,” says Neil Parsons, Managing Director, Wolters Kluwer Tax & Accounting UK.

Not only will you need to find a recruit who understands technology in order to drive your business forward, but your company will be less attractive to new recruits, especially digital natives, if you are using outdated or legacy systems.

“If small businesses don’t consider transforming their finance tools and processes, then there is also the danger that they won’t be able to attract the top talent in the first place,” says Sarah-Jayne Martin, Director, ICA Global AR Practice at Quadient. “The last thing a new finance recruit wants is to join a small business that lacks the actual technology or processes to enable them to do their job well.”

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