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Our latest news articles...

The customer is king – but don’t forget the staff

This is the latest of a series of articles from Stringer Mallard the Harrogate Accountants, aimed at offering first class business advice to our readers.

One of the biggest movements in business theory over the last few years has been the move towards customer focus. It’s been a huge sea change and companies now understand more than ever the value of centring their service on the customer.

Unfortunately in amongst this policy shift many businesses seem to have forgotten a key constituent of their business model – the staff.

In Western economies there has certainly been a move towards a flexible approach to staffing with the introduction of zero hours working and less investment in education and training. To a great extent this has led to a very mobile workforce, which in some ways is a very useful facet for companies that need to increase and reduce staff regularly.

However what we find more than ever is that the quality and engagement of the employee can be the difference between a great customer experience and a poor one.

We’ve all had the experience of interacting with an employee of a business who displays a particularly bad attitude. Whilst the employee concerned may be a one off or ‘bad apple’ there’s no doubt that customers form their opinion of a company, not by the quality of the CEO but based on the brusqueness of the waiter that serves their lunch or the unhelpful attitude of the ticket office staff.

Employee engagement isn’t just important for service industries though.

True innovation on any scale can only be achieved through the efforts of a committed workforce.

Many of the recent success stories featuring high growth, innovative companies also feature in the Sunday Times listings of the best places to work for and often these will be non-service industries such as construction, legal and non-customer facing firms.

Although keeping staff happy may seem like a woolly ‘nice to have’ option in fact it makes sound commercial sense too.

A high staff turnover is not only demoralising but can also prove expensive. The cost of recruiting and training new staff can be prohibitive but the unseen cost of lower productivity can also be massive.

Similarly losing excellent staff to a competitor who values their workforce can only be negative for a forward thinking and progressive company and once a business gains a reputation as a poor employer then attracting top talent becomes even harder to achieve.

We can see then that committed, engaged and happy employees can provide significant competitive advantage for a modern and forward thinking company.

What to do about it

The first piece of advice is to ask the staff what they think.

Ironically one of the cheapest methods of promoting staff engagement is also one of the most effective. Research shows that a business that asks the opinion of their staff and act upon it experience a more committed workforce.

A good staff survey will not only show colleagues that the company is interested in their opinion but will also give executives a shopping list of things that they need to improve in the company.

It is also noticeable that the companies that show the most engaged workforce are generally centred around a shared goal. The sense of mission and belonging engendered when everyone understand what they are working towards and that their contribution is valuable is surprisingly powerful and has the added benefit that it tends to make the business more efficient.

One thing that is shown not to improve employee relations is simply paying more money. In fact surveys show time and again that salaries, whilst important tend to rank far below other factors. Buying in staff can leave the company vulnerable too as employees that stay for money are just as likely to leave for better pay from an aggressive competitor.

It’s important to stay abreast of the latest trends in employment practice. A good place to start is the Sunday Times ‘100 best companies to work for’. This lists the businesses with the happiest workforces and gives a short description of what each company does. Without doubt there are helpful lessons contained within this survey that managers can use in their own companies.

A final tip for executives that want to improve engagement with staff is the not only the most effective but is also free.

Say “thank you”.

The one key example of a method that promotes good feeling within the company is the practice of acknowledging the good work and efforts of those involved.

It is true that the business may choose to spend money in schemes such as employee of the month and annual awards ceremonies but actually the daily practice of managers saying thank you for the efforts of their staff tends to ingrain a feeling that the company does genuinely value them and appreciates what they do.

In conclusion then we can see that employees are the lifeblood of a business and keeping them committed and engaged means that the company gains not only from a financial standpoint but also in terms of energy and innovation.

We can also see that engagement isn’t a matter of simply paying the most money but more an attitude of mind and valuing what people do and the effort that they put in. Doing this in turn tends to cost the firm little but provides great benefits for the future.

Budget not working out? Here are the three things you should check

Some time ago you set your budget up. It was based on your best guess as to how thing would look in the future but now things don’t look right.

Maybe sales aren’t where they should be or net profit looks different.

If you are new to budgeting or it’s not an area you feel confident about then working out why these differences (or variances) have occurred can be a bit of a daunting prospect.

It may come as a surprise though to find out that there are just three key areas you need to think about to help narrow down your variances and find out why your actual results look different to the original budget.

Volume

This is perhaps the easiest are to check. What you are looking for here is the amount of an activity.

So for example let’s imagine you have a difference in the amount of money you have spent on fuel.

There are two types of volume you could look at here. Firstly have you bought more fuel? The simple answer could just be that you’ve spent more money simply because you’ve purchased more litres than expected.

Secondly the activity that causes the use of fuel is miles driven. So have your delivery vehicles or your passenger coaches driven more miles? More miles equal more fuel.

Volume variances aren’t confined to expenses though. For instance, you could have simply made less sales, or produced less chairs, or sold less meals.

Whatever area your business operates in the first place to look is the volume of transactions in whatever part of the accounts you are seeing a variance in.

Usage

Usage might seem similar to volume, especially if we take our transport example as above.

Just knowing that you’ve spent more on fuel is only part of the solution. The next question we need to ask is whether you’ve used more fuel.

So taking the example a step further, let’s imagine that you’ve looked at the figures and found that you’ve spent more on fuel; you need to know why.

The question then is what the driver of fuel usage is doing. You look at the stats and find out that the vehicles haven’t covered more miles. Therefore we can say that the cause of the variance is (at least in part) down to usage.

You’ve used more of something to do exactly the same as you expected.

Looking at other industries, if you think of a florist who knows they’ll need to use 4 large wraps of flowers to produce 10 bouquets, but finds that they’ve used 5 wraps in total, then they’ll need to look at the amount of flowers they are using for each design rather than the cost or amount they have produced.

Think about the items you are looking at; did you use more materials or spend more time producing exactly the same?

Price

The third key area is that of price.

It may seem obvious but checking the price that you paid for something is also a prime driver of variances.

Using our example once again, if the vehicles have covered the same amount of miles (volume) and used the same amount of fuel to do so (usage) then the final aspect has to be the price paid per litre.

Again our florist will look at the price paid for the flowers; did each wrap cost what we expected it to? Or our chef will need to think about the cost of her ingredients.

Putting it together

Real life of course isn’t as simple as theory and what businesses will find is that in fact a variance can often be made up of a series of things that combine to make the whole.

If you think about fuel prices over the last year then we can see that the price is exceptionally volatile and most industries will have an example of a raw material or service that they buy that fluctuates.

There can be factors that cause a vehicle to use more fuel such as heavier loads or poor maintenance.

In the same vein, selling more goods or selling to customers over a wider area will cause the vehicles to drive more miles.

Consequently our variance could well be caused by a series of factors that may be totally independent of one another. In other words the whole variance could be made up of a combination of price, volume and usage.

Just a word of caution though. Just because you haven’t got a variance doesn’t mean that everything is OK.

Think about a cafe that produces meals that has a zero variance at the net profit level. If they delve into the detail what they’ll see is that there has been a seasonal reduction in ingredient prices which has been countered by an increase in the amount that the chefs have been using in preparing the meals.

The problem is that the seasonal variation will correct itself and food prices will increase, so if they don’t take action on portion sizes then they can expect to start to lose money in the future.

Summary

Variance analysis sounds like it should be complicated but actually it is simply a matter of analysing three basic components that will identify where the problem lies.

Conducting regular and methodical variance analysis will help you get a grip on what is actually happening to the money in your business and should identify areas where you can make changes for the better.

For business accountancy and tax advice please call Stringer Mallard on 01423 701234

 

 

 

The Leicester City effect – how can it help your business?

Whether you are a football fan or not you can’t possibly have escaped the news that Leicester City have become champions of the English Premier league.

This was a newsworthy feat because the club was widely tipped to be relegated after a difficult last season, had appointed a manager who had done badly in his last job and didn’t have the huge amounts of money at their disposal that their competitors had.

With all those factors in mind it was unsurprising that throughout the season the pundits spent a great deal of time talking down Leicester’s chances and trying to decide which of the ‘real’ contenders would win.

For football clubs specifically and sports teams in general the example of Leicester City provides a welcome boost to morale in that it shows that money doesn’t necessarily buy success, but there are some really useful lessons that business can take from  the story.

The first lesson is that the club worked as a team. From the chairman of the board and the owners, to the manager, players and backroom staff, everyone was focused around the mission. So often we hear about clubs that have divides between the different departments and if you’ve experienced this in a business you’ve worked at then you’ll know how disruptive it is. Having several different areas of the business pulling in different directions means that there is no way the company can perform at its best.

Effective firms choose their mission, align their strategy and then get everyone on board working towards the one aim. Ineffective companies allow departments to almost run wild and pursue their own agendas.

The second lesson we can take from the Leicester City story is that stars are not only not necessarily needed, but they can sometimes be disruptive. Although there are some members of the team who have garnered a bit more attention than others, the club hasn’t made what could be called ‘marquee signings’. In fact many of the players have been described as cast offs with their careers meeting dead ends before ending up with the club.

It’s often the case that Finance Directors can be heard bemoaning the fact that they don’t have a highly trained, big four accountant on the team, or that the MD wishes he had a raft of MBAs working in the business.

Most companies do not need a big four accountant. A well established and knowledgeable business such as Stringer Mallard in Harrogate, will offer a far more personal and affordable approach.

 

Training is important, as is experience but the truth is that if the person doesn’t feel a real affinity with the business then their work will almost be by rote and isn’t likely to be stellar. It’s also a fact that talent bought in by a big pay package is just as likely to be bought out by another company, meaning that the sense of continuity is lost.

Great businesses know that well trained staff are important, but not as important as employees who care. An engaged workforce will perform at a level that is greater than the sum of its parts, a workforce that feels no sense of ownership or belonging will produce poor results.

Listening to your customers is important. Letting them know what you are trying to achieve, getting them on board and having a real customer focus means that you are able to leverage their knowledge and experience to produce a better result than if the firm simply produced goods and launched them onto an unsuspecting market.

Leicester City have looked to their fans to understand what is important in their business and market. From the match day ‘experience’ to the stock in the club shop they have tailored their offering to provide what is valued and enjoyed by their customers. Buying each fan a beer and a doughnut on the owner’s birthday certainly helped of course!

The result has been the club has had sell out attendances all season, an empty club shop and a growing global footprint with their reach extending to the lucrative Asian markets.

Adopting a customer focus means that the business spends time listening to their customer base and understands how they are able to add real value to their offering. It also means that the whole workforce is tasked with ensuring that the customer is put at the heart of what the business does.

The final aspect to highlight is the attitude of the man at the top. Claudio Ranieri is an experienced manager who has seen good times and bad.  As already stated pundits spent the season talking down the likelihood of Leicester City winning the title whilst the team remained in pole position. It would have been easy and indeed understandable for everyone to get excited when they won and dejected when a so called expert expressed negative thoughts.

Ranieri though kept everyone calm. When things went well he made sure that everyone focused on the next game, when things went badly he kept people motivated and focused.

Teams take their cues from the people at the top. It’s vital that executives are able to exude an air of calm and confidence, even if they don’t feel that way inside. If the MD is running around shouting and panicking then you can bet that people they report to will do the same.

What a business needs is calm and considered leadership. Echoing the Rudyard Kipling poem ‘If’, keeping your head when all about them are losing theirs is a key component of a great manager. Experienced heads have the ability to understand that things may go better or worse in the short term, but what is important is movement towards the goal.

It’s important that a company takes notice of what people are saying of course, but it is also vital to understand that no ‘expert’ is right all of the time. Listen to people’s views, take them on board but make sure they are filtered for the really important nuggets of useful information. Don’t get sidetracked by excessive negativity as it’s destructive and ultimately pointless.

As business owners we often spend time looking at our own industry for ways to help up improve our company but it’s useful to look outside our sectors to other examples of stellar performance to see how lessons can be learned and adopted for our own firms.

The question is – can you win your own premier league?