The Big Interview: Chiene + Tait managing partner Carol Flockhart

'Its continually like a new job that youve got all the time,' Flockhart says of her role. Picture: Neil Hanna.
'Its continually like a new job that youve got all the time,' Flockhart says of her role. Picture: Neil Hanna.
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A keen film fan, Carol Flockhart’s CV includes a spell as a board member of the Centre for the Moving Image, which incorporates the Edinburgh International Film Festival and the city’s Filmhouse cinema – and gave her access to glittering red carpet premieres.

But she has a major starring role of her own as managing partner of business adviser and accountant Chiene + Tait (C+T), which was formed in 1885 when George Chiene Jnr appointed James Tait as a partner in his firm.

Flockhart in 2018 was the recipient of the services to accountancy and finance award at the Scottish Womens Awards. Picture: Nick Callaghan Photography.

Flockhart in 2018 was the recipient of the services to accountancy and finance award at the Scottish Womens Awards. Picture: Nick Callaghan Photography.

The firm, headquartered on Edinburgh’s Dublin Street, says that since then it has remained a “fixture of the Edinburgh and Scottish accountancy sector”, offering a corporate service in addition to private client work.

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Its client base of both individuals and organisations includes estates, start-ups, large firms and charities, reaching from “the remotest Highlands to the densest urban jungle” – backed by an office network extending to Inverness, Glasgow and London. Flockhart took on her current role in 2016, after become partner in 2011, and having started her accountancy career at the business as a trainee in 1994.

As for her route into the profession, she states: “At school, history was my thing, which I loved – I had a real passion for it – but I thought ‘actually, what am I going to do for my career’, so I thought the sensible option would be business studies and accounting at university.”

She retains a real enthusiasm for history, but thinks that her choice of degree course – at the University of Edinburgh – was a good way to go. Also boosting her interest in business in her school years was taking part in the Young Enterprise scheme that gave some insight into entrepreneurship.

Grounding

Decades later, she says C+T now tells its trainees that it provides “a good all-round grounding of business, you learn good core accounting skills, but you get great exposure to a huge variety of different types of business and charities and all sorts of sectors and sizes”.

Her duties entail leading the firm’s administrative and operational activities as well as its payroll arm.

Managing all of this is a constant juggling act, she admits, stressing that she works very closely with the firm’s other senior executives – in a very “collegiate” approach. She adds: “It’s really exciting being involved in all those functions. I think when you become an accountant, you don’t realise that in your future career how much that you do is not accounting,” adding she has enjoyed “huge” variety over her 25-plus years in the field.

“It’s constantly evolving… it’s not been like the same job at all [for me], it’s continually like a new job that you’ve got all the time.”

As for the business’ activities, she states: “We’ve got quite a mixed client base at Chiene + Tait, but certainly on the whole, entrepreneurial, fast-growing businesses.” These include some new starts, but beyond that those that have perhaps had a first round of funding and are looking to develop and progress to the next level.

C+T helps out with tax, working with the business and those investing in it, and finding ways to raise extra funds.

“Our corporate finance team are very active – so it’s a very exciting area for us to really get to know the different businesses, especially in the technology sector. We do a lot on that side, and you’re able to really make a difference to those businesses. You can see the potential in them, and through our advice how they can really grow and ultimately, if they’re looking to exit.

“But that’s both from a tax side, a fundraising side and on the accounting side… we very much become part of the business.”

Advice

She also says it’s crucial that firms receive the right advice early on in their journey. “It’s all about forward planning on things and taking a proactive approach with businesses, rather than leaving things too late or on a very reactive basis.”

Supporting entrepreneurs generally is key for C+T, says Flockhart, with female entrepreneurship in particular also a priority. “That’s been an area that has been very important to us.” Of its 13 partners, six are female while its director group has a near-equal gender balance. Additionally, a director was promoted to partner while on maternity leave.

C+T certainly seems to be bucking the trend among its peers in the representation of women at partner level. Research published in October by the Financial Reporting Council found that just 17 per cent of women at audit and accountancy firms rise to partner level roles – while the figure was even lower, at 11 per cent, at smaller firms.

Flockhart is also C+T’s first female managing partner, and in 2018 was the recipient of the services to accountancy and finance award at the Scottish Women’s Awards. “There are very few awards, in my area anyway, for individuals – so I certainly got a lot of personal satisfaction from that,” she says.

Other winners that year included iProspect’s Anneli Ritari-Stewart, named managing director of the year, while Debbie Crosbie – then of Clydesdale Bank and now TSB chief executive – was corporate leader of the year.

Additionally, C+T in November announced that former Scottish Enterprise CEO Lena Wilson was becoming its new chair.

Flockhart at the time described the new arrival as “one of the most respected and accomplished business figures in Scotland”, and said the appointment “highlights our firm’s ambition, and reflects the significant success and growth we’ve seen in recent years”.

To highlight one example, C+T earlier this month revealed that its expanding ­corporate finance team marked its third birthday by exceeding the £200 million threshold in deal values.

Deals

The department, formed in October 2016 when Paul Mason joined the firm as partner, has now completed 20-plus significant deals since its inception. Its work included helping digital ­marketing agency QueryClick on its £2m equity investment led by Edinburgh-based Archangels, with the latter saying it is the oldest continuously operating business angel syndicate globally.

In terms of C+T broadening its office footprint, it said in the summer of 2017 that it was expanding into Glasgow following a period of “significant growth” – and amid an upturn in demand for corporate finance services. It had set up shop in Inverness the previous year, on the back of a robust client base in the North-east, and where it has since moved to larger premises. “It’s been working well,” Flockhart says.

The firm is also operating amid the rapid onslaught of technology in its own sector – and beyond.

Flockhart says this can enable a more efficient process for some of its compliance functions. “It means that then more of the focus is on the advisory side and that’s what clients are looking for. They’re looking for us to provide them with the advice to help them run their business for them to be a success, so technology actually allows us to do that more easily.

“There’s no denying in the accountancy profession there’s a huge amount of change on this side.

“And there are those that are not seeing it as an opportunity – but we very much are doing. We are all completely bought into the whole ‘technology is a good thing and change is a good thing’ [idea].”

Innovation

One pressure point she does highlight is recruiting in its payroll function, for example, which has encouraged the hiring of school leavers – and Flockhart welcomes the perspective they bring as C+T looks to encourage ideas and innovation.

“They’ve got fresh ideas, different ways of working, so it’s been good for us as a firm as well. It’s up to us to be on the front foot with clients. And actually be very proactive with our advice because in the accountancy profession, you’ve got to be at the cutting edge of what you’re doing. And it’s the same with our clients… we have to be there at the forefront to help advise them.”

That said, the Scottish accountancy firm has enjoyed an “exciting” growth curve over the past three years – during which turnover has grown by almost 50 per cent – and it has grown staff to about 150, up by about 40 over the last three years, with almost a third of the current total trainees. “We are continuing to grow the business. But I think the important thing, priority-wise, is to grow [it] in a managed way.”

She also stresses that growth to date and for the foreseeable future is organic. Its independence, and the opportunities that brings, is also key.

“I think it allows us to be very agile, very nimble. We’re the masters of our own destinies. The size of the firm [means] we can make decisions very quickly – both at a strategic and an operational level, so we can actually really develop and progress because we are independent. And that’s very important to us.

“We feel as though we’re innovative and forward-thinking and very driven in what we’re doing.”