Building a successful accounting and advisory business doesn’t happen overnight. Mike Mekhitarian, founder of ATB Chartered Accountants and Business Mentors (ATB), shared some highlights of his action-packed journey in an interview with Panalitix founder Colin Dunn.
Here are some excerpts from that interview.
A Quick Summary of ATB…
From humble beginnings, Mike and his partners have built a 20-strong team with headquarters in Parramatta (near Sydney). Clients are located across Australia, including the local subsidiaries of international businesses. The client base comprises start-ups, small-medium enterprises and family businesses.
ATB helps clients ‘take control of their businesses’. A major point of differentiation is ATB’s Business Blueprinting, which has been codified into a 5-step process. It empowers business leaders to gain control of their businesses through effective budgeting, KPI monitoring and other features. Mike points out that having a unique (branded) product has helped ATB attract and succeed with clients.
Mike feels strongly that a clear message is important. “Before we joined Panalitix we had a problem explaining to people what we do. Making an impression with clients is partly in the language”.
ATB also offers a Virtual CFO service along with traditional compliance, tax and reporting.
The Early Days…
Mike recalls when the partners met frequently to talk about plans for growth. Sensing they weren’t moving ahead at the rate they wanted, they engaged a (Panalitix) coach to create accountability. They also realized there would be “no quick fix” while building the business they wanted.
On Creating Capacity
Mike is insistent that growing a business means “giving the partners more time so they have the capacity to do other things, such as strategy, hiring and dealing with key clients”. This is partly achieved by delegating to managers. Also important is appointing a Client Services Coordinator (CSC), who engages with clients so the accountant can concentrate on completing the job. The accountant still spends time with the clients but in a more focused way, for example, through quarterly strategic meetings. In fact, if done properly, accountants can ‘bounce from one meeting to the next’ adding value in the knowledge that the CSC is taking care of the details.
Over the years, ATB developed checklists to clarify client needs, improve processes and enable better service. This also improved capacity.
Another factor which has worked for ATB is offshoring certain workflow processes. Training the offshore team is critical and “you have to align the cultures of offshore and onshore teams quickly. Don’t assume everything will be fully understood in terms of language and context”, Mike explains. Members of ATB visit the offshore team on a quarterly basis for training. Communication is managed through Microsoft Teams and company-wide ‘daily huddles’.
In some cases, the offshore team is in direct contact with the offshore teams of clients.
On Building a Business Culture
ATB promotes a culture of proactivity but ‘saying and being proactive are different’. According to Mike, “we have periodic meetings to focus on business improvement and better client engagement. We always ask how we can get things done faster. Time management is key. What software could we be using? How can we manage clients better? We like to call up clients to check in. Repeating these behaviors creates a culture”.
Mike stresses the importance of ‘removing the excuses’. Nothing should get in the way of the business priorities. Being too busy is not an excuse. “What can be more important than better service for clients”?
Through their journey, ATB has maintained a ‘non-hierarchical, flat structure’ which promotes easy communication.
On Growing the Business: Marketing and Sales
ATB is an active marketer and communicates that the business comprises “real people with heart and soul doing real things. We want to reveal who we are, what we do and why we do things”.
Networking and getting active in the community are also really important.
On Advisory Work
Mike shares his philosophy as follows: “Prospering businesses, especially small-medium businesses, are good for all of us. We should aim to improve these businesses by understanding their goals and helping the owners achieve the lifestyles they want. This is the basis of our advisory service”. By staying focused on helping businesses to prosper, ATB generates both profitable and enjoyable business relationships.
Mike attributes the success of ATB’s advisory business to:
- Teamwork between the client managers and client partners “to ensure you are engaging at a strategic level with clients. Only then can you offer advice”.
- Staying close to the numbers but identifying which numbers are important.
- Classifying clients and meeting the top clients monthly with the numbers and management reports.
- Mike has used GrowthEquation to identify the important drivers in a business and simulate different outcomes. “You can play with the numbers and help clients understand their business better than ever before”.
- ATB has used other cash flow and analytical software but he stresses that software “will never be the magic bullet”. Understanding the context is important.
- Recognize that each client is different. ATB serves a venture capital firm which measures itself in terms of the number of Term Sheets issued. Another client is absolutely focused on the utilization of its hire fleet. The advisor needs to adapt and understand what drives these businesses.
- Clients may not tell you everything you need to know to help them. “You have to engage with clients to find out what is going on. Always ask ‘How can we help’”?
Running a Business in the COVID-19 World
ATB’s response was swift. “We reached out quickly and booked 30-minute meetings with all clients and ran through the options. This helped us reinforce the trust of clients who appreciated our proactivity and engaged us for more work such as government grant applications”.
Some Final Thoughts… and Advice for Accountants
Mike quotes Lao Tsu:
A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.
You need to take the first step. “Jump in, have a go!”
And “be proud of what you have achieved and the value you can add”. Accountants have a tendency to self-deprecate.
Remember “there is a difference knowing WHAT to do versus HOW to do it. So get help through coaching, mentoring and by talking to other accountants encountering the same things. Get advice and ensure you are accountable. Work with people who will challenge you and broaden your thinking”.
Mike modestly says it has taken years to get all of this right but that is part of the journey. And the journey continues… into the next phase of ATB’s growth!
Our thanks to Mike Mekhitarian for taking the time to speak with us.