Tell me about your background and how/why you became CEO at GovGrant?
I dropped out of university after deciding law wasn’t for me (I was in my second year of a law degree at UEA) but realised I was far more focused on commerce and I wanted to get into business development. I picked up a local part time job with an insurance broker called Aon. I’d never heard of them before, but the 4-week part time job turned into ten years.
Aon was a fantastic experience. My first role was working on professional indemnity insurance for the accounting sector; how to make it easier for the client, to improve AON’s market position and grow product sales. From there it was an easy next step into product development and improving our propositions – what’s new, where to play and how to make it pay.
I then moved from on-the-ground sales to product development, and stretched across into the SME world and also private clients. I wanted to know how to grow, and how to do growth differently. Innovation – in both thought and action - was where I hung my hat. I wanted to grow my network and ensure people saw me as someone to turn to if they wanted to think about things differently. I had the confidence to put random ideas on the table and the determination to get them on the agenda.
I moved into senior management and my final role as sales and partnerships director, helping AON’s larger clients and building potential partnerships around distribution. I wanted to make sure our propositions work really well, and answer the question; How do we look, feel and sound different? I was parachuted into other teams that needed similar help, such as sports (including premier league football clubs) and entertainment.
So what made you jump?
A mentor and old friend said to me: ‘You’re at an age where the next step is important. You can move a different house but have the same job or make a change and test yourself in a different market.’
I realised that my ambition was to work with businesses where they want to do something different and push on or go through change. I loved AON but I’m emphatically not a BAU man.
GovGrant came up – quite by chance – and the fact that PE had invested in the business was also highly appealing. I took the plunge, went for my one and only interview, and got the job. GovGrant just ticked all the boxes. It was a big risk as I was well set up at Aon but this was a risk worth taking.
GovGrant is a fantastic business. It had [and still has] two owners with huge passion who I could learn a lot from, a terrific team, a platform into PE and the opportunity to lead a dynamic business through the next level of growth. I was taking on a typical entrepreneurial business and wanting to punch at the weight of a KPMG. I wanted to keep the spirit and put the polish on it. Entrepreneurial spirit and culture are precious assets.
What is your vision for the business?
I’ve been here for 18 months, and I have three overriding thoughts
- Innovation is at the heart of our industrial strategy in the UK and SMEs are a big chunk of that. We need to make it work better.
- The professional services sector is going through huge change, and it’s our role to help effect that change successfully and make professional services
more palatable to our clients. I don’t want SMEs to assume that professional services businesses, like us, are just a cost, rather I want us to
be a partner, ally and counsellor, standing side by side with our clients and sharing in their growth.
- We want to help other professional services go along that journey too because the changes, driven largely by technology, are inevitable.
I’ve brought my skills learned at Aon to GovGrant. Every one of our clients is thinking about how they can improve and grow and push forward. It’s not just about pleasing the shareholders, it’s about working out the right thing to do.
Being a better business and making a positive contribution is a divine cause for many of our SME clients, and their success underpins our economy. We need to help them drive that experience into government, and policy, using our asset - the ability to be creative – and ensuring clients can readily access our expertise.
What makes GovGrant different (and better) than competitors?
We aren’t accountants or tax advisers. There are plenty of excellent accountants and we don’t want to compete with them. Rather we want to stand with them and make sure they are comfortable bringing the subject of tax credits and innovation to their clients.
Technical resource is a major source of our value to the market, and we can work with accountants, bringing our expertise to help them, firstly to unlock their clients’ innovation and then commercialise it.
The support for R&D by government through the tax system is a fantastic mechanism; it’s the most successful Government investment in innovation. But we need to look at it holistically. Clients need to think about IP in the round, not just as an add-on to the strategy, but putting it at the heart of strategy and – with our help – understanding how to commercialise it. R&D is not a one-off, it’s about making full use of the innovation lifecycle.
What I mean is that R&D shouldn’t just happen once. Some of our competitors sell their services much like a PPI-claims organisation. Of course, there is a claims process, but we think it’s more important to focus on the strategic purpose of R&D; it’s not about getting money now, like a PPI claim, but driving innovation into the fabric of business.
How will GovGrant be able to help firms that are increasingly part of the digital world?
The digitisation of the professional services sector is accelerating. Our value is to provide the tools and assets, increasingly via digital platforms, to allow our partners to recognise which clients to talk to and how we can help.
Digital providers, like Xero, enable accountants to have a deeper conversation than just doing the tax return. We need to take our lead from Xero, work alongside them, be led by them and work out how we can bring our expertise to their platform and engage their clients, so that our services can be accessed
Is there a role for tax credit specialists like GovGrant in the emerging digital world?
I’d love some of our services to be digital and commoditised, as it massively increases our access to the addressable market. But quantifying what R&D is, is still a struggle because intangible assets are not easily valued. It’s ironic that as our economy tilts ever more towards being knowledge-based, we still don’t know how to value it in a way that is clear on a balance sheet.
Whatever the future for digital, business still needs a pair of eyes and the experience to walk in and ask the right questions: ‘What do you do, how you do it and what keeps you awake at night?’ No amount of software can do this. There is stuff you can do digitally, and we want to maximise GovGrant’s digital capability. But software won’t challenge business leaders’ assumptions or conclusions. We are investing in digital – it’s vital - but we still see as much value in challenging the client face to face.
Why are you so keen on fostering partnerships with accountancy firms?
Every piece of research says that accountants are the number one trusted advisers to businesses and for good reason, but they are at risk as more and more core services go down the digital road, so reducing their share of the value chain. Their role needs to evolve to become advisory. A good accountant is the local person who gives their client good advice.
I want to make us, GovGrant, available to accountants as a team to build the breadth of expert resource available to their clients on a day-to-day basis. We are the guys who can help you here, but we fundamentally understand that accountants are the people who influence the relationship. We want to make sure that – in partnership with accountancy firms - every business that could claim is claiming.
We need to empower accountants to help their clients find the incentives and claim. 80% of businesses that could claim don’t, and reversing that 80/20 rule is the accountant’s role. We can help.
What can we expect to see from GovGrant during the next twelve months?
During the next 12 months we’re looking to push forward in AI and robotics, food and drink, fintech, insuretech and green energy sector. These are our high growth markets.
But we’re not forgetting our current clients, on the contrary, we’re taking our IP message to our current clients to encourage them to maximise their IP strategically and practically.
If you were Chancellor, what would you do to assist business in the Autumn Budget, both at a macro level and a micro level?
At a macro level, the UK needs to be punchy. In voting for Brexit we’ve upped the competitive ante, because the EU is now a competitor for inward investment. Making the UK the destination of choice for global business is a priority. It has to be more than tax breaks. When big tech companies like Google or Amazon domicile here it grabs the headlines but those big companies also encourage hundreds of others to set up as suppliers, and those others need support and protection too.
There is also a need for responsible business behaviour. Carillion’s collapse is a harsh reminder how recklessness and lack of governance by one company has ramifications for hundreds of subcontractors, and services which the public relies upon. We are nowhere near the end of the Carillion pain cycle, and our economy can ill afford another big outsourcing collapse.
At a micro level, we need to prioritise innovation and industrial strategy. The government’s industrial strategy has its heart in the right place, but it’s so unambitious. Aiming for 2.4% of GDP invested in R&D by 2027 is mediocre; that’s where Germany is today.
The incentives around protecting IP (intellectual property) need an overhaul. The UK needs to protect our IP. At the moment an SME gets a patent granted by the government, but a raider comes in to grab it and the SME hasn’t the firepower to fight it off. The UK Govt needs to do more to protect patents and help the SME sector defend its patents, perhaps by underwriting litigation risk?
The current system of grants doesn’t work. Innovate UK has done a job on grants, but the system needs to be de-mystified. Ministers must make sure it is a game for everyone. Patents shouldn’t be an elitist competition, so I urge the government to democratise the tax reliefs to make sure all patents get recognition.
Luke’s quick fire round
Big business or SME - SME
Saturday night in or Saturday night out - In
Online media or newspaper - Newspaper
Caravan or Tent – Caravan
TOWIE or Made in Chelsea – Prefer a powercut
Football or Cricket – Footie (Spurs fan)
Favourite gadget – My newly installed digital shower