How do you like your porridge?

“Don’t take life too seriously – it’s not as if you’re going to get out alive.” Signs on the office wall leave visitors under no illusions about the nature of the people they’re dealing with.
They do things differently at accounting practice Gilligan Sheppard. Take the Partner who roams the corridors in his bath towel. Or the accountant who was promoted for moonlighting. Or the manager who takes 20 minute afternoon naps on a recreation room beanbag. Or the 100 year-old grande dame who, until her dying day, was driven in from her home to do the filing.
You get the feeling that you’ve walked in on a close-knit and slightly loopy family. Managing Partner and NZ business maverick Bruce Sheppard is legendary for wearing his heart on his sleeve but he puts his shopping list there too. There aren’t many managing Partners of firms anywhere who would walk into an interview with Post-It notes saying “remember the bloody milk” stuck to their shirts.
But make no mistake. Despite the quirky air this is a successful business that is deadly serious not only about its business and its client relationships, but also about the future.
Another sign warns readers that “even though you are on the right track you will get run over if you just sit there”.
It’s appropriate because the company has a track record of innovation. Outsourcing compliance work to India. The introduction of auditing insurance. The appointment of Yi Ping Ge as the first and only female Chinese Partner in any Auckland accountancy practice. And now, a restructuring which has seen the medium-sized practice of just 26 people split into two distinct groups; one dealing with compliance work and the other dealing with value-added services such as acquisitions, mergers, restructuring and investment advice.
The compliance unit, Business Advisory Services, or BAS for short, is the foundation of the business. It’s the part which makes the Value-Added Services, or VAS, bit possible. Sheppard likens the role of the two units to those of a vineyard and a winery. The vineyard produces the core product – the grapes. The winery then develops the label, the legend, the cellar door and the restaurant, creating the additional cachet which adds value to the core product.
In typical blunt, outspoken Gilligan Sheppard style, Greg Rathbun, retired partner who now consults, scoffs at this.
“That’s bollocks. We’re not some poncey winery. We’re more like a bunch of hunter-gatherer cave dwellers. There’s a group of us who sit in the cave (a fairly luxurious cave, situated directly above Smith & Caughey in Auckland’s Queen Street) and make it a functioning base while a second group heads out into the wilderness to nobble a brontosaurus and bring it back for the homely ones to cook.”
Whichever analogy you like best, the fact is that the one group can’t function without the other.
Personality plays a huge part in deciding which part of the business Gilligan Sheppard employees are best suited to. Those who enjoy client-facing roles gravitate to the VAS side of the business. While those who feel most comfortable in the office, crunching the numbers, tend to prefer the BAS camp.
While BAS is the bedrock on which the organisation rests it’s not where the future of accountancy services lies, says Sheppard.
“Developments in software solutions means compliance and everyday accounting services are being commoditised before our eyes,” he said. “It’s not a land of golden opportunity.”
VAS is Gilligan Sheppard’s early-adopter response to this global trend in the accounting industry. It’s the first New Zealand mid-tier accountancy business to structure itself this way.
“Unless you’re out there developing relationships with your clients and learning about their businesses and their needs you’re going to be replaced by a software developer,” Rathbun said. “Our VAS team is less about differentiating us than about ensuring we’re in good shape to grow.”
So Gilligan Sheppard staff are trusted absolutely with client relationships and encouraged to get out and work them, another example of innovation in an industry where these relationships typically are guarded fiercely and jealously by a select few.
The company philosophy demands professionalism and expertise but apart from that most bets are off. Dress in whatever way you feel comfortable and, most importantly, your clients will be comfortable with. Work where you want, when you want. And you’ve got immense freedom to make mistakes as long as you’re honest about them and fix them.
It’s a distinctive culture in the traditionally ‘dry balls’ CA sector. And it’s an approach that is incredibly polarising. People either fit in here and immediately feel like they’ve been here forever. Or they feel incredibly uncomfortable and they’re off before they’ve had a chance to warm their seats.
The Partners are unapologetic. “Life’s too short to feel constricted and out of place at work. Here we work to live. Not the other way around,” Ashby says.
Recent newcomer Maria Yu agrees. She relishes the feeling of autonomy and self-motivation at Gilligan Sheppard. “It’s about trust. Our client relationships aren’t built on need. Or legislation. Or formalities. They’re grounded in informality. And trust.”
Long-standing staffer Joanne Turner of the BAS team says trust is the hallmark of the Gilligan Sheppard offering. “Our clients trust us in a way that more conventional CAs will never be trusted. That’s why clients will meet Bruce in his bright orange t-shirt and his ripped shorts. Because they appreciate his honesty, knowledge and skill. The way he dresses – that’s just the wrapping. They know the real value lies inside.”
Part of this trust is based on the fact that Gilligan Sheppard advisors pride themselves on being more brutally honest than competitors.
“We’re very cynical as a group,” says director Marian Garlick. “But it’s honest cynicism. You’ll get no fence-sitting with us; you will never be under any illusion about how we feel about an idea or a proposal.”
To the extent that if Gilligan Sheppard endorses an investment decision it, too, will invest along with its client. “That way, we’re eating the same porridge,” Sheppard says. “And if there’s grit in the porridge we’ll be breaking our teeth on it too.”
This, then, is the Gilligan Sheppard offering. A bowl of porridge. And, like Baby Bear’s porridge, it’ll be just right. Because they’ll know exactly how you like it.

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