Andy Eaton - International FD to owning high-growth accounting firm

“I love my work now. I learned that I am never going to retire. I’m going to be carried out in a box."

"In my previous career we were all just looking up through the branches at that dead wood in their 50s. At a certain level you just had to sit still staring up at them, waiting for them to fall off. I’m on a different path now."

Career overview:

Trained within PWC in London then moved into industry with Smith Kline Beecham as it was then.  Spent decades moving up the ranks of mostly internationally listed Pharmaceutical, FMCG and latterly engineering companies.  Started a small consultancy business selling to mostly American client-base which collapsed after the September 11 disaster.  Returned to Finance Director roles within corporates and private-equity owned businesses. 

What triggered a change?

Andy described a gradual erosion of work enjoyment over quite a few years. 

In his earlier career “I would generally move on when I realised the work was less interesting.  I realised that between 1993 and 2015 I had spent 40-60% of my time travelling globally.  In the height of the mergers and acquisitions trend, I found myself regularly scanning the newspapers to see if we were in talks to be acquired. In short, I was having less and less control over my destiny.”

“I was 49 when I finally realised that even though I had always been fairly good at securing new jobs I was sitting in front of Managing Directors in interviews and just not connecting with them.  I got feedback that I was too expensive or that I was too opinionated but I had a feeling that I was maybe too old, too grumpy and perhaps not mouldable.  

I got the sense that these MDs wanted change but they just wanted someone to make their change happen, not make the best change happen.”

A final wake-up call arrived when Andy realised that the role of the CFO had changed from commercially supporting and enabling business change to governance, share price protection and endless board presentations. 

“At the ripe old age of 49 I made a decision that I wanted something different.”

First steps?

I got out a piece of paper and a pen and wrote down absolutely every job I could do that didn’t require a qualification I didn’t already possess.  The list included publican, taxi driver, letting agent and about 30-40 bonkers job titles. 

At the bottom of the list I wrote Accountant. I didn’t love book-keeping, I’d never worked in a small business but I did know book-keeping and accounting and thought that maybe I could do it in a different way.”

“I started to research the market asking friends who had their own businesses how they did their accounts, what more they’d like, how much they pay for their services etc.”

Then I decided to go for it.  I changed my LinkedIn profile, set up a company and found my first customer. I had no idea how much to charge but we worked it out together.  I then realised that I needed to get my network moving within the right circles but totally different circles than I had operated in for all of my career.  I joined a BNI network (www.bni.co.uk) which didn’t have an accountant.  I told everyone I met what I was doing and even found a new client in my gym.  Each customer has referred new clients to me.  Now, just over 2 years later, my own client base is the main source of my new clients.”

What did you learn during that process?

“In the first year, I did a 2 day a week contract which helped me make it through financially while doing some intensive personal learning.  I’d had a 3 decade career in finance but this was a different kind of financial work.”

I learned that the business model had to be scalable to make it successful so I worked on different business model ideas.

I learned that stress comes at you in different ways. I now wake up at 4.30am most mornings worrying about the cash. But I can do something about that – it is somewhat within my control. In my previous world, I would wake-up worrying and working on things where the success of those projects/ideas/plans was outside of my control.  I spent most of my corporate life wondering whether the sword to drop. I know which one I would choose over and over again.

I love my work now. I learned that I am never going to retire. I am going to be carried out in a box.  In my previous career we were all just looking up through the branches at that dead wood in their 50s. At a certain level you just had to sit still staring up at them, waiting for them to fall off. I’m on a different path now.

What would Andy do differently if he had to do it all again?

“I would have worked harder on securing the base level in the short-term so that I could have got to the longer-term vision quicker.

“I always advise my clients to make sure that when they get a degree of success that they don’t buy a new flash car or get distracted by a new business venture. Easily said, tougher to do. I tell them not to get cocky.” 

How does it feel on the days you know you’ve made the right decision?

“A major difference is that I see my kids more. For so many years I left before they went to school and I’d return when they were in bed. Or I would travel the world for 2 weeks at a time.

I know for sure that I’ve made the right decision every Friday at 4pm when I take my 13-year-old to the local pub. I have 2 pints and she has 2 pink lemonades whilst holding court and entertaining the locals on what teacher X has done at school that week. It is a fantastic start to the weekend.

I also never travel on a Sunday night or come home late on a Friday evening. I’m just not grumpy at the weekend anymore.

I don’t miss the futility of big corporates, especially at the higher end. I don’t miss the point-scoring.  I don’t miss the Christians and Lions moments when you spend an age preparing a presentation for the board and travel half-way around the globe only to watch it get pulled apart or worse thrown out because something had changed the whole landscape.

I make my own choices on how I spend my time. I don’t get dragged into pointless meetings. I have control of my working day. I am not beholden to anyone except my fee-paying clients. I really enjoy the flexibility of being at my desk between 8am and 4.30pm, being with the kids for a few hours and working later if I need to.

The business is successful enough that I have had to employ a house-keeper to make sure we all eat and enjoy the quality time as a family.  

Regrets?

“None.” I noticed a slight hesitation and probed Andy for more detail. “I should have done it sooner…but I wasn’t ready and my network wasn’t ready.”

“I should have probably also taken my own advice and not bought the Tesla!  But I did and it is sooo worth it!” (see photo above)