Founded by a former tax inspector, websters in Cambridge prides itself on using imagination in tax planning tailored to the needs of the individual and the businesses in which they are involved. To that core expertise the firm has, over time, added accountancy, personal tax returns, legal advice from a solicitor, international tax planning and independent financial advice.
Serving a global client base, the company has expanded into Europe and Australia and has associates in the US and elsewhere. Clients range from struggling musicians to a multinational plc.
1. When and why was the company formed?
My original business began 20 years ago with specialist tax consultancy work leading to me “going it alone” at the beginning of 1991. Like a lot of people I started my business following a period of being dissatisfied with my employer. The old adage “if you are going to work for a fool – then you might as well work for yourself” suited well! So I was very much looking to sell the specialist skills that I had built up during my ‘employed’ life.
2. Looking at the original vision for the business, how faithful have you stayed to the business plan?
My original intention was to concentrate exclusively on tax issues and to offer a very specialist service – which is what I did until 1995. However I then had a radical rethink – accepted that the original strategy had not delivered what I wanted – and I set out to build a team to deliver a wider range of services. We were also looking for clients who wanted a regular service each year – as well as advising on the more unusual.
3. Do business executives appreciate the need for tax planning – for themselves and their companies?
Well obviously some do – otherwise we would have no business! Actually, it is interesting that our clients are self-selecting so that those who value tax planning tend to come to us – whereas if you do not value tax planning so highly then they will tend to have looked for an ordinary accountant when they started in business or looked to change firms.
The people who are going to be caught by the higher rates of tax earning over £100,000 are becoming more concerned now. People who are facing a major event such as the purchase of sale of a business or a property usually think to take tax advice – but we think that more businesses and individuals should do so routinely.
Our strategy is to encourage people to look to plan tax and finance together – whether with an accountant for the business – or with a financial adviser for individuals – or both. A financial adviser should not just be someone who looks to sell the best investment product which gives the best commission – but someone who plans the need for money over time.
4. How many clients do you have now and what type of people and businesses make up your clientele?
We currently have 766 showing on our database – but there are others where we have given one-off advice in the past and who currently do not require regular tax work. Roughly 60 per cent of our business is accountancy services with 20 per cent personal tax and 20 per cent in specialist consulting – mainly tax, but also legal work.
Our business clients include lots of consultants, biotech specialists, media & creative clients who are often great fun – writers, filmmakers, actors, musicians – but as well we have a wide range of other businesses – so far just one art restorer.
On the private client side we act for academics and successful executives from large companies & the public sector – but also people with buy-to-let houses or an investment portfolio. We are very lucky in Cambridge to have a fascinating group of people as our clients.
At one point in the late 1990s, 20 per cent of my client base had a PhD – which you would not get in many towns. However we have clients in Oxford, London and in other towns, so we are not parochial.
5. How broad is your market reach in terms of territories served?
Well, we were very early adopters of the internet 1994 – and so have always had clients from all over the world. One of my earliest internet clients was a Norwegian who had just moved to South London and either did not know – or did not care, that Cambridge was not that close to his new home. So currently we have had clients in the US, South America, mainland Europe, Africa and Australia. Of course, all had some need for UK tax advice so they had some connection with the UK.
6. You have embarked on a strategic expansion strategy. In which countries do you have physical offices and which others do you serve in terms of client base?
Two members of our team work overseas – but mainly supporting UK clients and working remotely. One in Holland and one in France – but we have an association with a French accountant for clients who need that advice. In Australia the position is different as we are establishing a physical office and I am going to Australia in February for our official launch. We have one person in post in Australia and are looking for two people to support Joanne Lamberth who heads up this office.
7. Have you expanded the services you offer over the years?
Yes indeed – we originally just did tax – but then added accountancy – and shortly afterwards a solicitor joined the team. Gradually we built up more advice for people with international tax issues and we recruited a specialist in international personal tax a few years ago now.
Last year we added financial planning to our own services – and this year we have recruited a Chartered Company Secretary to grow the services for larger businesses.
Although it services a very niche group we also sell software development targeted at other firms of accountants – typically much larger practices. We have no particular plans for further additions to the range of services – but if an opportunity should present itself you never know.
8. How many staff do you have and has this number grown substantially in recent times?
We currently have a team of 20 altogether which includes nine part-time staff. We have always had a significant proportion of part time people in our team – indeed I think that it has been part of the reason for our success. We got very good people into the business who could not find employment with other firms because they wanted very flexible working arrangements. Especially in the early days this was crucial.
We have been growing fairly steadily. Almost all our growth has been organic – so there has never been a boost to staff with the acquisition of another firm. Our plan is to carry on in this way and we are currently recruiting again.
9. Do you have difficulty recruiting staff of the right quality in any areas where you have offices and how do you counter those?
We have always been very fortunate in that when we have advertised for a vacancy we have never had to not appoint because the calibre was not high enough. In the early days when we were small we could not attract people looking for a full time senior position because we did not have the work – so this was when part-time workers gave us a real benefit.
At the moment there are lots of good people looking for work – especially young graduates – so we are fortunate as employers. It is also easier now that we are bigger because we offer more obvious career progress. So at graduate recruitment level in the last four years we have had some outstanding people.
10. Looking ahead 10 years where do you want the firm to be in terms of turnover, services and global reach?
That is a very difficult question to answer. I believe that the market for tax services could change in that period. Crucially it depends on whether I can make the successful transition from building a business into building the team so that they will build the business. Within the UK we are opening in Norfolk next year and I want to have a satellite office in London for meeting clients. I don’t know that we will particularly want to open more offices – but as we grow we may have to do so to meet the demands of clients who find out about us from the internet.
I feel that the market for advice to people who move across international boundaries is bound to grow. We are looking at the UK-Australian link at the moment and to build on the UK residents who go overseas we will want expand our presence in France and open a Spanish office. Other offices are possible – again responding to demand. We already have a US associate in Florida and if the US business builds then our own office is a possibility – probably on the west coast.
My colleague in Australia is currently training on Chinese Tax so who knows where that interest may take us as a firm? The non-English speaking world is a major challenge. However one of the world experts on cross-cultural issues in business is a client of ours – so we will never want for advice. So perhaps not world domination but my personal challenge is on growing this network as far as we can – and to set numbers on it at this stage may limit our ambition.