It's Been SUMS Journey: Brian Thomas (1966)

— 03.09.18

by Adam Greenwood

Brian Thomas, BA Economics (1966), is an alumnus who's got a story to tell. Currently working for the family business, a successful firm of Chartered Accountants & Business Advisors in Oxford, Brian has very fond memories of his time as a student; Marmite butties, hitch-hiking to gigs in London, and more prominently, fun with his chums in the Sheffield University Speleological Society studying the magnificent caves in the Peak District.

"My first contact with Brian was when he contacted our alumni office asking to find his former university friends", said Adam Greenwood, Alumni & Communications Coordinator. "I made enquiries on his behalf, but the search wasn't fruitful. But then I had the idea that we could promote his story through Catalyst. I'm so pleased we did! Brian has led a fascinating life, and his self-reflective personal history is interesting, witty and insightful about his time at our great University."

In this interview, Brain gives the lowdown on his career as a Chartered Accountant, how he got started in the profession, and his advice for creating customer loyalty. This is followed by Brian's potted history, 'The chequered life of a winsome Chartered Accountant'.

“Most of us are good writers and like to steer clear of fake news and tell it like it is to both actual and potential clients.”

1. As a co-founder of your own firm of Chartered Accountants, Ridgefield Consulting, with your son, Simon. What is it like working with family on a day-to-day basis?

Bedlam! We talk at weekends and evenings to each other in just the same way that we liaise with our staff at work. My 42 year-old son, Simon, is a great entrepreneur. Our daughter Helen is 37, an Oxford economics graduate and was "big in the city" for 15 years but, like her brother, decided to go out on her own and formed "BlondeMoney" 5 years ago. My wife, Olive, spent 20 happy years administering Zoology and Chemistry Departments at Oxford University and now helps out at our business RCL, Ridgefield Consulting Ltd. Papa Brian was an auditor in Manchester, London and Bath for 45 years until discovering the hidden joys of compliance and teaching!

2. Ridgefield Consulting was selected as a finalist for the 2017 British Accountancy Awards in the category of “Independent Firm of the Year – South-West England”. Could you tell us more about this accolade and how you got nominated?

We have a fine new Marketing Department. RCL is dynamic, fast and inexpensive. It offers the normal professional services like tax, accounting, audit and landscape gardening, but has two USP specialities: start-up entities and pension scheme accounting. Most of us are good writers and like to steer clear of fake news and tell it like it is to both actual and potential clients. We can all laugh and smile broadly, whatever the dire situation or predicament.

3. Your business manifesto is clearly passionate about the role your firm plays supporting local businesses, tradespeople, entrepreneurs and start-ups in Oxford. How can accountants improve the fortunes for local SME's?

By talking or at least contacting each of them, on average, four times a year; be prepared not to charge a fee for all of these contacts. But then be crystal clear (to a small client) that any unforeseen or extra work will be charged for. We are promoting our management accounts and cash flow forecasting services; any small client must be aware of cost variances and any expected cash flow deterioration.

“Sheffield University took me to its steely heart. Terrific years.”

4. You recently contacted the Management School out-of-the-blue to try and locate your former classmates and tutors but we struggled to locate them for you, sorry! How can people reach you if they want to get in touch?

By emailing me: wbthomas@btinternet.com or brian@ridgefieldconsulting.co.uk.

5. You graduated in 1966, what was your first role out of University and how did you find the world of work compared to Uni life?

I became an articled clerk at local Sheffield accountants, Hawson Wing & Co (now the larger 3-office Hawsons). I definitely had to start liking working in teams and taking orders from various senior managers. A lot of travel to Manchester and London, so I always carried my train-spotting book on all journeys to clients - yes, I was and am a real nerd - I discovered the delights of speleology [caving and potholing] between 1963 and 1970. Indeed, when I entered the hallowed world of bio speleology I discovered a rare underground snail in County Clare, Eire in 1968; so rare, that the CRG (Cave Research Group) wanted to name it after me! So, yes folks, Trichoniscoides Thomasum is my snail!

6. Studying in the 1960's, did you follow and enjoy the social scene at the time? Any highlights?

Did I follow and enjoy the social scene? You must be joking; a quiet pint of porter, croquet, snooker and ping pong were certain highlights, combined with monthly hitch-hiking down to London for the burgeoning psychedelic music scene. I was pulverised musically by a very early Led Zeppelin, Fairport Convention, Family and Small Faces.

7. Finally, what advice do you have for students and recent graduates looking to embark on a career in accounting?

It is lovely being a chartered accountant -"accept no other!" Choose your niche or specialisation carefully e.g. forensic is "IN" at the mo' but get into AI and Personal Presentations as soon as possible.

Brian in his own Words: The chequered life of a winsome Chartered Accountant.

Well, I am doubly chartered - an FCA (Chartered 1970) and an FCCA (Chartered Certified Accountant 1982), plus an honours degree BA (ECON) from the University of Sheffield 1963-66. I gained all these and was not held back by these three “negatives”

  1. A youthful stammer
  2. Quite a dysfunctional family!
  3. Three auto-immune conditions, which only appeared after 1999

No, my continuing work problem from age 21 to 65 was feet becoming itchy – in any job - after over five years. My wife Olive says it is because I never concentrated long enough on what my bosses asked of me. I think it is down to my flibbertigibbet personality - which means frivolous, flighty and a mighty talker — I am not the least one.

I have a whimsical outlook on life; I never take any issue too seriously which, allied to a continuing earworm of musical pop songs, puts me at a distinct disadvantage to my peers when thinking and creating ideas.

Growing up / family life

I am a mighty good LISTENER, not a talker at all. My childhood involved keeping my head down and helping my mum raise us three brothers, Brian 73, Michael 70 and Stephen 66. My dad fought with Monty and Erwin (Rommel) as a 'Desert Rat' in World War 2, fighting at the famous El Alamein tussle. Dad smoked 70 Woodbines every day. He was an army boxer and signaller. I was always running errands, washing up, maintaining our large garden etc. Rather belatedly, I rediscovered my two brothers and we Skype at least weekly. Their humour and musical tastes are so like mine that we have fine chats. All three of us are drummers, in Blackpool, Denmark and Oxford. In the last year we have been writing peculiar sitcom type scenarios interspersed with musical jingles. Obviously destined…….

University Life

I looked after myself well at university during occasional spells when I lived by myself. Marmite butties kept me going, along with the continuing camaraderie and loyalty of my peer fellow speleologists [see below]. I was introduced to speleology in 1963 at Freshers’ Week, going on regular active trips until 1970, when I married my delightful wife, Olive

I was borderline Oxbridge material as my "A" levels were ABB. Sheffield University took me to its steely heart. Terrific years. I discovered yoghourt, speleology (don't ask). I attended musical gigs seeing famous groups like Jimmy Powell and The Five Dimensions plus Long John Baldry and The Brian Auger Trinity. I have been so interested in the intricacies of pop music all my life, [Radio Luxembourg 208], that I thought nothing of hitch-hiking up from Sheffield to The London Scene, and staying all night in Mother Earth or The Roundhouse. I bopped and grooved to early Pink Floyd, very early Fairport Convention and Family.

Early Career

In 1967, I joined a reputable accountancy practice in Sheffield having gained a degree in Accountancy and Economics. My first ever salary was the princely sum of £450 a year - not a lot. I rented in Filey Street, then in Walkley. I carried on caving, which started for me in 1963, and discovered climbing on Derbyshire gritstone edges. I found a unique snail in 1968 (as mentioned above) though I later found out that it was not quite unique - many were living/dining in Peckham, London sewage pipes!

I passed all my ACA exams first time and became an ACA in 1969 - the world was finally my oyster! An accountancy general practice was varied and fun.

Whilst at KPMG Lancashire, where I had re-located to briefly, I had discovered a predilection for lecturing and teaching. In 1982, Olive spotted a small advert in Accountancy Age for a Managing Director of a new Accountancy Training Consortium in Oxford. I went up to interview; they liked my style and approach, so I ran GOATS [Greater Oxfordshire Accountancy Training Services] for 5 good years, until it was taken over. I ran a similar consortium in Finsbury Park London, TATC, but that too was absorbed by a bigger London consortium.The next 20 years were spent in similar roles, latterly in the field of Compliance.

The speleologists / alumni

The speleologists of 1962 to 1970 still meet annually near Buxton, Derbyshire, About 17 of us, exceptionally well organised. I felt so at ease in SUSS [Sheffield University Speleological Society] as they were eccentrics as was I.

Do you want to be interviewed? Alumni can ask for a interview by emailing mgtalumni@sheffield.ac.uk