“Don’t be afraid to question everything, within reason, in my experience it’s the best way to learn”

Heather Cunningham started her career with the ‘Big Four’ in Jersey and Hong Kong, before joining Harold Sharp where she has been practicing for over 25 years and now serves as managing director. She leads the firm’s dedicated Proptech team, delivering fully outsourced accountancy solutions to the sector whilst demonstrating a respect for property professionals’ time and matching their sense of pace. Working regularly with private UK investors, REITs, hedge funds, family offices and overseas investors – she looks to understand what drives them and add value to their business, while ensuring they are properly structured, tax compliant and able to take advantage of all reliefs.

I have been passionate about the property sector for many years and still get a real buzz from meeting property investors and entrepreneurs and having the opportunity to visit their various sites and projects. No two developments are structured the same -physically or, indeed, financially! That’s what makes my job so exciting, dealing with the accounting issues faced in this sector is a constant learning curve, and I take great satisfaction in applying creative approaches to provide novel solutions for my clients.

Another thing I love about my job is the longevity of the relationships we hold and I’m pleased to say that we are still in constant communication with clients that the firm has worked with for over 100 years. Holding on to these clients and watching their businesses evolve gives me a real sense of achievement and it is the prospect of continuing that trend of longevity that gives me a real get-up-and-go every morning!

It’s a slightly strange business landscape we find ourselves operating in this year, given the pandemic, but one that will undoubtedly see significant tax legislation changes, so tax planning is one area of opportunity. There will also be opportunities for us to deliver fully outsourced solutions to those looking for an alternative to a finance director or internal finance function. For sizeable clients who no longer see the benefit of an inhouse team, we can act as the go-to for outsourcing day-to-day accounting and compliance – often delivering a better service for better value.

Plus, over the next 12 months we will continue to help our existing clients to take advantage of opportunities coming out of the crisis. It comes back to this need to think creatively e.g. around the use of property or the opportunities for acquiring strategic longer term investments where valuations have been marked down too harshly.

One of the challenges for us at the moment is the lack of face-to-face contact that we are having with our clients. We are having to be clever about the way we communicate via phone and email, to ensure we stay relevant and continue to deliver a value add, as well as constantly streamlining our IT and CRM processes to improve the client experience. At the end of the day, nothing replaces in-person client contact, and whilst the likes of Zoom have been invaluable, we look forward to a time where we can go back to in-person meetings.

This increased digitalisation is part of a much greater shift in our sector, and we are ramping up our digital advisory offering to keep our clients ahead of the curve; to help them operate more efficiently, make quicker business decisions, and ultimately have more time to focus on the business operationally. This is a space where we can really add value – and our clients’ feedback is testament to that.

In accountancy, there has been a big shift from old ‘historic reporting’ to an expectation of real time reporting. Our clients expect speedy reporting and, with that, an almost instant response to queries. As a result, we have had to change the way we operate and up-skill our teams so that they have the expertise they need to deliver more timely and relevant business information to clients, and are confident in their knowledge that the application of cloud-based software and bolt-on apps is delivering the most up-to-date information to the client. By empowering our clients with this accurate knowledge, it gives them the ability to be agile and to stay ahead. It’s been a huge shift for our company, as adding value on a real-time basis becomes our focus and statutory accounts / tax compliance is merely an output.

Our company’s phrase is “Pace, clarity and confidence”. Those three words embody our aim. We strive to operate with pace so as to stay ahead of the market. We cut through complexity to provide clarity. And we provide clients with the confidence that we are there to support them.

Never has this been more important than in the current pandemic. Our clients need us to move quickly, to provide clarity, and to reassure them that they are taking the right actions. For us it’s not about keeping up, it’s about staying ahead. That’s important internally as much as it is externally. We’re invested in our people and our technology because we understand our clients’ needs and we know that we need to act with pace, clarity and confidence to meet them.

There are two lessons which I learnt early in my career that I’ve been imparting to mentees ever since. The first is the importance of earning trust in the workplace – that’s worth a lot. How you earn trust comes in many forms. By way of some examples: 1) have the confidence to admit when you don’t know something, 2) be a team player, 3) if you say you’ll get a job done, make sure you do it! The second lesson is to question everything – arrive at your own conclusions and never believe the person who shouts loudest. Big names don’t necessarily mean big brains. So don’t be afraid to question everything (within reason…). In my experience, it’s the best way to learn.

John Hindle was my mentor. He built Poco Homes and then Brookhouse Group. He was a completely brilliant negotiator and motivator. There was never a dull moment when you were around John – he was just one of those characters! He was always motivated by the thrill of the next deal, not the money. We first met when I came back to Manchester from Hong Kong in 1994. Sadly he has since passed, but it was a privilege to have worked with him, to have learned from him, and to have joined him for some fantastic corporate lunches at some top-notch restaurants (as we did in those days)!

Nowadays, too many of us have our work emails on our phones as a constant reminder that there is work still to be done. And, of course, there is, but it doesn’t all need to be done today (that’s why we employ clever technologies to deliver efficiencies!). It’s so important to be able to switch off. I love running and playing golf, and enjoy taking my dogs for long walks  – although our latest puppy definitely needs some training to improve his social distancing.


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