Growing advisory business looks to explore expansion into professional services capital

The 2020s have been marred by uncertainty but against that backdrop one advisory business has been growing its footprint in Yorkshire.

Fortus, which entered the regional market in March 2020 just as the pandemic was taking a hold, has according to its executive director Craig Herbert demonstrated the difference the business can make by being “real advisors to clients”.

He smiles as he says the last statement noting that accountants and advisory businesses have perhaps forgotten about what it means to be an advisor. In fact, Herbert went as far as to say that “the traditional accountancy model – just doing a set of accounts for a client once a year – is pretty much dead”.

The executive director explained that what he feels sets Fortus apart from others is its focus on being a “true partner” to clients, helping business owners along their journey to realise their ambitions, whatever challenges may be on the horizon.

For the last two years that’s meant dealing with a rapidly changing environment, digitisation and uncertainty and is something that as a business owner himself he had to deal with.

“When Covid hit we like every other business and particularly one so early in its evolution prepared for the worst. However, when that didn’t happen, we knew we also had to start thinking differently and change our approach which for business development had been focused on networking and events.

“Instead, we took a look at our client list and started to gather information and strategise about how we could perhaps grow those, and so we started to look at them in detail. We made proactive calls to say look, have you considered x, y or z, if so, we might be able to help you.

“That approach was actually really welcomed during that period as we found clients grateful that they were able to keep more cash but also for being proactively given advice.”

These strategy sessions, Herbert noted, have continued even now as he said for Fortus it’s about actually being advisors, which means “asking the right questions and perhaps most importantly actively listening” in order to gain the insight to fuel whatever advice is given.

He added that for Fortus it’s about giving the same advice they offer to clients so when “uncertainty hit we worked to find a solution that provided clarity to keep us ahead of the competition, which is exactly what advisors should also do for their clients!”

Herbert however noted: “What we don’t do is try and tell our clients how to run their business, they know that, they’re the experts. But we know that when they have problems in the bits that go around that – people, property, finance, cashflow – whatever it is we’ve got the solutions they’re going to need.”

The business, however, didn’t just look to secure itself over Covid but thrived, completing three acquisitions over the last two years – Winn & Co and Rayner & Co in Scarborough, and PCLG in York – with Herbert keen to say there is more to come.

Over the last 12 months Fortus has grown turnover by 40% to around £4m and increased headcount by 20 employees to almost 60 across its northern business.

The topic of acquisitions leads to discussion of geographical operations. Currently with two offices, York and Scarborough, Herbert noted the growth plans really follow the A64 corridor and he believes the next location they will grow will be Leeds, where the business already has a small team.

Herbert sees an opportunity to grow due to the strength of Fortus’s offering in sectors including creative, and the city’s growing reputation as a northern powerhouse in this space.

“Leeds is a different market but it’s one that with our brand” – a brand Herbert believes sets it apart from the competition – “and our services and a big push around talent, both recruitment and retention, that we believe is a really important hub for us and one we want to be part of.”

Does that mean there’s plans for a new Leeds office? No timelines were specifically given and Herbert smiled as he said that conversations are happening.

“A big driver for us is the quality of the talent pool and the quality of the clients in our sweet spot of £1m to £50m target businesses within the region.

“So, if we were to get the right sort of opportunity to acquire a firm with the right sort of clients and the right sort of people, in the right sort of location, then who knows.”

Despite there being “a couple of irons in the fire” Herbert noted that there’s a glut of private equity money around at the minute which is making the market “very competitive”.

But the executive director reiterates if there’s a deal to be done that’s right for the business they’ll make it happen as he and the rest of the team at the firm are ambitious about continuing its success long into the future.

Looking ahead Herbert said the business is currently on track with one further acquisition to see revenue “tip over to £5m” and head count to grow to 70.

Herbert added that for Fortus more widely he sees a real opportunity in the north where many traditional firms still remain.

Yorkshire is the “beating heart” of the national tax offering headed by Chris Wilson and for Herbert it’s about the complementary opportunities within some of Fortus’s key sectors of the built environment and construction, creative industries, engineering and manufacturing, leisure, hospitality, sports and entertainment, and the rural economy which will deliver considerable value-added growth moving forward alongside the firm’s established service lines.

“Yorkshire is one of the fastest growing regions within the business and that’s not going to stop. Partly that’s because of the personal ambition of myself and the rest of the brilliant team who lead this region but also because there is a real opportunity to modernise the profession.

“Our goal is over the next few years to hit £9m revenue which would make us a substantial regional player and one of the last few owner managed businesses of that size not owned or funded by the private equity market.”

Despite the regional focus Herbert noted the wider “national play” is also crucial for the business as service lines are national offerings and being able to tap into specialisms from each region “works really nicely for us and our clients”.

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