The rollercoaster ride that was RSM Tenon has reached a predictable end

There weren't too many winners.

Having been the subject of a speculative bid from rival mid-tier firm Baker Tilly in late July, a Stock Exchange announcement yesterday made it clear that the latest experiment in non-partner ownership for an accountancy firm had come to a sticky end. The firm was put into pre-pack administration and the operational elements immediately snapped up, by Baker Tilly. If RSM Tenon was expecting this outcome no one told its PR team, judging by the RSM Tenon website, where the lead press release in its media centre is a comment on the national insolvency statistics.

Baker Tilly appears to have played a blinder with the biggest questions about the merger answered by the prepack deal, which means it doesn’t have to shoulder the listed company’s debts. The losers from the deal would appear to be the shareholders (although the smarter ones should already have been expecting to lose most, if not all, of their investment for some time) and Lloyds Bank.

 Few people will feel much sympathy for the bank, which due to its ongoing involvement in the financing of the deal may not have to write-off all of the estimated £80m of debt.

In truth there haven’t been too many winners throughout the saga of RSM Tenon, which has really reached a low point with the discovery of a black hole in its own finances (never a good thing, but catastrophic for an accountancy firm seeking to break with tradition). So what lessons does the whole saga offer?

1) “Turnover is vanity, profit is sanity”. Thanks to its regular use on TV reality business shows such as Dragons’ Den, more people are familiar with the idea that growth at all costs can often come at a terrible price. The undoing of RSM Tenon can at least in part be traced back to aggressive expansion strategy that rested on growth by acquisition. Most of these acquisitions happened at the top of the market.

2) The recovery will see insolvencies climb. One feature of this recession has been staggeringly low interest rates. These have allowed the phenomenon of “zombie companies” to develop, and in some ways RSM Tenon was a zombie accountancy firm, able to limp along servicing its debts but no longer able to finance growth through acquisitions. In previous recessions as the economy recovers, interest rates pick up (as a sign of economic vitality and activity) and more businesses struggle. Some clearing out of the deadwood may not be bad for the economy, although the situation is further complicated by the Bank of England’s decision to tie unemployment in to interest rates.

3) The partnership model works, especially for accountancy firms. For all the critiques and brickbats thrown at it, it would appear to work better than any of the alternative structures, including setting up as a publicly listed company. The listing was in part meant to bring RSM Tenon access to financial markets to allow it to continue its expansion drive. But those markets have been sluggish and resistant to all but the safest lending and capital has been expensive to obtain.

4) We can expect further consolidation in the professional services market. Game-changing organic growth is difficult to achieve in any market and apparently even more so in accountancy. With the Big Four owning such a large slice of the market, there may be plenty of business out there for the rest of the field, but for a firm to jump up the top 10 requires consolidation of the sort offered by this deal for Baker Tilly.

5) There is a demand for greater competition. It’s been the buzzword since 2008, when a perceived failure by auditors to qualify the accounts of financial institutions on the brink of collapse was put down to a lack of competition having led to too much coziness and a loss of quality. To date there has been little hard evidence to prove that artificially generating competition in the market (though mandatory rotation or tendering of audits) will lead to any significant improvement in service quality. However, one aspect of the Baker Tilly takeover of Tenon is that it will create another significant player at the top end of the market able to handle more complex work. Life may be about to get even more competitive, with possible entrants from the far east and especially large Chinese firms (as in other industry sectors) looking to skill-up their employees with an eye to global expansion.

In the short term little will change in the UK profession as a result of this deal, other than for the employees and clients of the two firms. As with most pre-pack administration it is encouraging (especially for those employees) to see people keep their jobs. The longer-term ramifications for the profession, whether that is in confidence in the partnership model, or the degree of competition at the top end of the market, will take much longer to work through.

This piece first appeared on economia.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.