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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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