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.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

The Tories' aim is to put Labour out of business for good

Rather than merely winning again, the Conservatives are seeking to inflict permanent damage on the opposition. 

The Conservatives are numerically weak but politically strong – that is the peculiarity of their position. Their majority is the smallest of any single-party government since October 1974. Yet, to MPs at the Tory conference in Manchester, it felt like “2001 in reverse”: the year of Tony Blair’s second election victory. Then, as now, the opposition responded to defeat by selecting a leader, Iain Duncan Smith, who was immediately derided as unelectable. Just as Labour knew then that it would win in 2005, so the Conservatives believe that they have been gifted victory in 2020. David Cameron has predicted that the party’s vote share could rise from 37 per cent to a Thatcherite 43 per cent.

For Cameron and George Osborne, who entered parliament in 2001, this moment is revenge for New Labour’s electoral hegemony. They believe that by applying Blair’s lessons better than his internal successors, they can emulate his achievements. The former Labour prime minister once spoke of his party as “the political wing of the British people”. In Manchester, Cameron and Osborne displayed similarly imperial ambitions. They regard Jeremy Corbyn’s election as a chance to realign the political landscape permanently.

Seen from one perspective, the Tories underperformed on 7 May. They consistently led by roughly 20 points on the defining issues of the economy and leadership but defeated Labour by just 6.5 overall. It was their enduring reputation as the party of the plutocracy that produced this disparity. Those who voted for Labour in spite of their doubts about Ed Miliband and the party’s economic competence may not be similarly forgiving of Corbyn. To maximise their gains, however, the Tories need to minimise their weaknesses, rather than merely exploit Labour’s.

This process began at conference. At a dinner organised by the modernising group the Good Right, Duncan Smith, Michael Gove and the Scottish Tory leader, Ruth Davidson, affirmed their belief that, contrary to Thatcherite orthodoxy, inequality is a problem. Only the Business Secretary, Sajid Javid, an admirer of the libertarian heroine Ayn Rand, insisted that equality of opportunity was the defining metric.

George Osborne’s assured speech was most notable for his sustained appeal to Labour voters. Several opposition MPs told me how unsettled they were by the Chancellor’s declaration that Labour’s new leadership calls “anyone who believes in strong national defence, a market economy and the country living within its means” a Tory. He added, “It’s our job to make sure they’re absolutely right. Because we’re now the party of work, the only true party of labour.” The shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds told me: “We’ve got to be extremely clear that this is not business as usual. This is a real attempt by the Tories to put us out of business – possibly for ever.”

The Conservatives’ aim is to contaminate Labour to the point where, even if Jeremy Corbyn were deposed, the toxin would endure. For those opposition MPs who emphasise being a government-in-waiting, rather than a protest movement, the contrast between the high politics of the Tory conference and Corbyn’s rally appearance in Manchester was painfully sharp. They fear guilt by association with the demonstrators who spat at and abused journalists and Tory delegates. The declaration by a rally speaker, Terry Pullinger, the deputy general secretary of the Communication Workers Union, that Corbyn’s election “almost makes you want to celebrate the fact that Labour lost” was regarded as confirmation that some on the left merely desire to run the party, not the country.

But few Tory MPs I spoke to greeted Corbyn’s victory with simple jubilation. “It’s a great shame, what’s happened to Labour,” one said. “We need a credible opposition.” In the absence of this, some fear the Conservatives’ self-destructive tendencies will reassert themselves. The forthcoming EU referendum and leadership contest are rich in cannibalistic potential. Tories spoke forebodingly of the inevitable schism between European Inners and Outers. As the Scottish experience demonstrated, referendums are almost never definitive. In the event of a close result, the party’s anti-EU wing will swiftly identify grounds for a second vote.

Several cabinet ministers, however, spoke of their confidence in Cameron’s ability to navigate the rapids of the referendum and his pre-announced departure. “More than ever, he’s the right man for these times,” one told me. By this December, Cameron will have led his party for ten years, a reign exceeded in recent history only by Stanley Baldwin, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. That the Conservatives have so far avoided cataclysm is an underappreciated achievement.

Yet there are landmines ahead. An increasing number of MPs fear that the planned cuts to tax credits could be a foul-up comparable to Gordon Brown’s abolition of the 10p tax rate. Despite the appeals of Boris Johnson and the Sun, Cameron and Osborne have signalled that there will be no backtracking. At such moments of reflection, the Tories console themselves with the belief that, although voters may use Corbyn as a receptacle for protest (as they did Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and Ed Miliband), they will not elect him. They also acknowledge that the current Labour leader may not be their opponent in 2020. The former paratrooper Dan Jarvis is most often cited as the successor they fear. As with Cameron and Blair, his relative lack of ideological definition may prove to be a strength, one MP suggested.

William Hague is fond of joking that the Tories have only two modes: panic and complacency. If the danger before the general election was of the former, the danger now is of the latter. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.