Fiona Hickey, managing partner of FAH Chartered Accountants, shares her life and business lessons.
Fiona Hickey is the Managing Partner and owner of FAH Chartered Accountants. FAH Chartered Accountants was named Small Practice of the Year and Practice of the Year at the Irish Accountancy Awards 2022.
The firm is authorised by Chartered Accountants Ireland to provide Accounting, Tax, Audit and Insolvency services. Fiona herself is a fellow of Chartered Accountants Ireland and was recently appointed to the Diversity and Inclusion Committee of Chartered Accountants Ireland.
“I am now in practice because I have always wanted to serve clients and business owners in a more personal way, to connect to people at a grass roots level”
Tell us about your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?
I have always been interested in learning and after completing my degree in International Business with French and German I then refocused my studies to accounting for my post graduate year. I trained in Deloitte and finished my FAE’s and qualified with Chartered Accountants Ireland then I took a breather before doing the Diploma in Insolvency and following up on this with the Chartered Tax Consultant qualification. My journey to date has involved so much learning which luckily has always been something I enjoy doing. It has meant that at this stage of my career I have a wealth of knowledge, training and qualifications and my focus now can be on my clients, training my staff and building my business. Plus we were awarded Practice of the Year and Small Practice of the Year at the Irish Accountancy Awards.
Why are you doing what you are doing? What need are you meeting? What’s your USP?
I always had a strong desire to work for myself, although I knew there was great merit in getting my qualification in a Big 4 firm and in getting industry experience in a large US multinational. I am now in practice because I have always wanted to serve clients and business owners in a more personal way, to connect to people at a grass roots level. I am providing a tax and accounting compliance service to business owners and companies of all sizes.
“My brother gave me a fiver in an envelope for luck and I kept it in the office drawer and still have it”
My wide experience across so many industries and companies means I can offer additional advisory services to clients, I can help them for example plan a future exit strategy, I can help them scale up their business, I can help them outsource areas or implement new processes. As well as knowing their day to day Revenue and CRO compliance is taken care of by the practice they also know they have access to very good advice and tax planning. My USP is that I have a very strong sense of gratitude and empathy for the clients. I started my business with only three clients and I have been grateful for every client who has given me their business to look after and this gratitude translates into really caring for them, for their business and for how I can help them as much as possible in their own business journey.
How did you fund and start the business and what are your growth plans?
Once I had decided to start-up a great friend told me he had a spare office I could use, I bought a laptop and printer, my husband sourced a second hand office desk, chair and filing cabinet and he carried it all into the office where I thought wow this is it I have started….. My brother gave me a fiver in an envelope for luck and I kept it in the office drawer and still have it.
Everything else grew organically, as the customer base grew from an initial 3 clients and under €10k a year turnover I invested most of the profit of the early years into IT and VOIP systems, into expanding the office space where my friend kindly gave me more room, into hiring my first staff member. I paid myself very little from the business in the early years as I sought instead to invest in the office, hiring staff, the training, the IT infrastructure.
“My people skills were what really grew my business as all the work that came was through referrals”
In 2020 I invested in a rebrand of the logo by Kate O’Moore of Maker which really elevated it to something I was very proud of and in 2021 we moved to a new bespoke office fitted out for our own requirements to cater for the growing number of staff.
Going forward the plan is to continue to grow at a size that is manageable for the staff and for myself as the only Partner in the practice. This means we can ensure we maintain the great level of service which our clients really appreciate. We scale up at a pace that suits our staffing levels at any time, our office and that doesn’t compromise our service.
What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?
I have always had an ability to work very determinedly, to work very hard for a goal, whether it was an exam, to get work done to a tight deadline, to setting up and growing the business. My ability to work hard has been really instilled in me from my childhood. I also have a very caring and empathic nature, this has translated so well for me in business as clients have felt listened to, very understood, very much that I had their back and cared for them and their business. My people skills were what really grew my business as all the work that came was through referrals.
What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?
I have childhood memories of seeing my Dad work in the garage at our home as a carpenter, making kitchens and wardrobes nonstop all week and the work ethic that he had, where a job was never not done to the best of his ability and a customer was never left disappointed. He was held in such high regard locally for his work and for his treatment of customers and this definitely inspired me to ensure my work was always of the highest quality and my customers were never left disappointed.
“I said to him this is a great life isn’t it dad, and he said to me ‘It’s all fun and games until there is no cheque to collect on a Friday.’ It served as a reminder that I would get out of my business what I put into it”
In business I was lucky to make a great friend in 2011, Aidan Rourke who has a practice in Galway, who has spent 11 years being my sounding board and advising me when I started out with absolutely no experience, mentoring me along the way and becoming a great friend over the years who I connect with daily.
What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?
When I started out as self-employed I bumped into my dad one Wednesday afternoon in our local town, on time out from the office to get my nails painted, and I said to him this is a great life isn’t it dad and he said to me “It’s all fun and games until there is no cheque to collect on a Friday”. It served as a reminder that I would get out of my business what I put into it and I really worked hard those early years to ensure the customer base built up and clients referred me and there was a cheque to collect on a Friday!
What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?
I found my success was very much due to having great determination, even on the toughest day and in having a good support network. My husband is a huge support and influence on me in the years since I started my business. Any problem I faced and there are many for all business owners he could talk through and be a very good voice of reason and practicality.
Q – I think the lesson was that aside from the usual day to day accounting, the services of a good accountant are so crucial in a time of crisis to assist business owners
I would also say that staffing can make your business a huge success, if you staff your business with employees who have the same values as you, the same respect for the clients, the same commitment to good service then it will make the business successful, as in many cases these staff are the primary point of contact with clients.
What was the most challenging aspect of either starting or growing the business?
It is always a challenge to get the staffing correct, in terms of having the correct number of staff for the turnover, of getting the correct skill mix, of ensuring the staff are being trained correctly and working efficiently and are happy and fulfilled in their roles. Any service industry will always have the same challenges as the work we do is very labour intensive. The business can only grow if we have the correct staff in place to do the work.
How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?
The pandemic was a very challenging time for all of our clients, across many sectors, across many types of business. They were very heavily dependent on us to support them in their challenges. For us we had to quickly get up to speed with each Revenue subsidy scheme, learn all the help and support available and share this knowledge with the clients on a timely basis, ensuring they were made aware of what was available to them. It was an incredibly hectic time for us implementing Revenue subsidy schemes across all of our clients, working around the clock to support them in their most challenging time.
“I feel a real inspiration from business owners who have started out by themselves, with a very small operation and have then grown it, providing employment and essentially being self-made in their great success”
I think the lesson was that aside from the usual day to day accounting, the services of a good accountant are so crucial in a time of crisis to assist business owners and I know our clients felt very grateful for the way we went above and beyond to assist them during the pandemic.
For my own business we moved to an online meeting platform and this is something that has continued to work very well since the pandemic and it was a great lesson in jumping into that technology which we maybe wouldn’t have done if not forced to at that time.
How has digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?
Covid ensured that we upgraded all our IT and VOIP (voice over IP) systems to an enhanced WFH (work from home) ability. We have upgraded our server and our IT at the time of our new office move. We have moved to a paperless office, whereby all our own client files are digital and we no longer have filing cabinets. We use Docusign for our tax returns and financial statements and other documents to be signed by clients. There is still more to do to move clients to a more paperless business model, for clients who are in a paperless model we support them by doing their VAT and accounts on a secure file transfer. But there are still clients who manually leave in documents to us, which are filed in lever arch folders and this will be something SMEs need a lot of support on to transition to a more digital way of doing business.
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
I think it has been an amazing journey to go from starting out with three clients to being the current Practice of the Year and Small Practice of the Year winner in the last Irish Accountancy Awards. I honestly do not think I would do it differently, I am very happy at the pace of the growth, it grew at a level I could manage. It is important not to jump too quick into something and I like the pace it went over the last nine years. I would not have wanted to jump straight into the current practice size, I needed the time to learn and grow and understand the business. I also like that I was quite naïve at the start and I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into … sometimes the saying ignorance is bliss can be very true. I am quite glad I didn’t know of all the challenges that would come as maybe then it would have felt too daunting.
Who inspires you in business today?
I feel a real inspiration from business owners who have started out by themselves, with a very small operation and have then grown it, providing employment and essentially being self-made in their great success.
“I always advise new hires to have very strong ethics, to treat our Chartered Accountants Ireland principles as gospel and to follow closely the integrity, objectivity, confidentiality, professional competence and behaviour that they set out”
Every town has entrepreneurs whose sheer hard work and determination got them to a very high level, who provide much needed local employment and I do look up greatly to those people. I had a job age 15 in a small shop working for Johnny Brady, a local business man who has been phenomenally successful running garage forecourts including the new Platinum Car Wash. I look at his journey in the 25 years since I worked for him and how hard work really got him so far. Similarly I know Michael Dixon through my husband and I admire how he too started out very small with a lorry and is now managing firector of Dixon Transport International and an EY Entrepreneur of the Year candidate. My inspiration is from these self made entrepreneurs who worked hard and built their business locally.
What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?
I always advise new hires to have very strong ethics, to treat our Chartered Accountants Ireland principles as gospel and to follow closely the integrity, objectivity, confidentiality, professional competence and behaviour that they set out. It sets such a strong basis for an accountancy career. To nurture talent I give full freedom, no micro managing, I let employees plan their own work, their own day / week / month and support them where they need it while giving them freedom to enjoy doing their work in their own way.
What business books do you read or would recommend?
I listen to That Great Business Show podcast. In terms of business reading I don’t do any, I prefer to get lost in a novel and switch off. I listen to The Good Glow and lots of inspiring podcasts on wellness as it is so important not to let our job overwhelm us.
What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?
I find organising my weeks ahead on Outlook gives me a very organised week ahead, allowing time for meetings, for work focus, for staff training and for phone calls. By using the Outlook diary to schedule my meetings, phone calls and work tasks I find that my week will be a productive one.
“I feel our accountancy business will become even more cloud-based with more sophisticated technology that will help in bookkeeping, reading invoices from scanned documents and processing data that was previously done manually”
Otherwise the focus is hard to keep and the work tasks get sidelined and you find it is Friday afternoon and you didn’t do your To Do list of accounts or tax or other work as the week was entirely taken up with calls, meetings and emails. Scheduling properly allows me to avoid that scenario.
What social media platforms do you prefer and why?
I am not on any social media other than LinkedIn which I find a good way to stay connected with my network and to introduce myself to new contacts.
What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?
I feel our accountancy business will become even more cloud-based with more sophisticated technology that will help in bookkeeping, reading invoices from scanned documents and processing data that was previously done manually.
Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self – knowing what you know now – what would it be?
Don’t wait, just jump in.