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James Cowper Kreston’s Darren O’Connor on being a ‘critical friend’ to clients

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When regional firm of accountants and business advisers James Cowper Kreston (JCK) decided that to ensure the very best client service it would be appropriate to separate its accounts and advisory services from its audit and assurance services, Darren O’Connor was the natural choice to take the lead.

Over recent months, Darren has built a team to deliver a full range of services directed at the owner-managed business sector to help companies and their owners maximise their potential as they move through natural business lifecycles, from start-up to exit.

Darren trained with the firm, becoming a partner in 2017, and through this time has always been passionate about working closely with clients and imparting timely, quality advice that adds real value in the most straightforward way.

“We have split our advisory from our audit practice so we can focus even more intently on how we can add value in our client relationships,” he said.

Darren is committed to fulfilling JCK’s responsibility of being a true trusted adviser to owner managed/SME businesses, which he describes as acting like a ‘critical friend’.

“We offer the specialisms of larger firms but can deliver more tailored, hands-on solutions and be there when needed to act as a sounding board.”

Tackling current threats

Right now, Darren’s advice for businesses is to concentrate on three priorities: staffing levels, managing costs and understanding where profits derive from.

“These areas are more important than ever with increasing inflationary pressures and the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic,” he said.

He shares an example of a client whose business is currently booming, with monthly turnover up from £1m to £10m. The client’s challenge was a lack of a strong internal financial structure capable of supporting its long-term success.

“I meet the client monthly to discuss cashflow, working capital, pricing and staffing levels and am helping them manage their finances to maintain high profits,” said Darren.

Passionate about business

Having a sounding board like this is what many owner-managed businesses current lack, Darren believes.

He said:

“Smaller company owners sometimes don’t have a senior leadership team or board of directors to bounce ideas off, which means it can sometimes be a lonely place.”

He, too, learns from his advisory encounters.

“What I like about entrepreneurial business owners is that they don’t see anything as impossible. My role is to support their aspirations, maybe rein them in a little, but without losing their entrepreneurial thirst,” he said.

“Our clients know where they want to go and our role is to help them to get there – guiding them down the path of their choosing.”

Darren’s work passion extends to the not-for-profit sector. Giving something back provides an important balance for him and he sits on several charity boards for local and regional organisations.

Keeping it local

For Darren, it was a case of right town, right profession when he chose the University of Reading to study Accounting and Economics, from where he joined JCK’s graduate programme in 2006.

He recalls being thrown in at the deep end from the start at JCK.

“Within a few weeks, I was out with clients. It’s really important to learn from your senior colleagues, particularly the way you act with and communicate with clients,” he said.

He moved steadily through the ranks, becoming a partner in 2017. As well as being both ICAEW and ACCA qualified he is also qualified to sign-off ATOL accounting reports for businesses in the travel sector.

JCK’s vision and values have always been important for Darren.

“I like how accessible the firm is, especially to junior staff. The partners’ doors are always open. In one sense we are a traditional firm but also modern in the way we adapt and change. I’m the staff partner for our Reading office, so can continue with this open approach.”

In the swing outside work

A passion for scuba diving has been replaced largely by managing family matters, where his two-year-old daughter makes home life a priority.

In fact, he reckons she has been instrumental in making him better at business.

“My work/life balance has improved since my daughter arrived. I’m better at working smarter and harder,” he observed.

However, he still finds time for “playing golf badly”. His interest is more on the social side of the sport – and the networking opportunities it offers.

“You can learn a lot about your clients in four hours spent enjoying the fresh air and afterwards, in the bar,” he said.

Never one to shy away from a challenge himself, O’Connor has recently progressed from his pandemic lockdown fitness regime to completing the recent Wokingham Half Marathon and he's looking forward to running the Reading Half Marathon.

After all, being quick on your feet is what clients like from their adviser.

Advice you’d give to businesses

“Trust your employees – you’re only as good as your people. Business owners should try and ‘make themselves redundant’ by delegating. They should also think hard about how they measure all the elements that make a successful life – it’s not just about business.”

Best advice you’ve received

“Focus on what you can change or influence – don’t get frustrated by things you can’t control. Be brave and true to yourself. Say what you really think – not what you think others want to hear.”

About JCK

James Cowper Kreston provides audit, accounting and tax work along with a range of business advisory services, from offices in Newbury, Oxford, Reading, Southampton and London.

For information about JCK’s advisory service email Darren O’Connor.