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Doing things differently with BDO

Even with offices in 138 countries, each BDO Member Firm is locally owned and managed, albeit following general guidelines laid down by the network. The company in Belgium, with its own niche in the market based on excellent customer service at the right price, is doing well. One of its current focuses is helping young entrepreneurs see the possibilities of taking ownership of their company by buying into an older established firm.

BDO Belgium is one of the country’s accountancy success stories. With 500 staff, 9 offices and a turnover of over €50 million last year, they are proving that, whatever the difficulties in the current economy, there is still space for a client-focussed enterprise to flourish.

Spanning 138 countries, each BDO Member Firm is owned by its local partners, yet the firm as a whole remains synonymous with a particular brand of client and staff loyalty. Their emphasis on providing a passionate, personal service for clients and a generous, inclusive attitude towards staff has seen the company go from success to success over the past decade.

BDO Belgium has existed since 1967, but it is in part their recent partnership with Vlerick Business School that has propelled the company into the spotlight. We caught up with Hans Wilmots, CEO at BDO Belgium, to see what he had to say about the collaboration.

Making a name for BDO

Hans Wilmots may be softly spoken and have a practical outlook on the current market, but his deep-seated confidence in BDO underlies everything he says. “We are facing a lot of challenges,” he admits. “Competition is getting harder. Our auditors and accountants are facing a lot of changes from the regulatory authorities. Clients are becoming more demanding, wanting more value for money. And, at the same time, the war for talent has increased.”

 “We had one big handicap in the market: our name. People didn’t know us. We had a lot of work to do making publicity to let the world know what we do, how we do it, and why we do it. This is one of the reasons we wanted to work with Vlerick. The school has a good reputation and could help us build our brand, and besides it was a good way for us to take contact with students and the Vlerick network, and tell the marketplace what we’re capable of.”

Along with Professor Miguel Meuleman, Vlerick’s entrepreneurship professor, BDO have launched the Entrepreneurial Buyout Centre, a research and education facility focussing on management buyouts and buy-ins. Wilmots explains why: “More than 80% of small and medium enterprises in Belgium will be facing the problem of generation transfer in the next few years. With Vlerick, we thought it would be appropriate and interesting to study the impact of private equity on buy-out and economic situations, as well as foreign investment. There is after all, a lot of money in Belgium, but people don’t spend it.”

The centre will provide seminars and courses for entrepreneurs who want to explore buyout opportunities, rather than setting up a business from scratch. By combining Vlerick’s academic reputation and BDO’s practical expertise, Wilmots believes they can create something exciting that offers more than either could alone. “We’re working together, and they’re helping us come out with our knowledge. They have their network and a very good reputation. It’s a good cohesive story. They’re adding credibility to our project.”

Putting the client first

The thing that sets BDO apart from their competition is their focus on client relationships above all else. “I think there is something special about BDO,” says Wilmots. “We are not only professional, pragmatic, and personal in our approach. We are also passionate about what we do.”

 “When talking about strategy, you have to make a choice as an organization: operational excellence, product leadership or client intimacy. We chose client intimacy. Other organizations are more specialized, with a very high level end product, but the client will know that he has to pay for it. Others choose operational excellence, where low prices are more important.”

We made a combination of the two: high quality at reasonable price, but with a very close client relationship. That is our vision. At BDO, people are passionate about delivering exceptional client service.”

The decision to emphasize client intimacy may be part of the recent changes at BDO, but it has always been a factor at the heart of their company. “There was a gap in the market, though we didn’t realise it. Other organizations are very good professionally but their relationships with their clients are not their first objective. On the other side, the smaller organizations, where the client relationship is important, the knowledge, experience and expertise are not there.”

“This combination of both worlds is something we have in our blood. When we had to express our vision, after a lot of thinking we realized that this is the way we have to do it. This is our culture. We didn’t need to change anything from our culture’s perspective, but we did have to change how we expressed our vision.”

Expressing things differently

“What changed the most over the last two or three years is our communication. Not just external communication, but internally too. If you want to have your people convinced about the story - if you want them to tell the story to your clients - you have to communicate every day. You have to repeat and repeat and repeat,” he says. “It’s wrong to think that after one message, they will know what you want to say. It’s not enough.”

Nevertheless, Wilmots is also keen to emphasise that it’s about more than just talking the talk. “There’s an element that’s very important in my personal point of view, and that’s delivering every day what you said you would. If you say you are flexible and you say that you’re pragmatic for your clients, you have to be that for your people as well. If your people have a personal problem, you have to listen. We listen to our clients, and we listen to our people. We want to be in an environment where people feel appreciated for what they do. If you have a coaching program or evaluation program in which you do not deliver what you say you will do, people are going to leave. This is one of the challenges we’re facing—to do what we say. This is why everyone has a personal coach in BDO. If there's a problem, they can always tell their story.”

BDO Wings

It is this faith in BDO’s staff that underlies the recent BDO Wings initiative, an internal programme designed to educate the workforce on taking a more pro-active approach to client acquisition.

Wilmots explains, “We did this internally, and we did it upside down. We asked a few members of our staff to build the programme instead of imposing it from the top. In fact Wings was invented to convince personnel that it is very important to be more client and more market oriented. Today, we teach our people that profitability is important to build the future on. They need to better communicate with the client beforehand on the rate and the number of hours they will spend.”

The technological impact

BDO Enjoys Change

With their strong focus on client service and the personal approach, it’s not surprising that BDO aren’t too worried about technology usurping their role. “A lot of clients have tried outsourcing projects, but it’s not always that easy. At the end of the day, when the Belgian law has to be applied, an Indian or Egyptian is not always aware of local legislation. I think there’s been a lot of experimentation, but many companies are reconsidering their decisions from five or six years ago. In the short run, you save money, but problems come later and you have to reinvest the time (and the money). It’s better do it right the first time.”

Regardless of the situation in the country, Wilmots is confident about the future. “In Belgium, we are losing more and more industry. But there will be a moment where politicians will understand that they have to take some fundamental measures. Belgium is a country that is rather poor, but there are a lot of rich people. It means that they can postpone the problem. But one day, when there will be more unemployment, and they will have to take other measures.”

A word from Vlerick

 Professor Miguel Meuleman: Since we’ve started the buyout initiative here at Vlerick in September 2012, BDO has shown itself to be very closely connected to its clients, many of which are owner-managers of entrepreneurial companies. The people working at BDO clearly understand what’s going on in the mind of their clients and many of them are personally involved and like to share the successes of their clients, but at the same time, are right there when clients face difficult times. Their customer-centred approach has helped us come up with insights and best practices in the buyout process, and a number of entrepreneurs have provided testimonials to participants in our programmes. It certainly is true to say that some of these entrepreneurs have become role models for the next generation of buyout managers.

One of the reasons why BDO is good at working with entrepreneurs is because they have a very entrepreneurial culture themselves. They clearly walk the talk and understand that entrepreneurship is a way of thinking and acting.

Today, entrepreneurship has evolved beyond the classic start-up notion to include companies and organizations of all types, in all stages – in firms that are old and new; small and large; fast and slow growing; in the private, not-for-profit, and public sector. The buyout initiative we have started together therefore is not only beneficial for future buyout managers, it also has wider economic implications.

Research has confirmed that mature companies benefit considerably from this kind of change, as very often new owners will come in with a new vision for the company. Furthermore, transferring a company through a buyout or other type of acquisition, as compared to liquidating it, sustains more economic wealth in terms of continued customer relationships, continued supply-chain, or continued employment. We hope together we can foster an environment where entrepreneurship can prosper and where entrepreneurs can contribute to solving some of today’s pressing problems.


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