Malcolm Harrison is perhaps the most eccentric and unique accountant you’ll ever meet – something which he admits himself. We’re invited into the offices of MH Associates, which sit above the Tudor Rose Tea Rooms on the Barbican in a building which dates back to 1640.
MH Associates offer bookkeeping, accountancy and payroll services to small-medium businesses – they are a company that really cares about their clients. Treating everyone as he would expect to be treated himself, Malcolm Harrison prides himself on his ability to keep hold of his clients and he makes himself available to meet them at any time of day outside of regular working hours.
Malcolm pops on a Panama hat, heads outside onto the cobbled street for a few photographs with his team, before we head back up the old staircase to discuss his past and his business.
Born in 1951 to a Barbican family, he has plenty to tell us. For over 100 years the family business, Harrison and Sons Ship Chandlers occupied premises on Southside Street, so Malcolm really has brought his business back to his family roots.
At school he took an interest in space, becoming president of the Astronomical Society, but then started thinking about a career in teaching. Whilst at Widey Technical School he was the founding member of the National Union of 6th Form Students. He went on to study at St Luke’s College, Exeter, where he became a member of the National Union of Teachers. He then spent ten successful years as a junior school teacher, first in Hertfordshire and then back in Devon.
Eventually he decided to move on from teaching and headed back to his home city where the government helped him to retrain in accountancy and bookkeeping.
In 1983 he got a job with British Rail. Not wanting any responsibilities he was quite happy to be a stores clerk working at Laira Depot. But after just a few weeks he was promoted and given more responsibilities, and in 1991 he became the area Materials Manager.
As Malcolm tells us his past, it becomes apparent that being a part of various unions is very important to him. Whilst working on the railway he became a union rep for the clerical staff, and he was and still is a member of the Transport Salaried Staffs Association. In 2012 he was given a gold medallion in recognition of his long service which resulted in him being awarded with honorary life membership.
He started to develop an NVQ qualification for Storekeepers on the railway and in 1994 an opportunity arose for him to apply for a grant from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (www.wcmt.org.uk). This was setup as a living memorial to the great leader and each year applications open for particular categories. The grant enables British citizens to travel abroad, research inspiring practices and then bring that knowledge back to the UK for the benefit of others.
In that year a Training and Education category was open for applications. Malcolm was keen to head abroad to investigate the training of staff on railways to identify best practices and to bring those practices back home.
He decided at the time, “If I don’t apply I’m not going anywhere, if I do apply I probably won’t get it. But I applied for the trust and I was interviewed. It’s not every day someone hands you £8,000 and tells you to make travel arrangements to travel to Hong Kong and Australia”.
Malcolm learnt a lot and avoided hotels so that we could stay with locals and understand their way of life. He discovered that Australia mirrors the UK transport industry, and he took home valuable knowledge and experience to implement at Laira Depot upon his return.
Unfortunately he was later made redundant with 50% of the other managers at Great Western Trains when First Group took the company over in 1998. He went to a job centre with his CV, but found it difficult to convince them that he managed a £30 million a year budget. He took up a position within a travel tour agency, and in his spare time he used his previous experience of bookkeeping to help a local accountancy practice.
In 1999 the owner of the accountancy practice offered Malcolm the opportunity to become his business partner. The following year he decided to setup business on his own and he formed MH Associates.
He started off with a very small clientele and still works with some of those clients today. He has built up his business with over 400 clients, some of which are based overseas and he deals with every single client offering a bespoke service.
Every six months he is invited to London to be briefed on the latest changes in tax legislation by Price Waterhouse Cooper, the country’s leading accountancy firm. Malcolm also knows some of the special advisors within Parliament and the House of Lords, and has given advice and information to MP’s in the past.
“Through being a Winston Churchill fellow I’ve become a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and that’s opened doors to me. I’m in and out of the House of Lords quite a bit”.
As the Queen is patron to the Winston Churchill Trust, Malcolm was invited to meet her in March 2015 on the 50th anniversary of Churchill’s death. He tells us it is customary to accept an invitation from the Queen, so following an email asking if he would be available to meet her, he received his formal invitation in the post which he is currently having framed by a client.
Back to his business, Malcolm tells us that “I’ve always had a vision of a one-stop-shop. If someone comes into me I’m able to provide them with payroll, self-assessment, you name it I’ll try to do it”. He describes his business as “generalist”.
“95% of my clients I can do everything for, but there’s a small percentage of those where I need to bring in extra expertise”.
He uses those around him and their skills to assist him with his business. For example if someone needs pension advice, he knows who he can send them to for help, and he uses solicitors that he works with regularly and can trust.
Geoffery Kirk is an Insolvency Practitioner and Chartered Accountant who often works with Malcolm. “I have known Malcolm for a few years now. Every once in a while Malcolm meets a client with insolvency issues and very kindly Malcolm refers them to see me if I can assist.
“Malcolm is that rare breed, he puts quality of service and loyalty to his clients above all other issues. I have never known a professional more devoted to his clients and never seen anyone work as hard as he does to achieve the best outcome.
“I recall a case where a client had been advised that he had a tax liability approaching £100,000 which HMRC had based upon estimates. HMRC were threatening to bankrupt the client unless he made immediate payment in full. Malcolm was approached by the client for help but the prospects were bleak, the client had no records and could not adequately dispute the HMRC claim. Malcolm contacted HMRC on behalf of the client and asked for time, and he eventually negotiated the liability down to less than £10,000. The client was saved from bankruptcy”.
At the moment Malcolm is working on lots of tax returns with the help of his friendly team who have been putting together the data. A few members of staff are even trying to get Malcolm and the offices more organised, but he tells us that he has a lot more trouble finding things now that everything has a home! With a growing business and hundreds of clients it’s understandable there’s lots of paperwork to file.
We finish off by asking Malcolm how he learnt everything he knows. He was trained in accounting and then found himself running a business in the industry with many loyal clients – we’re impressed.
“It’s called the University of Life”, he tells us with a smile on his face. “You make mistakes and you learn from those mistakes”. It seems that life experience, wit and a unique personality have brought him very far indeed.
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