Joanne Bell is trying to put on a brave face for the Zoom camera, but I sense it’s a struggle. Not only is she exhausted by 15 months of concern for staff and running her business under pandemic conditions, but her lively 18-month-old daughter is sapping her natural optimism and energy. And then the home wi-fi keeps letting her down.
“I have to be honest, I’m shattered,” she tells me when we reconnect. “I took no maternity leave and although my team has been fantastic – loyal, hardworking and supportive – we’re all very tired because of the stresses of the past year or so. But things are beginning to settle down and I’m getting back on track.”
On this optimistic note, we continue the interview and I hear how Joanne’s business, Bells’ Accountants, with offices in Chislehurst, Kenley, Bexley, Eltham and Tonbridge began. She left school to work as an office junior with a firm of accountants in Lee Green, Kent, and saved hard to buy herself a flat within three years. However, she admits to being naïve about the cost of running a home and faced the prospect of selling it with negative equity after the crash of 2008. To boost her income, she decided to take on private accountancy work for small businesses such as gardeners, taxi drivers, builders and waste disposal operators.
“I was running around in my car, collecting bags of receipts and trying to hold it all together when I met a business coach at a networking meeting. It was the best thing that could have happened,” Joanne recalls. Under the coach’s guidance, she increased her business and hit the VAT threshold, which meant she needed an office. She found what she fondly describes as “a converted broom cupboard” in a serviced office hub and set up her accountancy.
Over the years, the business has taken over established companies and grown to five offices with a team of 35. Her first acquisition four years ago was a practice in Kenley, sold to her by someone she describes as “the man who was Santa” because of his sympathetic attitude and willingness to allow her to pay him over 20 years.
In the early months, Joanne would visit each office one day a week, but this had to stop in March, 2020, when the pandemic shutters came down.
“All of a sudden, we were meeting on Zoom and everyone was working from home. It was a shock, but everyone adapted amazingly well. As soon as we could, we set up a rota to return to the offices, because some of our older clients prefer to see us face-to-face because they’re not always on top of tech issues.”
This personal touch typifies Joanne’s approach to the business. On the company website she explains: “We pride ourselves on our understanding of how each client likes to think about their business. You may want a detailed analysis of your accounting affairs, or you may prefer a general overview. Our bespoke service will reflect your individual needs.”
She adds: “I am passionate about running an accountancy practice that is reliable and efficient, but also friendly and approachable. I pride myself on building a close working relationship with all my clients, to enable me to provide the best and most proactive service I can.”
Bells offers all clients an agreed monthly fixed price package suited to their accountancy needs, with the promise of no additional bills or hidden extras. It has paid off and Joanne is confident she can continue to offer assistance to small businesses and has her heart set on becoming the first sole female director-led firm to appear in the UK’s top 100 list.
“It will be something to show my daughter,” she says proudly. Presumably, those broken nights and exhausting childcare schedules will be a thing of the past by then!