Experience matters

Future book-keepers need a selection of skills; passing your exams is just the beginning. Lesley Meall talks to experienced professionals about the expertise they - and their clients - find most useful.

When you decide to become a book-keeper you are joining the oldest profession in the world. The earliest known records of commerce are tax accounting records created by scribes (the Sumerian equivalent of today's accountant) between 3,000 and 3,500 BC. Then, financial information was recorded on clay: today, most financial information is recorded on computer, making IT skills increasingly important to the book-keeper.

Book-keepers who are familiar with specialist software can achieve significantly more than those who stick to manual methods. "Accounting software does the same job only much faster and cleaner," says self-employed book-keeper Sheila Cooksey. "The old-fashioned way works fine, but it's not as efficient and takes more brain power." Since converting from traditional methods, Sheila has found that she can service five times as many clients. "To raise an invoice, I used to have to calculate and type it up, alter the ledger, and then recalculate the profit and loss," she recalls. "Now, I only make one input and the rest is done for me."

Keep up-to-date

Knowledge of popular software and systems is also important to those employing book-keepers. "The importance of keeping up-to-date, particularly on the systems side, can not be overestimated," says Steve Carter, managing director of Accountemps. This is confirmed by Peter George, sales director at Payroll Elite. "Those with experience of payroll bureau systems such as CMG and PS2000 are in demand," he says: "We certainly get more jobs in this area."

Even so, computer skills alone are no substitute for practical business experience. "Most of my time is spent working on the systems side," says Nigel Gaynor, a fellow of the TAB and director of Arncliffe Business Services, a Sage reseller. But he finds his business background is what inspires confidence in clients. "It's true - there's no substitute for practical experience," says Gaynor, "but it's not the easiest thing to acquire." He suggests students seek out any workplace experience that will help them get a real business perspective on the theory and terminology they've learned. "The sort of situation you find in exam questions is frequently more complicated than those you come across in a typical SME," says Gaynor. But "even straightforward data entry work can help you acquire valuable business experience," he adds.

Running a business centre offering book-keeping and payroll services, Margaret Baldwin has found the combination of business and computer skills invaluable. "I have seen the state accounts can get into when an inexperienced person sets up a computerised accounting system,"she says. "Most of my new clients now are those that have tried to do this themselves or with the help of an unqualified book-keeper then found that they cannot cope." This experience is echoed by Nigel Gaynor. "I spend a lot of time helping people correct their mistakes," he says.

"There is a very real need for professionally qualified book-keepers to take over this side of the business," says Baldwin . This is so clients can concentrate on what they do best. "My client base has included some 30 businesses over the years in a wide variety of different occupations," she says, "and it has given me a good insight into the problems faced by small businesses". Many are very good at offering their products or services but very poor at book-keeping and administration.

Order from chaos

"I have to restore order from the chaos that has been generated," says Baldwin , but she relishes the task. "I find the role of book-keeper immensely rewarding and very varied," she says, adding: "I prefer to be involved with small businesses as part of their team and to see those businesses grow."

Providing management accounts for her clients means that Baldwin also helps them to improve their business controls and planning. "I know that this accurate and up-to-date information about their business is helping them plan for the future and spot any possible problems before they become serious."

"Book-keepers are often the cinderellas of industry," says J. Malcolm Dean, chief executive of the LAB and IFA. But that doesn't have to be the case. As these book-keepers have found, their skills are valuable and clients hold them in high esteem. One of Margaret Baldwin's clients was so impressed with the service she provided that he nominated her for the Book-keeper of the Year Award in 2001 - and she won it.      


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