John Kleopas - Alliott Group

Vision, Know-How And Strong Personal Relationships: The Essential Ingredients For Simplifying Cross Border Business While Reducing The Risks.

Ranked among the world’s leading professional services organisations, Alliott Group has 170 member firms in 70 countries.

The long-established, award-winning international alliance offers something different to businesses and the progressive professional services firm - a vibrant membership of both accounting and law firms that dares to be bold in the way it looks and acts. The group’s philosophy emphasises simplicity in getting business done across borders while reducing the risks. Using the resources and connections offered by Alliott Group, companies can build their business across borders while professional firms can build their reputations.

GameChangers Magazine talks exclusively to Alliott Group

Chairman, John Kleopas.

Q. Will you tell us more about Alliott Group, and your role as Chairman?

Alliott Group was founded in 1979 as a response to the growing internationalisation of business. We were one of the first movers in this market – there were indications that the volume of cross border business was set to increase sharply in the years ahead due to political and economic changes, including signs of ever closer union within the ‘European Community’ (as it was then known) and the widening of EC membership, including admission of my own country, to encourage cross border trade. In my role as elected Chairman, I provide strategic advice to the management team and feedback from the grass roots of the membership to ensure we remain in touch with key trends and developments.

Q. How did you find yourself in the industry?

I studied at Piraeus University of Business and Economics in the late-1970s and always knew that my aptitude for not only numbers but also business would result in a career within the financial sector. However, in my early days I was a professional footballer in Greece, another profession that demanded discipline, teamwork, communication, strategy and determination, attributes that continue to serve me well today. My own firm (Kleopas Alliott) joined Alliott Group two years after its establishment in 1992 – as a result of my own travels and natural curiosity, I was always acutely aware of developments in the wider global economy and believed that the path to growth in my business and in my clients’ business lay in taking a broad international view and in building strong relationships around the world that would facilitate success.

Q. What is the key to the smooth alliance of accounting and law firms?

As with any business, you must always listen not only to your own customers but also to what is happening in the wider business environment. We are customer led and always try to be a few steps ahead to ensure we remain relevant to the market. Despite the emergence of many new competitors, we have evolved over time thanks to the energy and entrepreneurial spirit of our members, a clear vision and strong leadership. More specifically, I would say that pragmatism in admitting the right firms to the membership has been key to our smooth running – firms that are passionate about the importance of one to one personal advice and see themselves as trusted business advisers as opposed to ‘bean counters’ or lawyers who focus merely on compliance. It has also been important to appoint firms that are fully committed to the Alliott Group vision of providing an alternative cross border solution to the mega firms for the middle market business.

Q. Can you tell us more about the risks running communications across borders?

There are always risks when doing business across borders. Sometimes it can be a leap into the unknown in terms of what and who you are dealing with. Ours is very much a people business - trust and clear communication are absolutely key when the expertise of another professional is needed in another jurisdiction or field in order to achieve the desired outcomes. In our experience, problems can occasionally occur due to cultural misunderstanding rather than anything technical or more sinister – and that is where the Alliott Group point of difference comes into play. We are firmly focused on providing a global platform that ensures the communication and sharing of knowledge between professional advisers who meet face to face at our meetings and conferences and who are also able to work virtually across borders using the resources we provide.

Q. How do you simplify cross-border business whilst still reducing risk?

Cross border business can be complex with the raft of compliance, tax, legal, HR and audit issues that need to be considered. However, one of Alliott Group’s top level objectives is to make cross border business easier by ensuring organisations involved in cross border business have a clear choice when they need help – we have handpicked the best, owner managed, local professional firms in all of the markets where we have a presence. Each firm must be registered with their national regulatory body and have a sterling reputation. There are stringent membership requirements to get into and stay in our group – non-performance is not tolerated. This de-risks the decision to hire our member firms and gives businesses confidence that they will be looked after well in terms of levels of service and of course the final bill, wherever in the world they need assistance.

Q. How do you manage the constant evolving of technology and marketing differentiation?

It is important to be agile and technology plays a key part in ensuring we are able to respond to changes in the marketplace. Recently, we have embraced cloud based technology as well as mobile innovation to ensure members have easy 24/7 access to the most up to date global resources they and their clients need. In many ways, we are a marketing led business – technology plays a part in our ability to listen and communicate. We also understand and are pursuing a strategy that will differentiate the Alliott Group brand. In our view, marketing communications can feel mechanical and impersonal if boxes are simply being ticked – our strategy is very focused on ensuring communications are as personalised as possible and that creativity provides that spark of interest in what we offer in a very crowded professional services marketplace. To stand still is to go backwards - a clear vision and quantitative marketing goals are critical to ensuring we continue to evolve in the right direction. Like any leading brand, we aim to ‘own’ our category.

Q. Comprising of first-class achievements, Alliott Group has won its fair share of awards. What do you feel is key to such success?

In many ways, it is a simple answer – we have a shared vision that our member firms have all bought into. While all firms have their own unique characteristics and value their independence, we all understand how important it is in today’s globalised market to pull together in the same direction to ensure that our clients achieve the results they want when working across borders and continue to view us as their solution providers of choice. I cannot emphasise enough the strong personal connections that exist within Alliott Group – many clients tell us that the service experience is unique – our members are not only colleagues, but also good friends - they provide the type of VIP service that can only result from the inherent desire of each and every member to serve a new client in the way they would want their own client to be served. And the depth of expertise available from our member firms will also surprise organisations– many of the partners running our member firms left large international firms to set up their own firm, preferring the flexibility and more hands-on approach a smaller firm can provide. This has, for example, resulted in profound know-how in mergers and acquisitions, international tax and corporate finance.

Q. How will we see the brand develop over the course of the year?

We are in a process of transition – a strategy led by our CEO James Hickey and supported by our Worldwide Head of Marketing Giles Brake will see the Alliott Group brand evolve noticeably in the next 12 months. While the name and logo will not change, our strategy will deploy marketing innovation to create a strong point of difference in terms of our image and messages in the marketplace and ensure business decision makers are more aware of what Alliott Group can offer their organisation, whether they work within a professional firm or a business with cross border interests. We have seen a gap in the market and are actively pursuing it.

Q. What changes have you seen over the past few years in the industry?

Broadly speaking, in the professions we have seen a lot of consolidation – some firms have sought mergers in order to survive or to secure succession. As a result of the global economic downturn, there has also been downward pressure on fees – firms have had to up the ante in terms of the value they provide – it’s not enough to be good at compliance, that is a given – clients expect the insights and creativity that will make a difference to their business. Clients expect services to be much more tailored to their needs than in the past. In some markets, we are also seeing alternative business structures in the professions with for example, in the UK ‘high street’ law practices being eroded by big businesses such as The Co-operative Group and non-lawyers being allowed to own, run or invest in legal businesses. These are all threats in the marketplace that more traditional firms must adapt to and learn from so that they become opportunities.

Q. What defines a Gamechanger in your eyes?

In my eyes, a gamechanger is someone who has the vision and know-how to bring something new and refreshing to a market category. However, it takes great leadership to introduce new ideas and to inspire people to alter their direction and to come on the journey. If we are honest, the professional services sector can be a rather grey place – this is a shame as some of the sharpest minds work in our fields and make a huge difference to our communities. Alliott Group is a game changer in that we are looking to introduce something new and different that will stand out in the crowded professional services marketplace, and that will ultimately make cross border business more simple.

Q. What does the future hold for accounting and law?

There will always be change and that is what keeps life interesting. New companies will always try to disrupt ‘the way things have always been done’. We cannot accept that clients will always be loyal to us – we will need to work hard to retain their loyalty and our status as trusted advisers. Loyalty cannot be taken for granted in any business, not least in ours where clients pay higher fees and expect outstanding results. Keeping a keen eye on innovation in the market will be essential to ensure that accounting and law firms continue to play an essential role in the growth of the global business economy and in ensuring best practice prevails.

Q. Can you let us in on what’s to come over the course of the next 5 years?

Expect to see an Alliott Group presence in a growing number of niche markets that are of importance to middle market companies involved in cross border business. Organisations face massive challenges in terms of achieving growth – for example, they need to get the right people to the right places at the right time, yet ensure they do this in the most cost effective way that will also not see them incur penalties by breaking laws. Our plans in the next 5 years will provide middle market organisations with a clear choice for when they need to acquire the right mix of skills and services across borders to achieve specific challenges such as this. There is a big market out there for our member firms – and we are determined to take advantage.

Q. What have been some of the memorable and more challenging events since joining Alliott Group?

New regulations always present challenges – the accounting sector has seen huge change as a result of the fallout from scandals such as Parmalat and Enron. As a result, we took the decision to become an association rather than a network. Our members are proud of their independent status and at the end of the day, being a member of a network compromises this independence and presents a certain amount of liability risk. This was a pivotal point in our history and we are unequivocal in our view that this was the correct path to take.

More about you…

Q. What motivates you as Chairman of Alliott Group?

It is easy to be motivated in this role as I love what I do. Similar to anyone who feels their job is their calling in life, I get immense satisfaction from providing a good service and seeing the positive impact of my actions. And it is easy to find the motivation to carry on when you are surrounded by good people who have the same passion for business and who want to come on the journey with you.

Q. What does success mean to you?

Success for me lies in getting my clients across the line, particularly when a journey has been challenging and the odds have appeared to be stacked against you.

Q. What is your greatest weakness?

Clients and friends tell me that I am too generous with my time, but I disagree. We work in a business where personal relationships are so important – a business can succeed or fail based on the advice we give. Investing your personal time in getting to know a business owner helps to understand the whole range of issues a CEO or CFO is facing, whether business or personal so that his or her overall objectives are understood and advice is tailored accordingly to achieve the most favourable outcomes possible. What may appear to some a weakness, is in my view, one of my greatest strengths.

Q. What is your best advice to aspiring entrepreneurs and businesses out there?

It is good to have dreams, but do your market research and keep your eyes and ears open. Having a gut instinct is fine, but you need to understand what potential customers are thinking and thorough research will ensure you understand market sentiment, market size and what you need to do to make a profit. And of course, getting good professional advice at the outset from people you trust will save money and time in the long run!