Most accountants are trusted professional advisers to their clients, but few can claim to have as close a relationship as Martin Tregonning, FCCA. He tells Michael Jarvis what it is like to be one of the UK’s most northerly accountants, on the rugged and beautiful Shetland Islands, and why looking after his clients is a little more personal when they are also your friends and neighbours
The Accountant: What is it like to be an accountant in a remote place like Shetland?
Martin Tregonning: I am originally from New Zealand, and like many Australians and Kiwis, I travelled to the UK on a two-year visa. I met my wife Margaret on holiday in Turkey and we were both living in Bristol at the time, but her family are from Shetland, a small island called Burra, and we decided to return here 14 years ago, and live around 25 miles south of the main town of Lerwick.
What was unexpected was the number of people here who have relatives and connections in New Zealand – we all get together and celebrate Anzac Day. Shetland is similar in some ways to New Zealand, in terms of the lifestyle and the egalitarian people. The geography is quite similar, but it’s colder and has no trees.
TA: What are the challenges and rewards?
MT: Sometimes you know too much about your clients here. You see clients as real people and you get personally involved in their lives.
What I call the commoditisation of accountancy, where you treat clients purely as the fees they can bring in, would not work here and it’s certainly not my style. It’s not easy to change accountants out here, even if you feel you are not getting a good service, because your accountant might be your friend or neighbour. Any new clients on Shetland will already know all about you – they will know who you are and what you stand for, so it’s a very personal choice.
TA: You were given a ‘community hero’ award by Sage for your actions during lockdown. What was that about?
MT: Shetland voted with its feet and shut down schools and businesses early due to Covid-19. With no flights or ferries arriving, our tourism and hospitality industries have now had two years without any real income. I took on clients from other firms who needed my help, and to this day I haven’t charged a single client for making a furlough claim.
Isolation can be a big thing on the islands, so I started up a virtual coffee morning for clients and general business connections, many of whom were self-employed or worked by themselves, just so people would have the chance to talk to somebody. There was only one rule: no one was allowed to talk about business ,to make sure it couldn’t turn into a networking event.
TA: What was the lockdown experience like generally in such a small and distant community?
MT: There was a danger that some people would see absolutely nobody at all during lockdown. We included a widower neighbour in our bubble, as he was furloughed and his kids were away at university. My wife and I were part of a group who put together cake boxes to deliver to people on their own who might not have otherwise had a visitor in months.
Most of my clients are small businesses in catering, retail and childcare, and some crofters and knitwear producers. Some in areas like tourism have been totally unable to trade and others have been able to work from home and use e-commerce.
Some businesses decided to stay open even if they were unprofitable, as a service to the community, such as childcare.
TA: What about the broadband connections that were so vital?
MT: Broadband on the islands is a mixed bag. We have some fibre to the cabinet, which is great in some places, but other places can be located as much as four miles from their nearest green cabinet.
Crofters record livestock movements, but they can only make their reports online, so they have to write it down or phone up and get an agricultural body in town to submit their reports for them online.
I also had a client who couldn’t open a bank account because his identity couldn’t be confirmed in person, as he had no passport or driving licence.
TA: Is Shetland a good place to set up a business?
MT: There are plenty of opportunities for innovative businesspeople. We have some award-winning software businesses that are developing the concept of the ‘silicon croft’ to nurture and develop these industries. Fishing and oil are the biggest industries, ahead of tourism.
It’s a very open and egalitarian society for people who want to settle here and be part of things. There are some issues with incomers who come here to retire, with no previous connection to Shetland, and like some other places in the UK they are putting up the cost of housing and pricing the locals out of the market.
TA: What issues could the Scottish government help accountants with?
MT: I had some success helping to lobby the Scottish Finance Secretary to allow the owners of holiday accommodation to be eligible for business rates relief, when we spotted there was a gap in the regulations. This was important to many people on Shetland.
We have an urgent issue here at the moment with customers being captive to their current bank as no other banks are taking on any new customers. In reality, there is a limited choice of banks and the option of driving 20 miles down the road to the next town just doesn’t exist.
TA: What has the ACCA qualification meant to you?
MT: The great thing about ACCA is that it is a global qualification, so it’s enabled me to travel from New Zealand and end up here in Shetland, because it is almost universally recognised. It’s allowed me to help individuals with their finances and their lives, which is important to me.
Winning the Sage award has been a real boost to my confidence as it was voted on by fellow accountants, and it is acknowledgement from your professional colleagues