Interview with an Entrepreneur - Neville Cutajar
From The Executive magazine issued in May 2014.
Lease out your Value
When sitting down with Neville Cutajar, a managing partner, director and one of the three co-founders of 3A Accountants, the conversation inevitably turns to the identity and positioning of the group as a fast-growing player in the auditing sector.
Seeing that 3A Accountant fulfils its mission to provide an innovative and comprehensive, yet personal service to local and international business is a matter very close to Mr Cutajar’s heart. He is after all in charge of compliance and quality control of 3A’s operations.
As Mr Cutajar states early on in the interview, the focus of 3A is to assist enterprises in realising their business potential through a trio of core competencies that include accountancy, assurance and advisory services — each spearheaded by one of the co-founders.
It didn’t escape the founders’ attention that this particular convergence of services all started with the letter ‘A’, humorously capturing the coincidence in their brand name — 3A — which also provided the inspiration for their corporate tagline: ‘Your Aspirations, Your Achievements - Our Aim’. The Executive explores.
Since being launched in February 2008, 3A has gone from strength to strength. Led by a team of young professionals consisting of Neville Cutajar himself, Christian Vella and Clive Farrugia — with the presence of veteran business experts Joseph F.X. Zahra and Franco Azzopardi as non-executive directors - the organisation has more than tripled its initial complement of staff from 9 employees to 25 in just over six years.
The brand has also extended its services to markets in Cyprus and is now seeking to expand its reach even further to businesses in the Czech Republic.
But what accounts for 3A’s success, if you’ll pardon the pun?
Mr Cutajar is unequivocal in his reply. A firm belief in putting the values espoused by company in practice, such as giving personalised attention to individual client’s needs, an innovative and professional working environment for their employees and a commitment to the organisation’s social responsibilities, contributed to the company’s continued growth.
3A’s business is in value-building, and every one of the themes above simply reflect the domains in which the brand exerts its efforts whilst conducting its practical business of maximising returns on the investment decisions being made by its clients.
However, as Mr Cutajar clarifies, the company straddles not only the monetary economy but also a knowledge economy, which explains why since the very start, 3A has placed such a premium in developing a working environment that develops its employee’s potential and facilitates the sharing of knowledge along with financial returns.
Punching above its weight
Although working within a financial company involves a significant amount of number crunching, Cutajar explains that 3A’s clients are not numbers, they are in fact people — entrepreneurs and established business people — who are best served when given individual attention to their particular set of needs and business goals.
This is achieved by training employees to look at client’s problems from a multiplicity of perspectives and giving them the tools to be able to offer relevant and timely answers to the clients’ questions.
In this regard, 3A’s strategy to tackle their clients’ challenges seems to work. The company has nearly an equal amount of local and international clients in its portfolio, hailing from diverse industries.
Cutajar points out the company’s track record of client retention as proof that their strategy works and ascribes this to the founders’ willingness from the get-go to invest heavily both in the human resources underpinning 3A’s operations, as well as the technology that permits open and free sharing of the company’s knowledge in the business amongst employees and clients alike.
Surprisingly, the fact that 3A is a comparatively small outfit compared to bigger organisations in the same sector which carry a lot more clout does not lead Cutajar’s and his managing partners to underestimate their brand’s ability to be a major player in the market. The company is comfortable punching above its weight, and this is particularly evident in its ability to attract talent from top accounting firms to join its ranks.
OFFERING SOMETHING NEW
What does 3A offer that sets its apart from its larger, more influential, counterparts?
In a word, creativity. As a smaller company, 3A depends on the ability of its employees to be able to apply their expertise to a wider range of related areas within their specialisation. An employee dealing with the company’s auditing services, for example, has to be be able to conduct EU funding audits, internal audits, IT audits and more. The job description at a younger company is inevitably more open, as professionals have to implement their expertise in a wider range of scenarios which permits employees to meet the challenges faced by their clients with an eclectic approach that is capable of analysing it from a variety of perspectives.
The constant exposure to a diversity of challenges enables the company to maintain a fresh perspective on their business however, Mr Cutajar is quick to point out, it does not preclude the necessity of specialisation and the company still stands on the threefold areas of accountancy, assurance and advisory services that represent each co-founder’s field of expertise.
The experience that 3A’s clients are enjoying through its company in Malta is in the process of being replicated elsewhere. 3A already has a franchisee offering the same suite of services in Cyprus, with a second one based in the Czech Republic in the pipeline.
LOCAL COMPANY WITH A GLOBAL OUTLOOK
According to Mr Cutajar, this expansion of the 3A brand reflects its sensitivity to the increased impact of global trading on local markets. Even organisations in Malta are frequently engaged business transactions with businesses based in foreign countries, and this requires a thorough understanding of the differences in the jurisdictions of these countries for an optimal operation.
As such, cultivating the right relationships plays a vital role in 3A’s work. Cutajar highlights the importance of forging alliances with professional advisors that specialise in the jurisdiction you intend conducting business, a requirement that is becomes even more critical for a company that cannot realistically be specialised in every single jurisdiction. In fact, professional service firms todays are often required to team up with other firms and integrate their skills in order to provide a specialist service to the clients. Whilst this may seem threatening to a company’s identity, 3A has thrived by building strong relationships with other firms that help them maximise the opportunities that come their way.
Of particular importance is creating alliances with companies abroad, which not only gives a globalised edge to 3A, but enables the brand to offer their clients seeking to do business in foreign jurisdiction tailored advices for their circumstances.
DEALING WITH THE BUSINESS SOCIALSCAPE
This reality particularly affects Malta because the country has garnered such a reputation as an international economic hub for a wide variety of foreign companies, especially those in the IT industry. For this reason, an accounting firm like 3A is often placed in a position where it has to oversee business being conducted abroad, oftentimes via electronic means.
However, even local companies are either selling or buying from abroad, a fact with makes this field very complex to administer and reinforces the need to tailor advisory services to the specific circumstances faced by a client, as opposed to providing services with a cookie-cutter approach.
So, not even financial services are immune to the power of social?
According to Cutajar, no they’re not. The realities of contemporary business requires solid relationships as much as solid strategies. He explains in great length the benefits of being part of a worldwide alliance of firms, as well as the network of franchisee which 3A is aspiring to set up.
One of the main benefits of being part of a larger web of companies is that the basic infrastructure needed by the client is already in place and was the result of extensive testing process by different franchisees that ultimately contributed to setting up a system which is running in line with rigorous standards.
KNOWLEDGE AT ITS BASIS
This is something 3A takes very seriously, but Mr Cutajar says that the company has gone a step further than that. Not content with providing clients the basic necessities, they expanded their focus to include also essential (but sadly often overlooked) factors like customer relationship management, documentation and other factors that contribute to the running of a successful company.
By sharing the knowledge acquired in each of these aspects, Cutajar argues that 3A goes above and beyond the call of duty and delves into the nitty gritty of operations to come up with a complete system of how to run things in a way that benefits a firm which - due to various reasons - hasn’t had the possibility to develop this kind of management yet.
The argument presented by Cutajar dovetails perfectly with his opinion that franchising isn’t for everyone. By necessity, the conditions set by the parent company will restrict the way a franchisee operates the business in order to assure brand consistency and, ultimately, customer satisfaction.
In keeping with their vision of how an accountancy firm should be operated, 3A takes a safe-rather-than-sorry approach, and this is clearly evident in their decision to come up with a system that details the running of their franchise.
Franchising the future
Cutajar has previously described the ideal person to run a franchise as somebody with a ‘capped entrepreneurial spirit’ - somebody willing to take on a more disciplined approach in running a firm.
But this doesn’t demean the disruptive energy of an entrepreneur ready to push the envelope. 3A itself has a number of unconventional decisions under its belt that shaped the kind of company it is today.
Rather, the franchise environment 3A has set up is one that permits a level playing field for franchisees with different risk tolerances, whilst banking on the experience and lessons learnt from dealing with franchises themselves.
This regulated workflow serves to ensure that customers dealing with any branch of their operations, no matter where in they are located in the world, are given the same level of service.
A web of information
3A’s commitment to outdo the typical offering of a network accountancy is evidenced by how keenly Mr Cutajar explains the group’s efforts to set up a state-of-the-art IT infrastructure that can support the management practises outlined above.
The IT system in question is a owned by 3A, but in a bold move the group decided to outsource its management in order to give itself the benefit of a flexible and cost-effective solution that doesn’t burden the company with investing resources on easily outdated infrastructure. This permits 3A to allocate more resources on pursuing its goal to becoming a globally recognised brand.
Another plus of the IT system developed by 3A is that it allows their employees in Gozo to work completely online whilst still being able to provide the kind of seamless operation to clients that Mr Cutajar says 3A takes great pride in.
The system that is in place acknowledges professionals as they log on to it - even from home - and permits rapid sharing of information between 3A’s employees and their clients.
Another technical innovation that 3A developed is a depository of the knowledge learnt throughout its six years of operation that is freely accessible to its staff. This customised database has been modelled on Wikipedia and is known as the 3A Knowledge Share; a concept which will eventually connect all 3A franchises on a single web of information sharing.
Mr Cutajar explains that 3A Knowledge Share is not meant to be a static storehouse of information, but a dynamic resource that is developed collaboratively by all the staff while dealing with clients and conducting research.
Any change effected by one member on the network will be automatically transmitted across the infrastructure, allowing employees to conduct real-time searches for items even while they are being updated. 3A Knowledge Share has both private and public components, with the latter being freely accessible by clients as well.
As part of 3A’s commitment to giving added value, both to clients and franchisees, Mr Cutajar highlights that the system allows a lot of interaction for clients looking for opportunities to do business with 3A and to learn more about the advantages and disadvantages of operating in different jurisdictions.
This international sharing of knowledge could benefit also the employees of future 3A franchises since the exchange of information can eventually lead to actual sharing of human resources between the locally-based parent company and its satellites abroad.
Being part of an innovative, and fairly disruptive, accountancy firm does have its share challenges.
Mr Cutajar pins this down primarily to the fact that unfortunately many companies in Malta neglect to spend time to create a properly defined management layer onto their business, as well as a realistic business strategy that helps them assess objectively their current performance and pinpoint their strengths and growing edges.
Nevertheless, Mr Cutajar says that now 3A’s is in a position to widen its scope from a local company to one with an international perspective. He explains that the process that lead to this point was an organic one. In the first few years of business, the company was mainly focused on putting in place the systems and nurturing the human resources necessary to put 3A on par with its bigger competitors.
Forging stronger ties with other firms
Mr Cutajar affirms that the company’s emphasis on a high calibre of competence and continuous investment in its people’s development means that the brand is now manned by a highly professional staff, most of whom possess postgraduate qualifications in their area of specialisation. Several employees also have experience working with much bigger firms than 3A, including major foreign institutions.
Mr Cutajar readily acknowledges the importance of these international bonds and admits that in creating these links and embedding 3A within a strong network of like-minded firms , the group has a solid foundation on which to build 3A Global. As stated earlier, Cyprus was the first partner firm of the group and a second firm based in the Czech Republic is on the cards. And though not alone in having ensured 3A’s success, being different from the competitors - carving out a unique niche in the sector - was crucial in so doing.
Achieving their aspirations
3A’s aim is clearly to achieve their aspirations in promoting a business model that extends its reach to a far wider client base while delivering a constant level of experience that is based on the cumulative expertise earned over their years of doing business.
As described by Mr Cutajar, meeting this goal involves a blend of human resources, networking and a sound IT infrastructure to facilitate communication between the former two. The path taken by 3A reflects the complexity of doing business in the modern world, and echoes the same challenges that are faced by the clients supported by 3A.
If their track record is anything to go by, then one can safely say that 3A does indeed live up to what they declare in their mission statement, namely that ‘each business encounter [is] a learning experience in itself.’
Words of advice
In our interview with 3A’s Neville Cutajar, one of the company’s managing partners, director, and co-founder, we delved deep into the the critical factors that shaped the success of the company from its startup years to its present position in the market.
In this column, we list five of the most salient learning points that emerged from the experiences Mr Cutajar’s shared in our interview about the progress the company made during its 6 years of doing business.
Putting the company values to practice
The values that each company stands for will differ according to its founders’ and target customers’ agendas, however Mr Cutajar pinpoints certain universal qualities that should be valued by companies and put in practice, including ‘giving personalised attention to individual client’s needs’, fostering ‘an innovative and professional working environment for [the] employees’ and ‘a commitment to the organisation’s social responsibilities’.
Developing employees’ potential and facilitating sharing of knowledge
Another key learning point from 3A’s experience is that time and money invested in developing your human resources will always yield the best return-on-investment for the company. In fact, Mr Cutajar advocates in favour of ‘training employees to look at client’s problems from a multiplicity of perspectives’. When this is done in addition to investing in technology that facilitates the sharing of employee experiences, then the company can truly benefit from the combined knowledge of all its members.
Contemporary business requires solid relationships as much as solid strategies.
This point can be capitalised upon by investing heavily in your own and you employees’ abilities to ‘put [your]selves in [the] clients’ shoes’ in order to enhance collaboration with them.
Mr Cutajar emphases that this also involves having a thorough understanding of the client’s products and resources and finding a way to serve their specific needs beyond their expectations.
Listen to the opinion of the employees while taking the responsibility for making the final decision.
Managers should help their employees to develop a proactive mindset and make it easier for them to contribute feedback on how to help their company ‘perform better and adopt more effective business strategies’. Mr Cutajar suggests that any final decision has to taken ‘in full cognisance of the body of experiences and skills available in one’s team.’
5. Find out what are the core benefits your company’s products and services offer.
Finally, Mr Cutajar recommends studying your competition diligently. He complements this classic business advice with a further suggestion to ‘[put] excellent customer experience above all else’ and encourages local companies to be daring enough to explore the opportunities that lie beyond our shores. Like in the case of 3A, this step needn’t be taken alone, but by forging alliances with companies working in the same industry that located in other countries.