The writing’s on the wall at Blackpool’s base of multi million pound payroll and accountancy service empire Danbro. Literally.
There’s a reminder board near Helen Broughton’s desk in her office. It includes flexible benefits, a managers’ wish list and other options.
“Our staff need to know we care about what they want - and need,” says Helen.
It includes intriguing initials. What’s HIG?
“How’s it going?” Helen, 41, director of people and standards at Danbro, explains.
She hosts one-to-one ‘how’s it going’ meetings with staff. “I deal with everyone. Some may have to wait 18 months but it’s worth it.”
Helen founded Danbro with husband Damian, managing director, in 1999. It was run as a one woman operation in a box room at their Warton home with Helen’s mum, a Wrea Green dairy farmer’s wife, helping out.
Today it employs more than 100 people providing payroll and accountancy and allied services to some 6,000 freelancers, contract workers and consultants throughout the UK. It’s a sector growing all the time - particularly with more setting up businesses after redundancy or failing to get work any other way.
Helen says 80 per cent of businesses that fold do so through cash flow problems.
But it’s an incredibly community conscious company too. Staff get stuck into charity events and community causes at home and abroad.
Small wonder the firm has been listed as outstanding in the Best Companies Guide - on top of umpteen awards and scorching up the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 companies in the UK.
One cause is particularly close to their hearts - Operation Orphan, run out of Nottingham, by former Fylde coast folk, assisting vulnerable kids in Eastern Europe.
Danbro don’t just underwrite and help administer the company, Helen and Damian are trustees and have visited projects to see the impact of their efforts.
“They have such a heart for helping people. We also support Children in Need, Cancer Research. Back in May we raised £7k for charity with a ball at Barton Grange. It’s early days but we are also working with a charity which trains people with learning disabilities. I’ve also got a big interest in local social enterprises. It’s a way of creating jobs and opportunities. The Third Sector has to grow.”
This is one big-hearted businesswoman with a philanthropic streak and social conscience in abundance. It stems from her own upbringing.
“My mum is very humble, always puts everyone before herself, and expects that of us. You were allowed to be yourself but morally treat others as you would expect to be treated. We wouldn’t be where we are today without her.”
Helen’s mum helped out when Helen and Damian, a chartered accountant, set up Danbro. They met at church. They married and have three children.
The pair bought the former Land Registry building - Jubilee House in Lytham - last year. Conlon Construction, based in Preston, has just been appointed to deliver the landmark Jubilee House redevelopment following a competitive tender by five firms.
“They are a local company and have a very similar ethos to us,” Helen adds. “They care about people. Businesses, especially in the service sector, are waking up to the fact that people are your biggest assets. When recruiting we say we are more interested in your mindset than skill set.
“I went to the local comprehensive. I didn’t start the company with any particular skills, no qualifications, A levels, degree, just a BTech in Business and Finance. I’d worked in local authority in housing benefits for a few years which had taught me you can never judge a book by its cover.
“But I had a good dollop of common sense.”
Jubilee House is scheduled for completion in October, the team moving in at Christmas 2014. It’s a far cry from the husband and wife operation of old. Their first employee, Helen’s aunt Sharon Oldham, who still works for them, was taken on two years after they set up Danbro, the garage, rather than box room, becoming her office.
Helen admits she struggled to juggle motherhood with a rapidly rising client base and Damian working away from home with other companies to provide some bedrock income. “I had a meltdown, working late, up early, the struggle you have as a mother balancing everything.” Daughter Grace was one at the time, son Daniel four.
So Damian quit working as a consultant for others - and returned to troubleshoot problems on the home front. “We did things in a very unaccountant-like way. If we had looked at the risks we’d have never done it. We didn’t draw a wage for ages and our first profit, thanks to our first five clients, went into an advert in a specialist magazine which brought us more clients.”
Helen reckoned she had the good life cracked at 35 clients but Damian put her right with regard to overheads. “Ten more did the trick but it didn’t stop, it just grew.”
By 2003 they had won a national progressive practice award and moved into a small office on the high street in Kirkham, taking on seven staff.
Today they are based at Whitehills Business Park, a sprawl of an estate near the big B&Q. It’s given them space for further expansion, occupying several ultra modern units - yet still running a morale boosting tea trolley service.
“It’s the best part of my day,” Helen admits.
They have more than 100 staff, including a good quota of apprentices. Helen is a governor at Blackpool and The Fylde College which helps her get to grips with the area’s educational and economic needs. “We don’t necessarily look for experience, qualifications so much as people skills. I didn’t leave school loaded with certificates. But I had that dollop of commonsense. I’m impulsive but I’ve never regretted a decision because there’s always something to be learned.”
That said she almost stitched up their savings with an ill-fated venture into needlecraft...
Danbro is now on the brink of a brave new move to Jubilee House, having outgrown the business park. It’s a complex so vast staff joke they need sat nav. “I’m a big fan of the West Wing on telly and now we have one ourselves,” says Helen.
She plans to turn over areas for community, charitable, social enterprise and start up businesses on peppercorn rents, along with hot desking (renting out shared desks).
“I see no point in success unless you share it, give something back,” she explains. “The Fylde has been good to us. But we need to do more to help the community, particularly young people. They get a raw deal by and large. They are different, more technologically savvy, but if you’re really shrewd you can channel that to the company’s advantage through social networking and you get invaluable feedback as well.”
Her view of the area’s economic outlook is optimistic. “We deal with freelances so we’re on the frontline, we know when times are good or bad, and it’s my belief that things are picking up. I think people prepared to really work hard will always do well in any economy - of course it helps if they provide the right service. We do. It’s grown beyond our expectations. And, of course, as more people are made redundant, more businesses are starting up, and they all need help.”
Two key appointments, of John Thorburn, director of accounting, and Chris Rhodes, director of umbrella services, proved a pivotal point at the same time as the move to Whitehills in 2005. Damian has head-hunted other high flyers since. The company has been listed in the Sunday Times Fast Track 100 Companies in the UK four times. Offices have opened in Manchester and London.
But the Fylde remains home.
“I feel passionate about Blackpool and the Fylde,” says Helen. “The people have a great attitude to work, a lovely sense of humour and real compassion. It restores my faith. Every day I meet people I admire and am inspired by. They get on with life in an admirable way.”
The charitable and community work is driven by the staff’s charity and events committee, established two years ago. Helen considers it as crucial as the nuts and bolts of the accountancy, payroll, taxation and other services, all bound by stringent compliance systems and up to date with legislative changes and other challenges.
“In an industry such as this you need time out,” says Helen. House rules include no eating at desks. “I want staff to have a break.” It’s very different to the stereotypical imagery of accountancy as a worthy but dull.
And that’s set to bloom with the move to Jubilee House by Christmas next year. Conlon move in this week to start the transformation from semi-derelict spacious but sterile office blocks into something more appropriate to the Danbro ethos. As for Helen, the new keeper of the West Wing? “Danbro is my passion. We never set out to be a multi million pound company employing over 100. We set out to pay the bills, have a reasonable living. It’s been phenomenal. And it’s a growing sector.
“Many, through the recession, haven’t been left with a choice so they take short term contracts.
“Others are no longer employed directly but through recruitment companies and they still need help with work and tax.
“I would love to say in five years time the chartered payroll profession is just as worthy a career to pursue as chartered accountancy. We reward them the same but accountancy is more recognised.
“We are growing business all the time - and not just for contractors. I feel genuinely positive. Britain is good at bouncing back - and Lancashire’s the best.”
One of her greatest hopes is that the Fylde doesn’t miss out on any employment bonanza afforded by shale gas.
“We are already knocking on a few doors and well positioned to make the most of every opportunity.
“We’ve got to support it because potentially it will help business, create jobs, wealth and opportunities for kids growing up. And if they don’t do it here they will do it somewhere else.”