Graham Cantlay CA reveals why Robb Ferguson wants to keep one foot firmly in the past
With a history dating back more than 140 years, Glasgow-based Robb Ferguson is focused on organic growth and shrewd recruitment. Partner Graham Cantlay CA discusses its past, present and future with Fraser Allen
John Wright Robb was a prominent figure in Glasgow’s late Victorian art scene, serving as Secretary of the Glasgow Art Club and the Royal Scottish Society of Painters in Watercolour. He was, though, an accountant by profession, and established a practice in Glasgow’s West George Street in the 1880s. The business grew and evolved through the decades, merging with Russ Ferguson MacLennan in the 1960s, then Hardie, MacFarlane and Jackson in the 1970s, occasionally moving to new offices around the city. Today, though, as Robb Ferguson Chartered Accountants, the practice has returned to its roots.
“We now have a top-floor, purpose-built office in West Regent Street,” says Partner Graham Cantlay CA. “I always liked the idea of being in the ‘Glasgow grid’, where most of the professional firms are based, and now we’re just one street from where John Wright Robb started the business. We’re back where it all began.”
Cantlay well remembers the day he joined Robb Ferguson as a trainee. “It was Friday 13 August 1999,” he says. “A lot has changed – back then everything was done on paper and there was only one computer in the office. However, it was a friendly, supportive environment, with a sociable side that was good for me as a young guy wanting to get to know people. And importantly, there were great career development opportunities for anyone who showed willing and was keen to take on more responsibility.”
Raring to go
Cantlay credits a great-uncle for prompting his interest in accountancy. “He worked as a CA in the Middle East in the 1950s for an oil company, and did very well for himself,” he says. “And at school I was good at the mathematical subjects rather than the arts ones.” Cantlay graduated from Glasgow Caledonian University with an ordinary BA in accountancy and had no intention of hanging around to do his honours. “It wouldn’t have given me any further exemptions for my ICAS exams and, for me, university was just a stepping stone to qualifying as an accountant,” he says. “I was hungry, with a fair degree of ambition, and I wanted to get started.”
When offered a trainee post at Robb Ferguson, Cantlay jumped at the chance and went on to pass his CA exams. “I’m very proud of being an ICAS member,” he says, pointing to his framed CA certificate on the wall. He took a stake in the business in 2008. “There was always a bit of a chat about me becoming a Partner and, deep down, I guess I always wanted to,” he says. “My father ran his own engineering supply business, so it was in the blood.”
Unusually, all three Robb Ferguson partners began there as trainees. Janice Alexander joined in 1995 and qualified as a CA in 1998, winning the ICAS award for top student during her traineeship. She heads the firm’s audit department and is its ICAS Training Principal – the company now takes on five or six trainees every year. The board is completed by Managing Partner, Andy Logan, who qualified in 1986 and became a Partner in 1988.
The business is now bigger than ever, with a head count of 47, and provides everything you’d expect from a full-service CA firm (insolvency work aside). “There’s so much going on in the accountancy world with the competition in recruitment and firms merging with bigger companies,” says Cantlay. “That’s why we’re big supporters of traineeships, but it also means we find ourselves in an exciting place. We’re in the middle ground and the bandwidth between the smaller firms and the big nationals feels like it’s getting wider, opening up more opportunities for us.
“When our clients consult us, they’re speaking to a partner in the business, and we can make independent decisions quickly. We’re big enough to offer a wealth of expertise, but of a size where we still have a really strong team culture. And we encourage our senior colleagues who aren’t partners to take strong leadership roles too.”
As a result, the firm’s immediate ambitions are simply further steady growth. “We’ve seen good organic growth through word of mouth over the past 24 months,” says Cantlay. “That’s the path we want to continue on.”
John Wright Robb would surely approve. “When we moved to the new office, we looked at getting a snazzy new telephone number to go with it,” says Cantlay. “But, clearing out, we found an old letter from the 1960s advising clients we were changing our telephone number to the one we have today. We put a pen through the idea of changing it again. You can’t buy that kind of history.”