Established in nineteen ninety-four, Clarke Bell has been setting the standard for insolvency practices across the country for almost a quarter of a century. Securing an unprecedented four awards at this year’s Insolytics Insolvency Awards, this is the home of the country’s Top and Number Two Corporate Insolvency Practitioner by Appointment Count. We visited the Manchester head office to uncover the secret behind the firm’s success and discover why Clarke Bell is proud to be doing things a little differently.

We step out from our taxi into the middle of Manchester’s corporate district. Nestled between the shops and offices of King Street, the Pinnacle Building is an impressive presence. Floors of glinting tinted windows and fresh chrome communicate the confidence and authority you would expect from one of the country’s top insolvency practices.

Inside we ascend to the right floor via the lift and are shown into the boardroom. From our vantage point, several floors up, we get a brief glimpse into the courtyard below as sunlight streams in through the windows. As we are chatting, a loud voice can be heard in the corridor outside and the door opens. John Bell strides into the room with a warm and energetic presence he shakes both of our hands. He speaks quickly and laughs frequently and has an infectious charm. After a few minutes, Toyah and Katie both walk in, broadly smiling and laughing and joking with us as we set our cameras up for shots. What is immediately obvious is the warmth and regard between the team. They have the appearance of a family, chatting freely and complete each other’s sentences and anecdotes. They are clearly at ease here and their warmth and consideration are an unexpected breath of fresh air.

We take our shots quickly and we have quite a number to get through. Clarke Bell has secured four separate trophies, securing fifth place nationally for Members’ Voluntary Liquidations, eighth place nationally for overall corporate appointment count and John Bell and Toyah Poole have secured first and second place respectively for individual practitioner corporate appointment count.

With the photos out of the way we all sit around the large boardroom table with steaming mugs of hot coffee, to discuss the Clarke Bell story and how the firm has gotten to this point today.

An ambitious beginning

It was the mid-nineteen-eighties when John graduated from Liverpool John Moores University. As a teenager from the remote Pennines market town of Alston, he had longed for more adventure in life and decided to undertake his accountancy training at Grant Thornton and Smith and Williamson in London. Here he enjoyed the fast pace of commercial life and excelled, quickly completing his accountancy training, and progressing onto Insolvency Practitioner training. This was the recession era of the late eighties and early nineties, with opportunities opening up nationally for young practitioners within the field. After several years, John and his wife relocated to Manchester.

In nineteen ninety-four, armed with only a copy of the Yellow Pages and a space in a service business centre, John took the plunge and decided to begin his own insolvency practice. Starting from scratch, John picked up the phone. Through tenacity and dogged determination, he began to build relationships with several local accountants, and many continue on to this day.

By the winter of nineteen ninety-four with very little sleep and many late nights, John had begun his business and welcomed his first son into the world, all within the same twelve hectic months. As each day went by he continued to steadily grow his contacts and relationships.

John realized that the key to success was to lay firm secure foundations for business growth. Part of this plan was to hire the right people and nurture a different type of corporate culture.

Journey to qualification

At the age of seventeen, Toyah Poole had left school having obtained a good set of GCSEs. She had always wanted to train within accountancy and finance but the college course she enrolled on was alienating and uninspiring. Looking around for alternatives Toyah applied to Clarke Bell to become an accounts assistant. Having joined the company Toyah enjoyed the challenge and dynamism of working hands-on within accounts. She learned quickly and by twenty-five, she had obtained both her AAT and ACCA qualifications.

John could see that his decision to hire a young and ambitious school leaver had been a step in the right direction. This was a confirmation to him of the people he needed to hire and values he wanted the firm to stand for. When other large firms were looking to hire from a small pool of similar applicants, John sought to take on young local people with raw talent. Utilizing emerging apprenticeships and full training to become qualified Insolvency Practitioners.

Toyah recognized the trust she had gained from John and the team and this encouraged her to work harder than ever. Whilst still in her mid-twenties she studied to gain her CPI in just twelve months and finally the JIEB in a further twelve months. After three sets of gruelling exam papers, she was finally given the news. At just twenty-six she was now one of the youngest qualified Insolvency Practitioners in the country.

Toyah had a huge sense of achievement and satisfaction on securing her license as a qualified Insolvency Practitioner. As a qualified practitioner, she was now able to be truly autonomous and undertake any type of personal or corporate insolvency appointment. She fully embraced her new role and began to oversee the majority of the CVLs, CVAs and MVLs within the firm. Toyah’s technical ability grounded by her empathy and straight-forward communication style helped her win clients and many recommendations.

Over the years Clarke Bell consistently undertook a wide variety of personal and corporate insolvency appointments. Each year John aimed to steadily build on the success and reputation of the previous year. This tenacity and dedication paid off as the firm became one of the top ten practices for corporate insolvency appointments in the country.

By two thousand and sixteen, Clarke Bell was now very well-established. Toyah’s success, the company’s growing caseload and low staff turnover were all telling John one thing; that doing things differently was paying off. The firm was building a solid reputation as a company that looked after their clients, grew their staff and could get the job done. Katie Dixon soon followed in Toyah’s footsteps, undertaking the CPI and JIEB exams in March 2017 to become a fully qualified Insolvency Practitioner. The firm now had three licensed insolvency practitioners and bucked the national trend, with a majority female senior team.

An ever creative force, John soon realized that the insolvency industry was changing. Clients were no longer looking for remote experts but for accessible, customer-focused practitioners to provide help and support with all insolvency issues they would encounter throughout life. John, Toyah and Katie decided to undertake the SWAT UK certificate in Estate and Probate Administration. This qualification allows each of them to undertake any non-contentious probate work in England and Wales and has proved to be beneficial in a number of insolvency appointments where the client is deceased. This means the firm is providing low-cost probate services in the same way that they are providing low-cost liquidations. Today Clarke Bell is one of few firms that can fully undertake these appointments and help keep things accessible and manageable for families, at a very difficult time.

Looking to the future

Coming towards the end of the interview, we ask the three for their thoughts on achieving a record four awards. Picking up his award, feeling its solid weight, John smiles,

“It’s such an achievement, we are incredibly proud.”

Toyah nods in agreement, adding

“It’s just great to be recognized, and appreciated, especially by someone independent.”

For the future, each agrees with their tried and tested method for solid sustained growth. John has a glint of excitement in his eye as the three discuss website changes and appointment developments, recruitment and research ideas.

As we head towards the door we look back on the female-strong team of home-grown practitioners, delivering insolvency appointments into their twenty-fifth anniversary year. On the boardroom table, four small glass reflections shift and glimmer; four testaments to vision, tenacity and doing things a little differently.

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