The head and founder of Northumberland's largest independent firm of accountants Patricia Arnold takes life's challenges in her stride, as Peter Jackson discovers.
PATRICIA Arnold was only 25 and a part-qualified accountant when she took the telephone call.
It was her father, telling her that the South Wales-based family business, Richards, a small department store, founded by her grandfather in 1909, was in deep trouble.
She recalls: “He said he had very significant financial problems and would I help. It was a slightly scary thing to do when I look back on it.
“I was the age my eldest son is now and I don’t know that I would have the courage to go to ask his advice.”
She tells me the story in her offices in Black House, a large rambling building with many annexes. It is her family home as well as the offices of Patricia J Arnold & Co.
It is set in the rural outskirts of the north of Hexham and a soothing backdrop to our conversation is provided by the bleating of sheep in neighbouring fields and gentle baroque orchestral music playing in the main office.
The story she tells has a happy ending. With the help of her principal at Grant Thornton, the accountants to whom she was articled, and a sympathetic bank, she put together a rescue package and the business was saved.
Arnold says: “We sold some property, invested some money in a pension fund for my father. That pension fund is now paying his care home fees.
“If I hadn’t got involved, his old age might not be as pleasant and comfortable as it is now.”
It must have taken some self-assurance on her part, but she had had some preparation having been educated as one of four ‘experimental’ girls’ at a boys’ public school in the 1970s.
“It’s probably why I’ve found it easy to be in a male dominated profession. I must be one of the few women who is a Queen’s Scout because there weren’t enough women to have a Rangers’ group.”
It’s clear that she is – in the nicest way – a formidable lady, though as she relaxes into the interview it also becomes apparent that she has a ready, impish sense of humour.
After school, where she met her husband Adrian, she went to university in London and then joined Grant Thornton. Her husband became a civil engineer and when in 1980, his work brought him to work on the South Shields extension to the Metro, she transferred to Grant Thornton’s Newcastle office.
“After his two year site experience, by which time I was qualified, we decided we loved this area so much we would try to stay here and we have succeeded in doing that,” she says.
They stayed despite the fact that in the wake of the rescue of the family business she continued to do the books, becoming de facto FD of a South Wales store. Then, in 1985, she left Grant Thornton to set up her own practice.
“I left Grant Thornton at the point where they put a partner appraisal form in front of me,” she says. “I wanted to spend more time with the family business and I realised that as a partner in a firm of that size I was going to spend more of my professional life arguing with other chartered accountants about where to stick things on the balance sheet.
“I liked the FD role and I liked getting involved in the business. I still offer that type of role for the family business that doesn’t have the size or inclination to have their own financial expert in-house.”
This meant she was building her own practice in the North East and travelling two days a week to Abergavenny to do the books for Richards.
“By leaving here at 5am, driving to Carlisle and changing trains at Crewe, I could be in the business in Wales by 9.30am. Then I would catch a train at 5.30pm and be in bed by 11pm.
“It made a difference to the amount of energy I had to grow the business here so the business grew quite slowly for that first decade. Until we sold the business in Wales in 1996 my involvement grew and there was a point in 1992 where I took over as MD and we put a manager in so my father could step down. Then we sold it as a going concern in 1996 and it’s still there.”
After the sale of the store, she was able to concentrate full time on the practice and Patricia J Arnold & Co took off. She estimates that between 1996 and 2000, when she moved into Black House with five staff, turnover probably doubled. Since then it has grown sixfold and the firm has 14 professional and two support staff.
The business has outgrown Black House and Arnold is in negotiation with the local authority over a planning application for the old Red Cross HQ in Hexham which it acquired 18 months ago.
Clients, who include family businesses, family trusts and high net worths, are located largely in the North East, with “a smattering” around the UK including London.
She says: “About 40% of the business is pure tax work and 60% is family businesses of various sizes. I usually have one business, which, if they’re lucky, is going to make it big and, if they’re not, probably won’t survive. I’m now working with some of the businesses I’ve acted for since the very beginning on planning for succession and the next generation, which is a very rewarding thing to be doing.”
Something she also finds rewarding is fundraising. She might once have been described as pillar of the community, but would probably now be called a poster girl for the Big Society.
She explains: “I come from a small town and I think they are hugely valuable and perhaps underrated communities. People are enthusiastic about villages, and cities clearly have lots of resources, but in small towns the youngsters tend to want to get away.
“I feel a community like this has a lot to offer the people who live in it and if one is lucky enough to live in such a community, you should be as much a part of it as you are able to.” She was treasurer of PCC in Warden when she lived there and was involved in fundraising concerts in her capacity as a Rotarian.
When her mother died in 2004 she organised a concert at the Sage Gateshead, featuring opera stars Rita Cullis and Graeme Danby, which raised some £15,000 for the Tynedale Hospice and Macmillan Cancer Support. She is also involved with the Calvert Trust. She is also on the fundraising committee of the Hexham Abbey Project Appeal to develop the Abbey and former adjoining monastic buildings and organised a concert with Graeme Danby at the Abbey which raised £7,000.
“I am an active member of the church but, with regard to the Hexham Abbey Project Appeal, I very much look at it in terms of its physical advantage to Hexham,” she says. “I am a card carrying member of the Church of England, but I’m not evangelical, let’s put it that way. I feel people meet their gods in lots of different ways.”
Since 2009 the firm has been a main sponsor of the Tynedale Beer Festival, which this year made £60,000 for charity.
Perhaps here her interest was not entirely altruistic, as she has been a member of the Campaign for Real Ale almost since its foundation, having developed a taste for beer at university when spirits and wine were beyond the student budget.
When she became a sponsor of the festival, a perk was that a local brewer brewed her an ale which she could name.
“Hexhamshire Brewery has made me this lovely golden hoppy beer as a summer beer and we called it Liquidity. I must be one of the few accountants who has their own beer label.”
Apart from real ale, her other passions are music and walking, and all three of her children had climbed 1,000ft before their third birthdays.
Arnold and her husband have a cottage in the Lakes where they walk and they have taken to tackling long distances, having so far completed the White Peak Way, Suffolk Coast Path, Hadrian’s Wall Path, St Cuthbert’s Way, and the Cumbria Way. Music, she says, has become an increasing part of her life and apart from sponsoring the Abbey Festival, her firm also supports the Brinkburn Festival.
“I have always loved classical music concerts and we have been subscribers to the Sinfonia for some time. I don’t really play, but I can open a piano and pick out the notes. My husband was a choirboy, my father-in-law was a chorister and my father played the violin. I like jazz and we try to go to Ronnie Scott’s if we go to London.
“We are the 1970s generation and music has never been the same since, nobody has been able to do things like David Bowie, or Dire Straits or Roxy Music.
“We have this music and walking thing, both are places where you can find God, in addition to Hexham Abbey.”
She may say she is not evangelical, but Arnold is a woman of strong opinions. All her employees – apart from an IT consultant and someone who takes the role of mentor and sounding board – are women.
She explains: “When I first advertised for a secretary as a part-time role, I was overwhelmed by the response in terms of applications, and their quality and the disparate nature of the people who applied.
“When I looked at all those CVs, I realised there is a shortage of jobs out there for women who have taken a career break who want a job that gives them responsibility and interest, but they don’t want to go back to whatever high-powered job with long working hours they did before they had their families.
“I felt that gave me an opportunity as an employer and I have continued to offer that degree of flexibility. You should be able to do that juggling, you should be able to have a job that is satisfying and fulfilling and do the mum bit too. I did.”
Many people are coy about disclosing their ages but Arnold, 56, has no such inhibition.
She says: “I’ve got grey hair and I’m proud of it, and I have a really strong feeling that we spend too much of our lives trying to be young.
“In reality, there are huge advantages to being older. We have to admit we go grey. I bring a huge amount to what I do because you acquire a bit of wisdom. I like being 56.
“There is an assumption that if you do this sort of job that you’d rather be singing or organising music or climbing a hill, but I love what I do.
“Nobody asks Judy Dench when she’s going to retire.”