If there is one thing accountants eagerly await, it is AllemaalDigitaal. You headed en masse to the Ghelamco in Ghent on 28 February, where Belgium’s most popular accountancy event took place.
There were a lot of interesting people on the stage. Organizers Sven Cornelis and Glenn Vandamme of Finplex asked for rounds of applause for:
- Lisa Miles-Heal, CEO, Silverfin
- Hans Leybaert, CEO, UnifiedPost
- Petteri Rantamäki, Board member, Visma
- Paul Ramakers, CEO, Exact
- Jean de Crane, CEO, Isabel Group
These men and women treated us to wise insights and shared pointed opinions. Here is an overview of what stuck with us.
1. E-invoicing & e-reporting are high on the agenda
It was the subject of more than one discussion: the new European ViDA legislation, and the current lack of a Belgian framework. Is everyone looking to software vendors to take a prominent role in this story?
Jean de Crane, CEO of the Isabel Group: “The European and Belgian regulations mean that accounting software vendors will need to follow up e-invoicing with greater priority. But when can we expect something in Belgium? That is probably the story of the chicken and the egg, with stakeholders looking at each other for this. At Isabel Group, we put one thing first: making the process for accountants as simple as possible.”
On to the French model?
Hans Leybaert, CEO of Unified Post: “Belgium seems to mirror the strict French e-invoicing model; almost all step within the invoicing process pass through the government there. For every reaction – refusal of an invoice, for example – you have a maximum of 48 hours. As you can guess, that requires intensive follow-up from all parties. Anyway, let’s wait for the tax reform first; our country wants to link these issues.”
“By the way, do you know which European country has the largest VAT gap?” The public voted overwhelmingly for the Netherlands or Germany; those who went for the latter were right. “But above all, let’s not look beyond ourselves,” added Hans, “because in Belgium we can do something about this too. Hopefully the e-reporting and e-invoicing laws will close this gap further.”
“Belgium seems to mirror the strict French e-invoicing model; almost all step within the invoicing process pass through the government there.” (Hans Leybaert, CEO Unified Post)
2. Backlash against consolidation
“Recently, there has been a backlash against the consolidation trend,” asserted Petteri Rantamäki, Visma board member, holding the microphone firmly in hand. “We have seen this wave of consolidation around the world; at Visma, we’ve observed a few larger players taking almost 50% of the market. But at the same time, since 2022, there has been a growth of smaller offices with fewer than 10 employees.”
“And those business certainly have their strengths. From what I see, they are putting a lot more effort into customer relationships. I think a lot of these new offices are initiatives by accountants who have worked in the larger firms, and want to do things differently. Often they go digital right from the off, and are much better able to focus on customer relationships.”
“Since 2022, there has been a growth of smaller offices with fewer than 10 employees.” (Petteri Rantamäki, Visma)
3. Belgium vs. the rest of the world: international perspectives
Sitting down on a stool, Dutchman Paul Ramakers, the CEO of Exact, added: “We also have personnel shortages in the Netherlands. That’s why I believe in the power of good digital tools for the accountancy office. Exact’s strategy is to go for that ecosystem instead of developing everything ourselves. Of course, we are critical. The connections we offer must have quality and add value for our customers.”
Organizer Glenn from Finplex paused for a moment. “Do you also have Bokrijk offices in the Netherlands?”
Paul looked confused for a moment, but the (Belgian) audience immediately knew what he meant. Glenn was referring to the two digital speeds: some offices that pretty much refuse to take digital steps, and others that gorge themselves on it like flies on molasses.
“Yes,” Paul continued, “we know those two speeds too. I don’t have the feeling that we are further ahead in the Netherlands than you are in Belgium. Besides, you guys are great when it comes to customer intimacy. We could learn something from you. Opening up knowledge lines and learning from each other would be beneficial for both countries, I think.”
“I don’t have the feeling that we are further ahead in the Netherlands than you are in Belgium. Besides, you guys are great when it comes to customer intimacy.” (Paul Ramakers, CEO Exact)
The unconscious asset of the Belgian
Lisa Miles-Heal, CEO of Silverfin, began by complimenting our Belgian style. “You don’t realize how much cooperation and administration are in your DNA,” she said.
“That is far from the case everywhere in the world. Of course, there is a certain level of complexity. So maintain that spontaneous reflex of collaboration, but put that administrative merry-go-round to rest.”
“Digital change happens very quickly – that’s true everywhere. To keep people motivated, you have to communicate the reason for change as well as the ultimate goal. You know what helps? Visualizing your goal. Recently, during a meeting, I asked attendees to hold their hands in front of their eyes. There was some awkward shuffling at first, but then they joined in. I told them to imagine the result we wanted to achieve with the project. If you visualize something, you can work towards it much better. Then you don’t immediately think of measuring points and milestones.”
(Okay, Lisa; noted for our next meeting.)
“You don’t realize how much cooperation and administration are in your DNA” (Lisa Miles-Heal, CEO Silverfin)
4. Three more things:
The ideal number of files per accountant?
Petteri, Glenn and Sven concluded that the ideal number was somewhere between 20 and 40, if – and this is important – you want to capitalize on that advisory role and a close customer relationship. Could the number of files per accountant be higher? Perfectly possible, but then you switch to another type of office with a focus on pure bookkeeping.
Jean de Crane introduced another new relevant item: Request-to-Pay. “I think accountants are mostly frustrated with the different ways companies can pay an invoice – especially through online platforms.”
“Request-to-Pay is a service that wants to facilitate real-time payments, and set another standard for them. B2B payments can be made directly from the data of an invoice. This idea is in full swing, but I still expect some shifts in the payments market. Moreover, we have to make sure that the objectives of all stakeholders in this story are aligned. This is not an easy task, because they are very different.”
“I still expect some shifts in the payments market. Moreover, we have to make sure that the objectives of all stakeholders in this story are aligned. This is not an easy task, because they are very different.” (Jean de Crane, Isabel Group)
And the word of the day? Ecosystem.
Pretty much all the guest speakers agreed wholeheartedly: building ecosystems as an accounting software provider is the way to go.