The public accounting scene in Singapore - like anywhere else in the world - is dominated by the Big Four firms. In addition to commanding top dollar for their services, they also dominate the top tier of public accounting services provided, - including international tax consulting, risk management and M&A advisory.
The small firms here - typically run by one or two partners - usually do the jobs that are too small for the Big Four. They focus on basic accounting, audit and tax compliance services for smaller clients who cannot afford the top rates of the Big Four.
But one small practice here has turned out to be quite the maverick in this landscape.
The Iyer Practice has cast off statutory audit services - the bread-and-butter of small accounting firms - to take up the top tier of accounting services, international tax, trusts and regulatory consulting. And, it has done so while keeping it all within the family.
The firm was started 20 years ago by chartered accountant Shanker Iyer, 62, who comes from a long line of chartered accountants. "It's in the blood," he quips.
Mr Iyer gained experience in a wide range of public accounting services working as a partner for Moores Rowland in the United Kingdom and Singapore, and then as a finance director in an international trading group in the UK and the Middle East. He then decided to come home and landed up setting up his own firm.
The Iyer Practice for most of the past two decades, provided basic consultancy, audit, accountancy, taxation and corporate services. With Mr Iyer at the helm, it focused on international clients wishing to do business in Singapore.
Mr Iyer - who has served as chairman of the Singapore International Chamber of Commerce and chairman of the British Chambers of Commerce, a position which earned him an Order of the British Empire (OBE) - decided in recent years to alter the focus of his business; it was a decision motivated by two factors.
"In my view, the traditional accounting practice was getting commoditised and we needed to differentiate ourselves to succeed and grow," he said.
The other reason was that his two sons, having racked up years of experience - one in international tax and the other in financial services - in the UK, decided about a year and a half ago to come back home and join their dad's firm.
"Because they specialised in these areas, they're of the highest level, and we thought it was a great opportunity for us to grow the firm with their expertise in these areas; we thought it was logical to build two pillars of our firm along these services," he explained.
His elder son, Sunil, 34, an - Oxford University graduate, worked as a derivatives trader with Deutsche Bank and then with PwC's financial services group in the UK. He oversees the firm's financial services practice, serving the smaller clients that "can't or don't want to afford the Big Four fees", say Mr Iyer.
"Another area Sunil is specialising in is wealth management and trust. We have had a licence with MAS (Monetary Authority of Singapore) for the last five years - Singtrust. This fits in very nicely with our client base, because many of them are high net worth clients who want to think about asset protection and so on."
The firm is possibly the only certified public accounting firm here that has a commonly owned trust company licensed by the MAS.
As for what made Sunil give up a lucrative career in the UK for a place in his father's firm, Sunil said: "The business is in a very exciting place, with lots of potential to grow further. It's rewarding to be part of that and working in a smaller business means that I have more input into the direction of the firm."
Younger brother, Sanjay, 29, is the firm's international tax guru - and the reason The Iyer Practice now has an office in Hong Kong, where its international tax practice is headquartered.
Sanjay started his career with EY before getting a Masters in international tax. "He is only in his 20s, but so strong in his field," his proud father says.
"Sanjay oversees the firm's international tax practice - he helps clients set up structuring and so on. He will bring in ideas about new things to look out for, new trends in tax; he makes sure our clients are aware of these issues and risks before they plan."
The Hong Kong office, where Sanjay is based, also offers private client services, HR and regulatory consulting.
As for why they decided to set up there, Mr Iyer explained that the Hong Kong market requires the same range of services his firm is providing in Singapore, and that Hong Kong is in a good space in the international tax arena, having also signed better tax treaties than Singapore. He feels it puts his firm in the unique position of being able to offer tax structuring and advisory for Hong Kong clients thinking of using Singapore as a base or one of their destinations.
The new businesses are rapidly contributing to the overall practice. "When we divested our audit business to a long serving staff member in 2012, we probably lost about 20 to 30 per cent of our business. Our biggest fear then was, how soon can we recover this? But we have been able to recover a lot of that already and I'm sure that, by the next year, we'll be more than recovering it," he said.
It also helps that the firm has just gone through an extensive rebranding/strategic review process - a $100,000 exercise sponsored by Spring Singapore because the governmental agency, dedicated to the promotion of Singapore's economic growth and productivity, recognised The Iyer Practice's potential.
The firm will be unveiling its new positioning and look on Jan 1.
These days, with his two sons blazing the trail for the firm in its new service offerings, Mr Iyer said his place is to "open doors for them, tapping on the connections I have from having been here the last 20 to 30 years; my role is now to mentor them and to connect them to the market, and they're sharp enough to then take over the relationship".
And just to show how much of a real family business the firm has become, Mr Iyer said his wife Lata has also joined the practice, after many years in the conference business. "I would call her our managing partner - she runs the business, she drives the business," he said.
With the entire family invested in developing the practice, it's not a surprise that it has made an impact on the industry. "We believe we have been able to make a mark in our chosen niche, evidenced by the fact that we are competing successfully with the Big Four firms and other major international professional firms. We compete on high quality personalised service rather than on price.
"We have youth and energy on our side, which should make a big difference - it's hard for anyone to compete directly with that."