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Music store owner Andrew Wasson, of Creative Guitar Studio in Winnipeg, Man.

Tax filing time rolls around and many small business owners cling to their accountants, the essential translators of the mysteries of Canada Revenue, to help them through the ordeal. But during the rest of the year, when should an entrepreneur pay for the skills of an accountant?

Andrew Wasson has run Creative Guitar Studio in Winnipeg, Man., for 18 years. He decided early on that an accountant was going to play as important a role in his music school's success as his own skills on the fret board.

"I started the business first and worked at it for six weeks, then I realized that if this was going to be a business that would generate good income then I had to figure out how to track it all," he said.

Mr. Wasson found an accountant who showed him at their first meeting what he needed to do to keep his numbers in order, and how running the financial matters of his business in a particular way would be to his benefit.

"It was a crucial meeting and I used the system he set up for me for years," he said. "The first three months was a huge learning curve, but once I realized what I needed to do every month it was invaluable."

Originally, Creative Guitar Studio centred on teaching students in-house and hosting live events, but Mr. Wasson expanded online, selling a line of e-books and videos for guitar instruction, creating an international clientele in countries such as India and Argentina. "When this happened, I had to go to my accountant and ask him how to deal with it in the best way."

His company's size didn't matter. "I didn't think accountants would want to deal with me because as a sole proprietorship I was so small, but that wasn't the case."

A chat with accountancy professionals confirms that few small businesses know what an accountant could do for them.

Nabil Khoshkhesal runs his chartered accountancy firm in downtown Vancouver, with clients ranging from chiropractors and law firms to construction, manufacturing and retail operations. The needs of each differ, he says, but one thing they have in common is little understanding of when to call an accountant.

"They generally come to see us when it is too late," he said. "In our first meeting with a client, we usually identify issues they just had no idea about. It's an eye-opener for them."

Mr. Khoshkhesal said his company learns about a client's background and long-term objectives and then reduces the risks inherent in the process. Finding a reliable chartered accountant can mean avoiding trouble with the government later.

"In cases like that, we have to step in and clean it up, and cleanup is always far more expensive," he said. "To safeguard your interests it is better to [work with a CA]from the beginning. I find some come to us two or three years in and unfortunately a lot of things they could have taken advantage of [are lost]"

This includes time-sensitive tax credits available to startups, he said. "In some cases I've seen the losses to be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars, especially for construction companies," he said. "You see this happen and you think there is nothing you can do."

Once everything is established, future meetings can be weekly, monthly or quarterly, depending on the company. For sole proprietorships, once a year is probably enough, Mr. Khoshkhesal said, but for growing incorporated companies it should be more frequent.

Mario Costa, a partner in Shpak & Co., based in Tsawwassen, B.C., said that different companies need help at different times, but that when rules change, his firm gets calls. The introduction this year of the HST tax in B.C. was a case in point. "Business owners can't be expected to stay on top of these things and run their companies," he said.

Sixty per cent of his firm's clients are suburban businesses, including home-based, light industrial and agricultural firms. Mr. Costa said accountants can tell a small business owner about local tax differences, such as credits for apprentices in B.C. that are not available in Ontario or Manitoba.

Accounting software is useful, he said, but it cannot assess what the figures and rules mean in the way a trained accountant can. "Software is not going to tell you, 'Oh you have a problem over here.' It just processes the numbers."

Music school owner Mr. Wasson said he uses software for regular bookkeeping, and that after working closely with his accountant over 18 years, he now needs to speak to him far less often. Instead, they touch base several times a year to talk about expansion advice and tax changes.

When friends come to him for advice about starting their own businesses, Mr. Wasson always points them in the direction of an accountant, who can tailor their plan.

"I've been helped so much. It has really made the company work," he said.