Finance: Seismic shifts in accounting as firms jostle for position

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The Independent Culture
As mega-mergers loom in the accountancy profession, other firms are moving into new positions. Baker Tilly is among those planning for change, says Roger Trapp.

Of itself, the decision by the UK accountancy firm Baker Tilly to abandon its links with BKR International in favour of the Summit International network is not that significant. Ever since concluding its merger with rival firm Casson Beckman late last year, it has had that option, through the smaller Casson being part of the larger grouping, Summit.

Whatever emotional ties it might have had with BKR, the greater clout of Summit, the world's 11th largest accounting network with combined turnover (including Baker Tilly) of $850m, must have been irresistible.

As Laurence Longe, Baker Tilly managing partner, makes clear, this is an optimal time for organisations like his to get their alliances in order. With the planned mega-mergers involving Coopers & Lybrand, Price Waterhouse, KPMG and Ernst & Young likely to go through in one form or another later this year and the once seemingly impregnable Arthur Andersen apparently set on self-destruction, there is plenty of opportunity for segmentation in the market, he adds.

While the giant firms will inevitably attract the lion's share of business from the household-name global companies, he and his colleagues are confident that there will be plenty of work for them in the future.

Pointing out that the vast majority of companies in most countries are far below typical Big Four clients in size, he says that increasing numbers of these are in effect "pocket-sized multinationals" - or small organisations with international reach.

Accordingly, they need accountants and other advisers with that sort of capacity. Unlike the Big Four clients, though, he maintains that they do not need huge organisations to advise them as much as they require networks made up of firms that are significant in individual countries - in the way that, say, Baker Tilly (13th in the UK) is.

Moreover, he anticipates that being part of an international organisation like Summit will make firms such as Baker Tilly more attractive to clients that might previously have gone to Big Six firms for advice.

Countless surveys on both sides of the Atlantic have pointed to the growing importance of medium-sized and independently owned organisations, and reports from the US of American Express buying up middle-tier firms adds to the view that this is a market worth tapping into.

Indeed, the very biggest accountancy firms have spent a good part of the 1990s seeking to protect themselves against fall-out and consolidation among their large clients by developing expertise in a market that had previously been left to smaller firms. And a lot of their much-publicised success in corporate finance league tables has been a result of advising buyouts and similar deals not deemed worthy of the attention of the established merchant banks and other financial institutions.

But many are predicting that such gains could soon disappear once the mergers go ahead. Whatever the managements of these firms say about their commitment to "the stars of tomorrow", owner-managers are in many cases going to take a lot of persuading that they mean very much to a firm that has its attention focused on helping the Microsofts, the BPs and the Citibanks of this world.

As a result, Mr Longe is hopeful of picking up clients on the grounds that they will "prefer a personal service from a firm like Baker Tilly".

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