Finance: The Glory of Mr Swinson

The new president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants is no mere number cruncher. By Roger Trapp
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Anybody who has had even the slightest dealings with Chris Swinson will not have been a bit surprised that he concluded his first speech as president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales with a bit of verse.

Over the years, Mr Swinson has been a powerful counterbalance to the idea that accountants are all dull number crunchers whose favourite bedtime reading is a DTI investigation report. A distinctly larger-than-life character, he has enlivened even the dullest meetings of the institute's council with well-rounded "bons mots", quick repartee and the odd disquisition on obscure avenues of popular culture.

Accordingly, he leaps to the defence of Rudyard Kipling, author of one of the two poems chosen for his speech. Explaining that the poet had been much misunderstood as a jingoist, he says that "The Glory Of The Garden" is "a great favourite", with a theme that devalues those who sit around and take the credit "while better men than we" keep things moving.

Though Mr Swinson - with his old- fashioned suits, courtly manners and fondness for good living - can appear the epitome of the "old school tie" sort who traditionally run our great institutions, he is concerned that office-holders like himself should not get carried away by their own self-importance. And he claims the entreaty to the body's members to read the poem and its companion, "warty bliggens the toad" by the New York journalist Don Marquis, "seemed to be effective".

A deep thinker who does not always seem to find it easy to understand why others disagree with him, Mr Swinson has not always had things his own way. Several years ago, he found himself suddenly out his job as national managing partner at the then leading second-tier firm BDO Binder Hamlyn after what is generally assumed to be a dispute over the firm's future strategy. The firm is now part of the Arthur Andersen organisation and Mr Swinson has assumed a senior minister-without- portfolio-type role at Stoy Hayward, which has taken his old firm's place in the BDO international network and has set itself up as avowedly anti- merger.

Nevertheless, for all Mr Swinson's insistence that it is Kipling's "poor bloody infantry" that matter, the institute is - at what could turn out to be a crucial period in its history - blessed with having three big names at its top. Elected alongside Mr Swinson at last week's annual meeting were Dame Sheila Masters, the KPMG partner who will combine the deputy presidency with her existing high-profile roles at the Bank of England and other parts of the public sector; and Graham Ward, a former boxing blue who has been leading the institute's battle for reform of the laws concerning auditors' liability for negligence, becomes vice-president.

The idea, says Mr Swinson, is that - as each of them assumes the presidency - they will continue with the policies being put in place now, so that things actually change. "We believe that we have an opportunity for three years to build on the strategy achieved under Chris Laine [his predecessor as president]."

Pointing out that it is impossible to change a bureaucracy as large as the institute overnight, he adds:

"It needs pressure and it needed office holders who were prepared to live with rocking seas for a while. The trouble with being president is that there's a bit of you that wants a nice time. But I believe you're not worth very much if you're only there to have a nice time. The real test is consistency over a period."

Certainly, the stop-change approach created by having presidents come in for a year, often on very different agendas, has in the past handed the initiative over to the organisation's secretariat - leading one disillusioned office-holder to remark that his only decisions were about the menus for the dinners he hosted and prompting the review that has begun to be acted on.

One idea - to give presidents longer terms of office - has not been acted on, largely because of practical problems. But the examination by Peter Gerrard QC has led to the president assuming more executive powers alongside a senior officer and devolving certain powers to a chairman of the council. And Mr Swinson believes that having a group of senior office- holders coming in on what amounts to one ticket will help reinforce the changes.

"The three of us are clear about the discomfort there will be. We don't want to create needless uncertainty, but we can't afford to dodge the fundamental questions that members have been asking for some time," he says.

Mr Swinson is more aware than many of his colleagues of the outside world's perception that the accountancy profession is not as effective as it might be about disciplining members who err from the straight and narrow. Back in the early 1990s, he - at a time when others in his profession were taking a more defensive line - admitted that there had been "a decline in the quality of accounting". This he attributed to the prevalence of financial engineering techniques later taken to task in the analyst Terry Smith's book Accounting for Growth. But he pointed to the intention to stop the rot demonstrated by the setting up of the Accounting Standards Board under David (now Sir David) Tweedie, and - eight years later - believes that the initiative has been largely successful. However, he points out that the real test will be posed by another economic downturn.

It is therefore understandable that he was given the task of coming up with a proposal for change that would meet critics' objections about self- regulation at the same time as keeping the role within the organisation's remit.

Though not everybody is agreed that even Mr Swinson's acknowledged intellect has come up with an effective solution, a scheme has nevertheless been drawn up and presented to the Government. It is a matter of frustration to him that ministers have not yet given their verdict on the plan.

But, despite his personal interest, Mr Swinson does not believe this is the most urgent issue facing the organisation. That accolade belongs to dealing with members' interests. There is such a wide variety of occupations covered by those holding the qualification chartered accountant that the institute has to find a way of serving them more effectively, he says.

This is behind the decision to divide the organisation into the directorates dealing with education and training, discipline and professional conduct and members' interests. Heads of these departments are at present being recruited. It is also behind the recently published document "Forging a New Partnership with Members" and - perhaps even more importantly - the consultation exercise on education and training that is now under way. Previous attempts to introduce a series of training options around a central core of skills have failed to win over members keen to protect what they see as a special qualification. But the continuing popularity in the business arena of the MBA and the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants examinations is putting intense pressure on the institute.

In addition to making the initial qualification fit the present requirements, it is essential that efforts are made to enhance continuing professional development. As Mr Swinson said in his speech at last week's annual meeting: "Most of our members well understand the commercial reality that anyone who does not develop and enhance his professional skills will suffer at the hands of the market."

Very much aware that these and other initiatives will require a lot of hard work and possibly even more diplomacy, he is, however, sure this is a fight worth fighting.

"Professional bodies matter," he says, as if in answer to those who feel that organisations such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants have outlived their usefulness. "Professional bodies exist to maintain a culture in which practitioners are reminded that there is a public interest in what they are doing and that they should therefore conduct themselves accordingly."

He believes that initiatives like his regulation reform proposals will help keep the institute alive, but he stresses that it is important that neither him nor those around him rest on their laurels. Because circumstances and public perceptions change, the organisation's role will necessarily change.

If it lets the world pass it by, there is a danger of it becoming another dining club. "I belong to dining clubs and they can be fun, but I don't want to spend the rest of my life in dining clubs," he says.