Taking Collier from Newcastle

Interview: The new chief of the Institute of Chartered Accountants tells Roger Trapp that he is not commuting to the City from the North- east just to be a memo-writer
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The Independent Culture
The absence of any spectacular corporate collapses in recent months may have taken the edge off public clamour for reform of the way the accountancy profession is regulated, but John Collier is under no illusion that the problem has gone away.

Just installed in the newly created post of secretary general of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, he acknowledges the disquiet about lenient penalties administered to past wrongdoers and about the lengthy delays associated with many investigations. But, while pointing out that the joint disciplinary scheme - due to hear a case involving the role of four Coopers & Lybrand partners in the collapse of the Maxwell empire - is run independently of the institute and the other accountancy bodies, he says: "There is a huge wish to get it right."

As a chartered accountant who was a partner with Price Waterhouse for 11 years and has served as a member of the institute's council for several years, Mr Collier is not exactly an outsider. But it is clear that he is intent on bringing a fresh approach to the role that has supplanted that known as secretary and chief executive.

"The job has much more of a team role now," he says in reference to the fact that he will be a member of an executive group that will include the president as well as the heads of the three areas, or directorates, into which the organisation has been split. Unlike his predecessors, most recently Andrew Colquhoun, who came from government service, he does not see himself in a "memo-writing", mandarin-type role, though he accepts that an important part of the job will be advising the office holders.

Having transferred to consultancy and interim management, largely in the Newcastle area - from which he intends to commute weekly to the institute's City HQ - Mr Collier is intent on making the 500-employee organisation and its annual pounds 45m budget more effective and responsive.

Regulation, he says, will never stamp out corporate skullduggery. But, increasingly conscious that public perception matters, the organisation has set about responding to the current government's interest in reforming the framework of regulation by coming up with its own blueprint.

The manifesto, drawn up by Chris Swinson, who becomes president of the institute next month, is currently with the Department of Trade and Industry. And Mr Collier, who has brought a can-do business attitude to the slightly Civil Service-ish atmosphere of the institute's HQ at Moorgate Place, is clearly in a hurry to get on with things.

Sufficiently in tune with the way that bureaucracies work after six months in the place to acknowledge that changes cannot be made too quickly, he is nevertheless "acutely conscious of the need to respond to consumer interest". Consequently, he is hoping for an early signal from the DTI that the proposals are on the right track so that further reforms of the regulation and disciplinary process can be pushed through.

Not that he wants anybody to run away with the idea that the institute is going through all this restructuring in the wake of the Gerrard report just to tighten up its regulatory act. There are, he says, two other strands to the institute's work - as represented by the directorates currently being put into place.

These are education and training and what is loosely termed "members". The former is of vital importance because, unless it can provide a qualification that is attractive to employers and the brightest talent emerging from university, the institute will wither and die. That is why comments are being sought on proposals for a change to the curriculum designed to create the somewhat clumsily titled "added value adviser".

With the once pre-eminent FCA qualification coming under intense pressure from the MBA and the initials bestowed by the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants, forward thinkers such as Mr Collier see the future in terms of "adapt or die". But many of their colleagues are anxious to preserve the mystique of what they see as an honour they worked long and hard to earn.

Attempts at reform have failed in the past, so the coming months are likely to see some hard-fought battles. But - with firms expecting their new recruits to specialise much more quickly than in the past - he doubts if the general finance-based qualification is sustainable.

Recognition of the different specialisms also leads to his final area of interest - members. Though the fact that the big firms and the small practitioners are always claiming that the institute is run by and for the benefit of the other group indicates that the organisation must be doing something right, Mr Collier feels that this conflict - and that between members in practice and those in business - indicates a need for a change in the way that the institute's council is made up.

Now that members have agreed that Michael Groom should fulfil the new House of Commons Speaker-type role of chairman of the council - created to form a better check on the power of the executive - perhaps the time is right to help the council become more effective at challenging the officers and office holders by making it more representative of the various interest groups.