Accountants count the cost of change

With the City in the midst of upheaval, career options are being re-examined, says Roger Trapp; `People who train with well-known companies can get jobs - but they must switch young'
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The Independent Online
If the swallowing up of Barings and SG Warburg by overseas institutions - not to mention the continued speculation surrounding the futures of the likes of Kleinwort Benson and Schroders - made ambitious young accountants less sure that the Square Mile was where their futures lay, nobody would be the least bit shocked.

After all, accountants, even young ones, are not usually associated with risk. And there is general agreement that the City is in the midst of a period of change unseen since Big Bang, with all the threats and opportunities such a situation brings about.

"There is a feeling that things aren't as promising as in blue chips," says Iain Small, manager of the banking division at recruitment consultants Robert Walters. But he insists that the situation will change, and adds that it is part of his job to help the banks get that point across.

At rival Robert Half and Acountemps, Richard Williams is even more bullish. He accepts that the City is undergoing great changes, but says that this does not necessarily threaten accountants.

Warburg was being taken over by Swiss Bank Corporation, an institution with an already substantial presence in London, and so there could expect to be casualties resulting from overlaps. But ING had a much smaller investment banking operation than Barings, with the result that "for accountants there has, as yet, been no detrimental effect".

Even if a relatively successful operation such as Schroders became a target, it would not lead to a contraction in numbers unless the outfit was bought by another investment bank, says Mr Williams, who is manager of Robert Half's banking division in London. Moreover, in the long term, such moves would probably aid the City's growth and expansion.

While he appears content to let the opportunities for accountants speak for themselves, Mr Small is working closely with banks to attract newly qualifieds, in particular. His organisation is running a series of seminars covering such key areas of banking as corporate finance, product control and internal audit. These are traditional entry points, albeit with the last considered less "sexy" than the deal-making associated with corporate finance and the chance to become involved in financial instruments in product control.

Such roles have long attracted people from the leading firms, but increasing moves by the Big Six into corporate finance, in particular, have perhaps combined with concern about prospects in the City to reduce that allure.

It is indicative of the way things are changing that while it is still generally true that investment banks favour chartered accountants (as opposed to those with other qualifications) who have experience of their sector, they are starting to take an interest in a wider grouping.

"Some people might be hell-bent on commerce without thinking about banks because they might not have worked with them. Traditionally, the banks would not have looked at them. But they'll look at them now, so long as they have good academic records," says Mr Small.

That view is borne out by Mr Williams, who says that accountants who have taken the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants' or Chartered Association of Certified Accountants' examinations are becoming more attractive to banks because they have accounting, rather than auditing, experience.

People who have trained with well-known companies such as Shell or ICI, and decide they want to go into investment banking, can get jobs, says Mr Williams. "But they have to make the switch young - at about 25 or 26."

Furthermore, in such a market, accountants might well find that financial institutions other than investments banks - such as insurance companies, for example - are less demanding in their requirements. Instead of sticking to chartered candidates with backgrounds in the Big Six, a select bunch of universities and of schools, they accept more and more sound candidates with alternative qualifications and strong personalities.

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