Accountancy: Relationships too close for comfort: A survey of finance directors highlights the 'personal chemistry' involved in choosing auditors. Roger Trapp reports

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The Independent Online
SURVEYS are often easily dismissed as unrepresentative or meaningless on account of their small samples. But this attack cannot be levelled at a recent study of finance directors' attitudes to their auditors.

In a poll conducted with the help of Professor Roger Hussey of Bristol Business School at the University of the West of England, Financial Director magazine sent out 3,000 questionnaires to companies and public sector organisations and received 776 replies - a response rate of more than 25 per cent, and well above the norm.

So, given that auditors cannot lightly cast the report aside, what does it hold for them? Well, both good and bad news.

On the plus side, finance directors gave high marks to their auditors for technical accounting expertise and their ethical approach. Personal skills and 'business realism' were also praised by many.

But rather than patting themselves on the back, the auditors need to consider the bad news. This is bound to add fuel to the growing perception - held not just by lay observers but also by some institutional shareholders - that the relationship between finance directors and auditors is too close.

More than three-quarters of the finance directors who responded to the survey said their relationship with their auditors was 'professional and amicable', with nearly a tenth describing it as 'personal friendship and professional'.

This view was reinforced when they recounted how they selected auditors. A third said that personal chemistry was very important and half that it was important.

The problem with this is that the responses are not divided according to the sector in which the finance director works. If, as is becoming widely accepted, there is a world of difference between a privately owned company and one that is quoted on the stock market, then the contrast with a public sector body such as a National Health Service trust must be even greater.

True, the public sector is becoming increasingly commercial in outlook. But the need to take account of a wide variety of interest groups other than those with a financial stake makes hospitals, for instance, hugely different from all but the most socially minded of corporations.

At the same time, as the survey points out, public sector organisations still tend to have much less autonomy than their counterparts in the wider business world. Perhaps surprisingly, in view of all the rhetoric about 'empowerment', finance directors in several public sector bodies said they had no power to choose the auditors of their organisations. The Audit Commission did that and, according to a director of one NHS trust, specified the audit requirements and the number of days that the audit would last. The result was serious concerns about the quality of the auditors assigned to the job and the value for money obtained.

But even where there are not such sharp contrasts, some auditors suggest there is a need for distinctions. John Wosner, managing partner of Pannell Kerr Forster, sticks to the standard differentiation between 'the public- interest company and the private company, where the ownership and the management are one and the same'. In the latter, a cosy relationship between the directors and the auditors is not a serious issue, but in the former it 'goes to the heart of the independence of auditors'.

However, Marc Vaulters, corporate finance partner with Casson Beckman, seeks to make a special case for the entrepreneurial company - which his firm specialises in advising.

'You have to have a very close relationship, so that you can understand what they are doing and assess the strategy,' he said.

Nevertheless, he accepts that there is a need to keep general commercial advisory work apart from the true audit function. He claims that his firm is so conscious of the dangers that it has taken extensive steps to prevent it having the 'cosy relationship' accusation levelled at it.

'It may be the same partner who does the commercial work who signs off the audit. But there will be other partners involved,' he said.

Most firms are probably similarly concerned with how things look. But it needs only a few that are not so diligent to change perceptions drastically.

It is for this reason that Mr Wosner feels there is a need for greater regulation of the area. The finding that more companies were changing their auditors more often - because of increasingly widespread use of tendering - amounted to the introduction of rotation of audit firms without it being a requirement.

The Institute of Chartered Accountants had ducked this issue when it amended the professional guidelines, he said, by requiring only the engagement partner on the audit to be changed regularly. Perhaps there was a case for public-interest companies being required to change their firm of auditors every five years.

After all, only those at the margins would suffer, since such a move would just codify existing best practice.

(Photograph omitted)