Accountancy rivals may poach staff

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Leading rivals of Big Six accountancy firms Coopers & Lybrand and Price Waterhouse are preparing to pick off staff and clients who might be disaffected by the organisations surprise plan to merge into the world's biggest professional services practice, with 135,000 people and revenues of more than $13bn (pounds 8.1bn).

Partners in Coopers, who are being called to a meeting in Birmingham tomorrow to hear further details about the proposals announced at the end of last week, are said to be excited about the idea. One said that the first reaction of many was that it would relieve a desperate shortage of staff.

However, reaction in the PW camp is thought to be more muted, with some feeling that the deal will turn out to be less of a merger than a takeover by the bigger Coopers.

To go ahead, the plan must be approved by a substantial majority of the 8,500 partners in both firms. Though it is thought unlikely that the proposals, which were kept secret from all but a small group in each firm, will be rejected, insiders concede that many partners might "vote with their feet".

While some of these might set up small "boutique" operations, others - particularly those renowned in certain markets - could be lured by other big firms eager to boost skills at a time of booming activity.

A senior executive with a top firm said: "Everybody will be dusting off their files," Meanwhile, James Wheeler of recruitment consultancy Hewit- son-Walker said that past experience showed that departures would either come immediately or when the deal was finalised, probably early next year.

A spokesman for Robert Walters Associates, another recruitment consultancy, said it was "inevitable" that large numbers of professional staff would feel alienated by the development and would seek to move.

Last week, both Peter Smith, chairman of Coopers in the UK, and Ian Brindle, deputy chairman of PW Europe, stressed that the merger was not motivated by the desire to rationalise and cut costs. They said the proposals were driven by the desire to match the global reach of their clients and had developed over several weeks of serious talks. They "would lead to exciting career opportunities for everyone in both firms". But inside the practices, it is conceded that there are bound to be overlaps of duties and bottlenecks created, especially at senior manager level.

Other observers pointed out that some clients might defect to rivals, because of unease about the effect the new firm's domination of the UK audit market - with half of the FT-SE 100 - would have on fees and concern about conflicts of interest.

Moreover, both firms have had problems with mergers in the past. Coopers has taken a long time to complete its 1990 merger with the UK arm of Deloitte Haskins & Sells, while PW has attempted two large mergers in the 1980s - first with Deloitte and then with Arthur Andersen, part of the international organisation that the new firm would overtake as the world's largest professional services firm.

Conscious that their rivals would seek to take advantage while they were distracted, Mr Brindle said it was vital that the talks were brought to a conclusion as soon as possible, though the matter was so complicated that that was bound to take months rather than weeks.

He and other senior executives in the two organisations point out that the more they have learned about each other, the more alike in strategy and vision they have realised they are. Both have also moved towards becoming single entities rather than the looser federations they were before, in an attempt to make the international operations what one partner called "more seamless" and to counter Andersen's claim to be the one truly global firm.

Regulators in various parts of the world will also take a close interest in the merger. However, while the combined firm's position in the audit market might cause concern to the UK authorities, experts expect the deal to be waved through, not least because the market strengths of professional services firms are difficult to quantify.