Accountancy: Trained to see the broader picture: Roger Trapp meets a company executive who believes his background in accountancy has been vital to his success

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PETER ROSEWELL'S start in accountancy was, by his own admission, quite humdrum. After training with a West Country office of a large firm of chartered accountants, he joined the general move into industry, 'thinking that that was where the real world was and I could make some contribution'.

What he envisaged was mainly confined to the field of management accounting. But, some 20 years on, he has achieved a switch into general management - and at an age when many executives face redundancy rather than fresh challenges.

Mr Rosewell, who is 52, has for the past year been spirits and liqueurs president at Hiram Walker, the wine and spirits division of Allied-Lyons whose brands include Teacher's, Canadian Club, Harveys, Cockburn's and Lamb's. Although it is a long way from his original foray into the commercial world, he says - in remarks that will be welcomed in Chartered Accountants' Hall - that his training has been vital. Since five of the 10 members of his company's board are qualified accountants, and some have been in general management for years, it is hard to disagree with him.

'I think the background is extremely helpful. I'm glad I got the qualification because it enables you to see clearer than others the broader perspective,' he said. 'I understand that whenever you take action it has an effect somewhere else - often not where you think.'

While much of this understanding relates to the financial side, it also impinges on other aspects of the business because 'you can see the inter-relationships rather more easily than others'.

Nevertheless, much of his career has followed a path typical for an accountant. Soon after qualifying, he went into the paper industry, where in two years he 'learnt what management accounting was all about'.

In particular, Mr Rosewell found out what real pressures many businesses are constantly under. 'If I hadn't sharpened my pencil enough to get the figures right, a client might close down a contract in a few weeks' - with a predictable effect on profits and jobs.

It was also a revelation because, having done much of his audit work for clients in the food business, he was in the boom days of the 1950s and 1960s unused to being involved with a business that was retrenching.

A move to Allied-Lyons, to become chief accountant of the Whiteways cider company, enabled him to put this experience into action in a larger company. But, while the ideas were the same, the reality was different - chiefly because the company was expanding rather than contracting.

'It was really a question of controlling cost,' Mr Rosewell said, noting that the challenge is to manage growth within cash-flow restraints.

But from an early stage he was taking on - and developing a taste for - other roles, such as training, personnel and legal affairs.

Acknowledging that there has been some criticism of the chartered accountancy qualification's suitability for a commercial career, he said: 'Once you obtain the qualification, it's up to you to make the best of it. Some stay technical when others broaden out. I was perhaps lucky that I was able to do both.'

He added that while other accountancy qualifications might provide particular expertise, the chartered training offered a broad grounding. The experience of dealing with a range of clients helps the management accountant to see other solutions when people trained in a single company might be at a loss. In addition, when there was a danger of getting bogged down in the detail of technology or new initiatives, the audit training brought the ability to stand back from problems.

But it was being involved in Allied-Lyons' acquisition of the then Canadian-owned Hiram Walker in 1986 that really introduced him to the sort of work he is doing now.

Becoming finance director of Allied-Lyons' wines and spirits division three years earlier had started the process - because 'obviously, once you're a director you get involved in many general management activities'. However, the deal intensified this, not least because he spent most of the year in Canada, in effect becoming Allied-Lyons' representative in the country.

Although he was there partly to handle a potential legal action, the deal increasingly took up his time, especially since the company launched a then-novel campaign to sell itself to Canada's people and politicians as well as to Hiram Walker's workforce. One of the most interesting aspects of this initiative was meeting the trade union officials worried that their employer was being bought only to be asset-stripped. Having convinced them of Allied-Lyons' good intentions, he was asked to address the workers. The result was support from the start. 'That probably started my thirst for broadening away from finance towards general management.' However, he remained as finance director with the reorganised division until last year, when 'I was offered the opportunity to completely change career'.

Still not two years into a key job at the world's fourth-largest spirits company, he shows aptitude for the role by picking up many of the current management theorems. Phrases such as 'business process re-engineering', 'best practice' and 'benchmarking' pepper his conversation.

But he insists he has a real enthusiasm for motivating and bringing out the best in people. As an example, he cites his decision to transfer a team- working project begun at a Scottish distillation plant to other locations in the UK as well as Canada and the United States. 'People generally like to feel they have made a contribution to the company.'

And then there is his espousal of non-financial performance measures - another concept whose time is coming. As the chairman of eight Hiram Walker companies, Mr Rosewell is primarily responsible for profit performance and the bottom line - in his words, 'the uglies'. But he can see beyond that.

'The fact that you have the right financial management and quality goals is taken as read. It's all the other things that will make you a winner as opposed to a loser next year,' he said, pointing out the necessity of having information on a range of issues instantly available.

That said, he is extremely optimistic of the companies' chances of moving into such relatively untapped markets as Latin America, Eastern Europe and China. But then the accountancy training rears its head again.

'There's criticism that we (accountants) are not risk-takers and I think we are cautious. But you can control enthusiasm by looking at things objectively.'

(Photograph omitted)