Accountants add up cultural differences

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The Independent Online
THE merger of Arthur Andersen, the large American-affiliated accountancy firm, with the smaller Binder Hamlyn will be finalised in the next two weeks, according to inside sources.

The two sides have been locked in protracted negotiations following a split in the Binder Hamlyn side. Thirteen Binder Hamlyn offices refused to join with Andersen, and last week announced a merger with another firm, Stoy Hayward.

The remainder of the Binder Hamlyn firm - its London, Leeds, Manchester and Newcastle offices - will be subsumed into the Andersen structure shortly. But many industry observers doubt the two cultures will mix well.

This is the view of Ian Vallentine, senior partner of Binder's rebel Scottish region. 'There is no synergy at all,' he said. 'We took the view that the firm of Arthur Andersen is in a totally different market place from ours.'

An analysis of the profitability of the top accountancy firms, published by the Independent on Sunday in June, revealed that Arthur Andersen was three times more profitable than the others. Profits were calculated to be close to pounds 1m per partner.

At Andersen, much more business than average comes from management consultancy projects, which are more profitable than traditional audit or tax work.

And while Andersen generates much more turnover per partner than any of its rivals, its costs are no higher. The two biggest costs for accountancy firms are wages and office space. Andersen has fewer staff than its six top competitors and only 10 offices in Britain.

Insiders say the firm is also more profitable than others because more responsibility is passed down the line from partners to managers. Managers in turn pass responsibility to seniors - recently qualified staff.

While Andersen staff say they are expected to work harder than others, the advantage is that they get high-level experience more quickly than they would at another of the big six firms. They are also paid more.

But Andersen's style takes its toll on social life. 'I have worked through the night on numerous occasions and regularly stay until very late at the office,' said one recently qualified audit staff member.

The relative lack of partner involvement with clients at Andersen was one of the reasons cited by Mr Vallentine for his unwillingness to join with Andersen. 'Offices like ours turn over approximately pounds 300,000 per partner,' he said. 'Andersen turns over nearer pounds 1.6m per partner. It is not possible to achieve this and give the personal attention of the partners our clients want. We serve owner-managed family businesses, and Andersen is primarily interested in the (company) audit market.'

Mr Vallentine says the partners that have gone in with Andersen are facing a risky and uncertain future. 'If you look at the history of mergers involving Andersen, there have been some casualties along the way.'

Within the accountancy profession, there is talk about how Andersen creates a very competitive and 'aggressive' working environment.

Andersen, it is said, tries to instil its culture into recruits by taking them to training centres in Chicago and Spain for induction courses.

Within the accountancy profession Andersen's courses have achieved mythic status: recruits are taught about office practices that range from cross- referencing files to not eating sandwiches at their desks, as this is said to look unprofessional. They are even instructed in how to hold canapes at a drinks party.

One Andersen employee who went to Chicago described how formal lectures and classes continued late into the evening, and then 'there is compulsory socialising into the early hours of the morning'. This goes on each day for three weeks.

In many respects, Binder Hamlyn could not be a more different firm. It is strong in audit but weaker in consultancy. Its fee income per partner is pounds 490,000, much lower than Andersen's pounds 1.6m. Binder is said to have been barely profitable over the last year or so, after taking on expensive property leases. Nobody has ever described Binder as having an aggressive and competitive culture to work in.

The difference between the firms is highlighted by their involvement in the charity advisory market. Binder provides accountancy and tax advice to 350 charity clients. Andersen, on the other hand, has only three charity clients. Not all the work carried out by the charity unit is charged to clients at a fully commercial rate.

The subsuming of Binder Hamlyn into Andersen's structure could threaten this if Andersen required Binder Hamlyn to meet its financial standards. Pesh Framjee, head of Binder Hamlyn's charity unit, said: 'I spend a lot of time doing work for no fees. I don't want to have to earn pounds 1.5m per partner. If I had to meet that sort of target I couldn't do any of my non-fee- earning activities.'

In its recruitment advertising, Andersen has compared its staff to lions - the kings of the commercial jungle. Binder Hamlyn partners are only too well aware that lions have sharp teeth and big appetites.

(Photograph omitted)

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