My Biggest Mistake: Ian Plaistowe

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The Independent Online
MY BIGGEST mistake may have been 20 years ago when I was talking about the mess the accounting profession had got itself into. I was a young manager in Arthur Andersen, complaining to one of the partners about the muddle made over rationalisation. Of the six main UK accounting bodies, only mine, the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, had voted not to proceed with the sensible merger of our groups.

To show how events have a habit of repeating themselves, this issue is once more on the agenda. After months of investigation by a working party, of which I am a member, members of the six bodies are again being asked for their opinions on plans for greater co-operation between them. It will be interesting to see what happens this time.

The day after this conversation took place, I was summoned by my managing partner, the great Ian Davison. 'Ah,' he said, 'you are interested in Institute affairs. I have just the role for you.' The London Society of Chartered Accountants had a vacancy on its committee for a member employed in practice. 'The nominations close tomorrow,' he said. 'I am putting your name forward.'

You will note there was no invitation to stand. That was the way things were then done in Arthur Andersen.

I managed to point out I was going on holiday that night and would not have time to organise my nomination. 'Oh, don't worry about the details,' he said. 'Just sign this form and I will arrange to get nominations from the partners and managers in the firm.'

When I returned I went to see him and asked what had happened. 'Ah,' he said, 'you have caused complete and utter chaos. After it was announced that you were the only person standing for election, it was discovered that six of the eight members of Arthur Andersen who nominated you were not even members of the London Society. How could you have let yourself stand in such circumstances? We had great difficulty and embarrassment arranging for London Society members to nominate you.

'And that was not all. We then found out that you yourself were not even a member of the London Society.'

It was not an auspicious start. But that episode began a 20-year involvement in the affairs of the institute which culminated in my being its president in 1992-93.

Was it a mistake to have raised that question with one of my partners? Certainly not. I reached a position where I spent a year of challenge, stimulation and great interest dealing with the major issues of my profession, and thoroughly enjoyed it. Now, as the newly appointed chairman of the Auditing Practices Board, I have a further opportunity to play a part in the development of the profession.

But it could have gone wrong. That chat with a partner could have led me into all sorts of trouble - if, for example, I had said no to the 'invitation'. My career has turned out differently as a result. It was certainly not what I thought I would be doing when I embarked on a career as a chartered accountant.

So, while it was not strictly a mistake, it came close enough to one to teach me a few lessons. Perhaps the most important is that you never know where a chance remark might lead.

(Photograph omitted)