View from City Road: Uneasy times for Clark Whitehill

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The Independent Online
The decision by J Sainsbury to drop Clark Whitehill as its auditor in favour of Coopers & Lybrand is yet more proof, if it were needed, of the growing 'sizeism' in business. Increasingly, a company with big ambitions must ensure that it has the 'right' advisers alongside it. This translates into FT-SE 100 companies almost without exception having to be audited by Big Six accountancy firms.

Indeed, one industry insider confided that the real mystery of this affair was not so much 'Why had Sainsbury made the move?', but 'Why had it waited so long?'

The supermarket group was the only FT-SE 100 client at Clark Whitehill, a firm ranked just outside the top 10, with total fee income of about pounds 53m. But, as the auditing of Queens Moat Houses by the little-known Bird Luckin (also replaced by Coopers) demonstrates, it is not unheard of for big companies to stand by firms that have provided good service in the past.

Given that - for all the changes of recent years - client confidentiality is still the rule, we may never know what prompted the move. However, the Cadbury Report's call for greater independence of auditors and more formal appointment procedures cannot be discounted as a factor, alongside the obvious explanation offered by the Sainsbury chairman himself that the company needed a firm with greater resources and experience.

On the surface, Clark Whitehill is philosophical. But it cannot be pleased about a development that will renew merger speculation.

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