Who would be the most difficult to deal with? Lord Lawson, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer; Lord Hanson, when he was running the most influential company in the UK; Thabo Mbeki, President of South Africa; unhappy shareholders; or bolshie accountants? Eric Anstee should know. He has had to face the full force of all of them.
Currently, as chief executive of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, he has to handle the last of the list. And he rates them the most tricky, largely as he is trying to get them to do something many don't want to do - merge the ICAEW with two other accounting bodies. It's a delicate task, evoking memories of previous failed attempts to bring together the six professional bodies representing accountants in the UK. And it is a task that Anstee expressly said he didn't want to take on, when he was hired as the ICAEW's chief executive 18 months ago.
"One of the things I said at the interview was: 'If you're thinking about mergers, don't ask me to come in,' " Anstee recalls. Once installed at the institute's gothic headquarters in the City, he went native. "I did agree to undertake a strategic review. We spent six months doing that and it became abundantly clear that merger or consolidation in the accountancy profession is absolutely essential, and we want to be very much at the forefront of a fragmented profession."
Last year Anstee unveiled a three-way merger with Cima (which represents management accountants) and Cipfa (public-sector accountants). A logical fourth partner, the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland, rebuffed approaches, saying it wanted to retain its independence. The idea of bringing the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants into the fold is seen as too radical for now, although Anstee is clear about the ultimate objective. "Our view is you only need one body."
The consolidation - the word "merger" is not used because it implies a loss of identity - has already run into problems after Cima's ruling council raised concerns about some of the details of the agreement. This means that only the members of the ICAEW and Cipfa will be voting on a merger this October, with Cima hopefully joining the alliance later.
There is a great deal of opposition to the consolidation and - given past history - it is far from certain that it will go through. But in Anstee, the ICAEW has someone who knows a thing or two about doing deals.
A trained accountant, he was a partner at Ernst & Young until 1993, when he left to become finance director of the recently privatised electricity company, Eastern. Two years later it was taken over by Lord Hanson's Hanson Group, which was still in its acquisitive mode. Within a few months, Lord Hanson's long-time partner, Lord White, died and the strategy changed. Anstee was asked by Lord Hanson to advise on demerging the group's power business, into a company called The Energy Group. However, Energy lasted only a year as an independent entity before itself being taken over.
Anstee moved to the South African life insurer Old Mutual, where he led the demutualisation and flotation on the London Stock Exchange, plus the purchase of a large US fund manager. Many assumed he would become group chief executive, but when the job went to Jim Sutcliffe, the former UK boss of the Prudential, Anstee left.
It wasn't that he was snubbed, and it had nothing to do with him being publicly criticised by President Mbeki after making comments about a possible hostile bid for Standard Bank of South Africa. Anstee had already told Old Mutual he was leaving, as the constant travel from the UK, to South Africa to the US was playing havoc with his health. After a couple of years of various non-executive directorships and consultancy roles, he accepted the offer of the ICAEW job. Independently wealthy, thanks to the two big-money electricity takeovers, he didn't need to take on the task of corralling 125,000 accountants. So why do it?
"I had left a big-four firm and gone into business, and I was horrified that I could not see that anything the institute was doing was relevant to me as a finance director," he says. "I thought there was a job of work to do and I could add some value. Also, I had stepped out into a plural career and I missed running things."
He found the institute in a bit of a mess: "Professional bodies are not necessarily professionally managed. We're not the only one." The ICAEW had no marketing department - so when it produced professional advice, it could not even tell its own members about it. It database was antediluvian - it had email addresses for only a fifth of its 125,000 members, for example.
The institute's precarious financial position had been secured by selling its highly successful magazine, Accountancy, but it still had a pension fund deficit of around £20m. A deal has recently been reached with the scheme's trustees to clear this, with the ICAEW putting in an initial £5m.
On top of this, external problems had to be dealt with. The issue of auditor liability was a hot topic - with the profession lobbying government to try to set a cap on how much a firm could be sued for if a company it had audited went bust. Thanks to the three years Anstee spent at the Treasury, as a commercial adviser to the then Chancellor, Nigel Lawson, he was able to help secure a deal giving auditors the ability to negotiate with clients to limit their liability.
It has come too late to prevent Anstee's old firm, Ernst & Young, being sued for £2.5bn by Equitable Life over its audits of the now- insolvent life firm - a case that starts tomorrow. Anstee says he cannot comment - not least because he was at Ernst & Young for part of the time covered by the legal action. But he does point out that no UK legal ruling has ever been so big as to close down an accountancy firm, and adds that among the reasons he left Ernst & Young in 1993 were his worries about litigation risk.
The collapse of Arthur Andersen in 2002, following the Enron scandal, has left only four big accountancy firms. A threat to any of them would have serious implications for competition and the orderly running of financial markets. Already, says Anstee, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which put a greater onus on directors and auditors to provide accurate financial information, has led to the big firms resigning as auditors of hundreds of companies where the audit's complexity and the danger of being sued are just not worth the risk.
But though many of his members worry daily about these big issues, many thousands of others are simply doing the books of small companies and giving families tax advice. "Some members will say to me: 'Why are you having a conference in Brussels?' or 'Why are you spending all this time on Sarbanes-Oxley?' " says Anstee.
Accountants. Awkward buggers.
Career (1969-1974): Keens Shay Keens - went from audit trainee to qualified accountant.
1974-76: Turquands Barton Mayhew - audit senior to manager.
1976-1980: Ernst & Young Singapore. 1980-1993: Ernst & Young - partner from 1983. Included a three-year secondment (1983-86) at the Treasury.
1993-97: Eastern Group - deputy chief executive and group finance director.
1997-98: The Energy Group - finance director.
1998-2001: Old Mutual Group - finance director from 1998 to 2000, then chief executive of UK, South Africa and US businesses from 2000.
2001-03: Mansell - chairman; Severn Trent - non-executive director; SSL International - non-executive director. Adviser to venture capital companies.
2003 to now: chief executive, ICAEW.Reuse content