Accountants, if you don't want to head down the same rocky road as the bankers, get a grip

The banks were “Too Big to Fail” – to many it seems that the Big Four feel that is true of them now – they need to wake up and smell the coffee, says Chris Blackhurst

Chris Blackhurst@c_blackhurst
Friday 23 February 2018 20:16
KPMG has been in the firing line
KPMG has been in the firing line

No business person wants to be portrayed as the next banker.

They remember how it was during the financial crisis, when bankers were vilified in public, and would apologise and look down at the table at dinner parties in private. Businesses live in dread of the same happening to them.

What they don’t do is analyse why banks lost respect (and have failed lamentably to regain it). There is a tendency to attribute that breakdown to evident greed and arrogance. Yes, it was due to those, and it still is.

But what it is also about is an inability to communicate, to explain what they do, to guide the layman through what they do in language and in a manner that people can understand and appreciate. Perhaps they really can’t; perhaps banking is so bad it is beyond redemption.

Certainly that may be true of some aspects of the industry, but not all. Anyone following the near-economic meltdown and since could be forgiven for supposing that every banker is inherently evil, that all banks are dens of wickedness. They’re not, but based on their lack of judgement and skill at selling themselves (they’re very good at promoting a particular expertise within their own rarefied community, in management-speak, among their pals at gatherings such as Davos, but hopeless at connecting outside) you would not know that.

In the past, such an ivory tower existence did not matter. They would only move among their own kind, be they colleagues, clients or competitors. Their world was one of like-minds and values, in which they could glide, unassailed and unchallenged.

Not any more. Digital and online have empowered people like never before. One remark, one phrase that can be interpreted differently, one light-hearted quip or pose for a picture can go viral in seconds, and hold you open to ridicule. Once, you could rely on newspaper editors and their press baron bosses to see you right. Today, everyone is an editor, everybody can act as filter, interpreter and distributor.

With that in mind it never ceases to amaze just how little attention businesses pay to how they will be perceived. If we say or do that, what will people think, and say? Will it, please God no, leave the business pages and head for the front of the news, and to twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat?

Take the Big Four accountants. It’s well known that politicians are gunning for them. The very description, suggesting an elite, inevitably raises hackles. This week, senior partners at two of the quartet were called before Parliament to face questions over their roles in the collapse of Carillion. KPMG were the collapsed contractor’s external auditors, and Deloitte, its internal auditors.

Doubtless, Peter Meehan and Michelle Hinchliffe from KPMG, and Michael Jones of Deloitte, were heavily rehearsed for their appearance before two Commons select committees. But judging by their performance, you have to wonder, by who and to what end?

Peter Kyle MP to Carillion auditors 'I wouldn't let you audit the contents of my fridge'

Meehan, whose practice signed off Carillion’s accounts four months before the company wrote down £845m and issued the first of three profit warnings, said he relied on the fact that 73 per cent of broker reports were positive or neutral on Carillion when he signed off the accounts as an indication of a job well done. No matter that the brokers did not have his degree of access or insight.

That air of detachment was reinforced when Meehan was asked if he would have carried out his role as auditor differently? “I can’t think I would, to be honest, but one is always learning in life. There will be lessons to be learned from [the accounting board’s inquiry into KPMG’s work], perhaps, and if there are, I will take them on board.” He might as well have accompanied his comment with a shrug, such was its indifference and absence of humility.

A sector that speaks like that is unlikely to see its leading exponents perform any differently centre-stage. It was left to Peter Kyle, the Labour MP, to indulge in some grandstanding but nevertheless to encapsulate what many were thinking, and to highlight their conspicuous weakness in communicating. After one exchange over whether Carillion was owed £200m, Kyle said: “I would not hire you to do an audit of the contents of my fridge, because when I read it, I would not know what was actually in my fridge or not. And that’s the point of auditing, isn’t it? To tell us what actually exists and what’s robust or not.”

The accountants did not help themselves, to put it mildly. Frank Field, chair of the Work and Pensions committee, duly delivered the warning that they should already be aware of (and ought to be galvanising them, and forcing them to take a close look at how they’re perceived and how they communicate) when he asked at the hearing: “There’s a little gang of you that competes for these [audit] contracts. Should we recommend that the government seriously thinks about breaking you up?”

Against that, versus the backdrop of the Carillion debacle, and harm to thousands of livelihoods, Hinchliffe from KPMG said: “To deliver the quality audit that we have to, we need scale. We need to have specialist resources.”

Accountants, if you do not want to head down the same rocky road as the banks, get a grip. The banks were “Too Big to Fail”. To many it seems that the Big Four feel that is true of them now – they need to wake up and smell the coffee. Other industries, other businesses, though, also please note. This is a fast, unforgiving environment. Nobody is too big; no one is too tall. Learn to communicate before it is too late and you’re also cut down.

Chris Blackhurst is a former editor of The Independent, and executive director of CTF Partners, the campaigns and strategic communications advisory firm.

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