Merger mania: Arranging a marriage

by Brian Moher

04 Nov 2004

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Talks between the executives of the ICAEW, CIMA and CIPFA to thrash out a blueprint for a new super-institute are unlikely to produce blood on the carpet.

But while the leaders of the three institutes may not be the table-banging sort, feelings are running high on the 'accountancy street' so talks are sure to be tense.

Last week it emerged that fee levels are on the list of tricky subjects to be negotiated, but the trio are keeping remarkably quiet on the other key elements of the discussions.

They say it would be 'inappropriate' to comment on the talks until detailed proposals are in place. Even members attending merger roadshows may not be privy to the details.

Sir Peter Kemp, a former senior Treasury civil servant and ICAEW member, is well placed to guess what is going on behind the closed doors of the negotiating room, having been qualified for almost 50 years.

The merger has to be the right thing to do, he contends, but adds that accountants are 'funny people' so the process of change will have to be approached 'delicately'.

The seasoned institute watcher says five key issues will be the name, pace of change, management, governance and mission statement.

Since news of the merger broke, suggestions for a new name for the institute have poured into the Accountancy Age letters pages, most of which are light-hearted.

But despite this frivolity Kemp believes it will be an important decision. 'A lot will depend on the name,' he says. And he backs the readers' favourite suggestion, Chartered Institute of Accountants. 'I know it stands for CIA but there's only 26 letters in the alphabet,' he jokes.

The assertion that the pace of change will be key, and that negotiators will have to settle for a halfway house from which to build a fully-merged body already looks to be borne out.

The institutes, who still often insist on the use of the term 'consolidation' rather than merger, have already announced that existing members can keep their designatory letters.

But critics such as Jeff Wooller, of the unofficial ICAEW anti-merger Ginger Group, sense a trap. Wooller points out that the council of the super-institute would later be able to make changes to both examinations systems and qualifications.

The negotiators will have to tread a fine line if they are to avoid fanning the flames of such fears. Much of the talks are likely to focus on striking a similar balance between boldness and pragmatism.

Four of the six presidents and chief executives who are leading negotiations find themselves in the strange position of campaigning to put themselves out of a job.

It has been announced that there will be just one chief executive and president of the merged body, so the talks will need to come up with a means of determining who is left standing post-merger.

Accountancy Age understands that the drawing of lots is not under consideration and the decision will probably fall to some kind of appointment panel, but there is likely to be some debate on the detail. Superfluous chief executives and presidents can console themselves that in relinquishing their posts they have secured their names in accountancy history.

But for council members there will be no such comfort from posterity.

There are 100 at the ICAEW, 50 at CIMA and just 25 at CIPFA. Two-thirds of each must give the merger blueprint their blessing, so the size and composition of the super-council is likely to be one of the trickiest questions that the talks address.

Then comes the question of where the new body will sit. The ICAEW's impressive Moorgate Place HQ - easily mistaken for a gentleman's club - is likely to be a strong favourite.

If so, it is interesting to note that their council chamber couldn't fit much more than 100 and would feel rather empty with less.

Mission statements might not set pulses racing and indeed it has been remarked that few members of the ICAEW are aware of theirs. But it is likely to be a big question for those seeking to mould a super-institute whose raison d'etre is the creation of a body 'fit for purpose' for the next generation of accountants.

Sir Peter points out that it will be difficult to strike a balance. 'If it gets too narrow people will think, "that isn't for me". If it gets too wide people will think, "it's just like being a member of the human race".'

And Sir Peter has a final suggestion for those thrashing out the blueprint for the would-be new institute and its mission. 'Perhaps this is a chance to refocus themselves at what the customers really want. Names and initials are important enough, but maybe they should try out the mission statement with the funders to keep quite a well-heeled profession well-heeled.'

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