Fond memories of uncle Arthur

‘What about Andersen!,’ read an email from a former colleague at the disintegrating Big Five firm last week. ‘I guess the summer alumni party is off.’

And with that, what had until then been just another news story, became something altogether more personal. Suddenly I felt quite sad. Both of us had joined as trainees in the firm’s tax division during the early nineties, and had spent some of our formative adult years there.

To be honest, we had both been itching to get out by the time we left a few years later; in both cases to pursue alternative careers. But working for Uncle Arthur – as staff affectionately used to call the firm – had been good. Although I had never really got to like tax computations or dealing with clients, much of the experience had been exciting, and some of it positively glamorous.

There was a big bunch of us, all in our twenties, all bright, intelligent and interesting. Far too cool – with one or two notable exceptions – to deserve the label ‘Androids’.

We were sent on booze-fuelled training courses overseas and in the UK.

We did the milk rounds of Britain’s university cities. And we got to go, with our managers, to some very swanky restaurants; often without the annoyance of having clients in tow. We were made to feel good about ourselves and about working for uncle Arthur.

With the impending demise of the firm, most likely it seems by being subsumed into one of its rivals, a piece of history is about to consigned to the dustbin. And it’s a piece of my history.

So I gave my former colleagues a call to see what they thought. None of them are exactly sentimental types, but they all said they felt sad too. But they also expressed an emotion I hadn’t felt – a sense of injustice.

Maybe several years working as a journalist has hardened me to such emotions, but thinking about it, they have a point. ‘It seems unfair blaming 85,000 people for the actions of a few cowboys in Houston. I doubt anyone in the UK had any idea what was going on,’ said one.

And we spared a thought for those former colleagues – those with much greater dedication and interest in tax work than any of us could muster – who stayed there to climb up the firm’s career ladder.

Morale can hardly be high. But most of the professional staff will be ok. Even if they don’t get on with KPMG – or whoever else they end up being merged into – they will still be able to command good jobs with good salaries elsewhere. Maybe not as good as high-paying Andersen, but still good.

But what about the hundreds of secretaries, administrators and other support staff? They earned good money, but obviously not as good as tax experts and qualified accountants, and may find it less easy to weather a few months looking for new employment.

And what about those who had invested so much time and energy over the years to finally achieve the dizzy heights of partnership?

Andersen has been good at keeping in touch with staff who have left.

I have gone back for various drinks functions, and have been invited to some excellent lunches with my former managers and partners over the years.

But I have never quite got round to registering my details on the firm’s website to become part of its formal alumni network.

However, those who did receive as missive from the firm a couple of weeks ago. Signed by Andersen’s UK chief John Ormerod, it reads: ‘I imagine you have faced uncomfortable questions from friends, colleagues and family members about Andersen and the entire Enron situation.’ It encloses a briefing paper, entitled Perceptions and Realities, dealing with the main accusations facing the firm.

Things probably seem a lot more serious if you are John Ormerod than if you are someone who used to work there; I can’t imagine most ex-staffers have faced anything more uncomfortable than a few jokey remarks about paper shredding.

But it’s a nice touch all the same, and it made me feel even more regretful about the firm’s impending demise, especially given the rather ignoble manner which it has been brought about.

When you worked at Arthur Andersen – as I hope the firm will be remembered rather than just Andersen – you were made to feel like you worked for the best firm. And now it’s going to disappear. I think I’ll register my details on the firm’s alumni site before it’s too late.

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