With 21 years’ experience in the food and beverage industry, Ian Robertson is comfortable catering for a variety of tastes. His experience across a plethora of financial roles, and most recently as group chief executive of building group Wilson Bowden plc, has proved invaluable in his latest sideline – that of president of the Scottish institute.
With the bulk of ICAS’s membership made up of accountants in industry, Robertson knows better than most the issues facing those he represents.
ICAS may be seen as the poor cousin to the ICAEW in terms of political clout, but in many respects the Scottish institute is giving its peers a run for their money. Having made significant headway in expanding from its Scottish roots, the make-up of ICAS is shifting away from its national heritage. ‘Within the next seven to 10 years, ICAS will have a majority of its membership working outside Scotland – 75% of the accountants training now will end up working outside Scotland. The institute is a changing creature.’
If anyone’s in a position to aid that transition, then Robertson’s the man. Himself an emigre – Robertson’s been south of the border at Wilson Bowden in Leicester for the last 10 years – he recognises all too well the need for a global view on the issues plaguing the institute’s members.
Robertson is proud of his Scottish heritage, but the time has come to move ICAS into the 21st century. ‘We have our traditions, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. The biggest banks in the UK are HBOS and Royal Bank and, okay, they’re playing down their Scottish origins, but they don’t hide them. We’re working very hard to make our English and Welsh colleagues feel welcome.’
It is a strategy that appears to be paying off. The number of people trained through ICAS each year has doubled in the last four years to around 800. And even taking into consideration the drop-out rate, the number of recruits from all over the UK is on the up.
‘We can’t afford to be parochial because within 10 years the majority of our members will be saying, “Scotland’s interesting but it’s not where we are and it’s not what we’re at”.’
The affable Scotsman may have only been in the ICAS job since April, but he’s on a mission to ensure it’s at the sharp end of decisions affecting the profession.
In fact, being at the sharp end has always been on Robertson’s agenda, even when in 1964 he started his five-year apprenticeship in Glasgow to become an accountant.
Robertson always harboured desires to move directly into industry after he qualified. Following a three-year stint with Smith & Nephew Group, Robertson joined Whitbread in Scotland. It was 1973 and it marked his first foray into the food and drinks industry, where he was to stay for the next 21 years working for a string of blue chips including United Biscuits and Terry’s of York.
Finally he was headhunted by Northern Foods, the name behind Fox’s Biscuits and Bowyers sausages, where he worked his way up to group financial controller.
‘The group financial controllership was really what prepared me for being a finance director,’ Robertson explains. ‘I’d begun to make contacts in the City so when Wilson Bowden was looking for a finance director, David Wilson said “I’ll teach you something about house building as we go”.
‘I was the kind of finance director who got involved in everything anyway because I wanted to be in among the organisation rather than sitting in the Ivy just doing the numbers. You become a sort of consultant if you’re doing the job properly.’
Developing a broad understanding of the business was the stepping stone to the group chief executive roles he’s been in since March 2003. But making the transition was not so much hard, as strange, Robertson explains.
It was a great accolade but also a huge responsibility, taking the reins from the chairman and chief executive, David Wilson, the man who had founded the company 30 years previously and grown it to a business with a market capitalisation of £1bn.
Robertson has had to hand over the finance reins to his successor, although taking an active involvement in the financial affairs of the company, apart from being a habit that’s hard to lose, is a core part of his role.
But the best thing about moving from the finance director role to chief executive is, Robertson muses, probably also the worst. ‘If you’re any other director, you can have an idea, but if somebody picks it up and runs with it then they’ve taken ownership and responsibility for it. But now if I chuck the ideas into the pot and we run with it or if I insist we run with it then it’s all down to me.’
Robertson certainly doesn’t strike you as a political animal – which is surprising given his 14-year stint in politics, initially as a volunteer, and eventually as chairman of a local authority, the Scottish equivalent to Mayor. ‘I’d actually put a fair bit into local government while my career was growing so I didn’t push my career as fast as I might otherwise have done because I was happy with this balance.’
Being well-versed in the workings of public bodies comes in handy for his ICAS job, schmoozing regulatory bodies like the FSA or the FRC, and presenting the institute’s position on the issues of the day. But being the public face of ICAS is far from an ego-massaging exercise. For Robertson it’s an opportunity to gauge first hand the verdict on ICAS.
It may be a part-time job – regularly eating into Robertson’s weekends and evenings – but his strategic objectives are clear. ‘I’d like to see the education debate moved on to broaden the way in which we can recruit and train trainees. There are a couple of hundred trainees or potential trainees a year who meet the standards we require, but we just can’t find training places for them.’
ICAS is due to implement its continuing professional development scheme next year. ‘Our problem isn’t whether or not it’s mandatory. It’s how you measure the output as well as trying to work out what CPD is relevant to the three ordained ministers of religion.’
On the regulation front, ICAS has expressed strong views on the need for the profession’s disciplinary body, the AIDB, to have stronger statutory powers. ‘I hate to think we’re leaving the situation where those who are sullying the accounting bodies’ reputations can get away with it because the civil courts can’t deal with cases because they’re too complex.’
Thought leadership and the role of accounting in the business world will be the focus of an international conference in October. ‘What we see as good practice and good governance here is not necessarily the same elsewhere. If I haven’t seen that issue move forward in a year then I’d feel we had missed an opportunity.’
When he’s not doing his day job, or his ICAS work, Robertson might be found relaxing on his boat on the River Trent. Failing that, he’ll probably have his nose in a book or be catching up with the antics of fellow Scots emigre Gordon Ramsay on TV.
It’s Ramsay’s cooking and not his people management techniques that Robertson’s in awe of. ‘I’ve read the One Minute Manager, but I try to pick out the lessons that suit me rather than slavishly following the text books or whatever is the fashion of the day.’
Rather like Ramsay, Robertson admits he’s a demanding person to work for. ‘The pressures on me are from the City and when I know there’s an issue coming up, I can’t wait for two weeks while we think it out.’
But he’s trying to wean himself off a habit he picked up while working at Terry’s of York. ‘I used to wake up in the morning with my head buzzing with ideas. When I got into work at around 7.30am I’d write them on yellow stickers and stick them on people’s desks. When I left, one guy said, “We’ve enjoyed working with you but the one thing that used to make us dread coming in was seeing how many stickers you had stuck on our desks”.’
Fortunately for Roberston, email has changed all that. ‘Now you can do it 24 hours a day.’ But he makes no excuses for himself.
‘If you’ve got ideas and you’re pushing them, some people are going to find that demanding. Others are going to say, “he doesn’t half make us go, but it’s exciting being there for the journey”.’
As debates rage about the possible merger of the ICAEW, CIPFA and CIMA, Ian Robertson is unconvinced that consolidation is the answer to tackling the deep-rooted issues plaguing the profession.
But the perception of accountancy, particularly in the light of recent scandals, has forced the industry to weigh up its options. It’s something ICAS is keen to tackle, ‘but there’s no appetite as I see it for amalgamation of bodies, certainly not from ICAS’, Robertson says.
The time is right for the institutes to do a better job of working together and presenting a united front to take on the critics, according to Robertson. Many in the industry would agree that the need for this has never been greater.
Robertson believes that even the Big Four firms are starting to realise that support from the institutes would be of huge benefit.
‘If you go back three or four years, the Big Four effectively were saying “we can look after ourselves chaps, thanks very much”.’
Following Andersen’s downfall, Robertson feels the Big Four are shying away from making too much noise on contentious issues, fearing it will be seen as a vested interest. There is increasing willingness, Robertson argues, among the big firms to allow the professional bodies to speak out on their behalf.
‘We each have our own unique points. If we could get that body to work better together then we can probably do a better job for our members and for the profession.’
He’s proposing a shift away from the twice-a-year lunch, pleasant as it may be, with his fellow institute presidents to something rather more constructive in nature.
‘If we’re going to go and give up our time, why not make it the whole day. Why not put the issues in front of us and let’s have done some preparation. Let’s tackle the issues and spend time trying to get a view.
‘If we were able to go to the government with one voice, that one voice would be stronger. We need to get the representative body at the top pulling together better. That’s no criticism of the people who have been doing it because what they’ve been doing to date represents what the various institutes have been willing to put into it. If we’re willing to put more in, I think we could all get more out.’