Profile: Colin Haig – Glad to be an ex-president

Haig, who also heads Baker Tilly’s business recovery services, did not begin his career as an insolvency practitioner. However, he says that early on he identified he had a skill set that would be well suited to a crisis – and that is precisely what the insolvency profession requires.

‘I can be quite effective when dealing with crisis situations, but less effective when there is a long-term process,’ he says. ‘The way that translates into accountancy I think I’d be a bloody awful auditor. I’m not one for measuring incremental change over long periods. However, I do enjoy dealing with problems which have a time pressure and which require quick decision making.’

When Haig left college at 19, a friend of his father – who at the time was an assistant official receiver – inspired him to move in the direction that would lead to a career in insolvency. ‘Immediately, that area appealed to me because I saw a very interesting mix. The work had a regulatory aspect and a commercial aspect – getting the best price for assets in difficult situations,’ he says.

So Haig began his career in the insolvency service in the Department of Trade. He clearly remembers the idiosyncrasies and the essential tools of the trade in his first job – as an examiner in the companies winding-up department of the Official Receivers. ‘My second day I was issued with a kettle and a copy of the Companies Act 1948,’ he says.

Although Haig admits he did not do any ‘earth-shattering’ work at the Official Receivers, he says that it was his five years in the insolvency service that determined his professional career because he was head hunted from there and ended up in practice.

Since then, Haig has seen many interesting cases. ‘I’ve been astonishingly fortunate and privileged to be at the sharp end,’ he says. One case he remembers is the administration of global electronics manufacturer Akai, where he saw how differently insolvency works in various countries.

But, of all his cases, it is his work alongside Louise Brittain, as trustee in bankruptcy for Jonathan Aitken in 1999, that stands out in Haig’s mind.

‘My experience in that case will be with me to the grave,’ he says. ‘It threw up a lot of issues and taught me how the insolvency profession is perceived by the general public.’

Looking back on the last 12 months, Haig admits that combining his leadership positions has not been an easy task. As head of the IPA he set about revamping the regulator, whilst at Baker Tilly he had to deal with the merger with Kidsons, which doubled the size of his team – with all the ensuing work and cultural change that entailed.

‘To be honest, combining my duties as IPA president and being head of Baker Tilly business recovery at a time when it was growing very quickly, well, the timing wasn’t great,’ he says.

At the beginning of his tenure as IPA president, Haig set himself the goal of making concrete changes in several specific areas. But, as his presidency ends, he recognises that his targets may have been too ambitious.

‘I really wanted to focus on change, but I suppose with the benefit of hindsight I was slightly optimistic about how much I’d be able to change in the course of a year,’ he says. ‘Although you can identify the areas that need change, to think you can deliver the change in a 12-month term is a fantasy.’

Having admitted that, Haig says there have been some concrete changes in the organisation – the biggest one being a new openness and a focus on complaints against its members.

The regulator, which currently has 986 members, has also re-focused on clamping down on rogue members, with, Haig believes, dramatic effects.

‘We are interested in the big issues as they affect the business community, particularly creditors and members of the public, rather than worrying about whether IPs file forms on time or meet deadlines to the day,’ he says. ‘I think that this is reflected in the sort of regulatory action we are taking these days.’

This year included one of the highest profile grievances against an IPA member since it was founded. Following the collapse of disgraced insolvency firm Casson Beckman, the regulator hauled partner John Bennett before its disciplinary tribunal, removed his license and fined him £750,000 – plus additional costs of £35,000.

According to Haig, the number of complaints against members has risen in recent times because of heightened awareness of what the IPA does.

And he stresses that this is good news. ‘People are more aware of what we do and take us more seriously as a means of attacking aspects, such as these activities which they feel disappointed with,’ he says.

Another area which has improved in the past year, he says, is the dialogue between the IPA and the two other main insolvency regulators – the ICAEW and ACCA. Together, these three regulate 95% of the 1,700 licensed insolvency practitioners.

Haig says the greatest progress has been made in ‘establishing a level playing field’ between the sector’s five regulators. But, despite this rapprochement, there is still some contention amongst insolvency practitioners on the subject of regulation. Some maintain there should only be one regulatory body, whilst others want to maintain the status quo. Haig believes the issue of a single regulator will flare up again soon.

Although Haig has enjoyed his IPA presidency – particularly because he has been able to mix with people from all sides of his profession – it has clearly been a stressful time for him. And he isn’t unhappy about his full-time return to his firm.

‘In a way, although I’ve enjoyed my time as president, in May I’m really looking forward to getting back into the market place,’ he says.

‘One of the things I worry about is that in the past eight months I’ve not been able to spend enough time with the people I really like working for personally. I hope I haven’t lost too much ground in that. I do worry they’ve forgotten what I look like.’

Those who work closely with Haig say his worries on that score are needless, because he is well regarded amongst his peers and clients – despite Christine Hamilton referring to him as ‘that odious little man’ on Louis Theroux’s now infamous documentary on the Hamiltons.

IPA vice-president Richard Long says: ‘He has an excellent reputation among insolvency practitioners. He is hard working and tenacious and very much a team player.’

At his firm, Haig is also known for his robust management skills and his ability to make tough decisions. But he is also an open person. Crawley business recovery partner John Ariel says: ‘He’s approachable and good fun. He knows how to enjoy himself.’

And Haig is philosophical about his busy year running two different organisations.

‘Life is about experiencing sensations,’ he says.

This is a theory his life outside work exemplifies. Until recently, he played rugby as part of Baker Tilly’s amateur team. However, although he still makes the odd guest appearance, his regular rugby days are over.

‘I’ve broken everything at one time or other,’ he says.

Motorcycles are another of his passions – he owns three. He is also an accomplished musician, playing bass guitar in a band called Phoenix, which is made up of, wait for it … insolvency practitioners.

‘We are playing at the R3 conference in Malaga,’ he says. And he jokes: ‘We are also available for weddings and bar mitzvahs. We spend as much time laughing as we do playing. It’s good therapy.’

Haig still insists he is just an ‘ordinary guy trying to do a reasonable job’ – but he is quite clearly not a little grey man blending into the crowd.


The president of the Insolvency Practitioners Association has called upon leaders in his profession to convince young graduates of the importance and excitement of a career in business recovery.

The possibility of a skills shortage is preying on the minds of many professionals. With only 1,700 insolvency practitioners and an increasing number of companies running into financial difficulties, the shortage of trained professionals is already a worry.

Haig says the fact that there are relatively few intelligent young graduates opting for a career in insolvency – and that company turnaround work seems more popular – bothers him.

‘I’m slightly concerned that the brighter members entering the profession have the perception that insolvency practice is not a sexy area to be in. I think they’re wrong,’ he says.

He argues that, although insolvency practitioners are not the only answer for troubled businesses, they are a vital part of the solution.

‘What the IPA and other regulatory professional bodies, and R3, the insolvency trade association, need to do is to help people understand that IPs are part of the engine that salvages troubled businesses,’ he says.

Other insolvency specialists expressed their concerns about the lack of personal insolvency experts at the end of last year.

R3 president David Buchler said that if the economic downturn and the increase in consumer debt continued, the government and the profession may not have the resources to handle the surge in people needing help.

Top bankruptcy specialist Louise Brittain agreed, saying: ‘If you are a chartered accountant it was always seen that the big money was in corporate work. Although this has changed, the majority of people still believe that.’

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