FEATURE: Wide boy or grey man? The image of today’s accountant

It was a question Nick, who has now left the profession, would later answer himself. After a grand entrance to the party, he was met with rebuff after rebuff as his hostess laughingly introduced him as ‘an accountant who wasn’t boring’.

No sooner had the words left the hostess’s mouth than the cosy little circle of friends suddenly dispersed to the four winds.

For those outside the profession the hostess’s pun was probably taken as an oxymoron. Among non-accountants, the words accountant and boring have been seen as synonyms.

‘My caraciture accountant would be 37 year-old male who is a bit of a wide boy,’ says a designer at a leading London-based advertising company. ‘But, he is not really a wide boy, just likes to think of himself that way. I don’t think he’d be very likeable, but he is not as dull, grey and boring as he would have been perceived a few years ago.’

Is it really still so socially unacceptable to be an accountant? For a long time the profession has not been about just the nuts and bolts of number-crunching. The old-school skills of audit and bookkeeping are no longer the nucleus of the accountancy profession, though they are still integral.

However, the competencies now expected of accountants are much more far reaching. After all the profession today embraces everything from corporate finance to turning around failing businesses, forensic work to advising dot.com start.

The fact of the matter is that over the last 10 to 15 years the role of accountants and accountancy firms has dramatically changed. Take the role of a finance director, for example. Previously responsible for a very limited role in a business, an FD’s role has expanded year-on-year to encompass not only the development but also the strategy of a company.

Yet is the outside world aware of the change?

‘Of course the image of accountants has changed and still changing,’ says David Thorley, marketing partner at Deloitte & Touche. ‘ They are much more overt types. More savvy in all respects of business. They are definitely businessmen nowadays, not just accountants.’

Nevertheless, some are still very coy in admitting to their profession.’I always feel I have to justify myself for being an accountant,’ apologised one former tax expert, who prefers to remain anonymous. ‘And that’s only when I actually tell people the truth.’

The fact that accountants still feel the need to lie or exaggerate their profession is either due to the ignorance of non-accountants or a personality complex within the profession.

Others, however, take it all in their stride. Their only reservation to acknowledging their profession is having to deal with freeloaders.

‘I usually make a joke out of being an accountant, but I’m not at all ashamed,’ says Francesca Lagerberg, senior technical manager of the tax faculty at the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales, who is also a barrister.

‘But, people normally then want to discuss their personal tax affairs which is not something that I want to do when I’m socialising.’

Deloittes’ Thorley says accountants do not need to hide behind a bushel. ‘The way accountants are trained, sets them apart from most professions,’ he says. ‘Accountants therefore can enter all sorts of industries, from entertainment and internet to advertising and corporate finance.’

However, it is not just the solid training accountants receive that has helped to rid them of the dull grey image with which they are so easily associated. The novel dress-down code currently filtering into Big Five firms – in many ways these traditional firms are leading a sea-change within the profession – and the growing influx of women are also attributable to the purging of the traditional ‘boring’ image.

‘Everyone’s looking really classy nowadays,’ says a Deloittes. ‘People have definitely not opted for the scruffy, casual look.’

Dressing-down may turn out to be a new uniform for accountants, but it is evident that the accountancy profession is on the move towards changing its long-time tagged image.

The Monty Python portrayal, although still at the forefront of many people’s minds, is accepted simply as a comical depiction and not the reality.

Indeed if influence is anything to go by, the accountancy profession is one of the most progressive, prolific and visionary industries around at the moment.

The English institute’s Lagerberg also credits the changing image of accountants to the sheer volume of people with non-accountancy backgrounds entering the profession.

‘The new generation of accountants comes from a wide range of studies. They do not have a single narrow view of life as a whole,’ philosophises Lagerberg. ‘This has a very positive effect on the whole industry.’

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