Analysis – Sailing into stormy waters.

Keegan’s ability to come through a storm relatively unscathed can be put down to years of mastering the ability to balance respect with determination.

As a keen sailor, it is one of the first lessons to be mastered and one she has no doubt over the years learnt to apply in the workplace: be respectful and never try to conquer. Twenty-seven years at Price Waterhouse – now the world’s largest accountancy firm, PricewaterhouseCoopers, has laid solid foundations for dealing with all kinds of people.

Her successes are far-reaching and varied. She was the first woman admitted to partnership as an auditor in Price Waterhouse. She served on the Urgent Issues Task Force from 1993 to 1999 and was a founder-member of the International Accounting Standards Committee’s standing interpretations committee.

From 1990 she contributed to the work of the ICAEW, including membership of its council. And between 1997 and 2000 she represented the UK accountancy bodies on the council of the Federation des Experts Comptables Europeens. She was also vice-president of FEE.

Keegan stands out as someone who has apparently made clean work of climbing the career ladder. But this is not because she follows the rules. She is no soft touch and openly admits: ‘I was no “tow-er of the line” at PwC.’

It is this independence of thought and confidence to voice her opinions that undoubtedly gained her the position at the UK’s ASB. ‘I’d cross a motorway for a debate,’ laughs Keegan amid a crescendo of traffic noises that are all part of daily life at Holborn Hall where the ASB is headquartered.

But she denies that she would ‘cross a motorway for a fight’ like the accounting pugilist Sir David Tweedie, her predecessor and now board chairman of the IASB.

‘I enjoy networking with a purpose. I like listening to views and distilling them into the right answer. I’m as much interested to hear others’ views as to force mine on them. I’m enjoying being able to tackle new issues with a fresh outlook,’ she says.

Indeed, as the IASB accelerates the convergence process under the aegis of Sir David, Keegan will need all the energy she can muster to defend the UK’s arguments against those of the US and the rest of the world.

Nevertheless, the ASB trustees obviously heeded Sir David’s words of warning that his successor will have to be as tough, if not tougher, than he was in order ‘to take on the Americans in the global battle to harmonise accounting standards’.

‘Much more than ever, I can see that as the new international accounting standards are being developed, it’s absolutely vital that we have national communities engaged in the projects,’ argues Keegan.

Despite a tinge of nostalgia for her time at PwC as head of the global reporting group, she says she is glad to get back to the debate in the UK.

‘The experience of working in the international network of PricewaterhouseCoopers is invaluable. But this job allows me to be in touch with the UK community, which I couldn’t do at PwC. I enjoy being on terra firma, but I’m also able to retain my international contacts,’ she says.

Keegan spent the first few months at the helm of the ASB ‘taking stock’.

The end of last year saw a plethora of revisions to existing standards as Sir David left after ten years to take up his new role.

The two things he would have liked to have finished – financial reporting which will result in a new income statement, and revenue recognition – Keegan has taken up with a vengeance.

But, due to the harmonisation process, the world’s seven leading accounting standard-setters must work concurrently with the IASB. Despite the good intentions, this is resulting in somewhat of a frustrating time at the ASB. ‘Now I’m here full-time we’re chomping at the bit. We’ve got an awful lot of work to do here and I want to get started,’ says Keegan.

Despite the stalemate, she is upbeat about the UK’s prospects for future convergence. ‘We don’t need to be unduly worried. UK standards are ahead of the pack. The US has more standards than us but I wouldn’t say they were better than ours,’ says Keegan.

Nevertheless the members of the IASB’s advisory council have yet to be announced. ‘We could get on and start updating standards in the UK, but if we’re all working together it’s best to wait.

The proposed standards on share-based payment has been one of the most controversial the ASB has seen in years. The board has pledged that it will not move forward in isolation and faces continued opposition from business.

Most of the board time since Keegan started has been taken up with discussions on revenue recognition, share-based payment, leasing and financial instruments.

Concerns that national standard-setters would have to take a backseat to the IASB have mostly been allayed now following the unveiling of the IASB’s ambitious, yet tentative agenda. It’ll be the national standard-setting boards that will be doing all the foot-work. And Keegan is all for that.

‘My preference is that they (IASB) should concentrate on the changes needed to existing standards and let national standard-setters deal with the cutting edge issues,’ she says.

Another concern that Keegan frequently hears is that the US will take over at the IASB. Most board members are more accustomed to US GAAP and there is nothing comparable in the world to the size and power of the US business lobby.

‘The US has a huge standard-setting machine. It’s a bit like trying to slow down an oil tanker. But, the IASB trustees have gone out of their way to make sure that the Americans buy into this,’ she assures.

But it is not just the US she needs to worry about. Europe is still out on its decision to update its accounting directives. An announcement is not expected until the end of the year. If Europe holds out on its pledge to make all European listed companies apply IASs by 2005 at the latest, the IASB vision could be undone before it has begun.

The seas ahead may turn out to be the stormiest Keegan has yet to experience, but inside it appears that calmness prevails.

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