A Highland fling

The 146-year-old institute is preparing for a gargantuan influx of extra trainees in September following a remarkable coup that saw Ernst & Young switch all its students from the institute’s English rival.

A partial defection north-of the-border by PricewaterhouseCoopers has swelled numbers even further.

This month the institute moves into new state-of-the art headquarters, and work is speeding up on a ‘quality review’ project to ensure high standards among member firms.

It has been a hectic time and will continue to be so, but Johnston intends to enjoy every moment. ‘I have dreams and practical issues,’ says Johnston of his goals for the year ahead.

His dreams focus on the quality reviews and assuring the smooth flow of the 500 or so new trainees into the institute’s training and examination process. ‘It is very important to me that this all goes smoothly,’ he says of the new contract with Ernst & Young.

The only blot on the landscape is the lack of space at the headquarters – the practical side of things he was referring to. ‘The building isn’t quite big enough. We’ve had to outsource extra buildings and staff,’ he explains.

Johnston, resplendent in one of his many tartans, could be found enacting Robert Burns’ ‘Ode to a haggis’ to hundreds of international chartered accountants at this year’s meeting of the International Federation of Accountants Committee.

‘He is a great master of ceremonies, says ICAS chief executive David Brew. ‘A pillar of the community and a very nice man.’ For those who know him, this is Johnston at his finest. But, despite his relaxed nature he knows when to take the reins.

ICAS’ first president from the Scottish Highlands is a straight-talking, candid character. He emits an aura of trust, respect, wisdom and foresight.

With the institute’s elevated profile, Johnston will need all the energy and motivation he can muster. The energy levels he’ll need won’t be a problem.

‘The staff hockey team has kindly said an aged president can join them,’ says Johnston wryly. ‘And yes, I’m still up to it.’ Brought up in the Highlands, Johnston’s history is steeped in tradition. But, despite his love of all things traditional, he is undaunted by the changes taking place in accountancy.

‘The accountancy profession must move as fast as it can to keep up with the speed of change,’ he enthuses. He laughs as he recalls the day he finally convinced his father to allow an electronic calculator in the office of the family firm.

ICAS’ move at the end of July from much liked, yet antiquated, institute offices to new premises near Edinburgh’s Haymarket station fills the president with a mixture of excitement and nostalgia.

‘We will all be sorry to leave the offices. The institute has been there for about 108 years. But being realistic it is a rabbit warren,’ he says.

The quality reviews were launched by the institute in an effort to drive up standards and involve visits to firms. The programme will also stand Scottish practitioners in good stead for the pending inception of the Accounting Foundation’s Review Board, the UK’s new watchdog.

In fact, Johnston’s insistence on ‘making it work’, reflects annoyance at the delay in the completion of the profession’s first independent watchdog. ‘It has been delayed longer than it ought to. But I hope it’ll be completed by the end of 2000.’

Johnston will preside over a new large-scale training operation south of the border. The institute has signed a deal with training company BPP to help with the student influx in England, which has more than doubled the institute’s total intake.

But he is a realist. ‘We are in a marketplace and we will have to work hard to maintain the student numbers.’

He responds positively, yet tentatively to the impending audit threshold hike. ‘It’s a good thing, but will have an interesting effect.’ With this year’s hike to #1m, audit contracts held by his own 18 partner-strong firm, WD Johnston & Carmichael, will drop from 250 to 175. ‘It will affect my partners, trainees and ICAS’ education system.’

So, what does he do to relax besides playing hockey? ‘Well, next Wednesday I intend to be fishing for salmon in the River Spey with my dog.’


1968: Qualified as chartered accountant

1968-70: Qualified assistant with Thomson McLintock & Co, Glasgow

1970: Returned to family firm W D Johnston & Carmichael, Elgin

1976: Became senior partner

1986: Awarded an OBE for his work as an active member of the Territorial Army, rank Lieutenant Colonel

1982: Knight Commander of the Order of St. Gregory

1996: Vice Lord Lieutenant of the County of Moray

1998: Trustee of the National Museums of Scotland Treasurer of the Lovat Scouts Regimental Association and Royal Artillery Council of Scotland.

1998/9: Became junior vice president of institute

2000: ICAS president.

Related reading