ACCA’s year-long planned surprise

One of the most remarkable things about ACCA’s merger bombshell last week was its element of almost total surprise. Yet senior figures in ACCA had been working on the plan to make a direct appeal to members of CIMA and CIPFA for 13 months.

The plan owes its genesis to the cross-institute Bishop committee’s proposals for a merger between all six members of the consultative committee of accountancy bodies. The collapse of the talks in 1995 left many embittered. ACCA chief executive Anthea Rose describes the experience as ‘very demoralising and debilitating,’ while the association’s director, Anthony Booth, talks of the profession sinking into ‘a quagmire of distilled debate’.

But the idea of a merger was not dead, and many believed a new approach could still bring one into being. Certainly, there was a groundswell of interest among ACCA members who encountered support from counterparts in rival institutes during the Bishop talks. Booth cites the position in the health service where he says members of ACCA, CIMA and CIPFA were ‘slugging it out’ and wanted a unified body.

In June last year, the ACCA council picked up the thread at its annual out-of-town strategy meeting. Members discussed a merger plan, drawing on elements from the Bishop plan. ACCA’s Rose says the association took the spirit of Bishop’s vision: ‘We then considered one body with several functions.’

Following the June 1997 meeting, Rose was tasked with producing an initial discussion document exploring the best option for garnering support. ‘I was sent away to think about this and bring about a discussion paper,’ she says. ‘I realised we had many common values, as described by a lot of members of the other institutes,’ she adds.

The pace of development increased with the formation of a six-man task force in January, headed by the then president David Leonard. The unit thought the time was right for a fresh initiative. Bitter experience of the Bishop talks ruled out dialogue with the English ICA. Rose says: ‘While Bishop was making his report, the English ICA was arranging other merger talks’.

A plan was hatched for a ‘bottom-up strategy’ that would avoid the tried-and-failed dialogue with other institute councils and sell the idea direct to the rank and file. In a style reminiscent of a Thatcherite appeal to the masses, the proposal would seek out common shared values. An important spur for the decision was backing from the Department of Trade and Industry for rationalisation of the profession. ACCA’s Booth says: ‘We let them know in advance of our proposal’.

As detailed work began, ACCA called in international PR company Dewe Rogerson to advise on the plan’s presentation. The company came up with the ‘three strands into one’ symbol and designed the brochure that was sent to 120,000 ACCA, CIMA and CIPFA members last week.

In early spring, ACCA managers working on the plans were called, individually, to Rose’s office and asked for their personal endorsement of the proposal.

‘She asked each of us if we supported it personally,’ recalls one. ‘We all said “yes” because we do believe in this.’

On the weekend of 20 and 21 June, ACCA’s council deliberated over final plans at Hanbury Manor, a luxurious golfing retreat in Hertfordshire.

‘When we met again, it was clear from people talking around the country they were interested in us working together,’ says Rose.

CIMA chief executive John Chester and his CIPFA counterpart, David Adams, were informed in the week before the launch at face to face meetings with Rose and senior colleagues. Fearful that one of them might go public, ACCA officials had the launch mailing ready to send out.

In the event, there were no leaks – something ACCA interprets as being a sign both of the integrity of the other institutes’ leaders and of its own members involved in the months of planning.

Last Tuesday, ACCA’s ten-week information programme was unleashed in a move which parallels a similarly orchestrated manoeuvre in Australia, when ASCPA and AICA pitched their merger idea to members via the Internet.

The ACCA brochure and its mailing alone are said to have cost at least #250,000. ACCA has refused to comment on the costs, but it is thought the project may already have consumed #500,000. But if the costs are high, so are the prizes.

Although ACCA is refusing to comment publicly, it is understood that the merged body would seek the designatory letters CPA (chartered public accountant) for its members. When CIPFA applied to register them at the time its members won chartered status, ACCA lodged a formal objection. With US chartered accountants already using the CPA term , it is a powerful international brand and offering it might be a powerful incentive to waverers.

But the ACCA team knows that, after 13 months of hard work, there is still everything yet to play for.

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