Scots look out for big picture

Perhaps it’s the constant threat of being considered at theack in touch with wider business issues. Neil Fitzgerald reports. geographical periphery, but the Scots have always been outward-looking to a large degree. Not least their own, distinct breed of chartered accountants.

When such a figure as Ian Russell, finance director of Scottish Power, reflected during one of the breaks at the Scots ICA conference a fortnight ago: ‘Most CAs aren’t accountants, they’re business people,’ it was no mere boast.

The largest segment of the institute’s membership is in commerce and industry. Over a third of that membership is also based outside Scotland.

Loyal as they are to their institute, the internal machinations of the UK profession seem to most members in business at best an irrelevance, at worst a threat to them as users of accountancy services.

Yet events in the wider economic world are conspiring to undermine the very efforts of CAs and their non-CA colleagues in Scottish business to make their mark.

Strong pound worries exporters

Of far greater concern to John Langlands, finance director of British Polythene Industries, and others encouraged to focus on export markets while the rest of the UK suffered from a boom-and-bust recession, is the damage now being wreaked by a strong pound on margins.

The uncertainties of European EMU and the UK’s role in it only reinforce their sense of being forced back on themselves. As do the uncertainties of devolution – not so much its political impact on them directly as on the levels of grants and on inward investment which has up to now been another important factor in Scotland’s strong overseas trade.

A similar threat of creeping disengagement from the mainstream despite all efforts has also been a concern for the institute itself.

Proposed training reforms are as much aimed at making the final-year examination subjects more relevant to a wide range of different business employers as to easing the difficulties of smaller practices in developing qualified staff.

At the conference, KPMG’s Archie Hunter, the institute’s president, revealed ‘the response to these proposals has been almost entirely positive’.

But, he stressed: ‘the continued quality of the qualification, whichever route students take, will be jealously guarded’.

This will be of comfort not only to practising firms but also to members in business. Their continued pride in their qualification is remarkable considering how, for many of them, their jobs – in venture capital and banking as well as general management – are now estranged from their original technical training.

This was best summed up in the annual conference itself. It was increasingly obvious the traditional St Andrews summer school, with its mixture of informal conviviality in student accommodation interspersed by formal discussion and golf, could not justify being away from the desk.

Speakers included McCormack

This year’s conference – just 24 hours long, at one of Edinburgh’s principal hotels and with speakers ranging from a leading German banker to the world’s biggest sports entrepreneur, Mark McCormack – was, according to Hunter and chief executive Peter Johnston, the direct result of asking members what they really wanted.

By opening it up to non-members, what the Scots ICA lost among traditional summer school-goers it gained in creating a wider-ranging, higher-profile Scottish business forum with itself at the centre.

Far from focusing on essentially professional matters, ‘it gives members a wider, international and so completely different perspective’, said conference chairman and CA Brian Stewart, chief executive of Scottish & Newcastle.

How wide was evidenced by Deutsche Bank’s Dr Rolf Breuer, who made clear that, with many of the currencies already locked for some time, EMU is already here, many of the middle-market companies on the continent are no more prepared than UK ones, and the political impetus behind it would lead to tax and legal harmonisation across Europe.

The tax issue was raised again by Henning Christophersen, vice president of the European Commission, but there was some scepticism at his suggestion that market forces would erode indirect tax differentials between countries.

He said EMU, for all its impact on price transparency and job mobility across the EU, was still only ‘one of four challenges that have to go hand in hand’ – the others being bringing the single market to full fruition, the enlargement of the EU to include Eastern Europe, and the restructuring of the EU itself to absorb all this.

So this was not a conference for simple solutions. Instead, CAs in business and the rest of the audience went out from it with the sense that they, and the Scots ICA, had been put back in closer touch with the wider challenges and issues they must – and can still – address.

Neil Fitzgerald is a freelance journalist.

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