Sir John Harvey-Jones, that troubleshooter and icon of British business,
passed away last week aged 88. He was remembered for his work at ICI and heading
the first UK business to turn over £1bn. Remarkable performance.
What few will remember is his very low opinion of accountants. Back in 2003,
he had these arresting words while reflecting on corporate culture after the
‘Accountants go to the far end of a fart to make the accounting system
They go to extreme lengths on what is easily measurable, but make no efforts
on things that are absolutely crucial to the future of the company for
example, valuing the opinion your customers have of you.’
He added that accountants ‘go to immense trouble to measure what you could
earn, but they never make a 100th of the effort to measure what happens if
things go horribly wrong. The accountant really has to give a full and fair view
of every position. Otherwise he’s failing in his duty’.
Blimey! What on earth was it like being his finance director? Brutal?
Terrifying? He would not have suffered fools gladly. What, hopefully, this
colourful quote really means is that he didn’t like ‘yes’ men. Don’t spin the
figures, just tell it like it is.
These are sentiments I can agree with. But it does seem a bit rich blaming
accountants for all corporate ills. What we never hear too much about, of
course, are all the times accountants have cleaned up the accounts, found the
fraud, cautioned the CEO against taking on reckless amounts of debt or found the
funding to launch innovative new products and services.
Where I do have sympathy is when reading results statements where executives
furiously spin the numbers to put a gloss on them for the investors. That’s when
the words ‘far end of a fart’ go wafting through my mind.
Gavin Hinks is editor of Accountancy Age
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