Accountancy has for decades been deemed as one of the less interesting professions. From Monty Python’s beancounter sketches to Channel 4’s award-winning film Shallow Grave, accountants are always depicted as lifeless, dull and grey. In the latter case, dysfunctional.
Nevertheless the transformation over the past few decades has meant those traditionally attracted to the profession may not be able accountants today. Sales, managerial and networking skills are now a necessity to scale the heady heights of the numbers world.
But it was this transformation that brought Peter Crane, this year’s president of the south-western district society and flying accountant to the Scilly Isles, back into the fold.
Since 1979 Crane has worked as a sole practitioner running three offices, one of which is based on the Isles of Scilly off the Cornish headland.
A small stretch of water between the mainland and the Scilly Isles was not enough to douse Crane’s entrepreneurial spirit.
On the first Thursday of every month, Crane makes the one-hour drive from his Newquay home to Penzance to catch the 8:25am helicopter to St Mary’s, the largest of the five Scilly Isles. On the odd occasion when fog or high winds keep the helicopters grounded, Crane bears the three-hour ferry ride on the Scillonian. The ferry trip has been known to take up to seven hours at times.
At 62 Crane is clearly a very committed individual. But he was not always so keen on his profession. He began training in the late 1950s when much of accountancy was still to do with backroom functions. But he did not hang around to complete training, or articles, as it was known then. Instead he left for a life less ordinary. As a young man full of energy and adventure, accountancy did not fit the bill. It was another ten years before he returned.
During his time out he joined the army, working in Saudi Arabia as a tactical control officer in charge of a surface-to-air missile site.
In the early 1970s, when Crane got married, he decided to return to accountancy to finish his training. He qualified in 1974 and for the next five years, worked as a senior manager in the management consultancy arm of Ernst & Young and later as a consultant for the National Research and Development Corporation.
A desire to settle down led him not to his hometown of London, but to his wife’s west country homelands. In 1979 Crane established his own practice.
But it was not as smooth-running as he might have hoped. Before he got his first job working mornings at a practice in Newquay, he sent out 100 applications with SAEs. He received four replies.
In the afternoons he taught accountancy and bookkeeping at the technical college in St Austell. Car-less at the time, Crane who is a keen sportsman, travelled around by bike. ‘I was doing about 50 miles a day,’ he says.
In the early 1980s, Crane met another chartered accountant called John Miln who ran an office on the Scilly Isles. Miln took Crane over to the isles and he has been working with the islanders ever since. Of his 900 clients, 50 to 60 are on the Scilly Isles.
David and Kathy Stedeford live on the isle of Bryher where they run Bryher Boats, the inter-island transport and sightseeing trips for the tourists, and the Isles of Scilly Inclusive Holidays company. The Stedeford’s value of and trust in Crane’s ability is implicit. ‘It’s all based on trust with Peter,’ says the Stedefords.
This sentiment is echoed around the table where several of Crane’s clients have gathered.
‘My father used to work with another accountant but I didn’t like him, so someone recommended Peter. That was 18 years ago,’ says John Banfield who together with his wife Kay, run a flower farm, holiday lettings and the islands’ free-range egg business.
Banfield can trace his family lineage on the isles back to the 1600s when they fled the mainland seeking refuge from Oliver Cromwell’s parliamentarians.
When asked what the most vital characteristics are in an accountant, he replies: ‘He has to be approachable. Peter is. And he’s also got to admit he makes mistakes, which he does too.’
It’s an interesting relationship. As the two men talk, their rapport is so comfortable that one finishes off the other’s sentences. ‘I have to be able trust my accountant. If we have ideas, we go ahead and do them,’ says Banfield. ‘And I guide him through the minefield of rules and regulations,’ completes Crane.
For the islanders the 1980s were taxing times in every sense of the word.
The main industry of the Scilly Isles, which comprises five main islands, of which St Mary’s is the biggest, is tourism and flowers. Farming was traditionally one of the islands’ biggest earners, but BSE and tougher regulations made farming unprofitable, forcing the locals to look elsewhere to earn a living. The recent foot-and-mouth outbreak did not reach the islands. But then again there are few animals on the isles now and no abattoir.
Indeed, few islanders have only one job. A prerequisite to living on the islands is being resourceful and tolerant. The community is very close-knit, and there is little one can get up to without the news crossing the islands before you do. St Mary’s is less than three miles across in its widest part and only ten miles around its coastline. St Agnes, the most southerly and smallest island only has 75 Scillonians, as they call themselves, and just one pub. The Turks’ Head run by Pauline and John Dart opens for just a few days a week during the winter months.
Despite the hardships the islands face, Crane says in the 20 years he has been visiting, he has never had a bad debt. ‘They have a good future and the families always help (each other) in hard times,’ explains Crane.
Crane has wholeheartedly embraced the changing role of accountants, which is probably why he has retained and gained so many clients over the years.
‘Traditionally chartered accountants who had clients here came to do work during holiday months,’ says Crane. ‘It was all compliance work and no advice. That’s the difference between the traditional and modern accountant. We have been able to give them business advice as well.’
Steve and Julie Walder, also clients of Crane, live on St Martins, the largest of the off-islands, now run the general store and the post office as well as holiday lettings. They used to run a farm, which they now have as a hobby more than for any commercial gain.
Tighter farming regulations and foreign competition in the flower market forced them out of the business. They have a local to do the run of the mill bookwork while Crane concentrates on the end of year accounts and business advice. Their biggest irritation now is the change to metric.
‘A government minister came and told me off for selling sweets in ounces,’ chuckles Julie Walder.
Steve Walder also used to run boat trips but the increased red tape in this area also made them give it up. He is still the not-so-proud owner of a Dunkirk vessel, which unfortunately sits rotting on the shore.
Besides Crane’s monthly surgeries on the Scilly Isles, his main goal for his year as president is to improve communication between Moorgate and the regions, which he feels, has suffered far too long. ‘Previously one of the problems was poor communication, therefore misunderstanding,’ he explains.
He is an avid supporter of the newly-revamped regional structure that has come under fire from South Essex District Society member Don Heady and led to an egm being called for 11 July.
It would appear his energy levels are indefatigable, but he says he has a succession strategy in place and plans to retire at 65. He says there was never a concrete plan to continue working, it is just that he does not feel any different inside than when he was 20.
Maybe the life of an accountant is not that bad after all; you just need to know how to spice it up a little.
FACTS & FIGURES ON THE SCILLY ISLES
– The islands form a group of five inhabited islands and fifty uninhabited.
– There are around 2,500 inhabitants with most living on St Mary’s – the biggest island.
– St Mary’s is situated 28 miles west-south-west of Lands’ End
– The Duchy of Cornwall continues to own much of the Isles of Scilly and has done since 1337.
– Scilly Isles were only connected to the national electricity grid in 1989 by submarine cable.
– There is no provision for tertiary education on the isles, so teenagers wanting to pursue higher education are obliged to move to the mainland.
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