Accountants wanna be rich

There was a time when accountants, in practice or industry, were responsible for ensuring businesses accounted for themselves competently.

They weren’t expected to be responsible for the creation of wealth, so it was acceptable for them to have modest means, even to be poor.

Some clients sought out the timid, able soul who didn’t charge much, in the same way they looked for the cheapest stationery. Wealthier accountants would often be discreet about their money to avoid upsetting clients.

I remember borrowing a modest saloon car to visit a potential client, because it was thought that he wouldn’t want to engage an accountant who was rich enough to own a Jaguar.

But the role of the accountant has changed. In companies, computers do much of the accounting work, leaving time for accountants to concentrate on business strategy. Even the smallest firms are reinventing themselves as business advisers, after being challenged and cajoled by the boot camps.

Those who develop strong business adviser skills are not content with watching those they advise become rich; they want it for themselves. There are only so many times you can witness a client thriving on your advice, before you start wondering whether you have missed the plot somewhere – particularly if there is any dissent about your fee.

Similarly, an FD who has honed his business strategy skills is not prepared to put up with a modest salary package. No wonder he is attracted by roles in fast-growing internet companies with their shareholding opportunities.

There has been criticism about the way major accounting firms run their practices – like real businesses. They merge, develop global strategies and aim to optimise their potential and their wealth. But what else should the public expect from those who sell business management advice?

So accountants have transformed themselves from counting other people’s money to advising businesses on how to prosper. Increasingly, I’m convinced many will focus on becoming seriously rich themselves. A healthy profit share or comfortable salary package looks like petty cash when compared with the capital the new entrepreneurs are amassing.

And now there are rumblings that the government is to look closely at fees charged by professional practices, no doubt with a view to forcing significant reductions. If this move succeeds, we will see the existing pull on accountants towards setting up new businesses reinforced by a mighty push. The Rich List in 2010 will make interesting reading.

Ann Baldwin, FCA, is a management trainer and conference speak

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