Top 50: It’s all about perception, stupid.

But this year the table hides a worrying reality. Growth may be more than respectable but nevertheless, with its current attitude, the UK accountancy profession is in danger of backing itself into a dark and lonely corner.

As we all know many of the large firms are selling off their consulting arms, or, in the case of PricewaterhouseCoopers, still fighting to do so. But while in the interests of transparency these firms were probably right to jump before they were pushed by the SEC, few appear to have thought through the consequences.

Accountants have fought long and hard to improve their image in the business world. Once dismissed as tick and bash auditors, narrow-minded tax advisers and obsessive spreadsheet acolytes, they are now among the principal drivers of UK plc: as finance directors, as chief executives and as leading business advisers.

But with the decision to split from their consulting arms, the likes of KPMG and Ernst & Young, and to a lesser extent Andersen (its split with Accenture arose from different reasons and has had different results), face a new problem. Or rather the return of an old problem. And when these firms sneeze, the whole profession catches a cold.

Consulting arms have long provided accountancy firms with a touch of glamour, glamour that has helped them attract the brightest and best minds of successive generations of graduates.

And don’t forget these firms do not just compete against each other for graduates, they compete against leading merchant banks, legal firms and government.

Of course there is more to the business adviser role that accountancy has carved out for itself than the work by those consulting arms that have been spun off.

But it is a question of perception. And if the perception that accountancy firms are returning to their old roles as auditors and tax advisers is allowed to persist, then top graduates will look elsewhere for highly paid and stimulating careers.

Worryingly, little seems to be being done to avert this danger. The firms play down the risk – though we should hope they are doing more behind the scenes than in public. Meanwhile most of the institutes – the ICAEW in particular – have been slow to modernise their syllabuses.

And all the while the very real risk of marginalisation lingers on. And it’s no good dismissing it as simply an issue of perception. In cases like these it’s perception that matters.


See the Accountancy Age Top 50 table

Last year’s Top 50 table

UK firms push £7bn mark

Consolidation is alive and well

Mixed success as Uncle Sam seeks to split Big Five

Huge growth in corporate finance and insolvency

New big fish gobbles up mid-tier rivals

Traditional services stay strong

The fastest growing firms

Top 50: Opinion

It’s all about perception, stupid

The arrogance of keeping Big Five results secret

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