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No matter what

By J.K.Randle

ONE of the unintentional hazards of watching flat screen television is that some of the stuff that comes through just knocks you flat.

A few minutes ago, Nick Leeson the rogue trader who single-handedly brought down Barings Brothers, the British merchant bank that had been in existence for almost 250  years, was incandescent with rage on CNN. There he was ranting and railing at the incompetence and ineptitude of the Bank of England.

He launched a deadly missile attack: “The Bank of England should be turned into a brothel. It has failed woefully”. He went on to say a lot of other things, which just fell short of demanding that the Governor of the Bank of England should be shot!

Ironically, in Nigeria the Governor of the Central Bank insists that it is the bankers who should be shot. Leeson mumbled something about imposing a special tax on all email messages and SMS texts in order to recoup the massive funds the British Government had committed to bailing out its failed banks: HBO, the Royal Bank of Scotland and Northern Rock.

How strange that Leeson, who from the Singapore branch of Barings had placed staggering unuathorised bets on currency derivatives deals, of all people had become some sort of celebrity after serving his jail term. He was released on account of his terminal ailment (cancer) but that has not stopped him from pursuing a lucrative career on the lecture circuit in addition to authoring the best seller, Rogue Trader.

Clearly something profoundly disturbing has occurred in our micro and macro-economic/financial system as evidenced by the scale of the unprecedented global financial meltdown with which we have been confronted in the last 18 months. Coincidentally, we are now in 2010 commencing a new decade.

Hence, there can be no more auspicious time than now for stock-taking and self-examination as the first step towards redemption not just of the economic and financial system but of our own self-esteem. This is not to say that we should simply brush off the toxic arguments of those who insist that once we accept the reality of the “meltdown”, logic demands that all other options are foreclosed – except of course, making a fresh start. They call it the “zero coupon option” with no frills. It is brutal and brutish.

It is in that context that I accept that with the imminence of my 66th birthday (Wednesday January 13, 2010), I have an obligation to acknowledge that I have been a Chartered Accountant (England and Wales) for over 40 years. That is beside the point. What is far more relevant is that in 1970, I joined Peat Marwick Mitchell (now KPMG) at 11 Ironmonger Lane, Moorgate London EC4.

The Bank of England, which is now the target of Nick Leeson’s derision, was just round the corner at Threadneedle Street and was known as “The Old Lady” – a nuanced acknowledgement that it was an enduring and solid institution with unassailable virtues of sound judgement, prudence and diligence. Its powers were derived not from the British Constitution but from tradition and experience. Put simply: “The Old Lady” could do no wrong.

I think it would be helpful to mention that Peat Marwick Mitchell (PMM at the time) was structured along departments and there were several of them. I was in Michael’s Department. Michael was a manager and head of the department. Below him were two assistant managers, several seniors, numerous senior trainees and audit trainees. Above Michael were the partners of whom the Senior Partner was the legendary Sir Ronald Leach who was neither a “Peat” nor a “Marwick” and certainly not a “Mitchell”.

He was probably the first outsider to head the firm but he acquitted himself with great style and distinction. It is beside the point that he dumped his wife and married his secretary who happened to be the wife of another partner!! The last time I heard of Sir Ronald was about 10  years ago when he celebrated his 94th birthday long after he had retired from the firm.

I have no recollection of any other African being at PMM whilst I was there but I may be wrong. What is far more relevant is that 40 years ago, chartered accountants took precedence ahead of bankers, businessmen and lawyers. It had nothing to do with power or money. It had all to do with integrity. Sir Ronald Leach preached and lived by the ethics of the profession he had chosen – ethics were everything.

For the sake of clarity perhaps I should disclose that I was in the junior ranks at PMM and my first encounter with the great Sir Ronald was by pure happenstance. There I was by the lift and he had just emerged from his Rolls Royce. He entered the lift and I followed him. Unknown to me this was never done! Unless you were a Partner, you were not allowed to share the lift with the Senior Partner of Peat Marwick Mitchell. Anyway, as I made to exit the lift on my floor, he smiled at me and invited me to come along to his own floor.

We swept past his secretary and into his office.
The great man offered me a seat and beckoned his secretary to serve me some coffee. I was very cool and calm. Indeed if anybody had walked in at that moment, the two of us could have been mistaken for a pair of old buddies! We did not actually say much but I recall something he muttered:
“I served in Egypt during the Second World War but I have never been back to Africa. I would love to go back some time and just look around. I hope you will be happy here”.  I thought that was the end of it and it was time for me to leave. The great man got up from his seat and said with tremendous dignity and finality:
“Accountancy has nothing to do with power or money. That is why our clients hire us and pay our fees. We are not competing with them. Youngman don’t ever forget this”.

By the time the day was over, word had spread all over the entire office that an African from Nigeria had gotten into the lift with the Senior Partner and had coffee with him.
Alive or dead, Sir Ronald Leach must be wondering what has happened to his beloved profession in a mangled world of grotesque audit failures, toxic assets and the too-big-to-fail syndrome bolstered by bailout funds (or financial steroids!!).

If anyone insists that chartered accountants have no case to answer, you can be sure they never had coffee with the great Sir Ronald Leach.


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