To mark the 30th anniversary of the Federation of European Accountants (FEE) – and its rebranding as ‘Accountancy Europe’ – Chief Executive Olivier Boutellis-Taft, explains how its watchwords of ‘trust, integrity, transparency’ are more in demand – and more in the spotlight – than ever.
Q. An anniversary, especially a significant milestone like 30 years representing European accountants, auditors and advisors, is a time to look forward, as well as back. Can you start by telling us why FEE was formed, and what you think it has achieved since 1986?
I’ve been here 10 years, but I suspect this was the case for the 20 years before. It was set up for accountants to talk to accountants. Then the regulators came into the equation, and so the accountants spoke to the regulators, and then other experts in the field, so the accountants spoke to the experts, and then the politicians, so the accountants spoke to the politicians. But initially, it was a bit of a club for accountants talking to accountants.
Now we are more outward-facing. We are still experts in our field, the politicians still come to us for advice but we, as accountants, auditors and advisors, are listening to and engaging with stakeholders, with politicians, with NGOs, with society at large. And, indeed, society is talking to us.
If the old business model was a bit like the United Nations, now it’s more Google. A flat hierarchy, expanded expertise, breaking down silos, reaching more people. Perhaps in the past we would have eight-hour meetings, four times a year, where 200 people talked to each other. Now we can have a digital workshop where ideas are exchanged. A document can be co-created online in, say, two hours.
Q. Why is now a good moment for a ‘reboot’?
We are – ultimately – providers of trust. And, as nobody can be unaware, the accountancy profession has been through a period of intense public scrutiny. As the saying goes: ‘never waste a crisis’. This is an enormous opportunity to reinvent ourselves.
As a profession, we exist to serve the public interest for society as a whole. As the new, refreshed, branding makes clear, people are at the heart of what we do, ‘because people count’. This is about more than just a logo – although we are changing our logo (and our name and our motto, too).
Q. Going forward, what are the biggest challenges facing the profession?
Automation. People and machines. People and artificial intelligence. I believe people are actually going to count even more, because they are going to become more strategic.
The computers can do the processing, but it is the people who do the interpreting. Machines can’t provide values and they can’t provide trust. We have the ability to process and interpret data. We are exercising judgement, not just textbook accountancy.
It’s an opportunity as well as a threat, of course. We tell our members ‘make technology work for you’, rather than just wait and see. We help provide ideas.
Q. Perhaps unfairly, in the past accountants’ biggest worry was that their image was ‘boring’. Now, more worrying, it seems a question – in the light of LuxLeaks and the Panama Papers, of whether they are ‘trustworthy’. Is that fair?
Trust is the most fundamental thing professional accountants can add to society. Not looking the other way, but dealing with issues that can damage this trust is part of being a values-driven profession. Sometimes this means clarifying our role such as on tax policy. As professional bodies, our members ensure the high quality work of accountants and their ethical behaviour.
Q. You mentioned working with NGOs, who often in the past have been very critical of the profession?
NGOs are the voice of society – now more than ever we have to listen to society, and engage.
We have worked over the years to build relationships with organisations like Oxfam and Transparency International. With Transparency International, for example, we are working on anti-money laundering. On procedures for checking out new clients, on EU legal obligations, and on anti-money laundering regulation, also providing input from practice to the European Parliament. They like (and need) accountants with ‘mud on their boots’, so to speak, i.e., who work in practice every day. Our members send us experts from across Europe to contribute in the areas where we can make a difference. The on-the-ground experience of these almost 1 million accountants is what we bring to the table.
Q. Where does Accountancy Europe stand on country-by-country reporting, another hot topic much in the news at the moment?
We have always been in favour of transparency. It has to be transparent where a company is active, and where it pays tax. Tax is a matter for society as a whole and thus a matter for public debate. Listening to civil society and addressing concerns with policy makers is integral to our approach.
Q. And the Eurocrisis has not gone away, even if it is not in the headlines?
No. There is a big debate on bank assets. A debate on the role of accountancy standards. A debate on sovereign debt, a debate on public sector accounting, and a debate on public finance.
When it comes to different standards in European public sector accounting, we can provide a lot of input, expertise, and knowledge.
Q. Another obvious question is how FEE, and now Accountancy Europe, manages to represent its members’ members, when they range from the huge multinational corporations, to single partner practices. How do you bridge that divide between big and small?
We try our best, although it is not easy – but diversity is our strength. We represent both the public and the private, and from multinational big firms to husband-and-wife teams and single practitioner firms.
The smaller firms are also extremely important, as they serve SMEs that make up 99% of European companies. We try to integrate the perspective of these SME accountants into everything we do. In addition, we have specific initiatives aimed at SMEs, for example on access to finance, and a series of papers to inform SME accountants on how to best support their clients.
Q. Finally, on gender and racial equality – do you think the profession still has a long way to go?
It’s not too bad, but of course it varies from country to country. If you look at our members across Europe, overall we reflect society. Accountants have always been people who make numbers work for other people. There is a wide diversity of backgrounds in accountancy, far broader diversity than you might expect, and there will only be more specialisation in future, from engineering to human rights specialists and of course more tech backgrounds; more ‘nerds’.
We are attracting younger people into the profession, and that’s important. We need to keep attracting the best and the brightest from the next generation.