At 9 am on 25th May 1987, I walked into the offices of Turnbull Kemp, Chartered Accountants, in Perth to begin my journey in the world of accounting. I was good at numbers at school, interested in economics and business, and had decided not to go to University, preferring to study on a part-time basis whilst I worked.
In those days, business accounts weren’t computerised, instead they were kept in a series of books (I guess this is where the term bookkeeper came from). If you were really advanced, you might use a Kalamazoo ledger system, but not many did.
I spent those early years preparing historic accounts for clients, taking their manual records, balancing everything before pulling together an extended trial balance on a 14 column paper spreadsheet (I can feel your eyes glazing over) from which we would then prepare the P&L and Balance Sheet.
I had an aptitude for numbers. I loved nothing more than the satisfaction of creating a set of accounts from those manual records and helping my clients understand how they had performed. That’s how accounting was in those pre-computer days.
In 1989 I moved on to the Perth office of global firm Arthur Young (later to become Ernst & Young), before transferring to their Dundee office a year later.
It was in the E&Y Dundee office that I got my first portable computer – an Apple Macintosh Classic. I still remember carting that thing around the underground whilst visiting clients in London. You built muscle using one of those bad boys!
Our training back then was technical, and almost entirely compliance focused. Client service wasn’t a ‘thing’, we were simply expected to be able to do the job technically well, and bill as many hours as possible.
Every hour was broken up into 10 minute chunks, each of which had to be accounted for. We had a target to charge a minimum of 75% of our time to clients. The more hours you billed, the faster you progressed through the firm. Unbelievably, that’s still the way that some firms work in 2017!
We learned to prepare payroll from manual records. Back then HMRC published tax & national insurance tables – these were big booklets that we used to calculate individual tax & NI deductions. Again this was all done using paper, pen (and tippex to correct mistakes!) and a calculator, with employees receiving either a cheque that they had to bank themselves, or a pay packet with cash in it. Making sure clients had the right breakdown of cash was a constant headache.
It’s funny to think how long it used to take to run payroll. It could literally be days. Now we do that at the touch of a button and pay people automatically by bank transfer.
The advent of the PC in the late 80s revolutionised business accounting, with Sage and Pegasus emerging as the two market-leading desktop accounting packages. I first encountered Sage in 1990 I think, and spent many hours setting Sage up for clients so that we could start reporting performance throughout the year, not just retrospectively. It was ground-breaking stuff.
I was lucky to train at E&Y for many reasons, not least of which was that as well as doing the compliance work of reporting historic performance, we also did a lot of advisory work. As a natural communicator and people-person (not common traits in an accountant!), I found myself increasingly being assigned to what was then called corporate finance work.
This meant that I helped clients to buy & sell companies as well as raise finance. Back then this involved creating forecasts (Lotus 123 was the spreadsheet of choice!), writing business plans, helping the clients pitch to banks & investors, and getting involved in negotiating the commercials. It was heady stuff and I loved it!
We also did a lot of strategy work. As a 22 year old, my role in this was limited to supporting the Partners, capturing the discussions, and turning these into strategic plans for our clients. I then got to work with them to implement the plans as their ‘virtual financial controller’.
As the only non-graduate in my department, I had to prove myself every day and my ability to connect with clients, my passion for helping them, and my ability to communicate complicated accounting terms in a way that people could understand helped me carve out a valuable niche at EY.
It’s crazy that as I write this in 2017, there are still accounting firms out there that don’t do what we were doing 25 years ago; who only do compliance work. They’re failing their clients, but that’s a story for another day.
When I look back on my early days as a young accountant, I’m grateful for the grounding that I got with Turnbull Kemp and E&Y. Knowing how to build a set of accounts from manual records is a skill that few have today, but it’s made it so easy for me to be able to explain accounting to non-accountants.