On 3 September 1972, I was articled to Edward Rupert Nicholson, one of the most famous accountants of the day. Chartered Accountants don’t generally become famous, but he had just managed the collapse of Rolls Royce and saved the business. 80,000 employees didn’t lose their jobs and he raised the equivalent of £3bn in today’s money, in selling assets and floating on the LSE.
I met him three times: once when he interviewed me when I was still at school, then again after university when I signed my articles and, finally, when I qualified. According to his obituary, he was a ‘very self-effacing and modest man’.
I remember him as a hero and, without really knowing what it would mean, I wanted to find something exciting in accountancy too.
Exciting was very far from being an articled clerk. It was slave labour to start with.
Paid just over twenty guineas or £22 1s 2d a week was barely enough to live on. I vaguely remember that I only had one suit and that there was no such thing as smart casual. Some men were still wearing bowler hats in the City. I was at Peat, Marwick and Mitchell with my offices in Ironmonger Lane. We didn’t start until 9.30 each day and woe betide you if you arrived early. It wasn’t the done thing to appear too keen in front of other articled clerks. On the other hand, don’t be late or the seniors would be unhappy with you.
The hierarchy was very much like school, and it was very important to know your place. On the rare occasions when you had to present to a Partner, it was vital that you addressed him correctly (no female partners then) and made sure that you knew your facts.
The office was quite different in those days. Memoranda were hand-written with carbon-paper copies. Any external letters or reports were typed by secretaries. There was no such thing as an electric calculator, let alone electronic. Mental arithmetic was expected to be good and my first Manager, Roger Chadder, was able to cast a full column of numbers in seconds. Fortunately, we had just decimalised or we would have had to work with 12 pence to the shilling and 20 shillings to the pound.
There was one mechanical calculator in our office which we all shared. When there was a lot of audit checks to do; the majority of auditing required checking one total matched another, we had a comptometer operator come on the audit. They had a machine with 100 buttons arranged in a square which they played like an accordion. None of us articled clerks knew how they worked and the operators never spoke to us. A few of them were deaf.
That was the contribution to diversity in the early seventies.
Lunch time when in the City was always in the pub: the Golden Fleece in Queen Victoria Street, and my aim was to stick with one pint or I had no chance of staying awake all afternoon. I didn’t always manage it. Most of the time, however, we were out ‘on audit’ at a client’s offices.
I was born with a lucky streak, and fate was good to me from the start of my clerkship. The vast majority of jobs were extremely boring, and would involve asking the accounting staff where you could find the ledgers and then checking entries from one to another.
The first ever job I was sent on was a fraud investigation and these were very rare. Sunday night TV in 1972 was watching The Brothers. The synopsis for this weekly drama is “Robert Hammond died while "doing the deed" with his secretary/mistress Jennifer. His 3 sons Edward, Brian and David inherit the family trucking company (called Hammond Transport Services) and try to run it.” It was very popular.
The female interest was Kate O’Mara. Brian Hammond was the accountant and he was very dull. All this was filmed in Charlton, South East London, at the premises of Hilton Transport Services (easy to use the HTS logo for both). Fact was stranger than fiction. Ralph Hilton, the owner of the real HTS, along with his CFO was being investigated for having rigged the results of his company to manipulate the share price.
We were checking all the paperwork to identify what was wrong and this time we found it. Ralph was charged with conspiracy, publishing false accounts and intent to defraud on various dates between August 1 and October 31 1972.
During our investigation a loaded gun was found in an office desk drawer and we saw the company Rolls Royce and Lamborghini being taken away.
Sadly auditing wasn’t always quite as exciting, but I had a taste for it now, and went on to find another fraud. More of that in due course.
Next time: Study and exams. They must have been easier then.
Mike Jones has been a Chartered Accountant since the early 1970s and has been Finance Director of many well-known brands including HMV, Argos, and Southern Water.
His full profile is here: LinkedIn Profile