In 1494 Luca Pacioli wrote the first detailed description of double-entry bookkeeping. 480 years later I was expected to do the same.
Having spent three years studying accountancy at university, you might have thought I would have a pretty good grasp of debits and credits. In fact, we never bothered; it was much more ethereal. The ICAEW expected somewhat more grounded learning and that’s where it became difficult. Getting numbers to balance in a text-book is not the way to learn. You need tons of practical experience.
You need to make mistakes.
You need to find out that when two sets of numbers differ by a number divisible by 9, then you have probably transposed one of them. No one teaches you that in a classroom.
It was the same with auditing. ICQs were just coming into vogue in the early 1970s. Internal Control Questionnaires were the basis of automated auditing, where you could systematically check on what the clients were doing. In exams you had to memorise all the questions. I haven’t looked to see what is in today’s papers, but I bet things have moved on.
Company Law and its associate, Mercantile Law were the hardest; the former because there was so much to remember and the latter because the cases we leaned about were hard fought and you could never work out who had won.
I was lucky to be in the first year to be sent to The Financial Training Company in Kensal Rise. Even luckier, my law tutor was Jeremy Hanley whose parents were the actors Dinah Sheridan and Jimmy Hanley and whose sister was the presenter of children’s TV programme Magpie. He later became my MP and is now Sir Jeremy. His view was that the exams were there to be passed and the only way to pass was to treat it like a memory exercise, like learning lines.
I will never forget clause 54 of the Companies Act 1948 which covered Financial Assistance.
“Subject as provided in this section, it shall not be lawful for a company to give, whether directly or indirectly, and whether by means of a loan, guarantee, the provision of security or otherwise, any financial assistance for the purpose of or in connection with a purchase or subscription made or to be made by any person of or for any shares in the company, where the company is a subsidiary company, in its holding company: ….”
Despite this dire warning the maximum penalty would be “…a fine not exceeding one hundred pounds.”
Somehow Jeremy made the learning fun. Thank goodness.
Aiming for the magic ACA letters after your name was a must. It would be the foundation step to climbing the career ladder, but it would be a slog. However well taught you were, there was no short-cut to learning how to present “T accounts”, preparing a trial balance, calculating a tax liability, and analysing a P&L account.
I’m undecided as to whether I really gained much in all the study, other than gaining the qualification. You certainly become an accountant but it teaches nothing about insight, nor do you have to prove that you have any skills in reading people. Over the years, I have rarely returned to Companies Acts, or Financial Reporting standards. I suppose the point is that I know where to look, or who to ask.
As it happened, my final exam was a horror. I was well prepared, but not for what occurred on the day. Those who know me, know that I am never late; indeed, I am often stupidly early. On this day, in May 1975, I set out with plenty of time to get from Richmond to the Porchester Baths in Bayswater. I didn’t know either, but there is large hall suitable for examinations, as well as the swimming pool and slipper baths. All was well until just outside Earl’s Court when our tube train stopped.
It stayed that way for nearly an hour and there was nothing I could do but fret. Finally, we pulled into the station, and, rather than risking the next tube, I ran upstairs to find a taxi. I wasn’t the only person looking for a cab, but was probably the only one who was now late for an exam.
I saw an empty cab and I whistled. It’s a talent, and with two fingers I can whistle as loud as anyone I’ve heard. The driver came over, wound down his windows and said “I never pick up anyone who whistles at me”. I don’t know how my expression changed, but he did quickly open the door and off we went. I walked into the hall thirty minutes late. I did my best but I wasn’t hopeful.
Six weeks later, the post arrived (no electronics then).
Next time: Kalamazoo is not just a US city.
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