New Institute of Chartered Accountants in Scotland
president Alan Thomson is something of a minority within the
institute, being a ‘foreigner’. He tells Carolyn Canham about the
institute’s geographic and demographic diversity and the
opportunities accountancy can bring.

Alan Thomson

Alan Thomson’s professional career began
in an unconventional way for a FTSE 100 finance director – playing
as a striker for Scottish first division football clubs.

The new Institute of Chartered
Accountants in Scotland (ICAS) president is also in a minority due
to the fact he has lived outside of Scotland for almost all his
career. But Thomson says this minority status is something he feels
good about. He is proud of ICAS’s international reach and its
diversity, and enthusiastic about the inclusiveness of the
accountancy profession.

“More than a third of the membership lives down
south in England now, and every so often we get a foreigner –
someone living in England – to be the president of the institute.
It was my turn this year,” Thomson explains.

Although Thomson calls himself a foreigner, he
was born and bred in Scotland. His initial ambition was to be a
professional footballer and that’s what he did for six years –
starting off with the Glasgow Rangers, where he played for the
reserve team, before moving to Hamilton, where he played in the
first team.

“As soon as I joined [Hamilton] I realised I
had better find myself a proper career,” Thomson recalls. “They
didn’t pay you much money to be a professional footballer in those
days, so I trained to become an accountant.”

 

Joining the profession

Thomson began working in a small Glasgow
firm in 1967. He qualified in 1970 and then joined Arthur
Andersen.

“They sent me on my first assignment to Geneva
and after a year said ‘would you like to go back to Scotland’. I
said ‘no thank you, I quite like living offshore’,” he recalls.

So Thomson went to Paris, working for Price
Waterhouse for a time, before leaving the profession to go into
business. His business career took him to the US and then back to
the UK. He’s never lived back in Scotland.

Thomson says his international and diverse
career captures the nature of ICAS these days. More than 60% of new
accountants joining live outside Scotland.

“If you look at the demographics of how our
institute used to be, it was always just something for Scots,
particularly those living in Scotland… but now it is very much
international,” he says.

 

Snapshot: Alan ThomsonBreaking through the glass ceiling

Thomson is also keen to point out a
swing in gender demographics.

“At the age of 45 and over, 10% of our
accountants are ladies and 90% are men. At 30, it is 50:50,” he
explains.

“We produced a publication last year about the
glass ceiling and how ladies in accountancy can actually break
through. We had our first lady president about 15 years ago and our
second a couple of years ago and I tell you there are more coming
through now.”

Thomson is also enthusiastic about the way the
accountancy profession can cross social and class divides.

“We had 1,000 graduates last weekend who joined
the institute and I told them this is a meritocracy,” he
explains.

“My original perception of these accounting
institutes was they were for fairly well-off people in the
profession, but in fact I come from quite the opposite
background.

“I didn’t come from that [well-off] background
and I didn’t become a partner in an accounting firm, I became a
finance director in a business,” he says.

“You could see a lot of graduates nodding and
saying ‘yes, I can empathise with that’ because now that we have
1,000 students a year coming through, most of them come from normal
backgrounds, rather than money backgrounds.”

 

Getting ahead

When Thomson returned to the UK in the
1980s, he began working in public companies with large
international operations. This eventually led to a position as
finance director at Smiths Group, a FTSE 100 global technology
company.

Throughout his high flying business career,
Thomson had virtually no involvement with ICAS. This was mainly due
to his view that the institute was a professional body for Scottish
people living in Scotland, so he saw himself as an outsider.

This changed about 10 years ago.

“I got a call in the late 1990s from the
institute and we went through a very strange conversation beginning
something like: ‘Are you Alan Thomson? Did you qualify in 1970?’,”
Thomson recalls.

“I said ‘I don’t know where this conversation
is leading’ and he said ‘well Mr Thomson, I’m the secretary of the
Institute of Chartered Accountants of Scotland.

“I said, ‘I’ve paid my subs for 30 years’.

“And he said ‘yes, that’s the problem we have
with you. We have six FTSE 100 finance directors’ and he listed who
they were, got to five, and then said ‘Mr Thomson, nobody in the
institute knows who you are. What do you do? What’s your
background? You’ve never crossed the door in 30 years’.”

The absence of ICAS involvement for so much of
Thomson’s career is one reason he’s so adamant young people should
get involved.

“An alumnus system should be created to make
them interested in getting involved because there is so much they
can contribute,” he explains. “We have got 18,000 members and only
about 400 of them have had anything to do with the institute.

“When you talk to Harvard guys for example, my
lad has just finished at Harvard, and the university grabs them and
never lets them go.

“What I have got to do is try and see if we can
get more involvement from the youngsters and also from the retired
community, because of the number of people who are retiring now at
60, but are going to live until they’re in their 80s or 90s, and
they are looking for things to do.

“The accounting profession and the whole
industry needs straight talkers and people with experience who are
prepared to give something back and that is one of my challenges –
how do I get some of these old grizzlies to get up in the morning
and say ‘I’ll go to Edinburgh and get involved in some sort of
project’?”

Thomson’s strategy for getting more members
involved with ICAS is simple – by picking up the phone.

“It’s about telephoning them, saying ‘what’s
your interest?’ and networking.”

 

Advocacy time

Now that Thomson is involved with ICAS
at the very highest level, he has a number of issues he wants to
push.

The first is simplifying annual reports.

“The issue with accounting at the moment is we
produce far too much information in core documents such as
companies’ annual accounts,” Thomson explains.

“People want to read the reports to find out
how a company is doing but at the moment it’s like reading War
and Peace
. I sit on a French board of a company called Alstom
and its annual accounts last year were 250 pages. This year they
will probably be close to 400.”

Thomson plans to “make a lot of noise” during
the next year about investigating how companies can produce more
focused reports that explain what a company is about, what the
major risks are, what the key numbers are, who is on the board and
who the senior managers are. He wants reports that can be read in
minutes rather than hours.

These reports could also point readers to the
company website, where they can access more detailed information on
areas such as sustainability, pensions and the remuneration
report.

Thomson says that to make annual reports more
useful, management commentary will also have to change.

“Management has to take that on the chin and
say ‘here are the key issues’,” he explains.

“One of the recommendations I am going to come
out with in the next few months is the report should set out what
the company is all about, what it does very concisely, what are the
risks, what are the key performance indicators and how are they
doing against them.

“It is not just on financial things; it is all
the non-financial reporting you are going to see more of. There is
sustainability, health and safety, the whole governance issue and
you just can’t avoid it anymore.”

 

Audit spotlight

Another issue Thomson has his eye on is
audit, in particular the expectation gap between what the public
think audit is supposed to deliver and what it actually is set up
to do.

“I think there is an inclination to allow or
encourage the audit profession to speak much more widely about the
businesses they audit and they are involved with,” he explains.

“At the same time, you have got to couple that
with the fact that auditors are petrified that their whole business
is up for grabs if they get it wrong.”

There is currently an argument that audit
doesn’t add much value.

Speaking as an accountant in business, Thomson
says that if auditors can come up with ways to add more value,
companies will be prepared to pay for it.

Thomson also believes there is also an
opportunity, in the current environment where politicians and banks
are held in deep public distrust, for accountants to prove they
have integrity, ethics and are honest brokers that people can go
to.

“We’ve got all sorts of ideas that we would
like to get going, which is why we have to get our members involved
and also people from related professions – actuaries and the legal
profession – to try and help the public.

“In places like Scotland there is very little
financial expertise, for example, in the Scottish Parliament, and
there is a real opportunity to go forward in a non-political way. I
do vote, but the fact is, it is not a political thing, it is
helping the people in Scotland and the people in the whole of the
UK understand what is going on in the wider economy because people
are listening to politicians and newspapers, which have all got
vested interests.”

With his plans to round up the ICAS troops and
tackle issues as widespread as complexity in financial reports and
ethics in politics and banks, Thomson has his work cut out.

But with the energy and enthusiasm that has
seen a career that has spanned professional football to the FTSE
100, it’s a challenge he is up to.