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November 14, 2007

One hundred years and still counting

One hundred years and still counting

The incoming president of the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants (NZICA), Graham Crombie, is a full-of-life character. He tells Nicholas Moody about the challenge of attracting the best and brightest to the profession and leading the institute into centenary celebrations.

Graham Crombie is not going to die wondering what might have been. Whether it’s leading the NZICA – New Zealand’s largest professional body – looking after the interests of 800,000 patients or kayaking in Antarctica, the Dunedin-based auditor isn’t interested in sitting on the sidelines.

“I always figured if you are going to make a difference you have to be in the middle, you have got to be chairing it or leading it or doing something in reality. If you are going to throw yourself into something like the [NZICA] then you might as well give it your best crack,” he says.   Crombie is not one to rest of his laurels. He is a partner at the independent chartered accountancy firm Polson Higgs, where he is chief executive and oversees the firm’s audit and assurance services and business consultancy teams. In his spare time, the 44-year-old likes cycling and recently spent eight days kayaking around the Antarctic Peninsula.

His new role as NZICA president starts in January and puts Crombie at the head of 30,000 members – 8,000 of whom are based overseas. His rise to the president’s role has been swift since being elected to the institute’s council in 2001 and to its executive board in 2002. However, his recent appointment is only one of several governance roles he holds. He is also chairman of Otago Polytechnic and chairman of South Link Health, New Zealand’s largest independent practitioners association, which serves 800,000 patients.

An interest in professional development and getting the best from people ties in with his desire to provide more leadership for the profession in New Zealand. “My [professional] buzz is about professional knowledge firms. It’s how you get really intelligent people to work together, how you get them to collaborate and share ideas and how you convert that into something commercial,” he says.

Crombie says there is real opportunity to improve leadership in the profession and create a global mindset among its members. “Business in New Zealand is global; our people have to be thinking global, how do you lead that? Where do you find the leaders who can actually make sure we are doing the best stuff we can so our clients and firms can contribute at that higher level?” he says.

Leadership feeds into Crombie’s belief about the changing role and perception of accountants in New Zealand. “People are starting to see how important [accounting] is to the wider fabric of New Zealand. It’s not just the accountants in the rooms doing the tax returns. People are starting to realise that [the profession] is a critical part of taking us all forward,” he says.

He identfies four main ongoing challenges for the profession: leadership, the retention and attraction of talent, connecting women’s values with the profession’s values and retaining older accountants.

Demographics play a big part in the changing nature of the country’s profession. Crombie says the institute needs to address what he calls ‘the hole in the middle’ or the dip between a rapidly ageing mature mambership (the institute’s average age is 57) and a slowly rising younger membership. It is also experiencing a gradual correction of the gender imbalance ratio from 66 to 34 (male to female) in 2005 to 60 to 40 in 2007. Crombie senses this slow increase in the number of women in the profession may reflect a move away from the traditional model whereby accountants are expected to work long hours to become a partner.

Engaging the institute’s ageing membership is another challenge. “[We need to] accept the fact that we are getting older – we can’t just say ‘Gee you’re 60, here’s a handshake and go away.’ We’re saying ‘By the way, you are 60 and you’ve got another 20 years of being productive, how do we take advantage?’ We don’t get that by asking you to come to the office for ten hours a day,” he says.

Crombie has two major tasks in 2008: finding a new chief executive and guiding the institute through its 100th anniversary celebrations. “[During my presidency] if I get the right chief executive in there, then I’ve done OK. If I pick the wrong chief executive, it will be a disaster,” he says.

Crombie sees the institute’s 100th birthday as a good opportunity to reflect on what has been done since 1908 and what can be achieved in the future. “We’re really keen to drive it and say ‘Hey yeah, we’ve got 100 years’ experience and we’re going to use it in the future like this.’ Rather than just say ‘Haven’t we done well, we’re 100 years old.’”

Crombie is eager to leave behind a tangible benefit from the centenary celebrations so the institute is looking at digitising its records online and creating a charitable foundation to assist in the development of the profession. However, until the end of 2008 Crombie will have his hands full juggling all his varied commitments, and as he puts it, “just trying to hang on tight”.

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