Accounting chief defends integrity of the majority

 

Chartered Institute of Management Accountants president Harry Byrne warns against damning all professionals for the sins of the few, writes Ella Shanahan

"Tax evasion cannot be condoned and no accountant should be involved in encouraging or advising people to evade tax." That is the view of Mr Harry Byrne, international president of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA).

In the week when Worldcom joined Enron in damaging the image of accountants internationally, Mr Byrne says it is very important to recognise that accounting rules in the US are different from those in the Republic and Britain. "They have a rules-based approach, whereas we have a principles-based approach. Sometimes it's possible to conform to the letter of the rules but we naturally feel that a principles-based approach is superior, and the EU is now adopting international accounting standards.

"The American authorities might review their approach to accountancy and come in line with international accounting standards," he adds.

While CIMA accountants are not auditing accountants - his members usually are key management people in companies - he still feels that debacles like Enron and Worldcom, both of which were clients of Arthur Andersen, affect the image of accountants generally.

"One or two situations which involve accountants or any other profession can, to some extent, reflect on all in that profession, which is fundamentally unfair," he says."The incidence of this kind of thing is relatively rare but it's very understandable: investors are affected and it's fundamentally wrong that investors should be affected. It does make the headlines."

Accountants were also centrally involved in setting up Ansbacher accounts in the Cayman islands, but Mr Byrne says nobody knew how extensive they were. "It's really very difficult to comment on something like that. It seems to be a one-off situation. The whole profession shouldn't have to suffer," he says emphatically.

Mr Byrne is only the second Irishman to head CIMA, which has 60,000 members and 75,000 students in 150 countries. He was assistant managing director of Guinness Ireland Group until he retired, aged 60, in 1996.

"When you retire, you don't get holidays or any bank holidays. If somebody asks you to attend something on November 8th and you say "no problem", that means that week is gone, you're committed. It's very easy to find yourself almost entrapped," he says.

Mr Byrne joined Guinness straight out of school in Bray, as a general trainee on the staff - what now would be called a management trainee - at a time when one of the largest industrial employers in Dublin was taking only four or five people a year on "staff".

The young Mr Byrne secured full marks in his maths exam and then had to face an interview with the full Guinness board.

"I was never in a room with so many titled people in my life. They said I should go to the central accounts department. It was fairly unsophisticated but I felt I ended up in the right niche," he says now.

He first qualification in accountancy was as a chartered certified accountant. But then he decided to become a member of CIMA because of its greater focus on business.

"Really, in practical terms, I came to regard CIMA as my primary qualification," he says.

CIMA has been remarkably successful in the past decade, doubling its worldwide membership since 1991, a growth reflected in the Republic, which has 4.5 per cent of total numbers - 2,600 today, plus around 3,400 students, from just 700 in 1998.

Much credit, he says, is due to the Irish director, Dr Tony White, who joined CIMA from the National Council for Educational Awards and who has concentrated determinedly on increasing the student intake.

Mr Byrne, in a former incarnation as chairman of CIMA's international committee for some years, put down roots for the profession in new territories, such as Shanghai in China and Sri Lanka.

Having survived a very busy life as the accountant in the Guinness group sales, head of corporate planning and managing director of the holding company, he was appointed to the board as finance director in 1977 and became assistant managing director in 1992.

When he retired, his retirement applied only to Guinness, not to his many other involvements. For a start, he is one of nine Irish members of the European Economic and Social Committee, the consultative body that counterbalances the European Commission. In this capacity, he has been the rapporteur responsible for producing the draft document for the committee on pensions.

Another of his involvements is as a trustee of the Iveagh Trust for the past 20 years, during which time it has developed its portfolio, providing sheltered housing for the elderly, affordable housing for families and expanding its hostel for men in Dublin. He shrugs off his role, saying: "There tends to have been always a number of Guinness executives involved."

But he is seriously concerned now at the increasing demand for hostel accommodation in the capital. "I think it's partly because commercial housing has become difficult for many people to afford and, I suppose also, there seemed to be more people in need of hostel accommodation."

He is a former chairman of the Eye and Ear Hospital and still sits on the board. He is also chairman of the Guinness Pension Fund Trustees and sits on the board of the Foundation for Investing in Communities.

Whew! And this man is retired.

So why has he taken on the international presidency of CIMA at this stage in his life?

"I don't play golf or have pastimes like that. I have always been interested in business and related areas and felt I would like to stay involved in that sort of area.

"Organisations are made up of people. I served in Guinness for 41 years with lots of interesting and talented people. I have found extending my work into CIMA is providing a comparable experience. It's the involvement with people that makes life interesting."

Attending meetings at CIMA's headquarters in London as well as visiting branches in the Republic and Britain will be regular events. And then there's the long-haul, with meetings scheduled for Malaysia and Hong Kong already.

He and his wife Hilary are regular theatre-goers. Reading and "a sedentary interest in sport" are other interests. Their house abounds with books - the current one on the go is Alistair McLeod's essays on life in Newfoundland. He hasn't been there yet, in spite of several visits to Canada, but greatly enjoyed The Shipping News.

And he tells the story of sitting in an Irish pub in Banff in the Rockies and hearing a man at the next table loudly proclaiming that all Guinness was now brewed in London.

"I couldn't resist putting him right," he says gently.

And as to the recurring rumours that Guinness is about to, or has decided to and intends to, pull out of Ireland? "Guinness, as an organisation, was never more aware of its Irish heritage," he insists.