The philosophy of ‘build it and they will come' is one Geoff Barnes does not believe in. "That's being complacent," he says. "Just because you're large doesn't mean you've got it fixed. It is when you are large and successful that you need to pay attention to client service."
For Barnes, president and CEO of Baker Tilly International, the world's eighth largest independent accountancy and business advisory network headquartered in the UK, the global financial crisis continued the opportunities to serve customers well. Out of the many mandates, one was to show companies what it would be like in the aftermath. Interestingly, the scenario that called upon his firm's consultancy skills the most was succession planning in a family-run businesses.
His recent visit to the UAE to celebrate member firm Baker Tilly MKM Group's 30th year of presence in the Middle East saw Barnes interacting with a number of business heads of family-owned conglomerates.
From his experience, Barnes says, "Family businesses should not assume that their sons and daughters have the right qualification to take the success of their parents to further success. One of the big issues is that if the kids aren't strong enough to do the work, because they do not have the professional disciplines or abilities, it is for the company and the family to recognise that and bring in professional CEOs and CFAs. It is very sad to see a successful first-generation business losing its way through the subsequent generations."
The economic slump saw the world being turned on its head, says Barnes. Not only did it deem obsolete many business plans that well-structured companies had put together, it also reminded clients of dormant eventualities that were earlier overlooked. Interrogating existing business strategies, therefore, became an imperative that auditing firms such as Baker Tilly International helped execute.
Barnes lists three good lessons that the recession is leaving in its wake.
First, no organisation is immune to economic damage and even collapse.
Secondly, not to be complacent. "We live in a world so dynamic that it becomes even more important to stay ahead of the curve and plan - for yourself, your clients and your stakeholders. It's also useful never to think you've got it cracked. You may have cracked it today, but tomorrow's another day."
Thirdly, the importance of leadership. "The recession has defined the necessity of leadership that does not panic, leadership that has looked around the curve and leadership that listens to people. It has brought a more communal atmosphere to the role. It is a fact that leadership can be a lonely business. But the crisis has made the top man more aware of the team. It has taught heads of companies there is nothing wrong in sharing a concern with a colleague and not to be worried that others might see it as a sign of weakness."
Ask Barnes if the recession also gave an opportunity for auditing firms to redeem their eroded reputation post-Enron and he quickly points out, "Let me say that I do not believe there were any systemic problems with auditing firms at that time. Let's also remind ourselves that Arthur Andersen was absolved by the courts of any responsibility regarding Enron. Yes, it's sad that the debacle caused the demise of a major and great accounting firm. The reputational impact on auditing companies arising from Enron was not good, but altogether misguided."
One change that did result post-Enron was that the global accounting profession became externally regulated. And, even if the accounting profession did a commendable job in embracing this change, Barnes believes "it's good we're not self-regulated any more, but it is also important to be regulated by people who understand what we are doing. That's a big point. Overall, we have come a long way. We are still seen as a major cornerstone of the capital society. People want chartered accountants, they want CPAs. We're valuable. And, between the Enron event in 2002 and the fall of the Lehmann Brothers in 2008, we have done a lot in the world to show that we offer a fundamental service to capital markets."
As for the Middle East's economy, Barnes says "I am excited about this region and the fund of intellectual capability here. I look at the desire for people to do better. I know there are certain problems in the region as we speak, but I believe these will be overcome and pave the way for a more optimistic and resilient future."
I come from a normal background and my parents weren't wealthy. However, I wanted to be an accountant from an early age. I had an uncle who was an accountant and seemed affluent; so I thought "that sounds like good stuff" and took to it. Fortunately, I have enjoyed my career.
When I trained with Deloitte, I was fortunate enough to work with a lot of good mentors. One or two of them took me under their wing when I was a young guy and made some very basic observations on how I should run my life in accounting terms. They influenced me a great deal on my personal side as well. My parents were a strong part of my life too. My dad's still alive, he's 92.
When I was about 34, I made the biggest choice of my life. I moved to Baker Tilly from Deloitte. My father thought I was crazy to make this move from a Big-Five firm to a relatively smaller entity. I did this because I wanted to experience other challenges outside of the audit market.
Some ten years ago, I was asked to take on the role as CEO of Baker Tilly International and move to New York. I didn't want to do that. Sensing my reluctance, I was told that should I agree, the headquarters would be moved from New York to London. True enough, that's what happened. I am extremely proud that in under ten years, we have grown our employee strength to over 26,000 and we have 150 member firms in 120 countries worldwide. Our combined revenues have grown to$3 billion, despite passing through two or three economic crises.
With all our talented people worldwide, we are capable of helping boards, audit committees and stakeholders manage rapidly changing legal requirements and develop new business strategies. The firm can help devise new corporate governance strategies and provide coordinated advice to businesses of any size. Personally, I have been fortunate to work with many great partners, colleagues and clients. It's been an achievement for everyone concerned.
If I were to pick one key lesson that I have taken away from my prolific professional journey, it is the fundamental importance of communication. From a management perspective, you've got to play it right. There have been occasions where I have done things quickly without too much deliberation; it could have been the implementation of a new set of ideas conceived on the spur of the moment for the network and you forget to communicate that with no malicious intent - this might not bode well in the long run. Situations such as these show how important it is to carry people along with you from a communication point of view.
To relax, I read a lot, particularly non-fiction and fiction relating to the history of the US civil war. My particular interest in this relates to the bravery involved, an interesting period of development of the US government structures and the anguishes that the war posed within families in conflict. With regard to general reading, I enjoy Charles Dickens and historical novels. I also enjoy golf and anything of a competitive nature.
If I were to describe myself, I would say I am a loyal guy and understand what team play is, but I've always been driven by something that I want to do better. That's why I like mountaineering. My son (35) drives me up crazy mountains although I'm getting too old for this.
I'm certainly not a Luddite, so to speak! Of course, I'm open to change! Can I type 500 words a minute on a keyboard? No. But I do my best to keep up to date. The challenge now is for people of my generation to understand new methodologies of communication such as LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter. I try my best to understand what the social sites are about. I don't blog though.
I've always felt I had good interpersonal skills. For instance, I'm not intimidated when I have to meet new people regardless of station. This doesn't mean that I'm not nervous during big occasions. I have butterflies in my tummy when addressing a crowd of 500 people.
One of my dreams that saw a success fulfruition was a leadership programme I conceptualised. In accounting, we have to deal with a very competitive environment. And, in my quest to be different, I came up with the idea for such a programme. We then looked at various business schools, in Geneva, Stockholm, London, and chose Chicago as our partner for the programme. The leadership programme is open to anyone from our member firms across the world. Young people, who are the leaders of tomorrow, go on the 15-day structured programme that's segmented into five days in London, five in Singapore and five in Chicago. A maximum of 25 participants are taken in. Last year, we had one participant from Dubai. So far, it's been a huge success.
From a personal point of view, a lot of my dreams relate to ambitions for our network. My aspirations are for members to deliver their strategies which, in themselves, will create for us a stronger, more exciting network.
I also have the usual hopes for family members and their achievements. I view my dreams as being action plans that can become a reality.
Age has brought with it some virtues. I'm more patient, I have become a better listener. I'm much more aware of the need to inspire younger people. Rightly or wrongly, people look up to their managers. And, in my role, I try and lead by example or at least I am told that I do! I want young people around the world to come up to me and others of my generation and ask how do I do what I do or how did I get to where I am today. If you can show people that anything can be done by sheer hard work and will, I would consider that a job well done.
When did I last say ‘Yes, We can?' I think I say this most of the time although it might come with certain conditions. For instance, I could say, ‘Yes, we can… if we do this'. Using the term comes with a certain sense of responsibility. Although it's good to believe that anything is achievable, it's also about being sensible. While it's not entirely wrong to verge on unrealism, one must never set ridiculous goals.
I believe it's important to have dreams. And, even if most dreams are not realities, you can make some of them happen. But as an accountant, even when chasing a rainbow, I would perhaps put in a fair measure of caution!
Geoff Barnes says if there is anything he regrets, it's not having done a stint in the army, explaining: "When I decided to become an accountant, I had an opportunity to do a two-year commission at Sandhurst, the British academy. For some reason, I opted out."
Interview by Vasanti Sundaram, a Dubai-based writer