THE ANDREW DAVIDSON INTERVIEW: Nick Land - As head of Ernst & Young's British partnership in troubled times for accountants, he has fulfilled a Blair-like role of managing relations with an all-powerful US-run operation and been a reforming force at home. Clearly, there's a steely core to his subtle consensual skills.

by Andrew Davidson
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

As head of Ernst & Young's British partnership in troubled times for accountants, he has fulfilled a Blair-like role of managing relations with an all-powerful US-run operation and been a reforming force at home. Clearly, there's a steely core to his subtle consensual skills.

Nick Land is a hard man to place. With his swish of still-blond hair, tight smile and fidgety fingers, he looks a lot younger than his 55 years and talks a lot younger too, with none of the gravitas and certainty of age but with a rather likable hesitancy of speech. A typical Land sentence will start, stop, reconsider, choose a new verb, march on till it grinds to a halt again, tease out a new meaning. Sometimes it's a bit like dragging a cart through heavy mud.

But he likes to get it right, which is what his clients expect, and he is not afraid to say what he thinks. As chairman of the UK arm of Ernst & Young, the accountant/consultant group, he has headed his profession for longer than he may care to remember. Made senior partner in 1995, chairman since 1999, Land is a survivor in a trade that has been through the mangle in the past three years.

All the more remarkable when you consider that, as E&Y UK is a limited partnership linked in a loosish federation to E&Y's American-run global operation, he has to be re-elected every four years by the 450 partners who make up the British firm. And his responsibilities are, shall we say, old-fashioned. Let him explain.

'I suppose I am chairman and chief executive. I have two responsibilities: I'm responsible to the people who own the business, the partners; and on the other hand I am also responsible, with my team, for the management of the firm and its strategic direction, so I guess I break all the Higgs rules. In fact, I am accountable to 450 people, all of whom work in the business all the time.'

He smiles at the intricacy of it all. Has he ever been challenged for leadership? Ooh no, he says, with a nervous wave of the hands, as if the thought of a challenge would never do at all. 'I think the partners would be very disappointed.' Then he gives a sly grin. 'Though there was one firm where 14 partners threw their hats into the ring. Crazy? Yes, but we did rather laugh ...'

If it sounds arcane, it is, in part, but it's also consensual, collegiate and infinitely more difficult to manage than the average FTSE plc. Add to which E&Y UK is part of the 110,000-employee multinational group with worldwide revenues of pounds 6.6 billion and top salaries that run into millions of pounds, inside which relationships dictate just how centrally run each national arm can be. Managing all that - the partners, the Americans, the clients - takes a degree of subtlety and dexterity that doesn't come in handbooks.

Quite how much Land - a private man who has to provide a public face to his UK firm - has also managed to create an organisation after his own image is a moot point. Those who know him well note that he is an unusual mix of ambition and caution, which make pretty good - if conflicting - core values for the business. He also has an unusual approach. 'One of Nick's strengths,' says a former client, 'is to be a leader without appearing to be a leader.'

In an organisation of equals, that has its advantages. It's like herding cats, says one E&Y partner. 'You can't tell partners what to do, you have to persuade them it's in their interests.'

Land does it at E&Y by championing 'behaviours'. The wish list includes: putting the team before the individual, rewarding the challenging and the innovative, setting store by integrity and excellence, and keeping the organisation 'open, inclusive and fun'. The partners adopt the characteristics because it makes the firm a better place to work and ensures them a good living too. That's the theory, anyway. Land also has to work hard to preserve much of E&Y UK's autonomy while maintaining its clout within the global operation, and to give it a distinctive feel in comparison to rival global accounting giants.

All of that, of course, is very difficult for the rest of us to judge. What is clear is that Land is about as approachable as the average big-hitting accountant gets. He bustles into the meeting room next to his modest, glass-panelled office at E&Y's vast '70s slab of a base opposite St Thomas's Hospital in London's Lambeth. He pours the coffee, passes the biscuits and smiles good-naturedly. If he is anxious - and I had been warned that he doesn't like chatting about himself - he doesn't show it, beyond that stop-start hesitancy in the search for exactness. In his nice suit and with his boyish hair he looks more like a respected publisher than an accountant - testament, perhaps, to the influence of his wife Sonia Land, who is a former publishing boss herself and now an author's agent of some clout.

So, these are interesting times for accountants. All are on edge. Enron, WorldCom and other scandals have queered the pitch for the largest firms, and the Big Four - E&Y, PriceWaterhouseCoopers, Deloitte & Touche and KPMG - have watched bemused as one-time rival Andersen has been wiped off the map. Those shockwaves have still to work themselves all the way through, but no-one has failed to notice just how completely Andersen, after fouling up at Enron, has been obliterated.

'It is difficult to think of any example where a global brand was destroyed in a matter of months, ceased to exist, not because of lawsuits but just because the brand was destroyed,' says Land ruminatively. Life goes on, however, and Andersen's rivals have not been slow to sweep up its employees. E&Y took on 25,000 of them.

Have the scandals damaged everyone's credibility? 'There is no doubt it damaged accounting,' nods Land, pausing to choose his words, 'but there is no reason why it shouldn't recover. In fact, I think it damaged everyone's brand, and not just accounting. Investment banking, regulating - no-one came out of Enron with any credit.'

But what it hasn't done, conspicuously, is made global accounting any more competitive. Quite the reverse. The jump from Big Five to Big Four means there is even less choice for multinationals seeking accountancy groups that can service their needs across the globe. Given that many of the Big Four are often 'conflicted' out because of other clients they work for, there is often no choice at all.

And if one more firm should accidentally fall? Four is just not enough. 'I think,' agrees Land, 'regulators would today regret that they allowed the amount of consolidation they did. They are not over the moon that there are just four big firms, by any means. And I think the barriers are much too great for new firms to enter the market now. Remember, one of the reason these firms became so global is that it was driven through the Anglo-Saxon model of the multinational, which required an audit and consolidated accounts, and often opted for using one firm around the globe. Which meant that if BP went to Khazakstan, we went into Khazakstan, and as these multinationals grew, we grew.'

So what started out as a bunch of small-scale owner-operator firms often set up over a century ago (for example, Mr Ernst of E&Y was born in Cleveland, Ohio in 1861 and Mr Young born in Scotland in 1863) have now risen through multiple mergers and expansion to become huge organisations with diverse interests. And the rate of change seems to get faster. Even in the past 30 years, E&Y, like all the major accountancy firms, has shifted beyond recognition, merging, expanding, throwing off consultancy arms, moving into other business sectors. Now it's not just doing the books that counts. E&Y's UK operation (2002 revenues pounds 754 million), which Land runs, now makes more money from its tax planning side than its audit business, with corporate finance almost as big.

That has caused ructions of late, with regulators citing conflicts of interest, worrying that audit teams are put under pressure to produce favourable figures in the knowledge that clients are buying huge amounts of services off other parts of the audit firm's empire, and the whole cosy relationship is conspiring to work against the better interests of shareholders.

There have been all sorts of suggestions as to how this might be countered. Even the compulsory rotation of auditors has been mooted - an idea the Big Four loathe. It's just not workable, says Land, because if you have to change accountants every five or seven years, it may come at a time when your whole company is in flux. That's crazy. 'Sometimes the auditors are the only stable influence they've got!'

The important thing, he continues, is not to leap into anything too fast. 'The UK government has handled the crisis well, setting up a working group between the DTI and Treasury, setting up Higgs and Smith, and saying there will be no knee-jerk reaction, we're going to take time. The auditing profession has responded as well and anticipated possible changes. And there is no question that the market has been ahead of regulators in terms of non-audit services. Managements and boards are already saying they will be much more circumspect in relation to what non-audit services they ask auditors to provide.'

One of the first to anticipate those changes was Land himself, when he argued through the sale of E&Y's IT consulting business to Cap Gemini in 1999 for pounds 7 billion. That sale, at the top of the market, now looks rather prescient. Yup, says Land, with hesitant understatement, it was a big decision but a logical one.

'I think a lot of our competitors thought we were mad to take 30% of this firm, which we had spent 20 years building up, and to give it up. But we had foreseen complications, and there were whispers in the US about forthcoming problems with non-audit services. But really the driver was that we could no longer see the commercial logic in keeping it. If it became increasingly IT centric, where was the synergy with the rest of the business? It was possibly becoming bigger than the rest of the business and what it was doing and selling was diverging from the rest of the business, and the synergies became less and less.'

More intriguing, perhaps, would be to know how it was argued out internally at E&Y. Land, who sits on the global executive board, may have been a chief proponent of the deal, but the real power in the group lies elsewhere, in the American firm. One of the chief tasks of any E&Y UK boss is to work out exactly what the relationship is going to be with its affiliated cousin. Others inside E&Y say Land has played the Americans well, working out a semi-autonomous relationship that's not dissimilar to the geopolitical one adopted by their parent countries.

'The American firm is awesomely large, powerful and rich,' says one colleague, 'and if you are going to have influence at that table, you are going to have to add value. We can't do it with resources, but we can do it with ideas.'

So a lot of E&Y initiatives are channelled through Land's office, even the decision to move E&Y's global headquarters out of America and into London was seen as an acknowledgment not just that the firm had to be less US-centric but also as an indicator of the UK's influence. It gives him a personal position of some clout, but will also make it doubly difficult for E&Y to replace him when he retires before the next internal election.

'Nick has done such a great job getting alongside the Americans,' acknowledges one friend, 'almost as if they were a client.'

Land has always worked well with clients and bosses alike. He freely admits his own career was hauled up by a tight working relationship with former BTR boss Sir Owen Green. 'I was just lucky to get involved with BTR, it was a go-go company in the 1970s and 1980s.' Big clients bring big rewards. 'You are unlikely to become a senior partner in any firm if you haven't got big-client credentials, and you need to be somewhere in the centre of the action.'

Green, now retired, remembers Land as one of the most able accountants he ever worked with. 'He had this ability to keep clients onside, even when his views were different. Always a good listener, very clever at getting you to where he wanted without you ever feeling you had lost the argument. And you never got any complaints from down the line that his people were interfering or officious. He was always courteous, always bright and breezy.' Green tried to lure him into BTR, but Land would never jump.

His relationship with Green - 'a strong man with strong views' - mirrors those he has had with many inside the practices he has worked his way through and beyond. He has, it seems, always been drawn to powerful mavericks, even if they exhibited characteristics alien to his own. 'I've been lucky. I've always worked for bloody interesting partners, people with opinions and views, who stood out from the crowd. I think we just used to click.'

Others suggest that, like the shy man drawn to the extrovert, Land is attracted to the fearless to compensate for his own instinctive caution. Hence his marriage to Sonia, boss of literary agency Shiel Land Associates, who has by reputation a far tougher style than his, and his friendships with outspoken professionals.

Land agrees, up to a point. 'I have got a cautious streak in me,' he says, 'I certainly learnt when I got into management roles that if you tend to get to decisions quickly, you better pause, and unless it is something you have to execute tomorrow, you reflect on it.' But he's prepared to be bold too, he says, when the occasion demands it. Others attest that he also has a steely core that always slightly surprises people when they thump into it.

The odd thing is, he never had any great ambitions to be a boss. Born an only child, his dad a teacher, his mum a housewife, he was brought up in Shoreham-on-Sea on the south coast, where he sailed a lot, worked a bit, got reasonable A-levels from the local grammar school but wasn't even sure if he was going to go to university - being a boat-bum seemed so much more fun - till his father stepped in and signed him up as a trainee at a local accountancy firm. Land says he was just a bit bemused, really.

'I hadn't got a care in the world. I could have gone to university if I'd wanted but my dad said, why not get a profession? So I just followed his advice. It seemed to make sense. It doesn't sound impressive, does it? But it's the truth.'

His father, he says, was probably worried he would just 'fritter away' important years working the yachting circuit, as many young men did. So Land gave accountancy a try - it didn't interfere too much with his weekend sailing - and quickly clicked with a senior partner at the firm. 'And once you began to pick it all up, I found it really interesting, I really enjoyed working with this guy.' When he was offered the chance to do 'the traditional two-year London experience' at a bigger firm, he jumped at it.

And the sailing? He just dropped it, and has rarely sailed since. Self-discipline, you would guess, is another key Land trait. 'I have been tempted since,' he says, 'but I have tried not to take up hobbies that take me away from the family.'

And once in London he found he liked the accountant's life, so long as he was moving forward. 'I seemed to get interesting clients, move up the ladder relatively quickly and build friendships.' He was never, he says, driven by long-term ambition, otherwise he would have left for manufacturing when those job offers rolled in. 'In a sense, if I was driven by anything it was more the need for short-term recognition than long-term ambition ... Your ambition when you're in a firm is just to see your name on the noticeboard as one of those promoted.'

The firms he worked his way through merged and grew - Turquands, Whinney Murray, Ernst & Whinney, Ernst & Young - and Land became an E&W partner aged 30, later running the London office, more by accident than design, he says. 'I just got sucked into various roles, and I realised that while I enjoyed working with clients, I also enjoyed being in the centre of the firm, being able to influence what it did and its direction.'

He was also lucky, according to others, in that senior vacancies came up just when he was available. And he showed a sure hand at managing merger, which swiftly became the relentless coda to any accountant's life. By the time he was elected to senior partner, he had his own views on how he wanted to run the business. And that meant changing it. 'One of the biggest things he has done,' says Robin Heath, who sits on E&Y UK's four-man executive with Land, 'is put the firm on a change programme and shake it up. Before, it was a quite successful but sleepy member of the then Big Six. He has given it new shape and foundations. He could have just kept his head down.'

Instead, he has pushed the UK government to change the rules so practices could take on limited liability; set new values and aims, agreed to publish annual figures, poached partners from other firms to bring fresh perspectives, focused on changing 'behaviours' within the business.

The decision to become a limited-liability partnership, in particular, has been hailed as a forward-thinking move. 'We were leading campaigners for that reform,' says Land. 'What it does is allows us similar protection around limited liability that corporate entity does, but allows us to continue to operate as a partnership.' That means he has to publish accounts, but so what? 'We are in the transparency business. Our documents should be transparent,' he adds.

It may also help in the ever-escalating fight against sore ex-clients looking to assign blame and recoup damages. E&Y is still fighting claims by Equitable Life's managers that it must take some of the flak for its bad management decisions.

Sorting out all that and leading E&Y from the front has taken up so much of Land's time over the past eight years - 'Nick is absolutely selfless about this organisation,' says Heath - that his friends wonder what he will do when he stands down in 2006. So does Land.

'I'll have regrets, but it will be time for a change,' he says. 'I will have done 11 years in the role and that's long enough. It will be the right time.'

Can he train up a successor? No, he says, 'but the partners would expect me to make sure that a small number of likely candidates were in visible positions and had some hands-on man- agement experience.'

He will have more time to spend with his son, already 19, and in his garden in west London's Chiswick - the closest he gets to a hobby nowadays. 'And I'm not hankering to sail round the world or anything. Actually, along with my life plan generally, I haven't got a bloody clue what I'll do next!'

But they'll be offers made, decisions to be taken. What Land will have to decide is whether he wants to opt for some interesting non-exec roles, or take his particular brand of subtle, consensus management skills on to a new challenge where he can really make a difference. Perhaps giving interviews like this is a smart way of finding out what's out there. Form an orderly queue, please.

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