Malcolm Brown finds a top accountant pondering an elusive work-play balance.
1937: Born in Wallasey, Merseyside. Attended Douai School, near Reading, a Roman Catholic public school run by Benedictine monks
1958: Goes up to Cambridge after National Service ("I had a thoroughly undistinguished National Service. I ended up as a lance-bombardier")
1961: Articled to City firm of chartered accountants, Evans Smith Boothroyd. "The only minor problem was that I was articled to my father-in-law"
1964: Qualifies. Joins Coopers
1968: Appointed a partner, age 30
1983: Elected chairman of Coopers and Lybrand in the UK. "There were four candidates. Two were middle-fifties and two of us were middle-forties. They either went with the incremental appointment, or there were two of us who were wild cards. The partners went for one of the wild cards"
Coopers and Lybrand Deloitte's present address, Plumtree Court, is a bit twee - not a patch on the old one, Gutter Lane, one of the roads off Cheapside.
Legend has it that when the firm, then simply Cooper Brothers, had been in Gutter Lane a few years the partners wrote to the Corporation of London suggesting that in view of their long tenancy it might be appropriate to rename the place Coopers Lane. The Corporation, so the story goes, wrote back saying "as we've been here longer why don't you change your name to Gutter Brothers."
Apocryphal or not the fact that the story still does the rounds years later shows a real affection for the old address. When, earlier this year, the Corporation was selling off at auction the old City street signs, Coopers bought the Gutter Lane set.
Brandon Gough, chairman and joint senior partner, is clearly delighted with his acquisition, though he cannot help adding, in parenthesis, that it was "probably a waste of money", a reflection perhaps of one of his present preoccupations - how accountants should value intangibles.
Gough's private address is just as resonant, in its way, as the firm's old one. He lives in Kent at a remarkable house called Long Barn, which was once the weekend home of the writers Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson, a couple with a very unusual marriage. According to their son, Nigel Nicolson, it was a union in which love deepened with every passing year "although each was constantly and by mutual consent unfaithful to the other", in Vita's case rather scandalously with another woman, Violet Trefusis. The house is said also to have been the birthplace of Caxton, but, the British predilection for prurience being what it is, that tends to get overlooked.
The BBC recently adapted Nigel Nicolson's book about his parents, Portrait of a Marriage, much of it set in Long Barn. Gough, who let the television researchers in to get the atmosphere and measure of the place, thought the resulting film trite. Vita and Harold were intriguing people and their relationship quite extraordinary and deserving of more analysis, he says. "I think the BBC trivialised it just to concentrate on essentially a lesbian relationship."
Accountants have the reputation of being dull - grey men in grey suits with grey minds. There is even a Monty Python sketch to prove the point - the one about the chartered accountant who wants to become a lion tamer. Gough is anything but dull, yet, rather disconcertingly, instead of dismissing the stereotype straight off, he launches into a brief analysis of the incidence of boringness in the population at large, concluding that while there are many boring accountants the profession's overall boringness-quotient is probably no higher than the average for the business community as a whole. Gough has never had aspirations toward lion taming, but he did once think of becoming an engineer, an ambition which was dashed by a major administrative cock-up at Jesus College, Cambridge. It seems that he thought he had a place to read mechanical sciences at Cambridge while Jesus thought he had a place to read natural sciences.
"They said I could switch to the mechanical sciences but I'd have to take another maths exam. I decided that that wasn't something I wanted to do because, out of my range of scientifically-orientated subjects, maths was the weak suit. So I decided to call it a day and read natural sciences."
In fact before he had even reached college - while away doing National Service - he had decided that he would probably prefer business or finance to science or engineering so, after Part One of the Tripos, he switched to law then, on graduation, took articles as a chartered accountant. His new boss was also his father-in-law (he had married as soon as he graduated) and, naturally enough, there was talk of nepotism. "Some members of the firm, I think, thought that that probably gave me the inside track on opportunities. I don't know, maybe it did."
Whatever the truth of that he soon proved to everyone that he didn't need to stand on anyone's shoulders to make it professionally. He came second in the chartered accountant's intermediate qualifying exams and first in the finals.
It was a passport to success, though it probably did not seem that way the day he turned up at Gutter Lane to be interviewed by the Coopers' partner in charge of staff recruitment. He had come to see Mr Corsan, he told the receptionist.
"She looked up at me, looked me straight in the eyes and said 'That would be difficult. Mr Corsan is in Thailand today.' It was a colossal put-down and I found myself sort of metaphorically turning my cap in my hands, feeling as if I was a little bit out of my depth."
But he was taken on and only three-and-a-half years later was himself a partner. Elevation to the chairmanship took a little longer - 15 years - but he was still only in his mid-forties when he made it.
"We'd got into quite an interesting situation. At the final stage there were four candidates for the job. As it happened there was no one at around 50. So there was a sharply contrasting choice in front of the partners. They either went with the incremental appointment (one of the older candidates was one of the two vice-chairmen in the firm, so in a sense it would have been logical for him to step up and do a few years as chairman ... he had the experience, he was a very able man) and there were two of us who were, if you like, wild cards. The partners went for one of the wild cards."
He says his wife, Sarah, constantly complains that he is incapable of making decisions, but he seems to have muddled along somehow. Since he took over, in 1983, the firm's annual fee income has multiplied almost five-fold to £588 million, putting it at the top of the "Big Six" league table and more than £100 million ahead of its nearest rival KPMG Peat Marwick.
There is a cost. He has become rather obsessive about work, to a degree which he himself recognises as potentially dangerous. "Probably through bad management I've allowed the business to dominate my life, funnily enough more in the last three or four years perhaps than even before that. I've been treated exceedingly tolerantly by my wife who to a considerable extent has created her own interests. I think in a way it's a mistake and before I finally stop working I'd like to get the balance a bit better corrected."
Part of the problem, he thinks, is that there is an element in a partnership which is not so evident in ordinary business.
"There's probably a stronger sense of obligation to the other people. I'm not just running a business and producing a profit flow for shareholders and all that; I have a strong sense of obligation to a group of partners who've asked me to give leadership to their activity. The sense of partnership is very very strong."
Professionally - as opposed to simply running the business side of Coopers - he has a number of pre-occupations, conceptual matters about accountancy to which he would clearly like to see solutions. He is fascinated, for example, by the currency issue.
"Results in different currencies ... how do you get them on to a common basis? There are mechanistic ways of doing that, but if you've got a major business which is trading right across the world and therefore is generating profits in a whole range of currencies which themselves are changing value at different rates, conceptually it's very difficult to come to a judgement on how you value that. You can certainly make computational adjustments so you can add all the stuff up, but actually giving weight to the different values of profit flow is very difficult."
Another problem is intangibles and goodwill. "This generally arises in the context of company acquisitions, but it goes deeper than that, because in the contemporary business world for most businesses the hard, tangible assets are simply a means to an end. The real value of the business is in intangibles. In the liquor business it's in the brands. If you're in the information technology business it's the software. In practically any business it's the intangibles which are the real assets. Designer clothes, for example: why do people pay God knows how much for a cashmere sweater from a smart shop when you can get a perfectly good one from Marks and Spencer?"
So modern life is about intangible values, says Gough, but there is no established means of measuring them in accountancy.
He worries less about an image problem which seems to dog the accountancy profession - the feeling among the general public that perhaps accountants wearing their auditing hats seem sometimes to have given a clean bill of health to company accounts too easily - only months or even weeks before a company collapses. "There have been cases, but by and large there are relatively few cases these days where lightning comes out of a clear summer's sky and strikes the company and the auditors."
The so-called "going concern" debate raged in the mid- and late '70s in the wake of the property and secondary banking crises and the recession which followed. Auditors agreed that while not guarantors of the continuing financial health of the business, they should make enquiries to see whether there were any reasons to think that a company wouldn't continue in business.
So it is now a standard audit procedure to look at the financial health of the business but, more importantly, its financing arrangements "just to see whether it looks as though it can keep on going". What is still unresolved is what part, if any, auditors should play in judging management competency.
Gough hopes that the committee recently set up under Sir Adrian Cadbury to look at financial management and financial accountability, will also attempt to clarify the role of the board of directors in the stewardship of a company and the role of the day-to-day management.
"But also can we find an answer to the question: how do you flush out managerial problems and is there anyway in which managerial incompetence can be brought to the attention of shareholders and other people?"
Accountants could do it; they have the right skills, but it would be a massive extension of the present role of the auditor. He thinks it an unlikely development.
"We could do it," he adds. "It would be very very expensive for us to do it and, if you look at the totality of British business, it would probably not be cost effective. It'd be a very expensive screening process which would be designed to weed out a relatively small number of hard cases."
Gough turns over problems like these in his mind when he returns to Long Barn. Unfortunately he doesn't often switch off. "Sometimes I'll come home and have a meal and watch television, but not often because there are always paper to read. In fact I find I get into difficulties if my evenings are totally committed because there's an awful lot of reading to be done and I don't get much reading done in the office."
Weekends are different. When Harold Nicolson and Vita Sackville-West bought Long Barn it was run down. They transformed it ... and the garden. Vita, almost better known now for her garden at Sissinghurst Castle than for her novels, had worked her magic on Long Barn, too. The Goughs spend long hours in the garden.
"I'll do anything," says Gough. "I quite like to do some heavy work, work up a sweat and come in, guzzle down a couple of large Scotches and then pass out." Every winter he and Sarah say enough is enough, no more garden projects, but every year they break their promise and embark on something new.
"I wouldn't want to have the garden done for me by somebody and just make suggestions and have them executed," says Gough. "I wouldn't feel it was my garden. The only problem is finding the balance. At the moment my wife probably has too much to do."
When he explains that he will probably leave Coopers in 1994, when his current term as chairman finishes, you think momentarily that he might just give everything up and throw himself into gardening and things like sailing which he has not really had time for recently. But he is too restless for that. He will go on. Not lion taming, perhaps, but something that stretches him.
The aspirant lion tamer in Monty Python, incidentally, was disappointed. When they gave him a personality test to see what sort of career he was best suited to, the judgment was that he was so dull there was really only one possible alternative - accountancy.
Malcolm Brown is a freelance writer.