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New ICAEW President backs ‘warrior accountant’ call

5 June 2020: The newly installed President of ICAEW has called on chartered accountants to be agents of change during the global recovery, using their skills to build better businesses and benefit society.

David Matthews was officially installed as the new ICAEW President on Wednesday, after serving the previous 12 months as Deputy President during Fiona Wilkinson’s Presidency.

“It’s not quite the handover I was expecting,” conceded Matthews over a video call, “but everyone has been affected by coronavirus to a greater or lesser extent, so you have to put the small matter of missing a ceremony into perspective.” 

Matthews has spent the past 37 years working for various iterations of KPMG, predominantly in client-facing roles with large corporate clients and timed his retirement to coincide with his ascendancy to the President role.

But while his peers might be looking to take a back seat in retirement, Matthews has taken on the challenge of the ICAEW Presidency at perhaps the most pivotal moment for accountancy, business and society in a generation, and he is looking forward to the challenge.

“Accountants will play a pivotal role in rebuilding the world’s economy after coronavirus,” said Matthews, “making it better, more equal and more sustainable by identifying risks, presenting information, measuring goals and using data.

“I’d echo Gillian Tett’s warrior accountant call, positioning accountants as agents of change, and I’m looking forward to showcasing members demonstrating this over the next 12 months.”

Shifting priorities

At the start of the year, the two themes Matthews believed he would be focussing on were sustainability and the future of the profession. As a previous member of the Working Group and Technical Task Force of the International Integrated Reporting Committee, the former theme is one particularly close to his heart.

However, the sudden, all-encompassing issue of COVID-19 has meant a sudden and fundamental gear shift in priorities, and he believes chartered accountants around the world have the skills necessary to meet the challenges ahead.

“I’m proud of what the Institute has achieved in the last couple of months with its Coronavirus Hub, which has had a phenomenal number of visits, and even prouder of how ICAEW members have responded to the crisis in general,” said Matthews. 

“Members are quite often the first people clients or CEOs have called in the crisis,” he continued,” whether that’s for advice on government schemes, business survival measures or even how to pivot or grow in a crisis – as some businesses have managed to do.”

But Matthews is keen for chartered accountants not to rest on their laurels, as he believes accountancy has a key role to play in the recovery process globally.

“Whether it’s helping businesses consider options, both in the short-term around how to navigate through the crisis and in the longer-term about how to reshape society,” he said. “There are many questions around sustainability practices of the past - for example, will business travel go back to the way it was?”

“I believe our members recognise their responsibilities to society and don’t get enough credit for this,” he added.

Decades of change

During his near four decades in accountancy, Matthews highlights the move from a higher-level set of principles to a gradual move into prescriptiveness as one of the biggest changes he’s seen.

“In some ways, this has been essential, as business is so much more complex now,” says Matthews, “but does tend to value technical knowledge over professional judgment.”

Technology is the other major change Matthews has seen in his working life. “When I started, telex and fax machines were very much leading-edge tools, and more often than not documents were sent in the post and you wouldn’t expect a response for a week or so. Now it’s 24/7, and the chances are people will come back to you in seconds. This has fundamentally changed the way the profession works, and that’s without touching on the potential power of data analysis and artificial intelligence.”

Online opportunities

Like almost everyone from the profession and beyond during lockdown, Matthews has found his way of communicating with colleagues and clients fundamentally altered, and while in-person remains his preferred method of communication, Matthews also flagged the shift to virtual discussions, meetings or conferences as an opportunity.

“The reality is, like many, I’ve been in touch with more people from my network than if the lockdown had never happened,” said Matthews. “The technology to make this happen is available and it's really effective.”

A good example of this was this week’s ICAEW AGM. “Typically, around 100 people would gather at Chartered Accountants’ Hall,” said Matthews. This year, many more than that attended virtually, and from 25 different countries.”

Despite the mass migration online, Matthews believes that face to face still has its place at ICAEW. “Funnily enough, particularly overseas,” he said, “where many of our members might feel more isolated by the current crisis. The Institute is a global body, and takes this seriously, so a visit is a really important part of this.”