Dinner with the great and good

The ICAEW president’s annual dinner whisked editor John Stokdyk into a world of high finance and institutional networking.

The dickey bows showed up on the 18:08 from East Croydon to London Bridge on Tuesday night. I was obviously not the only one on the train heading towards Chartered Accountants Hall for the ICAEW president's annual shindig.

The event harks back to the grand Victorian traditions of the City, with a preponderance of posh gents wearing a glittering variety of institutional bling. But you couldn’t fault the selection of wines, or the quality of the guest list, which included: six MPs (and one Treasury minister); five lords; four knights and a dame (FRC chair Baroness Hogg); plus more ex-presidents than you could shake a stick at. The numbers of CEOs, CFOs and managing partners were all in double figures, with the seating plan bulked out by ICAEW staff and a smattering of press, including me.

The packed seating arrangements cramped the more assiduous networkers and stirred restlessness and cynicism among the captive audience, particularly when Lloyds TSB chief executive Antonio Horta-Osorio gave a 10min promotional pep-talk for his bank. After dishing up three or four PowerPoint slides on the nature and causes of the global financial crisis, he retreated to safer ground. I could see shoulders slumping and eyeballs rolling along the table as he did so.

 “Absolute rubbish… not a single point of merit,” muttered a nearby accountant as Horta-Osorio sat down.

Outstanding award winner Zarin Mehta made more of an impression after the main course, with stories of his training in East London during the 1960s, before he went on to fame and fortune as an orchestra director first in Montreal and later at the New York Philharmonic.

“When I first heard about it, I wanted to turn the award down. All of the non-profit organisations I’ve managed for the past 30 years have been in the red. I don’t think you can accept a lifetime achievement award for keeping organisations out of bankruptcy,” he said.

During his visit to London, he visited Stratford East to look for the offices of the firm where he trained. “I couldn’t recognise anything. The Olympics have taken over,” he said.

But he still felt a loyalty not just to the area, but to the training that under pinned his subsequent career on the other side of the Atlantic: “training in accountancy really does equip you for all walks of life.”

It was a quietly inspirational note to strike at the end of a pleasantly genteel and self-congratulatory evening. After the tribulations of previous years, ICAEW president Clive Parritt’s time in office can be counted as a reasonable, if unspectacular success. There has been a major reorganisation at the institute to put it on a more commercial footing following the end of the 10-year publishing deal with CCH. The promotional push to be more business-aware with the new business advice service and the planned business support week in June are sensible and practical initiatives. The media-savvy president had a nicely tuned soundbite for the occasion.

“Every hour that a small business wastes on HMRC, Office of National Statistics and Intrastat forms could be invested in growth,” he proclaimed as guests including ex-president Peter Wyman and your correspondent edged surreptitiously towards the door.

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