A fitting tribute to Sir David Tweedie
A crusading epoch comes to an end today as Sir David Tweedie retires as chairman of the International Accounting Standards Board. AccountingWEB.co.uk editor John Stokdyk presents a personal view of the standards-setter’s remarkable career and communication style.
Depending on how you view the results of his two-decade long fight to purge fudge and off balance sheet trickery from company accounts, he is either the man responsible for leading the world’s accounting profession towards a more transparent and unified approach, or the architect of global financial disaster.
Or if you’re an interested onlooker like me, he is a fascinating and paradoxical character who encompasses a multitude of contradictions. Leading a mind-bendingly complex overhaul of UK and global accounting standards demands a massive intellect as well as oceans of diplomatic tact. Yet the IASB chairman often played up his self-image as a Scottish street brawler by quoting the Glaswegian maxim, “If at first you don’t succeed, use the fist, and then the heid.”
Accounting standards are important and can have profound consequences. A former accounting lecturer at Edinburgh university, Tweedie applied his expertise in real life as national technical director for KPMG, where he emerged as a critic of “cookie jar” reserves and other dodges used to dress up corporate results during the greed-fuelled 1980s. He took this crusade forward after being appointed as the first chairman of the UK Accounting Standards Board in 1990 and was seen as the man most likely to succeed in the near impossible task of converting international standards to his fair value accounting philosophy when he stepped up to the IASB in 2000.
He retires from the front line of standard setting in a situation similar to Martin Luther King’s (but with much more favourable prospects, it must be said). He’s led his people up towards the mountain top, but he won’t be there to accompany them to the other side, where all accountants, whatever their creed or colour, will be treated equally under the converged international accounting framework.
While most of the world has embraced IFRS, the last piece of the jigsaw is still missing, with president Obama and the Securities and Exchange Commission dragging their feet on the much anticipated endorsement of IFRS. Sir David and his compadre at FASB, Bob Herz, brought their personal commitment, energy and persuasiveness to the convergence project. Now that both of them have retired, there’s a lingering uncertainty about whether their successors will be able to see through the final few steps.
However, after so long at the profession’s top table, Tweedie is unlikely to settle for a life of beachside walks along the Firth of Forth. On leaving the IASB, he will become deputy president of ICAS, where he also worked as technical director in the 1970s. And when he becomes president of the Scots institute next year, he will be ideally placed to guide and cajole other bodies into seeing convergence through to its conclusion.
My first encounter with David Tweedie took place in 1997 when on a quiet pre-Christmas day in the Accountancy Age newsroom I was delegated to go and interview him about the new goodwill standard, FRS 10. All I knew about it was what I had read in the FT that morning, but the former lecturer was obviously sensitive to my ignorance and gently schooled me in the basic accounting concepts of intangible accounting, and why it was important to prevent them being abused. Best of all, he did so by dispensing a series of pithy quotes so that my article almost wrote itself.
Should you ever wish to gain a high public profile for yourself, this is an excellent PR ploy to ensure you get good press.
There is a clear method behind the technique, that many accountancy journalists will confirm - particularly when they start comparing how many times they’ve heard a particular chestnut. As I mentioned, accounting involves serious, mentally challenging stuff. Yet through all these years IASB chairman has behaved as though he really wanted to be a stand-up comedian.
Having observed his shtick up close I’m convinced it goes back to his days lecturing bored business students about the principles of accountancy. With timing influenced by his pugilistic tendencies, he often sets up his listeners with a one-two joke combination to grab their attention and then serves up a morsel of serious thought while their defences are down.
On reviewing my notes on his career, I was disappointed to find that I had failed to keep records of his favourite gags, and the frequency with which he told them. But I have rescued a few examples from the Net. In tribute not just to his fine work as a standards-setter, but also as a chilled-out entertainer, here is a short selection from the Sir David Tweedie jokebook:
- Those of you who have read the standard on financial instruments (IAS39) and understood it have not read it properly.
- Q: What do you call it when a 50-seat coach goes over a cliff with 40 lawyers on board?
A: A waste of 10 seats.
- The main problem facing the convergence of Europe’s principles-based approach to accounting and the rules-based American approach is that the Europeans have no rules and the Americans have no principles.
- We have an understanding with the French. They don't trust me and I don't understand them. In France I’m treated like a king and you know how they treated their kings.
- [Ernst & Young’s criticism of the ASB’s Statement of Principles] had all the vision of the mole and the eloquence of a whoopee cushion.
- Summarising advice from a horticulturist about a suspicious plant in his new back garden: “Pick it, dry it, smoke it… and if you’re still worried about it, it’s parsley.”
Do you have any other favourites from Sir David’s comedy oeuvre? Or if you’d like to get a bit serious, would you add any comments on the legacy he leaves behind at the IASB and ASB?
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AccountingWEB’s interim Editor in Chief has been with the site since 1999 and returned to the editorial hot seat in March 2020 to lead the hunt for a long-term successor... Send a DM if you're interested! When not tending to the needs of AccountingWEB members and geeking out on their technology habits, he devotes much of his time to his oddball...