Anecdotes and solid advice from Sandy Needham CA
From his beginnings at James Milne & Co in Aberdeen, Sandy Needham CA has benefitted from an international journey through the ranks of Peat Marwick, Reckitt & Colman, Pepsi, Johnson & Johnson, and on to his own venture. He shares his experiences, observations and how to handle tricky situations.
During your career, you have had to report internally on misappropriation. What advice would you give to someone in a similar situation today?
Proving something is corrupt is much more difficult than knowing it’s corrupt. Sometimes the standards that one sees at a company are not professional level.
First, be sure of your facts; half a story will get you in trouble. There is a big difference between knowing that something 'smells wrong' and being able to prove anything.
Second, is there someone you can talk this over with? This may be an ideal time to talk about these things with some of your ICAS peers - you can talk in confidence to a disinterested person. Another ICAS member could help put some of this in perspective and work out where this might go.
And be careful what is written in emails and the like. Out of context, these can be a problem, and you never know who will read an email.
What advice would you give to someone who’s looking for a new job to avoid precarious situations?
Look at the audits, internal and external. In some companies, internal audit, a department close to all of our hearts, reports to the external audit committee to the board. This makes them very powerful because the direct reporting line is to independent directors. In less well-managed companies, the internal audit department reports to the comptroller.
If you’ve got a company with billions of dollars being audited from some tin pot firm, you should smell some trouble.
If you look at the Madoff organization, who were the auditors? They were a three-person firm, Friehling and Horowitz, whom nobody had heard of. This is a major red light; if you’ve got a company with billions of dollars being audited from some tin pot firm, you should smell some trouble.
Also read the audit report. It may have interesting comments. You may not be able to get a hold of internal reports, but you can get a hold of external audit reports. Always in an interview, ask questions about the audit report; it is a good basis.
Valuable lessons learned and accounting from the 1960s; onwards and upwards
What drew you to accounting in the first place?
I was pretty good with math, and at home, I would tabulate things and track costs. Accounting seemed not an unreasonable thing to do. I went to school at Robert Gordon's College in Aberdeen and took commercial subjects, where we dealt with trade and economics.
I trained with a firm with about 30 staff in Aberdeen at James Milne & Co, which is still there. It was a five-year training contract, and at the end I moved to London and was working at what is now called KPMG [what was then Peat Marwick]. It seemed a more down to earth company that would look you straight in the eye.
The Partnership Act of 1890 applied and that limited the partnership to 20 partners, which meant if you were a partner, you were God. Back then [in the 1960s], partners owned the business and you called them ‘Sir’. They arrived in Rolls-Royces - there was even a ‘Chauffeurs’ button on the internal telephone.
What was it like working in London at Peat Marwick at that time?
We were given a fair amount of autonomy, and when I was doing an audit, I would go over the final paperwork with my manager and then I’d be sent to the partner to explain it: you had to talk face-to-face with the person who would sign the opinion.
Our office had 20 partners and 1,100 staff, and while the partners were somewhat removed from us, there was an important reality connection as part of the system.
What was your first experience working outside the UK?
One day, I came in after the weekend and saw on the office notice board that one of the partners was looking for a team to go to Iran; 'Conditions well known. If you have any questions, ask me.'
I must have had a bad weekend and so put my name down. I went for two six-month winter sessions from 1969 to 1971 - I was there for the coronation of the Shah.
In those days, the political aspect of it wasn’t as apparent as it is nowadays. There’s a lot to be said for going on a project like this. It certainly opens your eyes to the fact that 'folks are folks' all over the world.
We were in southern Iran in Abadan. The oil consortium (originally BP) had built this town with 200,000 people, and it ran most of the services - when there was a sign that said “Company Airport”, you knew what company it was. I did some bank audit work in Tehran as well, related to the Chartered Bank.
One or two of the partners would also visit a project like this, and you got to know them better than was possible in London.
What did you do for fun in Iran?
We had a six-bedroom house for the six of us with five servants and a driver, and had parties for up to 60, including dinner.
Peat Marwick sponsored a team at the go-kart racing club, and we had one of the fastest go-carts in southern Iran. For a sophisticated Iranian, the thought of having your day off driving around the club circuit in a greasy go-kart was madness; they thought we were nuts!
Sandy went on to join Reckitt & Colman in their overseas finance department for international reporting, based in London. He was there for one and a half years and had accepted a job offer at ICL, when his manager personally asked him to head up a new treasury department with just one other person.
Put in a difficult yet exciting position, Sandy turned down ICL and went on to set up the department from ground zero, managing division funds and subsidiaries across the globe, and deploying cash resources to the best advantage.
How did you eventually land in the states?
I was offered a job with Johnson & Johnson (J&J). It was a small operation that set up new companies in Africa and the Middle East and I was in charge of the financial side of this. I was now travelling around with my American Express card and flying all over the world, first class.
At some point, my office was moved to New Jersey and I came across 'with the filing cabinets' to New Brunswick.
The job was the same, but based out of the HQ. In due course, I took the CFO position in J&J Greece and from there, the CFO position in J&J Iran. The timing was interesting; in 1978 trouble was fermenting in Tehran, so I was present for the revolution and a rather undignified exit.
I worked at Johnson & Johnson for about seven years. There were a lot of people ahead of me, and it looked as if it would be quite a long time before I could move up. I left to work at Pepsi as Director of Planning for the overseas bottling operation.
What is it like working in companies with drastically different cultures?
Companies have natures, and they don’t change very quickly. We may think of a company as amorphous, but they have natures.
In 1982, someone poisoned some Tylenol capsules in Chicago. No one knew which were poisoned. Johnson & Johnson immediately withdrew and destroyed $100m of product because product quality was not a matter for discussion - it was absolute. If there was doubtful inventory, they’d say, “Write it off, and we’ll have a clean start to next quarter.” It was not a quarterly earnings issue.
Other companies may play with the numbers and avoid the principles. If a company takes shortcuts, it is a bad state of mind.
J&J has a company Credo which initially I found difficult to take seriously. However, in the long term, the Credo has served the company well in defining an ethical approach to business all over the world.
What are you doing now?
After Pepsi, I formed my own company, American European Consulting Company in 1986, which takes my computer and accounting background to provide accounting systems to smaller companies in the New York area.
We became the leading installer of the Sage accounting software products for small to medium businesses. It is not always easy to have an exit from a small, personally owned company. In 2005, I merged with Net@Work to become its Director of Operations, and now, I’m officially retired.
I guess that retiring at the beach would get pretty boring after a few days, but I am still involved with a few organizations. I’m treasurer of the St. Andrew's Society of the State of New York and the National Theatre of Scotland America.
I’m president of the Roebling chapter of the national Society for Industrial Archaeology and on the board of my co-op. And I still do some consulting work for Net@Work when they are looking for some input on contract negotiations.
About the author
Andrea Murad is a New York–based writer. Having worked on both Wall Street and Main Street, she now pursues her passion for words. She covers business and finance, and her work can be found on BBC Capital, Consumers Digest, Entrepreneur.com, FOXBusiness.com, Global Finance and InstitutionalInvestor.com.