David Cartney CA, Chairman and Non-Executive Director of International Business Mentors, has worked in Edinburgh and Paris, LA and London. The management expert, a former CEO of Betta Foods and Managing Director of Elders Kiwifruit, gives his international perspective on how accounting is changing.
When David was first transferred to Australia in the early 1980s, it was to help repair a business relationship that had become less productive. A young CA working with British Airways just before its float, David and his colleagues were sent to analyse why the ‘Kangaroo route’ didn’t make a lot of money, even though the aircraft were regularly full.
“We didn’t have the right relationships with our travel agents because there was too much commission being paid,” he said. “But early on that trip I developed an entirely new type of relationship!”
On the very first day that he landed in Australia, David was invited to a function that was being attended by people from several airlines. He met Christine Whelan, a marketing professional with Continental Airlines.
Christine’s conversation and character cut so cleanly through his deep mist of jetlag that he realised there was something very special about her. Today, over 30 years later, they are married and together run a company called International Business Mentors. They have a daughter in London working for Nestle and a son in Melbourne with Mars Recruitment.
Having lived all over the UK with his military father and completed most of his education in Kirkcaldy, David earned a Master of Psychology (Honours) at the University of St Andrews. In the economics segment of that degree he sat next to a young man by the name of Alex Salmond, who would go on to lead the Scottish National Party and serve as the nation’s First Minister from 2007 to 2014.
I couldn’t resist that British Airways job. I moved to London and then spent about a third of my time in the USA and also in Paris.
David followed that up with a postgraduate degree in Accounting at Heriot-Watt University, then a job with Grant Thornton while he earned his ICAS stripes. His qualification coincided neatly with the prelude to the British Airways float. As the business prepared itself for privatisation, it brought on board six newly qualified CAs. David was one of the lucky frequent flyers.
“I couldn’t resist that British Airways job,” he said. “I just thought, ‘wow, this is going to be fun’. I moved to London for the job and then spent about a third of my time in the USA, looking at how we could improve operations over there, and also in Paris, looking at package holiday companies.”
David now sits on numerous boards (Engineering, Education IT, Timber, Building Products, Business School and Mentoring) and still trains accountants and writes financial analyses.
Has Australia fully grown into a global business nation?
It’s still fairly underdeveloped, especially in the smaller companies. I’ve tended to work with mid-sized companies and that’s quite deliberate, because that’s where I can add the most value. They haven’t necessarily got the skills or broader experience they most need to succeed.
You’ve seen accounting from an international perspective for over three decades. What has changed along the way?
Accounting hasn’t changed much in that time, apart from developments such as international standards, which I think is a good idea to make things comparable. But my real disappointment is the lack of skills and training that accountants seem to generally have on analysis to support business decision-making.
If you look at the number of accountants trained to do not just costing, but analysis, it’s less than 10% of qualified accountants. That, to me, is disappointing.
Will accountants have to step up to the analysis plate as other functions are automated?
Well, you can’t automate financial analysis! If they don’t step up, others will step into the breach. Management consultants will naturally fill the financial analysis role, along with strategy.
My view is that accountants should move through financial analysis and up into strategy, in order to become managing directors.
What is required for this to happen, in terms of education or experience?
If more accountants are going to reach their general management potential, then at some point they have to get out there and work in general management roles in companies, and not just in financial roles.
As a stepping stone, the modern requirements for a financial controller of a reasonable sized company is that they are a partner with the commercial managers. For example, I’m working with a superb financial controller at an engineering company.
He’s got a team of accountants working for him, and he gets involved in that side of things, especially at year end. But in between times he’s looking at acquisitions, at where the profit should be made and at cash flow, etc.
As financial controller he helps to ensure that people don’t make decisions that are completely wrong, financially. Right now, he is filling in as Group General Manager.
In your experience, are the UK and Australians work cultures unique?
Yes, the Aussies are more ‘go ahead’. They’re not restricted by anything. They’ll come up with an idea and just go for it. They tend to work very well in teams and are very creative. And they tend to work very hard. In London people also work hard, but it’s different.
I don’t think people in London or Edinburgh are quite offered the same opportunities to step outside their roles creatively, in quite the same way.
The big one is the distinct difference in social interaction. Basically, it’s a melting pot. It doesn’t matter what anyone’s background is - by the time their kids have gone to school, they’re all Aussies. In the UK, back when I grew up people tended to stick to their regional and often class-based backgrounds.
About the author
Chris Sheedy is one of Australia’s busiest and most successful freelance writers. He has been published regularly in the Sydney Morning Herald, Virgin Australia Voyeur, The Australian Magazine, GQ, In The Black, Cadillac, Management Today, Men’s Fitness and countless other big-brand publications. He is frequently commissioned to carry out copywriting and corporate writing projects for organisations, including banks, universities, television networks, restaurant chains and major charities, through his business The Hard Word.