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Source: Toronto Star

Posted on March 29, 2002

      Would you like to be described as a "linchpin" in a major financial scandal? Have your picture plastered on the front pages of serious newspapers such as the New York Times? Have major pundits wondering what you're "really thinking"?

      Or, if that's too stressful, how about serving as a role model for an Oscar-winning live action short film called, with stark simplicity, The Accountant?

      Why settle for being the target of the dreary phone call everyone has to make at tax time, when you could be on a beach with a laptop crunching numbers, or at least pictured doing so in an ad by the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants?

      If any or all of these scenarios appeal to you, you may just want to be an accountant. There's no life like it! At least that's the new media image -- both tarnished and heightened -- of the accountant emerging in the wake of Enron Corp. and other major financial scandals.

      It's a drastic image makeover that has left many chartered accountants -- Canada has 68,000 of them -- open to far more scrutiny than they're used to, and more than a little nervous about it.

      Being an accountant these days can be as dangerous as Mission Impossible, as glamorous as Nicole Kidman (or standing next to her on the red carpet) and more financially rewarding than ever before. (Just don't get caught -- just kidding!)

      The damage that an economy-shaking scandal like Enron's has done to the reputation of accountants, once ranked by the public as near the top in terms of honesty and integrity, is "extremely serious," says Donnie Clow, a Halifax chartered accountant and realtor who chairs the communications committee for the Canadian Institute of Chartered Accountants.

      As the talk marches on about investor confidence being shaken and necessary reform in the auditing profession, one thing is clear. Accountants are no longer automatically seen as those boring bean counters of yore, the butt of such accountant jokes as:
How do you tell an extroverted accountant? He's the one who's looking at your shoes instead of his when he talks to you.
What's an accountant's idea of trashing her hotel room? Not filling out the guest comment card.

      Even before Enron, a sleek, $200,000 ad campaign from the institute of chartered accountants, attempting to garner more recruits to a profession that was sagging a bit, showed accountants in a more glamorous light: on a beach, or as chief financial officer of such glitzy organizations as Cirque de Soleil. The message was that every entrepreneur "with big ideas" needs an accountant, and accountants are any firm's "competitive advantage."

      Clow says it's not widely known that only about a third of all accountants do straight accounting. Many are into ventures he enthusiastically describes as "exciting," "portable" and even "sexy."

      Exciting, portable and most of all sexy are not words that suit many accountants I know.

      My accountant, for instance, belongs to the big, comfy couch school of accountants -- courteous, civilized and knowledgeable. About the only exciting thing he ever does is emit a long, mournful sigh when I tell him that, yet again, I haven't quite followed his quarterly tax-filing instructions.

      Even David Duncan, the former Arthur Andersen employee profiled in the New York Times, the so-called Enron "linchpin" whose testimony could apparently make or break either the defence's or the prosecution's case, is said to be "desperately uncomfortable in the spotlight."

      Well, that's an accountant for you.

      But the time for shy and retiring is over. Accountants better get used to this new program (and we don't mean quick-cooking those numbers on Excel -- just kidding!).

      They should embrace the advantages of being seen as an intriguing profession with all sorts of dramatic possibilities: whistle-blower, creative accountant, eminence gris and linchpin.

      They should train for new skills -- how to appear before congressional committees could be one -- and they should revel in their new-found glamour.

      Take for instance, the poster advertising The Accountant, the short film that won an Oscar last weekend. "Can one man, one hard-drinking, chain-smoking, backwoods accountant stop a national conspiracy, change the course of history and save a way of life" on the family farm?

      "Oh," says the institute's Clow. "We do that every day."

      All that and taxes, too.

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