Taking pride in our profession

Jun 03, 2019
Conall O’Halloran FCA, President of Chartered Accountants Ireland, outlines his plans as he prepares for a busy year in office.

After six years as Head of Audit at KPMG Ireland and more than 20 as Partner, Conall O’Halloran is very well-prepared to assume his position as President of Chartered Accountants Ireland. The timing is fortuitous given the feverish debate over the value and future of audit. But that is just one of the many issues the Cork native plans to address during his presidential year. Speaking at the Chartered Accountants Ireland AGM following his election on Friday 17 May, Conall noted that his tenure as President would also focus on broadening the public’s understanding of the role and value that Chartered Accountants bring to business and society, and widening access to the accountancy profession at graduate level.

Building blocks of the profession

At the core of his ambition for the profession, however, is quality. That, he said, begins with the profession’s trainees. “When I graduated from University College Cork with a degree in engineering, Chartered Accountancy offered the most flexible and most appropriate route into business with any degree of authenticity,” he said. “And over three decades later, that still holds true. The training, the discipline and the analytical skills are embedded in a foundation of ethics and integrity, and it is this that makes Chartered Accountants a very compelling proposition as business leaders.”

Despite the negative publicity levelled at the profession, Conall points out that demand for the services of Chartered Accountants – particularly in the areas of audit and assurance – continues to increase year-on-year. This, he adds, is mirrored in the number and quality of candidates pursuing a career in the most versatile of professions. “We continue to attract top-quality candidates to this day and they are the profession’s basic building blocks,” he said. “If you don’t have the right foundations in place on day one, you can’t expect quality further down the road. Chartered Accountancy is very fortunate in that respect and that’s very precious to me, to the Institute, and to the wider profession.”

Rising to new challenges

However, Chartered Accountants and the profession as a whole are facing into an era of new challenge. From regulation to technology, the business landscape has changed in recent years but in Conall’s view, the biggest changes are yet to come. “While there have been huge advances in technology, most of what our audit trainees do today isn’t vastly different from what previous generations of audit trainees did,” he said. “But we are on the cusp of massive change. The larger firms have invested heavily in their data analysis tools and electronic audit capabilities, which are capable of achieving a transformational change in the quality of evidence available to the auditor.”
To help the profession thrive in this new data-driven environment, Conall plans to focus on enhancing the routes of access to a career in Chartered Accountancy in an effort to harness the profession’s full potential. “We are very fortunate that our large- and medium-sized member firms train the vast majority of our students, but there are many other very capable candidates who simply aren’t interested in that particular training mechanism and would prefer to begin their career in industry,” he said. “Training in professional practice is a wonderful discipline, but it isn’t for everyone so I will focus on working with senior Chartered Accountants in industry to reinvigorate our industry training programme while at the same time, the Institute will continue its work on the syllabus to ensure that we train Chartered Accountants who are much more IT savvy.”

The value of audit

Further change may be forced on the profession as the UK’s various audit reviews are concluded and acted upon. From the Kingman recommendations to the current review by Lord Brydon and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) Study, the profession – and audit in particular – is under unprecedented scrutiny. Speaking on the issue following his election, Conall noted that he has recently been looking to the UK and reflecting on the fractured relationship with the regulator, the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) and with society. “Many of the reforms recommended by Sir John Kingman’s recent independent review have now been accepted by the FRC and by the profession and politicians generally. However, the wider review by the Competition and Markets Authority and also the independent review into ‘The Quality and Effectiveness of Audit’ being conducted by Lord Brydon will be fundamental to our future and the future of business more broadly,” he said. “I think we need to be very careful here in Ireland that what works, and indeed what may be required to work in the UK, is not necessarily or automatically right for Ireland. I will work very hard as President to ensure the profession delivers what is expected of us by society and regulators and ensure the very particular strengths that we have in Ireland are protected and nurtured.”
He added: “It is very clear to me that the absolute focus of KPMG and all the large audit firms is on audit quality. We have had a very strong and robust auditor oversight regime in place in Ireland now for many years, and it is heartening to note that our audit regulator, IAASA, has confirmed that, following its recent complete round of inspections, the quality of audit here is generally of a good standard. However, we need also to recognise IAASA’s shared role in driving quality and take actions ourselves to reinforce public confidence in audit.
“Take for instance auditors’ provision of non-audit services to audit clients. The reality for almost all Irish public interest entities (PIEs) is that auditors do not provide any consulting services and only modest levels of tax services. However, because the profession campaigned for a more permissive regime over many years, the impression was created that audit was somehow a loss-leader for the provision of other consulting services. This is absolutely not the case in the PIE market here in Ireland but as a profession, I feel we could have shown more leadership and more respect for the societal role auditors play when we campaigned for more relaxed rules,” Conall continued.

“While we need to do a better job of explaining what we do to the public, audit committees can also play an important role in representing and reporting to shareholders,” Conall added. “They understand what we do and the positive feedback from audit committee chairs with regard to the quality, robustness and integrity of our work is incredibly powerful and a great endorsement of what we actually believe about ourselves. What we as auditors read about ourselves in the press is completely alien to how we see ourselves and how we actually deliver our duties to the public.”

Acting in the public interest

Conall is also very clear on how auditors can play their part in rebuilding trust with the public and key stakeholders; particularly focusing on anything that could damage the perception of audit independence. “That’s the core area where society wonders if we are acting in their interest, or not,” he said. “While the quality of our audit work is difficult for the public to assess, any suspicion that our independence is impaired is easily understood and very damaging to our relationship with society and we do recognise that much more keenly now. I think that all firms and PIE auditors understand that they have an incredibly important societal responsibility and that they treasure the responsibility very carefully.”

The voice of business

Despite the dialogue and debate surrounding the profession, Conall is extremely optimistic about the profession’s prospects for the future and members can expect to see the Institute take a more prominent position on a range of issues affecting businesses and the economy on the island of Ireland. “Chartered Accountants Ireland is the largest professional body on the island and I think anyone would say that we represent the gold standard in accountancy,” he said. “But beyond our technical capabilities and business acumen, we can also add value by commenting on economic and tax policy, and by essentially acting as the voice of business to help Government and policy-makers understand the consequences of the many options placed before them. Yes, they have to listen to many interest groups also – but when they hear a view from a body like Chartered Accountants Ireland, they take it as being balanced, informed and fair.”
And as with past presidents, Conall will also lead the Institute as it navigates the unpredictable terrain of Brexit – but he has lauded Chartered Accountants Ireland for being to the fore and discharging its all-island remit in the best interest of society both north and south of the border. “We were one of the first business bodies to publicly express a view on Brexit and although there are members who may not have supported our position, we were very strong and very public,” he said. “I also think that while Brexit will certainly challenge our ability to operate as an all-island body, it will not prevent us and my sense is that there is little appetite in the UK to diverge significantly from EU standards in any meaningful way – there is no commercial rationale to do so.”