Meet The Auditor – John Griffith-Jones/KPMG UK

Nice photo, very contemporary. The auditors are using more photos on their websites, mostly to try and prove diversity and are certainly trying to borrow from the Web 2.0 catalog for recruiting purposes.

I happened on a recent interview with Mr. Griffith Jones in today’s Independent. In searching for a little more on this decidedly posh guy, I found another one that has more or less the same tone. It’s a curious blend of supreme confidence, diffidence and aloofness that is found more often in the UK than in the US. The US Managing Partners usually come off as more “up-by-your bootstraps” type guys, and sometimes rather conservative. They certainly would never admit to doing anything with dinghies.

Here’s a few choice excerpts from both, taken out of context, of course.

“Did public opinion of the profession suffer? Yes, it did,” says Griffith-Jones. “But did we ever lose the confidence of our clients and the City? I don’t think so. People need to remember that Enron etc didn’t happen in the UK. You have to go back a long way to find an accounting scandal in Britain. The City and its regulators realise what an asset the accountancy profession is to this country.”

“Sure, it doesn’t get any easier,” he says. “There’s a lot of pressure on audit partners these days. But that’s why they get paid well. The whole place moves to the drumbeat of avoiding mistakes.”

These things are cyclical,” says Griffith-Jones. “It’s not as if we pay people nothing. Maybe we aren’t the number one choice sometimes, but it’s easy to get sucked in by headlines. You don’t read about those people in a hedge fund or a private equity firm who make it halfway up. I think we are pretty good at spotting the talent who’ll fit in here.”

“The tone from the top is very important – the culture of the business is very important,” says Griffith-Jones, in almost schoolmaster-ish tones. “After 30 years here, I think it would be pretty difficult for me to be culturally out of tune.”

TALL, blond and very posh, John Griffith-Jones strides into the boardroom in his shirtsleeves. “Are you expecting me?” he grins. I am. “Jolly good,” he says, plonking his papers down on the table before wandering off for a coffee from the sideboard. Griffith-Jones, 52, who next month steps up to become boss of the accountancy giant KPMG (“senior partner” in the parlance), settles himself in and then studies me through glacially blue eyes. “Right.” Skinny and thin-shouldered, with skeletal features and sun-freckled cranium, he looks severe and rather vulnerable simultaneously.

“…Griffith-Jones has plenty to occupy his well- ordered mind. And he argues that, while society must regulate as it sees fit, it meddles with what works at its peril.

“The City is a complicated engine built by someone long since dead, and nobody really knows how it fits together anymore, but it still works, and is vital for the GDP of the country, and the accounting profession is an important cog. Having accurate accounts for people to buy and sell shares is essential, and if you pull that cog out or put an extra tooth in it, well…”

“I don’t think I was ever as good an auditor as my colleagues,” he sighs at one point. “I’m too creative.” Creative accounting? “Oh for goodness sake, don’t put that together,” he laughs.

Are the Big Four running an oligopoly? Griffith-Jones blinks. “I assure you the pitches for business are the most competitive thing you have seen. There is no evidence of oligopical pricing — you get that when there are two competitors, not four.” But many multinationals often have no choice at all, finding some of the Big Four conflicted out because of others they work for. “Perhaps for the very largest ones,” nods Griffith-Jones. “But not for most.”

And as for the idea that Griffith-Jones is terribly upper-crust — yes, he sends his son to Eton — he’s happy to debunk that a bit. He tells me the story of how his father paid for the family roots to be researched, believing the Griffith-Joneses to be descended from Welsh royalty. “The trail went cold with a bastard pub-keeper in Swansea,” grins Griffith-Jones. And that, he adds, is the gene that probably accounts for his numeracy. “Two halves of ale, that’ll be three and six.” And he creases up laughing.

Vital statistics
Born: May 11, 1954
Marital status: married, with two children
School: Eton
University: Trinity Hall, Cambridge
First job: articled clerk at Peat Marwick
Salary package: undisclosed — his predecessor was paid £2.4m, including bonus
Homes: Chelsea, Chelmsford and Norfolk
Car: green VW Polo
Favourite book: Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore
Music: The Veil of the Temple, by Sir John Taverner
Film: Four Weddings and a Funeral
Last holiday: Galapagos

AT WEEKENDS John Griffith-Jones likes to sail small dinghies. “I took against it as a child but I like it now. We have a boat on the Blackwater. Nothing grand — I worked out that size is a great determinant of cost.”