World Bank vice president Jules Muis took a step into the unknown when a headhunter called him four years ago at Ernst & Young and invited him to join the bank.
He was sufficiently intrigued to fly to Washington to find out more. And with his post due to finish next August, his tenure has become synonymous with boosting the profile of accountants within the bank while establishing a tough, no-nonsense attitude towards the accounting standards setters and Big Five firms.
Muis is outspoken about the place that accountancy should occupy in the world. 'As the world grows together, you get all the tensions that go with international accounting, and the whole standardisation and harmonisation dynamics become close to power plays.'
He recognises that the World Bank has an unrivalled position of influence. 'It took me a while to discover that the conditionality for our money is just as important for changing the world as the money itself. There is a duty of care so that the future generations who will have to pay back the loans can do so from a much stronger foundation than their fathers,' he says.
For him, it is not about any infighting the US and Europe over the formation of a global standards setter - this is about fighting poverty with strong financial systems.
That means getting people to talk about corruption and dealing with all the necessary parties to try to establish the poorest economies on a stable footing.Muis was given an ideal opportunity to draw attention to his battle for stability and convince all the players that the World Bank has something important to say - and it will say it, whether they like it or not.
He explains: 'For a while the world thought the more money the better, and that was an almost unstoppable process. At this moment the economies are picking up and they are more cautious but the governance structures are not yet in place. Introducing accounting is not just formalistic, but you need a regulator who is interested in good accounting standards rather than collectivewindow dressing.'
Muis knows very well that he can only achieve so much in a few years, but his track record is impressive. In his time, the bank has upped its numbers of accountants to 125, and they are now involved in regular dialogue with client auditors in recognition that qualified professionals can better understand each other and identify where things need to change. This has been reinforced by the recommendation that clients should abide by international accounting standards when they account for World Bank loans, and the bank sets its own example by using IAS or US GAAP.
In the same vein, the bank has established closer relationships with national audit institutions and the Big Five, in the recognition that even the world's biggest firms cannot guarantee the same quality of audit in the different regions.
'The Big Five's control over their associates was shown to be limited during the East Asian crisis. And you find that they feel that they can only work in accordance with the standards of local regulators, but if the regulator is not serious you have a problem,' he says.
In the past, he has openly criticised the lack of control by the biggest firms, but today he is not interested in in-fighting, but working with other parties for a common goal. This understanding has led him to play a leading role in the International Federation of Accountants to 'strip the emperor of his clothes' - working directly with Big Five and other groups to find the weak links in the chain and do something about them.
It will not be easy and Muis understands that pride and politics play a large part in the global accountancy profession, but he believes it will work although it will take a lot of pain to get there.
What he wants is a standards setter with teeth and escape the current IASC situation where there is no compliance mechanism. 'It is basically a club where 80% of its own members do not abide by its rules,' he says.
And it would seem that the world agrees. Only a few weeks ago the strategy working party of the IASC announced a breakthrough in the formation of a single global standards setter that has been backed by all of its members.
Finally, Muis may be witnessing what he has always believed - that the global players will finally start looking themselves in the face and doing away with the fiction that they are all perfect.
World Bank regional financial management adviser for Europe John Hegarty cannot stop smiling. Sitting in his glass office just around the corner from the main World Bank building on 1818 H Street, he knows that could not have joined the bank at a better time.
Only one month after he took up his post in August, bank president James Wolfensohn stood up during the annual meetings in front of the world's top financiers to emphasise the need for thorough accounting practices.
Hegarty's appointment represents yet another milestone in the bank's support for the accountancy profession, having been uprooted from his job as head of European accountancy body FEE where he spent years cajoling political leaders and practitioners to develop modern practice standards.
There he got involved in major think tanks and government advisory boards - a million miles away from where it all started as an auditor in late 1970s Dublin for Arthur Andersen.
'This is a like going back to my audit days, but the broader discussions that I now have with governments are more reminiscent of my time in Brussels. It is the culmination of two strands of my career,' he says.
He is clearly loving every minute. His many referrals to the collective intelligence that surrounds him are interlinked with beaming smiles, as if he is slightly awed at the brainpower that the bank employs as well as its attitude towards staff, which he describes as 'empowerment'.
His job combines a number of different areas. On one level, he is involved in assisting the bank in tracking how its money is spent and making sure that it is being used for the purposes for which it was lent in the first place.
He has a team of financial management officers and every time a new project is put forward, they have the job of signing them off while Hegarty acts as a 'professional mentor'.
'There has been a renewed emphasis on financial management through the Loan Administration Change Initiative, which makes the administration much more central to the design of the project,' he says.
The interest in tightening up the bank's finances has been led by Jules Muis and a few others but Hegarty says that the effects are noticeable on the ground. The bank carefully supervises its projects, which often involve local recruits with ACCA qualification - one that he says is an excellent background for the requirements of working overseas.
But public sector accountants are also becoming more important as the bank is working hard to boost its financial management of loans which are granted to national governments.
And accountability becomes even more important when many of the loans are not for specific purposes such as building a dam, but can be for 'adjustment lending' where the money goes towards general economic reform and the results cannot be so clearly seen.
That does not necessarily mean sitting on the shoulders of the Big Five either, says Hegarty. He contends that another part of his role is to encourage the development of strong local firms.
As a representative for Europe and Central Asia, he forms part of a matrix management structure where he is part of a team which monitors projects for 'quality of oversight', meaning managing issues such as procurement. But there is constant interaction between his group and others such as financial management and the public sector reform group to ensure that there can be mutual assistance across the disciplines.
This support network is extremely important when Hegarty's patch of the world is in a major transition phase. 'It is the entire privatisation process where the speed gives rise to enormous concerns,' he says.
It is an economy where people need the laws of institutions to make it work and that is the theme that binds Hegarty's work together, where his role is to put accountancy and transparency in place.
It is clear that he has arrived at just the right time in order to ensure that Muis' good work does not get forgotten, because much like his boss, Hegarty understands the role of international accounting and auditing standards and the support that can be provided by standards setters working together.
His timing is even more astute given that many countries in Central Europe are trying to achieve the criteria necessary for their entry to the European Union.The bank is wholeheartedly supporting that process because these countries will then form part of a more centralised capital market with a vital role to play in the global economy.
According to Hegarty, FEE was drawn along by events, but now he is looking at the same situations from a very different angle. He does not have to get so directly involved in the arguments that have dogged the development of a more united accountancy profession in Europe, but now he has a wider perspective and a powerful network behind him.
'I think the debate is moving from "which standards do we use to compliance?". It is much more about quality of audit,' he says.
At the same time, the bank is looking at hiring more public sector accountants and placing a greater emphasis on tightening up the lending criteria adopted by the World Bank and IMF - moves that will boost the bank's profile throughout the accountancy profession.
The future for accountants working with the World Bank has never been as positive and neither have the opportunities for the high profile accountants working within it. No wonder Hegarty is smiling.
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