This is where accountants like Nigel Chism - financial director of branding agency Basten Greenhill Andrews - come into their own. The growth of the professional image-maker has been fast and furious. Creative-types have founded tiny agencies which have sprouted into major businesses. In some cases they have changed so quickly, that they have outgrown what rudimentary financial and management systems they had - if indeed they had any at all. Almost too late, they call in an accountant to sort things out - an accountant like Chism. Installed as FD of the prestigious London agency last year, Chism, 45, has spent two decades in the hard-partying world of the corporate image-maker. His longest stints were as FD of two major public relations firms - most recently College Hill, and before that Kingsway, a top-ten PR firm which sold out to Saatchi & Saatchi in the high-octane Eighties. Chism negotiated the sale. In both cases the chartered accountant was called in as a sort of financial troubleshooter to sort out messy accounting records, 'regularise' tax situations and introduce ordered systems where chaos once reigned. He took up his new post last year with a brief to restructure BGA's ownership and introduce new management information systems. BGA has proved to be quite a success story. Founded in 1984, it now has more than 40 staff, an annual turnover of more than £3m, and a client list dripping with well-known names such as BMW, Porsche, Royal & Sun Alliance, Prudential and PricewaterhouseCoopers. Most recently, it has been involved in efforts of cable giant NTL to break into the consumer market - look out for the ads. Despite the company's success, explains Chism, it needed a bit of an 'overhaul' organisationally speaking, and he was asked to do the job. He says: 'This sort of situation is common to people doing my job in this industry. A lot of the companies have grown from tiny roots. The proprietors end up spending more and more time trying to be finance and administration people, and therefore not doing what they do best.' He adds: 'It seems almost without exception that people wait until they have got into a bit of a mess before they call in an expert. One is often left with this baggage of unresolved issues and someone asking for a proper system to be put in.' Sitting in the agency's trendy Covent Garden offices, the place certainly looks ordered enough. Chism appears happy - he has now got the basic systems in place, but says there is still room for improvement. Earlier this year, he completed an internal buy-out of the company's major shareholder - the now-retired Basten after whom the company is partly named. This involved the creation of an employee benefit trust, so the future growth of the company will benefit the long-term staff. He is now devising a growth strategy, and Chism is not ruling out acquisitions. His strategy at BGA has been driven by his firm views about what the role of FDs and accounts departments should be. 'I have always railed against FDs who think they are special and that the sole purpose of a company is to comply with rules and regulations. Such people often forget that companies exist because someone had a good idea and the time to build it up. The finance function should be subsidiary to the business, but not subservient. It should not be leading the company, but should provide the ability to steer it.' He adds: 'I am not a great believer in having a big accounts department which lays down laws, sends out lots of requests and processes a lot of data in a client-handling business. It is important that the people who look after the clients control their jobs and have the systems and back-ups to do that.' He reckons that his major success at BGA has been making the finance and administration function a real part of the process of the work the agency does, but without being an imposition. Indeed, he argues: 'The good maintenance of financial records is actually beneficial to the people doing the jobs, whether it is the designer keeping track of the hours they have done on a job, the production guy keeping track of what he is spending, or the account manager keeping tabs on a job's profitability. This means we can pitch for jobs much better than using the traditional finger in the air method.' Chism has honed his views over the two decades he has worked in the sector, which he entered by complete accident. He started his training in 1973 with Josolyne Layton-Bennett, long subsumed through a series of mergers via Arthur Young into Ernst & Young. He left in 1982 for a short stint as a government auditor in Bermuda, ending dramatically the following year when he resigned after refusing to rubber-stamp 'trumped-up' fraud charges against the governor of the day. 'The whole place was fraught with politics and dodgy dealings,' he says of the period. He returned to the UK assuming he would re-enter practice, but was approached by top-ten PR company Kingsway. 'They painted a picture so black as to the state of their accounting records that I thought I'd give it a go,' he says. Then followed a long stint in the ab-fab world of 1980s PR. 'Kingsway grew like Topsy and we sold out to Saatchi & Saatchi when it was fashionable to do so,' says Chism as he describes his first FD job. He describes this period as very enjoyable with 'lots of money and perks'. 'There was an entire generation of people who thought it would never end,' he adds. 'If you were in a good firm, the work was there and the price was a secondary conversation. These days people have learned to look for value for money.' As the 1980s gave way to the 1990s, he joined another well-known PR outfit, College Hill Associates, as FD with a brief to organise and introduce financial and administrative controls. During his time there the company grew from 22 staff with a turnover of just under £1m, to 75 staff with a turnover of more than £4m. He left College Hill for BGA last year, but remains a non-executive director. Chism is confident of BGA's future success. The company is well-placed to cash in on the growing importance of branding, he argues. He illustrates the trend by referring to the accountancy sector. 'The big firms now have tens of thousands of employees with similar abilities. How can they compete other than on the strength of their brands? What else is there to choose between them?' He contrasts the millions of pounds that are now spent by the big firms on developing their brands - some of which has come BGA's way - with the old days when advertising by accountancy firms was forbidden. 'At Josolyne's we had a logo, one of the first partnerships to do so, and there was a great fuss over whether this was right and proper.' The importance of brands, he says, is now such that they are often the make-or-break factor in determining a business venture's success. 'The most recognisable example is Virgin,' he says. 'Such is the power of the Virgin brand, trains notwithstanding, that a venture can be launched simply on the power of its brand.' 'About bloody time,' is his reaction to a mention that his institute, the English ICA, has hired a branding consultant to beef up its image and those of its members. 'The accountancy profession is undervalued outside the professions - something should be done with the power of its brand,' he says. With his colourful career, Chism could be viewed as something of a role model for the sort of younger accountant who worries that his future career is rather greyer than he had feared. Chism says he has enjoyed his career as an accountant to date, but expresses doubts about whether he would enter the profession if he was starting out today. Recalling his days as an young auditor, he says: 'One day you would be selling a bed because the proprietor of the business you were auditing had nipped out of the shop, and the next you would be sitting on an executive jet headed to Zurich on behalf of De Beers.' He says all this has now disappeared: 'Now you specialise and everything is quantified. I don't think I would succeed - the rules and regulations would probably be too much. I think I got in just in time for it still to be fun.'
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