Danny McCance 8 May 2017 10:00am

Tales from the frontline: Peter Watts

Peter Watts, partner at Bourner Bullock for close to 50 years, explains to Danny McCance what drew him to the profession, and the things that have kept him there for so long

Caption: Photography: Chris George

I really wanted a career in music, particularly as I’d been involved in a lot of music from a young age. But when you got to 18, my school was fairly keen on you either going to Oxford or Cambridge. I couldn’t manage either of those, so my dad said I could do music when I grew up, but that I had to get a proper profession behind me. That’s how I became a chartered accountant.

I hope to do more music when I retire, but that’s for the future.

There has been a family member as a partner at Bourner Bullock for years. It started in Stoke-on-Trent in 1883 and by 1900 it was one of the biggest firms in the Institute. Only Deloitte was a bit bigger. We had six offices in 1900, with one in London. My grandfather was a partner from 1903 and my father trained here before the war but they didn’t offer him enough when he came back, so he went into the wine trade in 1946. But my uncle was a partner when I started with the firm on 1 January 1960.

We’ve always stayed quite small, we’ve had a few takeover offers over the years, but they’ve never been interesting enough. I think we’re quite an unusual firm and the thing that marks us out now is our international business. My portfolio has been virtually 100% international, in the main French subsidiaries in the UK. This is because we are part of a network called JPA International based in Paris.

One of the people I was at school with went to work in Geneva. He introduced us first to British non-resident companies in Geneva and then later to Jacques Potdevin, the founder of Jacques Potdevin & Associates, based in Paris. We are now the London member firm.

We deal with people from all over, particularly on the private client side, when they come here to set up a business. Increasingly they come over from France with their families. But we have a very broad range. I’ve had clients who have lived in Hong Kong, Thailand and London and I’ve had a wealthy American client who is from California and has a nice art collection.

I also had a client born in the US with a Greek passport, who lived in Switzerland then moved to the UK. There’s been a lot of interesting work really, apart from the more commercial work of UK subsidiaries with French parent companies.

Fortunately, Brexit hasn’t seemed to deter anyone so far and we’ve had quite a few new subsidiaries. It’s probably slowed up a little. One in particular tells a story. It’s a family-owned company that wants to set up here, but has also said they want a UK intermediate holding company, because when they expand into the rest of the world they want to do it from the UK, not France. We thought that was the sort of work we probably wouldn’t get.

It is lucky that people still regard the UK as quite an important place do things, so we are pretty well set up for international business. I worry about it for the future, of course, and think it may well slow down. That would mean we may have to go in another direction, or younger partners will at least. For now, there are people who do want to operate overseas and the UK is an obvious place. We will see what happens, there are two years to go.

When I started, and when I became a partner in 1968, we were still totally UK-based. I don’t think we had a single client with any international connections. From our early days in Stoke-on-Trent, we did work for the large bus company there, called Potteries Motor Traction. We also did the audit for the biggest chimney pot manufacturer in the UK, which was based near Leicester. We did
a timber merchants near Shrewsbury for many years and a bra company down in Portsmouth.

These were all audits and the latter was actually a quoted company, something a small firm like us would never do these days. Things were different, with everything done by hand and accounts printed on a Gestetner machine with spirit ink and with last year’s figures in red. It was a very different way of doing things.

I admire what many accountants, from large and small firms, manage to achieve. It’s an ethical profession and one where people really do give thought to what their clients need. In the end, that’s what’s rewarding, being able to fulfil a client’s requirements. When you’re dealing with a new client you will often get asked to do little things here and there and sometimes you think, “Is that even an accountant’s job?”

But it means there’s always a lot of different things going on. For a good many years I probably had very few days, unless I went to visit somebody, where I charged more than an hour, or an hour and a half at the most to one job. That means you’re dealing with masses of different things all the time. It’s been really tremendously varied.