Peter Taylor-Whiffen 8 May 2017 10:30am

Life after work: Douglas Thompson

Douglas Thompson tells Peter Taylor-Whiffen about his 50 years developing the CARL system to make life easier for small firms and their accountants
Caption: Photography: Richard Ansett

In 1965 young accountant Douglas Thompson was asked by ICAEW’s technical director to research how accountancy practices might help small firms keep better books.

The result was the CARL (Computerised Alpha-mnemonic Response Language) System, an alpha-mnemonic coding mechanism that has helped around 20,000 firms simplify their finances.

“Small firms resented the time they spent producing costly accounts they didn’t understand and wanted only for tax purposes,” he recalls. “They had no idea what management accounts were or their purpose.”

But Thompson’s CARL system not only organised companies’ finances – making life much easier for their accountants – it also gave them up-to-date figures with which to plan and grow their businesses.

“Many had never had such easy access to this information,” he says.

Thompson, now 80, never intended to be an accountant at all. “I started out as a professional violinist,” he says. “I won a scholarship to the Birmingham School of Music and was a member of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra.”

But he was already sufficiently adept at figures to realise this would not be sustainable. “I remember looking out at one concert and realising more people were on stage than in the audience,” he says. “I had to think of something else.”

So he followed his father’s advice and joined Birmingham accountants Taylor & Co, qualifying in 1964. “The training was first-class,” he says. “In other firms I’d have shadowed someone – here I was sent out alone to sink or swim. Fortunately I swam.”

He became a lecturer in accountancy at Wednesbury College of Commerce (now Sandwell University), where he was asked to do the research. And although he has had his own practice, either individually or in partnerships, ever since, his passion to develop CARL has dominated his working life.

“Lloyds Bank adopted it to use with their accountancy customers, I was invited to New York to lecture on it. The secret of CARL is it doesn’t matter if you’re writing a number in a ledger or pressing down a key, it works the same way.”

And it’s still developing. Thompson, who lives in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, with his wife Nongyao, recently added artificial intelligence elements that recognise patterns of behaviour, and he’s due to launch COLA (Carl On Line Accounting) in May.

All of which leaves little time for anything else. “I do a little accountancy but most of my clients are retired now,” he says. “I still love music – I play piano and organ – and I used to do card magic, which I’ve taken up again, but my dexterity isn’t what it was.

“But my focus is still CARL. Success for any business means making the right decisions at the right time. I like to think I’m contributing to them being able to do that.”