27 Apr 2012 11:05am

Tales from the front line: Howard Gross

Howard Gross, founder of Gross Klein and chairman of the ICAEW Practice Committee, shares his real stories from the cutting edge of business and finance

I always wanted to be a chartered accountant. My father was a commercial accountant and I followed in his footsteps. I qualified in 1971 and was first articled to HW Fisher. But then I transferred to a small firm called Stone Joseph. In those days I had to get my father’s permission to make the transfer.

Because I needed money, I didn’t go to university but did articles as an A-level entrant. I was one of the first trainees on what was then the nine-month course. We spent our first year of articles studying at the City of London College.

After that we took a half-day off every fortnight. It was tough for the firms because it was new and change is never easy. At Fishers my claim to fame was delivering an envelope to 10 Downing Street. In those days you could walk right up to the door, so I’ve knocked at 10 Downing Street and not been let in.

I really enjoyed working at Stone Joseph. It was similar to the stuff we still do at Gross Klein. I made them an offer they couldn’t refuse, which they did refuse. I’d qualified within my articles and was stuck for three months on low pay because I had to finish my articles to get my qualification. I’d already built up a client base. So I offered to bring these clients into Stone Joseph for a percentage. I would be able to work on their clients as well as mine. But they didn’t want that. So I carried on doing my own thing. 

The biggest change I have seen in 40 years is the shift from guidance to regulation. And even deregulation means more regulation

Howard Gross

I have always been quite independent. Although I came from a middle-class family, my father was in employment and those days you didn’t earn a lot that way. Keeping and growing a client base is about looking after people and good service. We weren’t allowed to advertise back then so we grew by word of mouth.

The biggest change in the last 40 years has been the shift from guidance to regulation. And even deregulation just means more regulation. In place of removing one piece of legislation for every new one it introduces, the government should remove five. The cost of red tape is enormous. Every day there is something new to read and practitioners don’t have the time. That’s why the work we’re doing with the ICAEW Practice Committee (IPC) matters.

My role chairing the IPC is the culmination of an involvement with ICAEW dating back to 1979. Gross Klein was one of the first firms in London to use the Hartley computer system and that year I was asked by a council member to talk to small practitioners about computers. It was a relief to find that others had similar practice problems to mine. I went on to chair the North London group and was treasurer of the London Society from 1989 to 1992 and chairman and first president in 2001, but that’s another story.

That year we opened our Peterborough office. It came about because a former trainee married our receptionsist and moved to Peterborough. Having done some work there for us, he said he wanted to start a practice. He had potential clients who wouldn’t engage him on his own. We got it up and running in two weeks. It reminded me of the problems people face when they start up.

Over the years various groups I’ve worked with have been behind a lot of innovation at ICAEW, including charity dinners, female accountant support groups, computer user groups and the first financial services committee. It always involves a team of people to take risks and most of the time we succeed.

I joined the ICAEW Council in 2002 and I’m still pushing for change. Although there’s phenomenal technological change, some people just don’t like change. Many practitioners today are working beyond 65 because they can’t afford to retire.

There have been attempts at a national committee for practitioners, but none of them really worked. A number of us went to see Michael Izza and the president and we all agreed something had to happen.

Michael’s a great chief executive and when he sees something needs to happen, it happens quickly. The hardest bit was selecting the people. Everyone we chose for the committee was keen to develop things.

But we aren’t a technical committee – we’re all about practice. All the ICAEW staff and the committee members have done a great job in getting the messages out to practice members and developing new ideas such as  Practicewire, which we introduced.

But my biggest regret is that I can’t get someone from the Big Four to join. Their technical expertise would be fantastic and we’d get a different perspective. We do have representatives from the big mediums, including PKF and Grant Thornton. We’re all practitioners, but even the separation between us and business members is false. My practice is a business. I couldn’t run it without that entrepreneurial spirit. 

Earlier this year I got the biggest shock of my career when Accountancy Age listed me at number nine in its Financial Power List. I thought it was funny. I am the public face of the committee, but it’s others who do the work. But it’s nice someone thinks we’re doing OK.