'Thinking you are of a size that makes you immune from regulation is not a strategy that is going to be successful'

Barely two months before Harry Goddard took over as CEO of Deloitte Ireland, the financial services giant had hurtled itself into the midst of the FAI’s epic and very public meltdown. As auditor of soccer’s governing body, Deloitte filed a so-called H4 form with the Companies Office. It, in effect, informed authorities that in the auditor’s view, the FAI had failed to keep proper accounting records.

While Deloitte was blowing the whistle, many among the public wondered how to square that revelation with the fact that the same firm had ‘signed off’ on the FAI audits for years up to that point.

The FAI is hardly unique. Auditors are widely seen to have fallen down when it came to the banking crisis, and the litany of accounting scandals in big firms and organisations is long and unhappy.

Though not an auditor or even an accountant, Goddard has spent two decades in consulting, much of that time heading Deloitte’s technology business.

Goddard has found himself cast in the unlikely role of championing not just the other side of his own firm, but by extension, the wider audit and accounting profession.

Goddard has an analytical cast of mind. His own academic background was in pure maths, and his professional life started in technology.

So he has immersed himself not just in the detail but the wider context of the various controversies surrounding audit work, dating back to the financial crisis.

He fluently rattles through details of myriad EU and UK reviews, proposals and regulatory interventions, sifting the detail from the wider context.

He gets why not only the public, but the marketplace, don’t get it when it comes to the idea of ‘signing off on the audit’.

As Goddard sees it, the issue as it relates to audit failure and company failure comes down fundamentally to a question of whether the audit as we know it does a good enough job to identify risk in a business. It is a huge question that rapidly gets sidelined into a debate about competition – especially the dominance of the so-called ‘Big Four’ firms, he thinks.

As one of those Big Four, Deloitte has a lot at stake in that debate, but Goddard holds his ground.

Competition authorities are never going to be in a position to opine on audit quality, he says. If that’s the issue, then competition remedies won’t solve it.

Goddard isn’t saying audit quality is bad, far from it. He takes me in detail through some of the minutiae of preparing and executing an audit – he’s spent “quite a bit of time” with the audit side of Deloitte’s business preparing for his current role.

The quality of work is high and tightly policed by internal and external reviewers, he says. “However, the level of assurance that people take (from an audit having been done) is too broad, relative to the scope of work that we are often undertaking,” he says.

“One of the things that struck me, particularly in the public debate, is we perform a statutory audit, we are statutory auditors to the FAI, say, and I don’t think it’s clear what statutory means.”

Statutory auditors, working essentially to a 175-year-old model and a set of responsibilities laid down in law, are not fraud investigators, he says. The scope of what is being looked at are historical financial statements and systems of control.

“The extent to which there are things happening in a business that you don’t get near in the scope of your audit – or where you (as auditor) are so reliant on management that if management decides between them they are going to agree to do something they shouldn’t – [means] it is incredibly difficult. You are into a fraud discussion there and the audit isn’t set up for that.”

Surely that’s an issue, that the audit should be set up for this?

The UK’s Brydon review is looking at it, but it wouldn’t be easy or cheap, Goddard argues.

“That is probably the biggest and most obvious thing. Should, for example, consideration of things such as fraud form part of an audit?”

One answer in his own view is a graduated audit regime – where a business might opt for a core statutory audit or an enhanced audit.

In many cases, auditors do come across things in their work that raise alarm bells, that don’t fall within the scope of the published audit, but are communicated with firms to corporate managers and boards.

Where does that leave things in the meantime?

“As an organisation and as a profession, I, we, have a job to better inform the public. I don’t think that it’s clear what the role of the auditor is in auditing company accounts. We have got to do a better job of communicating.”

Far from being defensive, Goddard rattles through the practice and theory of auditing with a degree of relish.

I’m genuinely surprised when he tells me that he was an unenthusiastic scholar at St Flannan’s in Ennis, at least until he fell under the sway of maths teacher Willie Walsh, later the Bishop of Killaloe.

Much to his own surprise, Goddard found himself looking forward to further study.

“He instilled a real love of maths in me, so I decided I’d go and pursue a degree in mathematics. I just enjoyed it,” he says.

St Flannan’s is often regarded less as a school with hurling teams and more a set of hurling teams with a school attached, and I wonder if the bishop’s other vocation – as Clare hurling selector – helped enthuse the young Goddard.

The lanky Clareman still has the cut of an effective if not especially tidy hurler.

Once at the University of Limerick, he had his heart set on the higher side of maths.

“As maths guys at the time, we were really snobby; we all wanted this pure maths stuff and I kept getting offered these computer system jobs (for work placements) and we weren’t into that at all. But we got a chance to interview with an insurance company and they had actuaries, so this was going to be a real opportunity.”

It turned out the insurance company needed IT support.

Surprising himself, Goddard dived in. Back at UL, he skewed his courses toward computer science and after graduation, he stuck with technology and moved to Dublin.

“I was up in the attic with the computers but I did really enjoy going out and meeting the client.

“When you are in the attic – physically and figuratively – you become invested in the technology and the solution becomes a kind of art form. But then when you get out in the business, you realise actually the greater purpose is how the technology is being used to drive business efficiency or performance.”

That was the route into consulting, and the ground floor of the digital revolution.

“I remember when we first all got email, there was an email address for the organisation, then one for the office, then one for every individual, and there wasn’t room on my business card between the phone number and the fax number and telex number.”

The dotcom period saw a huge amount of experimentation but the later combination of 3G, 4G, broadband and the smartphone was transformative.

“The consumerisation of technology was the real shot in the arm. The role of brokers became incredibly challenged – whether that was the guy you called to get your taxi, your holiday, your pizza, whatever.

“This second-phase technology was much more usable. We had much better-quality software that was much more secure. We weren’t experimenting with infrastructure – which was in place. It wasn’t just content but services that people had access to.”

Technology that had allowed businesses to do the things they did better was now being overtaken by new businesses that did new things.

“One of my colleagues puts this very well. If you take many retail organisations – whether it’s book-keeping or banking – 25 years ago, the role technology had was ‘you’ve got to get the price down to the shop’, so it’s about communicating the price to the shop and getting data back from the shop so that you can manage your price internally.”

Now, though, the technology is in the product.

That has kicked off a consumer revolution. But from Goddard’s perch, it has also allowed the more experimental business cultures in the US to steal a march, followed by China.

He says: “In China, the pace at which they are innovating and adapting technology is incredible.”

Europe, which has traditionally produced the world’s best companies and products across a host of sectors, has become a buyer and policer of innovation.

From his stance as an adviser to domestic and multinational companies, Goddard today sees the US working hard to innovate and create, and being really commercially aggressive within the economy. China is much the same.

“And when you look at Europe, what you see is really us protecting our citizens and regulating all of this stuff that is being created elsewhere.”

The UK might have helped Europe elbow its way back, but Brexit has sapped much of its relevance, at least for now. Is Europe falling behind?

Goddard is non-committal. He sees Irish businesses excelling in their niches, but not a common European approach that’s supportive of disruption.

“Whether it’s Italian luxury goods, manufacturing in Germany, or agrifoods from France, the traditional products people want probably come from Europe.

“But the way products are now being created is very service-oriented and we want to participate in that, so ensuring we are in those discussions is really important.”

Though he doesn’t say it in so many words, the regulatory envelope is an issue.

Guiding clients through the regulatory environment is a big part of Deloitte’s work, he says.

“We have an accounting regulator; if you are in food, you have a regulator; if you are in banking, you have a regulator.

“But actually even if you are in an industry that wasn’t directly regulated, you are now, because of data protection.”

Every business is in a regulated environment, and it’s an especially big challenge in many cases for smaller firms that lack a history and operational capability in this area.

“It is endemic and it’s one of those things that creates real challenges,” he says. How do they cope? “First of all, proactive engagement with your regulatory regime is super-important and thinking that you are a size or scale that makes you immune from regulation is not a strategy that is going to be successful.

“Second thing: engage with peer groups and larger businesses in the sector who do have that scale or capability to engage. The third thing is to seek professional advice.”

Brexit has catapulted these issues to the top of managers’ minds. The regulatory environment is about to get more complex.

Goddard’s own dive into the arcania of audit regulation has been prompted by much the same thought process.

Coming from a consultancy background to head up Deloitte Ireland is less a rarity than it was. He has peers in other EU markets from similar backgrounds. In part, it’s a reflection of the growing number of consulting partners with a vote in the four-yearly elections for the top job.

But, as Goddard sees it, Deloitte is going through the same disruptions its consulting arm advises clients on: facing strategic challenges in digitalisation, recruitment and retention, regulatory innovations, and responding to climate change.

“It’s about having the right leader for the right time. In the marketplace, my role was very much advising clients on how they would lead their business through these changes. Our business isn’t immune.”

A big challenge clients and Deloitte won’t be immune from is Brexit.

Goddard says the current friction shouldn’t be allowed to sunder the deeper relationship. He says: “There is no doubt from an Irish point of view, our relationships with the UK, the US and continental Europe are all super-important. We have a lot of friction in the system right now.

“If you look at our histories, the way in which we trade may differ, but we are going to want to and need to trade.”

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