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Wednesday, 12 October 2022

Clients

Accountancy: it certainly taught me how the world works. I dropped out before finishing training, but was in long enough to see clients and businesses of every type and size. Most are long gone. Going to Leeds now, the place is unrecognisable. 

This is the cover of a Leeds Building Society passbook showing the Society’s headquarters at the corner of Albion Street and The Headrow around 1970. The Society was then called The Leeds and Holbeck, but changed name around 1994.

On the upper floors you can just make out the offices of a solicitor, Scott, Turnbull and Kendall, also long gone. I used to sit in one of those windows carrying out their audit, looking across the Headrow to Vallances records and electrical shop, watching people walk past, wondering where they were all going and what they were thinking. It was one of the most pleasant and interesting audits we did. I remember being amused by the ‘deed poll’ name changes: Cedric Snodgrass for one. Why ever did he change his name?

Vallances’ buildings are now a leisure and retail complex with rather too many wine bars, coffee shops and restaurants, like most city centres. 

We audited a city centre pharmacist, Mr. Castelow of 159 Woodhouse Lane. Even then he was a throwback to Victorian times. His shop is now replicated (unfaithfully in my memory) as an exhibition in a Hull streetlife museum.

There were travel agents, hairdressers, bookshops, garages, a coal-merchant, charities, an insurance broker, builders, a plumbers’ merchant, a wet-fish supplier and a firm that owned several smaller cinemas and dance halls in Leeds. There was a man who bought second hand metal-working machines from defunct British factories and renovated them for export to India and China (I still know all about pillar drills and horizontal borers). We even audited a model agency. Every one has a story.

There was a firm that made broadsheet-sized photographic printing plates by coating aluminium with light-sensitive chemicals. The aluminium came in heavy rolls, possibly a metre thick and a metre high, from suppliers such as Alcan. They had to be lifted around the factory on overhead beams. I remember going in with another trainee one Saturday morning to check that the stock taking had been carried out accurately, and the other trainee spent most of the time playing with the lifting gear, moving rolls around to try to confuse me. When the audit senior arrived to see how we were getting on the other trainee took our worksheets and said that “he” had finished and all seemed in order. Bastard.  

Not all our clients were in Leeds. There was a haulage company from Selby. I was delighted recently to spot one of their trucks, a family firm still trading after all these years.

There was a firm that made television adverts in an old cinema in Bradford, mainly the voice-over-stills that appeared at the end of regional ad-breaks or in local cinemas. One was for a car-wash, another for a toupee-maker. I think they almost offered me a job when I suggested they made an ad in which a man wearing a wig drives through a car-wash in an open-topped car and emerges looking spick and span. But they did make more ambitious films too, including one for lager on location in Switzerland. It was an auditors’ (and taxman’s) nightmare that the crew and actors were paid in cash out of a suitcase.

Amongst the larger businesses were the cloth warehouses and clothing manufacturers. One was not especially pleased when I discovered they had moved stock across the financial year-end in order to understate profits.

Then there were the public companies quoted on the stock exchange. One was a collection of dyers, spinners, weavers and rug-makers in factories around Leeds and Bradford. I often came away from the dyers with a free rug that had been returned because of a fault with the colours. They brightened up the shared house I lived in.

You visited these businesses, talked to the bosses and the people who worked there, checked over the books and produced sets of accounts. You knew how wealthy people were, and commercially sensitive things you had to keep quiet about no matter how wrong you thought they were, such as a new wages assistant being paid more than the senior who was training her.

Oh yes! It certainly taught you how the world works.

29 comments:

  1. What an interesting glimpse into another world, another time.

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    1. Just found your comment had gone into spam. Yes, another time very much so, and all within the span of 50 years. Central Leeds is mainly expensive financial offices now, nothing practical.

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  2. Fascinating to read as the person responsible for many little secrets. Back when I was responsible for the books of one of about seven companies in a stock exchange company, after our annual audits were over and we responsible parties were gathered at headquarters in Virginia, our boss came into the room after he put the auditors into the cars to go to the airport and looked around the room and said "OK, how many of you buried inventory problems?"

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    1. Pretending that stock bought after the financial year end had been bought during the current year was a good way to understate profits so pay less tax. Our role was to certify that the books were accurate. I was a bit too diligent and spotted it. My firm lost that audit to a less principled firm of accountants. There were all kinds of similar "teaming and lading" tricks to look out for.

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  3. So, unlike the Monty Python sketch, you never wanted to trade accountancy for a career as a lion tamer?

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    1. I realise now the problem was with me rather than accountancy. I felt I should have done better at school and gone to university, which I later did. Monty Python did not help because it was influential in making accountancy a joke, but for anyone who likes to focus on things and see how the world works, accountacy is a good career.

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  4. Although I do not work in accountancy, in my line of work as a Data Protection Officer I get to see all sorts, too. And of course, it is all highly confidential. I agree; it is a way of learning how the business world works.

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    1. Absolutely right. I later worked in both academic and business computing, what involve similar kinds for focus and professionalism. As responded to Debra. the problem was more with my attitude.

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  5. You have a remarkable memory, and some remarkable set of things to remember from. There sounds like Leeds had a lot of industry; how does that compare with 2022?

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    1. I just have that kind of "aspergic" mind. Yes, Leeds was very industrial. The fourth series of the BBC's "A House Through Time", although sums it up rather well, although my period was at the end of that era.

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  6. Reading through your essay and it strikes me how much richer life was in 'our olden days'. Jobs were aplenty, we have slowly abseiled into a fraught world of media overkill. The world hasn't really got any better, just more crowded.

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    1. I'd say we have lived through the best of times with all the benefits you mention and more. Life was more varied, and from the sixties with more opportunities, but there were still a lot of constraints. I find the changes fascinating, which I why I write about that I write.

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  7. I am glad to hear you have experienced the small business. To anybody doubting it, small businesses and the self-employed are the backbone of this country's economy.

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    1. I got much broader experience by going to a medium sizes firm rather than one of the biggest (not that any of the bigger ones would have had me). There is too much emphasis on big business now - "small is beautiful".

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  8. As Tigger commented, you do have a remarkable memory. I struggled to recall some of the details I needed to fill in my state pension claim form, such as previous addresses and where I had been employed back in the 1970s.

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    1. Mrs D could go on and on about the useless rubbish that fills my head. Sometimes it does come in useful though.

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  9. I once did evening classes in Book keeping and passed with flying colours, the teacher suggested I do an accounting course, so I began, but the classes were at a different school at a later evening time which meant having to wait alone in the dark for a bus to get home again, so I quit after the first two lessons. Better than getting mugged in the dark in my opinion.

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    1. My abandoned studies were by correspondence course. You have to be so dedicated with those. Not a good way to learn. I stuck it for several years but only half-heartedly. Also at that time you had to take four exams at a time and pass them all in one go. I did pass them all, but never in one go. It's soul-destroying to fail on ones you previously passed.

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  10. I was the grant administrator for a couple very, very large government grants for a non-profit. Of course, the organization was audited every year and every year, our accounting department had to (surreptitiously) come to me during the audit period to re-supply documentation (i.e. quarterly reports and budgetary information) that I had already given to them (sometimes, more than once) at the appropriate times over the course of the year. Luckily for them, I kept better program and financial files than they did. I also kept detailed records of when I originally provided the info to them—my version of CYA. The accounting office hated to let the auditors talk to anyone outside of their office, but one time, due to the complete incompetence of a (thank goodness, short-term) CFO, an auditor and I, together, had to instruct the twit on the correct documentation required for one of my grants. The auditor and I exchanged eye-rolls over that encounter. :)

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    1. They sound completely hopeless. Scrupulous attention to detail should be a main requirement for anyone in a finance job. Perhaps they weren't given enough staff.

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  11. I think audit is fascinating, Tasker (we had something like that in the huge federal agency were I worked - and you had to travel and saw a lot).
    "Cedric Snodgrass" sounds like a name a novelist has thought out - so sorry it was changed! I see it as a title for a novel you might write:
    "The Mysterious Past of Mr. Snodgrass".

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    1. Ha! Good title. I did not change the name, it truly was CS. I can imagine that in the 1970s he would have been teased enormously for it when conformity was everything.
      I used to like working out of the office on audits at clients' premises because you got around the area a lot. I frequently had to travel on the buses, but also by tram in Leeds and trolley bus in Bradford as they were just being phased out. We also received lunch expenses which helped with the personal finances.
      There is so much more I could talk about.

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  12. Loved reading this - if we dredged up our brains we could all come up with something similar and how fascinating it would be. Loved it Tasker

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    1. Thank you. Please do "dredge your brain". It is absolutely fascinating how the world has changed, although I would not necessarily want to back to those days.

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  13. I had never thought about how the process of auditing might teach one so much about the different faces of business and how the world of commerce ticks along.

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    1. It sounds so tedious, dry and boring, doesn't it? Perhaps it is different now: all on computers and in offices, but doing around places like dye works and counting up drums of colour, or round a clothing factory and following documents from the pieces of cloth through to their despatch as finished clothing was actually quite interesting. Really, as I've said, the problem was with me.

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    2. Was that problem body odour? You should have tried "Lifebuoy".

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  14. I don't understand who's keeping all these downtown cafes and wine bars in business!

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    1. The present-day economy mystifies me. So much of it seems to involve charging for rent and other services without actually doing anything.

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