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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Accountants Want the Dull Life Back

LONDON -- "Forget terrorism," announces Osama bin Laden on the front cover of Private Eye, the British satirical magazine. "I'm going to be an accountant."

Jokes about accountants used to revolve around how boring they are. Now, after the spectacular bankruptcies of Enron and WorldCom and the collapse of their auditor, Andersen, many in the profession only wish they were still thought of as dull.

Andersen's former rivals are hardly gloating. There are almost certainly more scandals left to expose, more careers waiting to implode and more firms likely to need damage-control specialists to handle their PR.

But accountants say the scandals, which have cast such sharp light on the difference between good accounting and bad accounting, have created opportunities for those who can reassert the stodgy old virtues of honesty and patience.

Damian Wild, editor of the London-based trade magazine Accountancy Age, said the disgrace of Andersen has brought about a sea change in the way accountants want to be seen.

Not long ago, accountancy firms were preoccupied with trying to make their profession look "sexier," reflagging themselves as "professional services" companies with high-tech consultancy arms to jet-propel clients onto the Internet.

"I think probably 18 months ago, the problem the profession had and the questions they were asking me was 'how we can get accountancy better known in the public arena?"' Wild said.

"The question they ask now is 'how we can keep our profession out of the papers?"'

The surviving global giants are trying to show that they get the message. The largest, PricewaterhouseCoopers, is hiving off its consultancy arm under the adamantly unsexy new name Monday.

PwC has launched a public relations effort behind a new book co-authored by chairman Samuel DiPiazza, called "Building Public Trust," which calls for steps to restore transparency to company accounts and promote integrity in the profession.

"I reflect on the times when my own mother would ask, over and over again, 'Now, what is it your firm does?"' DiPiazza joked to the U.S. National Press Club last month.

"Now my daughter suggests that maybe I would be better off if I didn't tell people I was an accountant. Times do change."

He added: "The public outcry directed toward accounting practitioners has struck at the very heart of our professional values: objectivity, independence and integrity."

One field that has been booming since the late 1990s is forensic accounting, the fraud experts who sift back through the books when companies end up in legal trouble.

Mark Prentice, assistant director of forensic services at the London office of Ernst and Young, said the short-term, growth-oriented incentives of the technology bubble had fueled temptation among some companies to cheat.

Companies' management and accountants have a responsibility to make sure not only that they impose and enforce rules against fraud, but also that they create an honest and open corporate culture with a long-term agenda, he said.

"If you look at the technology companies that have suffered recently, you can see that they had a corporate culture that was all about growth."