PART ONE: ARCHITECTURE FOR ACCOUNTANTS
WHERE IS MY SUPERMODEL?
So that is me sprawled back in the depths of my upholstered lounge chair at the front of the plane. I scored first class for the first time. Best of all, I got comped!
I am wearing my midnight blue suit with more pride today than any day ever before. I even slicked my hair back real fancy like one of those 80's high finance people. I am the 21 year old grad headed for New York with business to do.
Six foot tall, ginger hair, blue eyes, six day stubble, anglo, caucasian; that is my look. I get noticed a lot. I have always taken it as curiosity rather than animal magnetism which has been evident, say, in the eyes of women who pass me in the street. I have definitely, ah, not hung around long enough to observe any imprint in a woman's heart.
I am flying into to JFK to take a huge bite out of the Big Apple. This realisation has not completely settled in my gut as yet. What is missing from this picture? Nothing at all! Give me time for my very own supermodel to find her way onto my arm.
The best thing about this adventure is that almost nobody in the world knows about it. I love my family and friends. This is just a secret. I told almost nobody because they would have stopped me from going! Only my new agent (one of those 16 minutes of fame celebrity agents) and a few tv people know the entirety of it. I think my father would root for me if he knew the truth. I figure that my family and friends will embrace me once this rollercoaster is over. There are no certainties, however.
Have I got your attention or am I just that fast moving suit guy on the billboard? Too much stereotype to be 3D. Far too much gloss to be seen with clarity in 2D. Worse still, do you dislike me already? It is not my job to be liked. I am being generous here by telling you my story with all of its secrets!
Do not worry. Everybody wants to be liked. All this is such a sudden thing for me. I have always wanted to try out being one of those big shots. I am humble and substantial, honest. Call it acting out or growing pains, though give me a chance to experiment. Maybe the big shot thing will suit me, hand in glove.
I had never known that the stewardesses were more elegant in first class. Does everybody know this? Beauty exists, though it cannot be taught. Cute is like a state of mind and nature. Elegance takes time, technique and how should I say, class. I concede that I might be thinking like a man on his fourth glass of bubbly. Guilty as charged. There is scope for number five (Where did Audrey The Stewardess go?).
I am not averse to sharing. I would be especially accommodating if you took the seat right next to me which is currently occupied by the heavy set guy who smells like sour milk. Get a load of the saps they let into first class these days! Just say if this is too much information. I am far too polite to say that type of thing out loud. That is the great thing about such a private mode of communication as this! I'll tell you my tale. I want you to like me, though it is not a big thing really. Just do not call me boring! It cuts too deep.
People who wear midnight blue suits have uniform aspirations of success. I have described this success to you. I am trying it on (the suit and the success). So far, so good. The events leading up to this plane ride is a tale less uniform. That tale is more of interest, I trust. I am going to come back to this triumphant moment later on. It will be a long flight and we can pick things up again later in real time.
Plus, I need to take my time in scribbling this down. I want to be slow, conservative, decisive and consolidated. I beg you to give me a break if I do not write so exciting. I stick to short sentences. I don't generally use big words except for finance terminology. I have limitations. There I said it. The very fact that I can write more than 334 words at a stretch is, well, pretty much a rain maker. Forgive me, I am an accountant.
P.S I know that my family, friends and colleagues would not approve of this trip. Then there is the possibility that my employer, the Government of Australia, will terminate my career inside my first month and charge me with a terrible crime. This is not about them. There are bigger issues at stake! Plus, this is a generation thing. If bad stuff comes to pass, at least I can say that I saw New York!
As you may guess, my parents are proud of me. That goes without saying. Before I go further, I have to tell you something about my family. It is all a bit odd. My father is an accountant, just as I am! (Don't say that's boring, okay. I am developing a complex about that. The astute among you may have twigged that I'm trying to offset my boring complex with an emerging big shot complex! I'll keep you updated on my progress as my plot line develops).
The fact that I am an accountant, as my father is, may have some of you reaching for more of that psychoanalytic BS to make sense of the picture. Your next probe is probably an inane question about why my name does not include numerals! Just to throw you into a tailspin, it turns out that my mother is an accountant as well. Would it shock you in addition, if I informed you that my favourite uncle is an accountant?
Sure, things could have turned out differently for me. In my freshman year of university, I began to look beyond accounting. I met a girl. She was amazing. Her name was Veronica. More to the point, I also flirted with a major in finance rather than my planned accounting double major. When my father found out, he threatened to withdraw his funding of my degree immediately! When I recoiled in shock the days following, my mother came in with a sweet deal of a brand new Toyota sedan for me to retain my accounting focus. I know what you are probably thinking. Toyota sedan's are boxy, drab and efficient. I took the deal without pause! I had my first new car to drive my girlfriend Veronica around in.
You have to understand the method of my parents okay (I am not apologising for them!). Finance is associated, well, with my plane ride introduction and everything that goes with it! Accounting is more timeless, workmanlike and honourable. When the archeologists dig up the first letters and numbers made by humans, what do they find? They find accounts! For the newly initiated, double entry book keeping may seem like a fresh remarkable invention. It turns out that those Italians conceived double entry in the 13th century. Tell me, do you know the difference between the Tuscan and Venetian method of double entry bookkeeping? Well, I do. It works great at cocktail parties (where only accountants are sipping on the martinis). You see how interesting and intriguing accounting is?
Double entry provides the serenity of an ordered clerical mind. All the debits equal all the credits in a structured ballet of numbered bliss. Completing a sudoku or the working person's plaything, the crossword gives a clue of the feeling of zen associated with double entry. It is just, so, um, satisfying really.
Mercifully, my 15 year old brother is not an accountant. I am worried about him though. He plays zero Playstation now. He goes to school. Then he reads the latest financial disclosures from the US at night. He does not read Australian accounts at all. He only reads the US stuff! It is sick. Perhaps he should see somebody (I think mum and dad are a terrible influence on him!).
You know how families ban talk of politics and religion. My family never did that. They instead merged the two so that we discussed accounting really, really passionately all of the time! Do you know that we have a 10th century abacus which always sits in the centre of our dining room table? (For the uninitiated, an Abacus is an oblong frame with rows of wires or grooves along which beads are slid. It is used for calculating). Not only that, we have the latest edition of Australia's oldest academic accounting journal named 'Abacus' sitting in the centre of the dining room table underneath the actual Abacus!
I did not notice how offbeat this was until my early teens. In my pre-teens, I thought every family debated matters such as the proper goods and services tax treatment of luxury yachts, which were almost never used by their owners! I'll come back to my family issues later if we have time. (Have you got a day free next week?)
In the Summer of 2017, I made the fateful decision to apply for the FinD Graduate Program. FinD is the top secret finance directorate that certifies every area of government which does financial stuff. That's right, FinD looks over everybody's shoulder, even the actual finance department! It was a rigorous selection process. What would you expect? FinD may be the most important government player in the entire country! I know you are not qualified to assess this but do you think I was a suitable applicant off the bat?
At the time of my application, my folks, my brother and I lived in our vast apartment on Sydney's North Shore. I want to make this clear. We are not silver tails, okay. We are very thrifty. We are the millionaires (plus change) next door which you have read about in those books. You already knew this about my family. You just may not have put your mind to this as yet.
These were generous four bedroom digs. The styling was exceptionally retro, though. We needed a renovation, that was for sure. I am certain you appreciate that we could afford more apartment for our money these days. We could afford an apartment with open spaces, clean lines and an abundance of natural light. We instead lived in boxy, drab cubbyholes of rooms with an overly ornate and unnecessarily complex floor plan.
The straight line of depreciation had bottomed out decades ago. Depreciation was now a flat line; that was its most efficient form. It was boring and efficient. Did I mention that my dad, my mum and I were accountants? You know how families can bristle at the prospect of living with an accountant in the family? Imagine the domestic hell of these living arrangements! It was hardly sustainable for me, especially given my developing big shot aspirations.
On a sun filled, radiated Sunday on our long narrow balcony overlooking glimpses of the Pacific Ocean, I commenced my application for FinD. My dad was a few metres away pruning some of the dormant leaves off of his beloved blueberry bushes. They were an utterly illogical indulgence, his blueberries. The blueberry bushes were stubborn green monuments to inefficiency. He lined the entire outer perimeter of the balcony with these hardy but fussy leafed marvels. In season, they bore fruit. Out of season, they dropped their leaves. All year round, my dad regaled bemused guests to our apartment with the eclectic varietal names of his otherwise ordinary looking shrubs.
"I picked up a 'Gulf Coast' from Lismore last week. I placed it next to the 'Blue Bell' which I rescued from the bottom of the crate at Bunnings," my dad would explain something like these phrases to a guest in urgent hushed tones. "They placed the 'High Bushes' right next to the 'Rabbit Eyes'. Can you believe that!"
Most guests to our home were completely understanding. They knew about the accounting thing. Occasionally, a guest tried to connect with my brother on a matter distant from accounting and blueberries. Bless themselves, they would really reach out to him and give it a firm try. He was already too far gone. I am certain you understand my summary of things.
So I toiled my way through the job application. I put the psychometric test off as the final step. The reasons for this should be self evident. Progress was good. The behavioural selection criteria questions were pretty good for me. I thought that I was a natural for the work of FinD. Even the application was turning out to be a cinch as I progressed rapidly.
"Son, you have come a long way," my dad interrupted suddenly with innate authority evident in his voice. "I think we can start to talk about the real issues of accounting."
I continued to look at the mishmash of papers in front of me. I was however arrested by a few oddities in my dad's delivery. First of all, all we did was talk about accounting. Second, he almost nearly never gave me compliments. That was mum's job. I make this observation from the experience to date. My dad had interrupted my work, without even looking up from his blueberry growths. His statement seemed so important that it interrupted my work, though not his own.
"What is on your mind, dad?" I asked without delay in a straight bottom line of language.
"There is something I have wanted to discuss with you for a long time," he stated vaguely as people sometimes do.
My dad's eyes remained trained exclusively on his blueberries as if some miracle bloom of flowers and pollination would happen right before his eyes.
"Ok," I responded with trepidation now.
"F**k tangible!" he exclaimed spontaneously with controlled emphasis. "I mean it. F**k tangible!"
My dad and I fell into a silent pause as my recently milestoned, twenty-something brain kicked into gear. I found the two word phrase indecipherable straight up. For a start, I had never heard my dad swear before. I wrote it off to him having a tough week.
"Tell me what you really think," I delivered back with nonchalance.
If nothing else, this was one of our more concise and animated exchanges.
My dad finally turned around. He gave me his full attention and turned his back to his berries. I knew that this was serious now!
"You are old enough," he assured. "F**k tangible!"
The repetition irritated me a tad. I took more moments of pause. I wondered how long it had been since I experienced difficulty comprehending two words phrased together (one of those words was the most commonly used expletive in the world).
"Dad, if this is about love?" I began reluctantly after much blue sky thought. "Mum and I already had that talk. She confirmed my initial thinking on it. Love does not appear on the balance sheet. Love is on no balance sheet at all. Goodwill is however carried on the balance sheet and is amortised..."
"Son, think about it!" he interrupted with a hint of irritation. "I am talking about something bigger than love!"
I scratched my forehead while putting significant energies into maintaining a poker face. My father was resting on his haunches at eye level while staring at me from what seemed like 43 centimetres away. Wasn't the 'right' answer that nothing at all is bigger than love? Maybe we were caught in semantics.
"So, um, you want to talk about the mechanics of, um, it?" I inquired out of outright blind fear now.
It was a tense moment for me, alright. How would you feel about discussing the, um, mechanics of it with your accountant father who has a unique affinity for his, um, blueberry plants?
"Son," he expressed in laboured exasperation, prior to exhaling his breath as if the entire exercise had been futile for him.
There was silence as, I assume, we both wondered where the nearest table or log could be commandeered to crawl under.
"Edward," he began now in his more professorial tone. "You remember one of the greatest investors of all time, Mr Benjamin Graham. He established new precedents for intelligent investment. This was a man who built an enviable investment record even though he lost about 70% of his portfolio value early on during the Great Depression. Do you remember what underpinned his method?"
I thought for a moment. Strictly speaking, this was finance rather than accounting. It occurred to me that my dad was not in a mood to tolerate hair splitting.
"His method was about tangibles, dad," I answered matter-of-factly, without really knowing if I was parroting the right stuff to get this over with.
"Exactly!" he exclaimed with enthusiasm. "Now do you know what Benjamin Graham's self proclaimed successor, Warren Buffett, perhaps the greatest of them all, increasingly bases his investment method on?"
"It is about intangibles, dad," I delivered with brisk mock boredom.
"You got it son!" Dad actually yelled at me as if I had hit some Eureka pay dirt.
I smiled then my dad smiled. I broke into a laugh and my dad did as well. It was one of those moments when you smile and laugh but do not really know why. For my part, I think it was a mix of relief and awkwardness. I think my relief was sourced from the fact that we had avoided an awkward accounting segway to talking about sex.
"Don't you think that accounting should catch up?" he expressed as a statement rather than a question. "This could be the biggest disruptive idea in the world right now!"
I just stayed silent. I had not seen my father like this in years. Perhaps his wedding night was the last display of this type of enthusiastic extravagance. His wedding was not exactly something which I had seen.
"How about this, son?" he continued as if he had more wisdom of unknown divinity. "In legal terms, corporations are people. These people are potentially immortal. There is no reason why these people can not have honourable character with integrity and continuity for all time. Corporations can never be forced to see a psychologist though. Corporations can never be imprisoned though..."
"What are you on about, dad?" I asked in a clear attempt to interrupt him.
This had to be the most wide-ranging and abstract sermon he had ever delivered.
"Son, in this modern world," he began with grand speak again. "No matter how big and powerful you are, all it takes is for a number of people to come together and make a spontaneous torrent of terrorism allegations against you behind your back. Then you will find yourself in a psych consultation talking about your mother and father and navel gazing introspectively about why you are having such a hard time playing well with others and how you could improve to satisfy unknown minions who have made stuff up about you...."
"I still don't understand, dad," I interrupted again. "I thought this was about accounting."
The truth is that I really enjoyed interrupting him that last time. This was stuff which clearly had been gnawing at him for a long time. When he expressed it all, it flowed like a waterfall.
"This is accounting!" he exclaimed with irritation for being interrupted. "I mean, this is about intangibles. Intangibles are the biggest deal of our times. Accounting should catch up."
I waited patiently for dad to finish. I reluctantly concluded that these were his finalised thought bubbles. I did not know really how to understand this. I wanted to placate him though. I also wanted to add caution to these big ideas as this stuff was way out of character for him.
"Dad, I think you are onto something," I began without significant conviction evident in my voice. "Don't you think though if people took action on properly accounting for intangibles, the changes would be so widespread that those holding onto the status quo would conceive their own terrorist allegations against the particular Change Maker?"
My dad paused in thought as creases appeared on his forehead for the first time that day. To be truthful, he appeared absolutely stumped.
"It is always good to thrust things out with you son," he assured me with balance evident in his voice again. "I might trim a few leaves off 'Blueberry Biloxi' over there."
I stared at my dad as he turned his back and returned to his very tangible work.
'F**k tangible' is a catchy little ditty all the same, I conceded to myself. Maybe he was succumbing to the heat this summer, I thought.
MEET THE CHANGE MAKERS
Like all the great careers, mine started in the basement. That was a solitary month ago. Before you ask, I did not go from the mailroom to first class at the front of the plane in one month. That would have been ridiculous.
Did you notice how I did not say that it would have been incredible? I am being a bit careful with that language. I am careful because the story I am going to tell is itself a little lacking in the credibility department. That is okay for me. I am telling the truth. I am being a little conservative with you though, at least until you trust me. Did I already inform you that I am an accountant?
So picture it one month ago in the basement. This is the basement of FinD Headquarters on the far side of Langton Crescent, opposite The Treasury in the city of Canberra inside the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) Australia (I can not wait to start certifying the operating areas of those starch white shirt brothers and sister colleagues and rivals in numerals over on the other side of Langton!).
Australia is that island continent featuring 23 million people, which you have heard so much about. You know, look out for that big hopping kangaroo. Pay attention to the sleeping koala 'bear' up there (A 'not-really-a-bear-bear' who is 'stoned-but-not-really' and sleeps 22 hours a day). Throw another prawn (shrimp) on the BBQ. See, you have heard of Australia! Those are the bottom lines. Allow me to bore you a tad more with some below the line stuff.
Australia was founded as a convict colony of British discards. You probably know it more in its unlikely modern form as a colony of the British, the Chinese and the United States. Another way of summing it up is that contemporary Australia is a modern diplomatic nation. In a world increasingly at war with itself, it is the nation on earth overcome by geographic advantages. Do not get me wrong. Australia still has real world problems. In fact, the first nation people known as the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders testify to the validity of some of that.
So anyway, we could have gathered that morning in our directorate office. It is a contemporary new steel and glass thing which is a mere stones throw from the new parliament, you know. I follow the crowd. Personally, I liked the idea of our first audience commencing a little closer to where things actually began. I would choose sandstone instead of steel and glass any old day. (I think accountants would make great architects. It would only be the architecture bit which personally would confuse me up front.....)
22 shiny young men and women dressed all dapper in their cotton shirts, wool suits and polyester/rayon/nylon/cotton/wool skirts. None of our folks were there. That would have been outrageous (notice how I did not mention the credibility of it). As a starter, everybody needed at least 'a baseline' to be inside that building. The flowery mum and dad moments would have to be enjoyed afterwards via security approved selfies.
22 shiny young men and women sat in the basement of FinD Headquarters waiting for our new fearless leader to welcome us. By the way, I shall end the suspense now. Quell your excitement. We were The Change Makers, which you have no doubt heard about, or maybe you have not. I will henceforth refer to these fine young men and women (including moi) from FinD as The Change Makers.
My name is Edward Sanders by the way, as I signed off my tipsy plane ride introduction. We were the grads sent (recruited) from the past to save the future of FinD first, Australia second, then the world!
Director-General, Moira Parkin was ready to speak. There was not a soul in that room who was not ready to listen.
"Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to FinD 2018. You are The Change Makers!"
I will just pause right there. How do you think the Director-General's speech had gone so far? Pretty amazing, I concur. She had nailed it. In my way of thinking, she had already hit the high notes. I love it when finance people show how finance people are not at all boring! Don't take my word for it. I looked around to my fellow Change Makers. They were pretty much already in the zone, waiting on every additional syllable.
Then my eyes flashed over one guy sitting in the back row. His face conveyed only neutrality or did he just need to go to the bathroom? Maybe it was a bit from column A and a bit from column B. Here is the Director-General again.
The work of modern FinD is about much more than numbers. You are Change Makers, every single one of you because FinD people sit around the table when almost every single important matter of government is discussed. This cutting edge leadership ideation is nurtured within our own walls as well. First Nation Peoples, Feminism, Disadvantaged Young People, you name it, FinD encourages our Change Makers to network it.
I believe that many of you will change FinD. There will be those who will even transform the entire government. FinD will grow you first and foremost. I am talking about our mentoring program. I am talking about professional development. You will even give back while learning skills and humility by propelling FinD's own charity into the stratosphere!
FinD's Change Makers think positive and learn, even in their sleep. They aren't afraid of doing things differently. They create buzz and impact. FinD Change Makers are bold enough to take the lead.
It is nothing short of amazing to be with you today. I have already heard positive feedback about you. I am certain that I will hear more of the same. Many of you are evidently already making change. With that in mind, the board and I are looking forward to seeing your detailed presentations based on your written projects at the end of the month."
Enough of what I think, what did you think of that intro? It was not boring at all, agree? I loved it. The last bit about a presentation and written project threw me a little bit. Personally, I thought it a waste to end a celebration of unbridled youthful idealism and enthusiasm with the mention of change making work projects. The entire mention of 'work' killed it at the end for me!
After all, my fellow Change Makers and I were only getting started. You have to understand my perspective. Twenty somethings don't actually know about anything! I just assumed that everybody knew this. Most are too busy doing the whole twenty something thing. The last thing twenty somethings know about is what it is to be a twenty something!
Our morning gathering broke off for refreshments. This was the first opportunity to mingle and work out who was who within the ranks of the Change Makers.
First up, I met Kristy and Sally. Both wore smart black blazer and skirt combos. I did my quick intro. Accounting at UNSW, I graduated and evidently snuck into the gig with the biggest accounts in the nation. I was just a rabbit in the headlights like everybody else. I do a bit of origami in my spare time and want to travel heaps, I offered.
Kristy was from Coffs Harbour. She loves harvesting apples on her family's farm. Kristy enjoys grunge music and she kind of joked how she liked older guys with facial stubble. Somehow she weaved into the impromptu how she was number one in a few of her accounting units at Southern Cross. I moved the conversation onto Sally because Kristy may well have been the type of girl I would want to see out on the town.
Sally was a Sydney native, as I was. She had graduated with a degree in Business from Macquarie. She was a bookworm. She described herself as an english literature freak, no less. In addition, Sally apparently loved nothing more than heading down south for ski season. She was sporty. She spoke of tennis, yachting and golf in the same short conversation. Sally was a shiny young thing, I had to grant her that.
I continued the mingle onwards. I met John. I met Cindy. I met Carlos. The Change Makers came from all over Australia. Then I met the guy who I thought may have needed to go to the bathroom during the presentation.
He introduced himself as Phillip Foster. I thrust my hand towards him and we enjoyed one of those robust man-to-man handshakes. The curiosity got to me. I told him that I had noticed his facial expression during the presentation. I further asked him for his thoughts. He said that one of the down lights was shining into his eyes, hence his facial expression. That was a little light stepping from his point of view, I think.
Phillip then lowered his voice to ask me if I wanted to meet him in the carpark at 6pm to go out to a Canberra nightspot to get high with him. I thought that Phillip's suggestion was absolutely ridiculous, sounded distinctly illegal while being reckless, misguided and completely courageous at the same time.
"That sounds illegal," I responded immediately with the bottom line of my thoughts expressed in a muted voice.
"Decriminalised," he clipped back.
More light stepping.
'Who in the world was Phillip Foster?' I wondered to myself for the first time.
"You are from Canberra, then?" I probed.
Phillip turned and looked me directly in the eyes. He remained silent.
"See you there," I assured, then I navigated my way to the bathroom.
Getting high would be the perfect end to the first day of our careers, I reasoned.