This article was first published in the May 2016 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Most psychologists now believe that multi-tasking is a myth. But Philippe Arraou, the president of France’s main accounting body, looks like an exception to this rule. As well as leading the Conseil Supérieur de l’Ordre des Experts-Comptables (CSOEC), Arraou still runs a bustling accountancy practice with offices on both sides of the Pyrenees – in Pau, Bayonne and Paris (France) and Barcelona (Spain) – with 40 staff and about 700 clients.

It is not the first time Arraou has had two full-time jobs simultaneously. For several decades he has juggled his own practice with public service, including a four-year term as president of the European Federation of Accountants and Auditors for SMEs (EFAA) and another as chief of Experts-comptables et Commissaires aux Comptes de France (ECF), one of France’s professional institutes for accountants. 

‘It is a crazy life,’ Arraou explains. ‘I often end up working about 4,000 hours a year. It is equivalent to having several demanding jobs.’

CSOEC is at the heart of France’s accounting system. Sitting under the umbrella of the Ministry of Finance, it represents the views of accountants when the government sets accounting regulations, and is the main body providing continuous professional training for members of the profession. Membership is compulsory for all accountants in public practice and has been ever since CSOEC was established in 1945. (Accountants working for private companies cannot be members and are represented by another association.)

Alliance with ACCA

But Arraou believes that national accounting bodies, however successful, can no longer maintain an inward focus. Under his leadership, CSOEC has signed an alliance with ACCA, a link that Arraou believes will deliver great results over the coming years. ‘Business is now global and professional accountants have to provide global solutions,’ he says. ‘That makes it hard for national institutes to work alone. We can offer more international guidance together.’ 

After just a few months, the alliance is already starting to show its worth, Arraou argues. The partners recently unveiled a bilingual online training course on how to value companies at an international level. ‘I’m going to make my best effort to ensure that my presidency is international in its orientation,’ Arraou adds. 

He is a passionate proponent of convergence in global accounting rules. ‘It seems strange to have different standards from one country to another, either within the European Union or worldwide,’ he says. ‘Eventually, we will have a more unified approach.’ US policy, he believes, will be crucial to bringing about greater harmony between standards. 

Another potential limitation in the current international framework, Arraou argues, is that it has been designed mostly with the needs of large firms in mind. ‘The main focus has been to ensure the most accurate valuation of large, publicly traded businesses for the benefit of investors,’ he says. ‘Less attention has been paid to the best approach for smaller and medium-sized businesses, which are not being constantly scrutinised by stockholders.’ This issue is close to Arraou’s heart since his own accounting firm specialises in providing guidance to small and medium-sized businesses. His practice, set up in 1986, is one of the few that provide cross-border advice to smaller firms. 

Arraou is also devoting much of his effort at CSOEC to helping accountants understand threats and opportunities to their business model. One major focus has been on digitisation. ‘The way in which accounts are being produced has been changing, with paper-based systems disappearing and giving way to computer systems,’ he says. ‘Higher degrees of digitisation mean that part of the traditional role of accountants, in actually registering transactions, is done automatically.’ That should be seen as an opportunity, as well as a threat, Arraou believes. ‘Accountants need to be part of this process and actually in the lead,’ he says. ‘If we do not do this we will lose clients to other actors that will emerge in the market.’ 

Digitisation offers the potential for accountants to make a significant contribution to business efficiency and capture part of the value from automation. It could also allow the profession to focus on higher value-added services.

Public sector

A second major opportunity Arraou has been highlighting during his presidency comes from the public sector: ‘The financial position of many public sector entities has weakened over recent years, while the central government has plenty of internal resources. There are other governmental entities and agencies that  could do with some good advice and outside expertise.’ More French cities are struggling with revenue shortfalls as funding from Paris has dwindled. ‘This is another area where our members can be extremely helpful, cultivating a new business opportunity as well as offering a public good,’ he says.

Arraou’s commitment to public service is underlined by the fact that his current position, though demanding, is unpaid. But he says that the main attraction of accountancy when he entered the profession as a young man was the promise of independence. ‘My very first goal was to set up my own firm rather than be employed by somebody else,’ he says. Although he started studying accountancy relatively late, at the age of 23, within seven years he had set up his own practice. This has now been flourishing for three decades. ‘Many of my clients are the founders of small and medium-sized businesses, so they feel the same way about the appeal of being entrepreneurial and setting your own agenda.’ Arraou’s firm helps businesses achieve sustainable growth and gain access to finance. 

Still, Arraou believes that associations can play a vital role in helping accounting firms as well as in promoting the interests of the profession in general. About the EFAA – a body that represents more than 320,000 accountants and auditors – he says: ‘Its goal is to provide a big voice for small business and provide regulators with a more in-depth knowledge of the issues facing small businesses.’

The upshot is that in Arraou, ACCA has found a highly experienced and dedicated ally. 

Christopher Fitzgerald and Fernando Florez, journalists