"They haven’t kicked me out yet, and I’m glad"

John Cullen, Council member

John Cullen might be the only man in history who quit rock’n’roll to become an insolvency accountant and he isn’t sorry.

He swapped bass riffs for bankruptcies in his 20s when he went to a gig in Liverpool with a musician friend, and got talking about bands to a man in a bow tie while they shared cigarettes at the back of the hall. It was the 1980s. You could still do that.

‘I was fresh out of university, teaching music, and was still thinking about a life in music,’ said John, who learned the bassoon because they had run out of saxophones at school. ‘But the guy in the bow tie turned out to be head of recruitment at a big accountancy business and he offered me an interview. It sounded like a good job then. It still does, actually.’

Saved by the alphabet

John’s big interview was also influenced by music, as he and the recruiter argued for 55 of the 60 minutes about the rival merits of Gilbert and Sullivan and Stockhausen.

’It got quite heated. A proper row,’ he said.

Then John’s accountancy career was saved by the alphabet.

‘The guy said he’d better ask me something about accountancy, and I was dreading this because I didn’t know very much at all,’ said John. ‘I’d read the Dictionary of Accounting Terms to prepare. I’d only had time to get as far as B.

‘He asked, “Do you know what an audit is?” It turned out later that I was the only candidate who gave him a full, technical definition. I got the job, solely because it was in the first ten pages of the only book I had ever opened about accountancy.

‘If he’d asked me about capital gains I don’t know where I’d be today.’

Chaotic and confusing

Insolvency entered John’s life a few months into the job when an account he worked on sent up distress flares and crashed into trouble. 

‘I was seconded to the insolvency department. That was 1990 and I’ve never looked back,’ said John. ‘It’s been my life ever since.’

His current day job is at Menzies, where he is a partner.

Since then John’s expertise in the field has swelled to such an extent that he is called in as a consultant by major international organisations, including the European Commission. He continues to share his experience  in Brussels - even though strictly speaking the UK is an ex-member, and the Cardiff-based, New Zealand-born son of a long line of Merseyside publicans no longer fits the profile of a typical Eurocrat.

‘They haven’t kicked me out yet, and I’m glad,’ said John.

"I enjoy working with the EU. They’re a lot more open and flexible than they get credit for, and they really do like the Brits"

His guidance is still valued even after Europe wrestled successfully with a chaotic and confusing insolvency framework across the continent.

‘In certain countries, once you are bankrupt you are bankrupt forever,’ said John. ‘Long-term bankruptcy destroys families and destroys lives. In the UK, after a year you get on with your life. I am working with a group to find a more humane and consistent approach while making sure the fraudsters don’t get away with it. 

‘I enjoy working with the EU. They’re a lot more open and flexible than they get credit for, and they really do like the Brits. 

‘I’ll keep going and trying to help for as long as they want me to. But if they do remember I’m British and ask me to leave it will give me more of a chance to practise my bass.

‘There’s still time to start a band.’