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A trusted voice

In December 2016, the European organization for accountants, auditors and advisors changed its name to Accountancy Europe, setting out its new philosophy highlighting that professional accountants make numbers work for people. President Edelfried Schneider tells Michelle Perry how the organization is supporting and advocating for a million professional accountants in Europe.

Professor Edelfried Schneider is an expert at juggling responsibilities, judging by his myriad professional commitments aside from his day job as Managing Director of Koblenz-based accountancy practice HLB Dr. Dienst & Partner, which is good given that his next two years may prove to be some of his busiest yet.

Last December, Schneider was appointed President of Accountancy Europe, formerly the Federation of European Accountants. He has a lot on his plate for his two-year presidency of Accountancy Europe, an organization that is setting itself up – hence the name change – for the next 30 years of uniting the accounting profession in Europe at a time of major upheaval.

Schneider is not only positive about the impact of Accountancy Europe and the profession on all aspects of society, but positively upbeat. With typical German aplomb and pragmatism, he says that the profession has a solid record on adapting to change, and in particular technological change. By way of example, he recounts how in 1984 his firm installed its first personal computer for around 12 to 15 people – a progressive move beyond many professions at the time.

Today, he says his offices are full of computers and the firm has embraced many new technologies available, such as document management systems. Schneider, who is an honorary professor at the Hochschule Koblenz, is undaunted by the accelerated pace of technological change, such as in artificial intelligence, and is confident the profession will evolve and continue as a trusted adviser to business and society as a whole.

“I believe machines and automation can do a lot of the work we used to do. We are already down that track. They can be a threat and that can make people nervous, but in the end it is people who count even more because they have to interpret the data. Machines still need to be trained by people and machines don’t care about ethics or trust. And machines cannot exercise judgment,” he says.

“We are not so afraid that the profession will disappear. The day-to-day transactional things will be done by machines but when it comes to high-level advice and personal relationships, accountants will still be needed. It’s about an opportunity for us to help our clients move forward.”

Indeed, to prove a point, Accountancy Europe – which has 50 member bodies across 37 countries representing a million accountants in Europe – just held a “Digital Day” to discuss the impact of technology on professional life. Beforehand, Accountancy Europe gauged their members’ readiness and the support they need to embrace technology. This survey showed its members had “a clear positive outlook for the future,” with a third believing it was an opportunity for the profession to reinvent itself and more than half saying it was a chance to improve accountancy services. That is not to say that Accountancy Europe members underestimate the serious challenge that digitization poses, which will require significant changes from the profession.

Three priorities

For his presidency, Schneider is focusing on three main points – ensuring transparency, promoting trust and integrity, and supporting a sustainable economy. These issues are drawn from a strategic process in which Accountancy Europe assesses its work every two years in order to ascertain its future priorities. “We try in everything we do, from events to publications and meetings, to look at our strategy and ensure it is related to what we have done and what we have to do,” he says.

Schneider says these points are critical for the next 30 years of the professional body and the profession-at-large because accounting increasingly has social and political relevance.

“Today we speak with everyone. We have increasingly been engaging with other stakeholders such as NGOs. Now we feel we are a good source of advice for politicians. We are a little bit of a think-tank, and last but not least, we are an advocate for our members – the voice of the accountancy profession,” he says. “In our strategy and our actions, we work for the benefit of society as a whole. The scope and volume of our work has grown substantially.”

Raising the bar

Technology challenges aside, some of the big issues Accountancy Europe has been focusing on this year include whistleblowing and reporting non-financial data. This comes in light of outcomes from corporate leaks such as the so-called Lux Leaks, which exposed how Luxembourg authorities had for years been sanctioning corporate tax avoidance by large companies, including Pepsi, Ikea, Accenture, Burberry, Procter & Gamble, Heinz, JP Morgan, FedEx, among others. Two former PwC employees who blew the whistle on the confidential tax deals faced a criminal trial last year. In June, Accountancy Europe held an event to take “forward the debate on the practical implications of whistleblowing and the potential need for a coherent European Union whistleblowing framework,” Schneider explains.

“The main point for us is the protection of the whistleblower. We have seen in most of our jurisdictions that privacy and secrecy are, for the time, higher ranked rights. If you talk about issues that you aren’t allowed to talk about, that is an offence and in many jurisdictions it is a crime. If you look at the whistleblowers recently, many were sentenced and lost their jobs. To protect the whistleblower is an issue,” he says, “and to protect the falsely accused person as well “.

Next month, Accountancy Europe is hosting an event on the reporting of non-financial data, which Schneider says is “increasingly important because investors and other stakeholders are not only looking for the figures.” A new European directive on nonfinancial and diversity information came into force in January, which will affect many companies. Accountancy Europe’s event will focus on the practical implications of the new legislation, particularly addressing how to best comply with the new requirements, stakeholder expectations, and what constitutes good reporting overall.

Staffing and recruiting are also hot topics for Schneider’s term of office. As the profession evolves, so must accountants and the skill-set they have to offer. The traditional technical skills remain vital, but technology and language communication skills are equally critical today because of the internationalization of business, he says.

“We should try to maintain a high degree of education for the profession. We should not lower the bar. Education for me is the primary step into quality, and quality within audit, accountancy and legal advice is so decisive. If there are no clear regulatory requirements for the education and skills of your adviser, then it is harmful to society and clients,” he says.

Accountancy Europe began a significant project last year to overhaul the association’s technology and communications, which involved major investment. So far, Schneider says, it looks to have been a success.

“Our communications and website are getting better. All our social media projects are more consolidated. The communications between the board, members and stakeholders have improved. We need to continue our staffing efforts and keep developing our team which is multilingual and has diverse competences. We have to keep up momentum,” he says.

EU vs. non-EU members

As for the imminent exit of the United Kingdom from the EU, although Schneider appreciates the impact will be significant, he doesn’t believe it will cause U.K. member accounting bodies such as the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales and the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants to leave Accountancy Europe. He highlights the international dimension of Accountancy Europe and how it contributes to policy making and standard-setting at international and European levels.

“The U.K. profession is a big part of Accountancy Europe and we value their input greatly.” He adds that Accountancy Europe already has 10 accountancy bodies from non-EU states as members.

Schneider says he became an accountant on the advice of his cousin who was a banker and advised him that the profession would offer him a broader overview of business. He says his cousin wasn’t wrong. If he hadn’t been an accountant, the Accountancy Europe President, who plays clarinet and saxophone, says he would probably have become a musician or a politician.
Next year, Schneider is looking forward to the World Congress of Accountants, which is to be held in Sydney, where Accountancy Europe and its member bodies will meet international partners, including the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs. By then, he will be nearing the end of his term as presidency, but for now it is full steam ahead for Accountancy Europe and the profession in Europe with Schneider at its helm.

This article was originally published in the June 2017 issue of A Plus. You can also read the digital version.