Running up the score
Keith Clissold knew he wanted to be an accountant early on in his career and had the determination and skills to see it through.
Fortunate are those who have made it through a few decades and can say, “Well now, looks like a pretty good road so far.” Keith Clissold is one of those people.
It was 47 years ago that Mr Clissold, on the football felds in high school, caught the eye of his coach Terry Spurway.
He was known in high school as “good at maths”, and the coach suggested accounting was a trade and profession that might net some points.
The coach was biased; he was an accountant himself.
Shortly after graduation, Mr Clissold took the sideline advice and joined on with his former coach, and has never looked back since.
Mr Spurway was a senior accountant at H G Mayer in Yagoona, where Mr Clissold recalls he “signed on”.
“Signed on”, it turns out, is the sort of understatement in which Mr Clissold specialises. Today, he runs the shop, which still hangs out the sign “H G Mayer & Co.” and where Mr Clissold coaches four senior accountants and two administrative assistants.
Indeed, to this day Mr Clissold continues the original and still vital tradition of accountants, and so his firm concentrates on the professional mainstays of accounting and taxes, and eschews the broader range of consulting services some offer.
“If you ask what distinguishes H G Mayer from other accounting firms, we probably offer no particular service that other solid professionals don’t offer,” Mr Clissold bluntly states.
But Mr Clissold, while admiring of others, has a different metric in mind than new services: “We pride ourselves on keeping clients long term. The practice was established in 1954, and it is always rewarding to see the clients who have been with the practice before I started here, in addition to now having second- and third-generation clients.”
Tradition and solidity – and perhaps some refreshing modesty – are core values for Mr Clissold, as evidenced by the company nameplate never undergoing revision, even as the decades rolled by.
“When the founder Hubert Mayer passed on, in 1978, his wife turned the firm over to the partners with the proviso the name live on, to which the partners readily assented,” explains Mr Clissold.
“Mayer arrived in Australia after WWII, spoke five languages and earnestly served every client. That proposition is timeless.”
Today the company motto is, “quality, not quantity”, says Mr Clissold.
In general, Mr Clissold serves small businesses and high-net-worth families, many of whom trace family patronage back to founder Mr Mayer.
Obviously, in the nomenclature of MBA grads, the market has validated the Clissold business model, which has endured where others have fallen by the wayside.
Sunny days, no clouds
While much of the accounting profession is moving online, a “fate” that Mr Clissold considers inevitable, H G Mayer is covering its bets. “Being old school, I am not a real cloud fan and there was a recent experience that really brought home that perhaps my reluctance is warranted,” relates Mr Clissold.
He knew of an accountant on an out-of-town assignment, who through no fault of her own was without cloud services for nearly a week on an internet snag, and effectively bereft of options.
“In the long term, I know that is where the profession is headed, online,” concedes Mr Clissold, “but perhaps a well-balanced mixture of cloud and desktop is a working solution.”
Mr Clissold also raises an issue made even more prominent by recent headlines, that of online hacking.
As usual, there is an interesting Mr Clissold tale to explain his reservations: “Way back in 1988, the ATO brought on what they called electronic lodgment. Terry Spurway even then pondered whether the ATO, or more likely a disgruntled someone within the ATO, could peer into our desktop computers, through that system.”
In other words, client confidentiality might be breached, even through a primitive dial-up system.
The more the world changes, the more it remains the same, counsels Mr Clissold. “And the utmost respect for, and protection of, client confidentiality never changes,” he says.
A life in study
When asked about hobbies, Mr Clissold somewhat demurs.
“Well, I wish I had more time for reading fiction, or something other than researching tax profession matters. Some people say one of my other hobbies is attending Tax Office liaison meetings.”
From early on in his career, Mr Clissold has been active in professional associations and the ceaseless reading required to keep up-to-date on evolving tax and accounting issues.
“Fortunately, I have always enjoyed the intellectual challenges of my work, and my associates and clients have become part of like an extended family,” says Mr Clissold.
“But there is no denying that even rewarding work with professional associations, and necessary study, does eat into free time.”
The old joke that you can tell when an accountant is on holiday because he comes into the office at 8am not wearing a tie has some truth in it, affirms Mr Clissold.
But another profession-joke is usually unjustified, asserts Mr Clissold.
What do you call an accountant who leaves the office before 10pm? “Lazy,” answers Mr Clissold. “But that is only true in tax season.”
As a member of the Institute of Public Accountants (IPA), Mr Clissold says it has played an important role in giving a variety of accounting firms a voice in the profession.
“I found the IPA to be in a position to represent the needs of those smaller firms in the profession and helps to give them a voice, which is a valuable service to the profession and to the public,” says Mr Clissold. “My IPA membership goes well with my Tax Institute, TAI Practitioners and ATMA memberships.”
IPA venues are also valuable for meeting with other professionals, in which members can frankly exchange concerns, or explain what trends they see, says Mr Clissold.
Which leads to a story about a client referral from another IPA member.
“This referral was a friendly guy, who plops down in my office as if without a care in the world, and before we even really start talking he blurts out, ‘I want to pay $250,000 in taxes.’ Even now that is a lot of money, but back then that really was a quite sizeable bit of change,” recalls Mr Clissold.
“Why that particular sum of money?” Mr Clissold politely inquired, worried that perhaps the new client actually owed a lot more. There are reasons for some referrals. And who “wants” to pay taxes? Most clients were expecting Mr Clissold to (legally) trim their taxes.
“In fact, that is my ambition. To pay $250,000 in annual taxes – in fact, at least $250,000 in taxes,” the client summarily repeated.
“Why?” Mr Clissold let his blank face ask.
“Because then I will be making $1 million a year,” the client explained.
A laugh was shared, and sure enough another lifelong client was made on the spot, who eventually left heirs millions of dollars, recalls Mr Clissold. “I can report that client succeeded in his ambition, and then some.”
And there was a lesson in that client: “It is not how much you pay, it is how much you keep,” says Mr Clissold.
In line with his ‘quality, not quantity’ ethic, Mr Clissold has found success with staff, most of whom are long-time associates or employees.
“Like Hubert Mayer, we treat everyone in the company as a member of the family. And I tell associates not to over-stress, to take good care of themselves, and to take time to enjoy life,” says Mr Clissold.
Seasonal free lunches to better restaurants are a perk, and workloads are not heroic. Pacing is emphasised, not volume.
Mr Clissold also advises staff to involve themselves in organisations outside of work, and to make sure to see friends “not just on Facebook”.
In that vein, Mr Clissold takes time to go back to his roots, and volunteers as a senior football referee for Christian Football Association in Sydney, as well as having been on the executive board of the association for more than 28 years.
“Considering all that football has given me – including a lifetime occupation – I guess I owe the sport some change back,” says Mr Clissold.
For young people, Mr Clissold advises accounting as a career without reservation.
“Of course, there is the old saying, there is no certainty except for death and taxes, so in accounting you will always find demand for your services,” he relates.
Occupational security is a worthy goal in its own right, but there is more, insists Mr Clissold. “We accountants are in a profession, not in an ‘industry’. Being a true professional means you honour ethics, professional standards and serving the clients, not treat them as transactional business prospects.”
Mr Clissold recalls his beginnings in the accounting profession, in those early days fresh off the football field.
“The founder of this firm, Hugh Mayer, made a good name and living earnestly serving clients. I like to think I have upheld the tradition, and when the time comes I hope
to oversee a transition to the next generation in the same tradition.”
But Mr Clissold adds, “I hope it is a lengthy transition. I still want to have an interaction with our many long-term clients, as well as colleagues in the profession. This is not a life to leave so easily.