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Remembering the wonder of Excel

So, as the credit crunch takes a huge bite out of the housing market, I’ve decided to take the mortgage plunge. A smart starter home awaits while it is goodbye to near-student squalor, washing up rotas and a permanently occupied shower.

Before the mate in the van arrives, I’ve been throwing away the accumulated rubbish of the past few years. One of the natural by-products of the process is that you inevitably stumble across many forgotten reminders of your history, tucked away in the darkest recesses of the loft.

I think most accountants are hoarders by nature – it’s not just Companies Act or tax requirements to hold data for I‘ve forgotten how many number of years that forces the habit on us as we get older.

I still get a peculiar pleasure out of running my finger down the items on my first bank statement, which is on slightly yellowing 1989 Barclays Bank paper. I was shocked to discover that, long before I embarked on the long road to an accountancy qualification, I was already performing bank reconciliations to capture those cheques or lodgements that hadn’t cleared my bank account yet. They’re all there, written neatly in biro on the bottom of each statement. And to think that I always believed I’d simply fallen into accountancy.

Another pile of papers unearthed among the football programmes, the valve-powered television sets and the Corby trouser press (yes I, too, once had a dapper phase, long ago I’m thrilled to say), was the bones of my career. There were staff appraisals, job offers, pay rises as well as various work manuals that I clearly thought would come in useful one day, and haven’t. They are from the era when people were astonished that not everyone had a PC, and anybody who used Excel was regarded as an IT god.

Amid the forgotten paper work, I also unearthed files relating to my illustrious time as an auditor. I was part of an audit team that had gone to a local car dealer for the year-end audit. The car dealer was a repeat client and the job should have been relatively straightforward.

For each completed job we had a staff appraisal completed by the audit senior, which was then signed off by the audit manager. On this occasion, however, the job had gone so badly that each member of the audit team received a memo from the audit manager carbon copied to the engagement partner which started with the words: “This job didn’t reflect well on any of us…”. He had always been good at shifting the blame, as his subsequent rise to the top of the greasy pole proves.

There was a section on the memo for each of us and the comment that stood out most about me was: “Barry produces an extraordinary number of working papers, the purpose of which isn’t always apparent.”

More specifically, I had made a terrible meal of the fixed assets section of the job by auditing the opening asset balance, the movements and the closing balances in isolation without actually tying any of the three together. I’d totally missed the movements in and out of the asset balance, which meant that nothing actually reconciled when you added it all together. It’s no wonder I absconded from the absurd world of auditing into the real world of “commerce and industry”.

Looking back, what strikes me most is how much quicker and easier the task would have been using a simple download from the fixed asset register into Excel, which would have allowed me to have added things up much more easily. As it was, I was stuck with reams of paper, and was casting everything by calculator and hand. What a spreadsheet would have given me back then would have been an almost immediate overview of what I was doing.

It would have been apparent that things literally didn’t add up with almost my first key stroke. As it was, I was lost producing a mountain of working papers over a number of days. But that’s the thing about Excel – it’s easy to knock the spreadsheet or the role of the spreadsheet jockey, when we simply forget how easy it’s made life. In fact, I’m just about to knock together a spreadsheet to prove to myself how poor I’ll be once the mortgage et al has been paid. Time to talk to the FD about a pay rise before a Northern Rock-style cash crisis hits.

Barry Cells is no 3 in Blaminio’s finance department. He was talking to Peter Charles who does not necessarily agree with any of his views on the joys of house sharing, the world of auditing, the way to forge a successful career, or the sort of person who owns a Corby Trouser Press.

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