Geoff Wilson cut his teeth in the US and Asia and in the audit
practice before being appointed chief executive of KPMG Australia.
He speaks to Catherine Woods about the importance for partners to
have diversity in their career and the changing face of
Asia-Pacific.

KPMG Australia chief executive Geoff Wilson describes himself as an
optimist – although anyone in his position would be hard-pressed to
be too pessimistic. Wilson is in charge of the second-largest firm
in Australia (and one that’s bearing down on the A$1
billion-revenue mark) in an economy that has so far avoided the
downturn that is squeezing the US and Europe.

Wilson tells the International Accounting Bulletin:
“The phrase I would use when talking about the Australian economy
is ‘cautious optimism’. There is subprime and we are looking at the
likely impact of that but if you examine Australia during the past
dozen years, the economy has performed particularly well and has
not had the spikes and dips others have had, and are having. I
think that is a good foundation for our future.”

What does concern Wilson is some of the revisions to company
earnings that are being made by organisations being battered by
exchange rates and subprime exposure.

“When we’re talking to clients, there’s still a lot of
discussion around deals,” he adds. “Private equity may have gone
off the radar but the trade buyers are there. We are optimistic but
clearly keeping an eye on what is happening globally and
regionally.”

Good shape

Fortunately for Wilson, he inherited a firm in pretty good shape
when he took over as chief executive from Lindsay Maxsted at the
start of the year. The most-recent year’s revenue stands at A$906
million ($853 million), tantalisingly close to the A$1 billion
mark, and growth is tracking at 14 percent.

Wilson hastens to talk about the opportunities facing the firm
when asked about the challenges in the market.

“The Australian economy has been particularly buoyant over the
last four or five years and the wide range of regulatory response
and change that has occurred has really provided some great
opportunities for us,” he says.

“On top of that, Australia has been very buoyant in the M&A
market, so there has been a lot of transaction activity and that’s
contributed to what has been a very busy and successful period. The
first challenge is to continue that success and to seek out where
the new opportunities for growth are for us. At the end of the day,
we have great people and we need to have great people to have great
clients.”

Wilson joined KPMG in 1979 and has been a partner since 1990.
Before becoming chief executive, he was head of audit and risk
advisory services, thereby joining a long list of audit heads that
have made it to the top job of a firm.

While he argues that KPMG has a history of drawing on people
from disciplines other than audit for chief executive, Wilson
admits an audit background does provide much-needed breadth of
experience.

“It enables you to get into the boardroom and have a dialogue
with senior executives across a broad range of topics, not just
about a particular regulation or a service; you are talking about
the whole business,” he says.

In addition to working in Australia, Wilson also spent a few
years on secondment in Silicon Valley, California. He says the time
was “life-changing for me, and my family, both personally and
professionally”.

Wilson believes the experience will help him adapt to his new
role. He is also hoping to persuade more Australian partners to do
stints overseas at other KPMG firms.

“I have at least 15 of our partners in overseas locations,”
Wilson says. “I would like to ramp that up to maybe somewhere
between 15 and 20 partners working internationally at any point in
time. They would be away for two or three years and when they
return, someone replaces them.”

In addition to working in the US, Wilson has also spent a number
of years working closely with member firms in the region. Within
his capacity as KPMG Australia head of audit, he was chief
operating officer of the Asia-Pacific audit and advisory
practice.

Wilson says it was a formative experience: “It opened my mind to
things that I just had not seen and been aware of. It enabled me to
build friendships and relationships that continue today.”

Important region

Asia-Pacific (and Asia as a whole) are crucially important to
KPMG’s development and also that of the Australian economy.

“China is a fascinating case study,” Wilson comments. “Both in
terms of its growth and the way in which they are looking to build
that economy and change the social fabric of the country. But you
can really see that they are also looking to change the way the
world economy looks and challenge the existing ways.”

Wilson singles out Vietnam as an economy to watch: “It has a
population of 80 million people who are relatively young and highly
educated. Venture capitalists are working in the country, private
equity is in there; we will be talking about Vietnam in a very
different way in ten years’ time than we are today.”

The leaders of the major KPMG International member firms in Asia
meet each quarter for a strategy meeting and while Wilson says
there are no immediate plans to follow KPMG Europe’s lead and chase
a legal merger between the country members, he does not rule it
out.

Wilson says: “Each of the country practices co-operate and work
together very closely. Having said that, it is worth exploring to
the extent to which certain countries can share resources or
infrastructure and get some efficiency gains. We need to ask: can
the same service be done in a more efficient manner?”

KPMG Australia may be in good shape but there is much for
Wilson, ever the optimist, to do as he takes the firm to the next
stage of its development.