Date posted: 17/05/2018 4 min read

Age is just a number

Centenarian, World War II veteran and chartered accountant Neil Harton reflects on his long and eventful career spanning from London to Auckland.

In Brief

  • Neil Harton, who was born in 1917, recently received an 80-year membership certificate from CA ANZ and is believed to be its longest-serving member.
  • During his career, which started in the Great Depression, he worked at Price Waterhouse in London and Wellington and later at a New Zealand family business for nearly two decades.
  • At 101, Harton lives on his own and paints, travels, drives and hosts dinner parties.

By Alexandra Johnson.

In a house perched on a hill overlooking the sea north of Auckland lives a 101-year-old retired accountant and World War II torpedo boat commander.  

Neil Harton is believed to be the longest-serving member of Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand and recently received an 80-year membership certificate, presented to him by CA ANZ President Jane Stanton and New Zealand Country Head Peter Vial, who is also a relative and family friend.

Early days abroad

Despite eight decades in the profession, Harton says he drifted into accounting. “My father had been an accountant and I really didn’t know what else to do. I started as a junior clerk with an engineering company which made metal office furniture and number plates.” 

In those days, all the accounts of less than a pound had to be paid in postal notes, “so I had to pedal all around Wellington to pay them by hand in all weathers, rain or shine. They were too parsimonious to issue cheques for them.”

But, he says, this was during the Great Depression when thousands of people were unemployed and families struggled to survive. “I was lucky to complete my secondary education, let alone get a job.”

When World War II broke out, he joined the Royal Navy and served as a motor torpedo boat commander in the D-Day landings at Normandy. 

“I returned to New Zealand in 1944,” says Harton. “I only applied for foreign service leave when the war was almost over. It was on its last legs. I’d had 4½ years in combat areas and by that time I was completely exhausted, both mentally and physically. I came back expecting to be sent out to the Pacific, but they found that I was rundown and had a scar on my lung. I was not fit enough. 

“I’d lost two stone [13 kilograms] during the war. I spent a few weeks at home with my parents, and then went off to the Marlborough Sounds for a month and just ate, played tennis and fished.” 

On returning to Wellington, Harton got a job at a motor assembly plant at Wellington, “but I wasn’t too happy as the senior accountant told me that he’d been working his fingers to the bone while I’d been on an overseas tour”.

London calling

Soon after, he was offered a travelling scholarship from the Institute of Accountants, and he and his new wife Christine moved to London for two years. “I was given a letter of introduction to Price Waterhouse. But the pay was very small. One of the partners said to me: ‘Harton, the people who come here for experience generally pay us’.  We didn’t have enough to live on but survived with parcels from New Zealand.”

Harton says they were difficult times.

You just keep on going and you don’t give in to anything. The days follow one another and you suddenly realise you are 100 years old
Neil Harton 

Audits for Price Waterhouse

“I was doing audits for quite large companies on my own – I presume they were charging normal fees but hardly paying me. The weather was atrocious and rationing was worse than what it was during the war. It was so bad that in London the power was cut off in the late afternoon to enable all the workers to get home on the underground trains, and the tellers in the banks sat there in coats and mittens.”

But, he says, the auditors were well looked after.

“We always had someone to fetch the books and records we required, and we usually had lunch with the managers. Price Waterhouse was doing only balance sheet audits, clarifying the assets and liabilities of companies. But their systems were first class, their working papers were carefully notated to the balance sheet and they had a permanent file of their records, with the articles of association and the details of the properties and so forth, plus their annual working file.”

Headhunted in Auckland

Back in New Zealand once more, Harton began work with an Australian firm, Flack and Flack, and built a house on the slopes of Wellington intending to settle, “but it [the house] got every wind that blew, it blew everything out of the ground. I’d arrive at the office with my trousers absolutely dripping, it wasn’t very pleasant, so I said to my wife, ‘Let’s move to Auckland’.”

There, Harton was manager of Price Waterhouse in Queen Street before being headhunted by a privately owned family business, the Colonial Ammunition Company, where he stayed for 19 years, surviving two takeovers. 

Mental arithmetic

Harton says information technology has been tremendous for accounting, though he believes people are now “too reliant on machines and not really taught to think”.

“I started out with an old-time accountant, who in the days of pounds, shillings and pence, could go down an A4 page of figures and add them, all three columns together and put the total at the bottom. He did it in his head.”

He says he enjoyed his accounting career, particularly at the family business. “The directors knew everyone individually, and when I was in charge, I tried to do the same thing. I would get around the factory and I would know their families and they knew me and mine, and we never had a strike.”

The sea keeps him young

Harton stopped working in 1977 and has been retired for almost as long as he worked. But he has remained very active. He still plays golf, paints, holds dinner parties and travels.

In 2014, he went to France, where he was awarded the French Legion of Honour to mark the 70th anniversary of the battle of Normandy.

Harton lives on his own in Whangaparaoa. “I daren’t leave, as I have such a lovely view of the sea,” he says. His seascape outlook contributes to keeping him young, he says. “I’ve been interested in boats all my life, so I can watch the yachts in the bay and it’s really something.”

But what’s his secret? 

“There is none. You just keep on going and you don’t give in to anything. The days follow one another and you suddenly realise you are 100 years old.”

Related: Tasmania’s first CA on smashing the glass ceiling

Ilma Lisson FCA looks back on her ground-breaking career as Tasmania’s first female CA and shares her advice for young CAs today

By Alexandra Johnson is a freelance journalist based in Wellington.