Date posted: 07/06/2023 10 min read

A trip down memory lane

Some of our longest-serving CAs have witnessed incredible changes in the work accountants do and how they do it.

In Brief

  • Accountants who have been in the profession for many decades have seen firsthand how technology, regulation and legislation have changed the nature of the work and how it’s performed.
  • While an accounting degree still offers a superb foundation, an accounting career is more complex than it once was and offers many different pathways.
  • Trust and ethics remain the cornerstones of the profession, and are the reason clients seek out CAs.

Illustration Bruce Daly

When Gill Cox FCA started his accounting career in the late 1960s, data would soon be stored on punched cards and perforated paper tape. Personal computers hadn’t hit the market and fax machines were considered the height of technological innovation if you could afford them.

Fast-forward almost six decades and digital technologies have transformed how accountants measure financial performance. For Cox, however, it’s the scope of measurement that marks a more dramatic change.

“Accounting is a way of measuring performance in financial terms, but there’s now so much more that needs to be measured,” he says. “There’s a demand for the measurement of environmental and social performance and the ubiquitous dollar doesn’t easily lend itself to these types of measurements. Providing assurance here remains a challenge and highlights that our profession is still quite immature when operating in this space.”

Gill Cox FCAPictured: Gill Cox FCA

A world of change

Like most industries, accounting has experienced monumental change since the 1960s. Artificial intelligence and robotic process automation can handle the mundane, repetitive tasks. Reporting requirements have expanded, to mandatory climate-related disclosures now in effect in New Zealand and Australia may not be far behind. Cloud computing has transformed the way accountants interact with their clients through the provision of real-time shared financial data, and accountants now play a vital role in business strategic planning – an expression that Cox says was rarely used at the start of his career.

Cox, based in Canterbury, began his career in a small accounting firm before moving to Deloitte, where he was a partner for 25 years. In 1996, he left public practice for a career in post-graduate business education and governance. He holds governance roles in both public and private sectors.

“I received advice that an accounting degree would be a good background for just about anything I might want to do career-wise and that proved to be very good advice over the years,” says Cox, who was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2010 for services to business.

“I started off in audit and then began to do more advisory work, which gave me a much wider perspective of accounting than just doing the historical numbers,” he says.

For Tony Burn FCA, advisory services always held greater appeal than taxation work. After graduating with an accounting degree in 1969, he worked in London for four years, then returned to New Zealand’s Taranaki region to take up a role in his father’s accounting firm.

The firm merged with Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC) in 1990 and Burn stayed on for eight years, before leaving public practice for a career in management advisory consulting.

Tony Burn FCAPictured: Tony Burn FCA

“When I was in public practice, I preferred my clients to process their own data and produce their financial reports for themselves,” he says. “Then, I would help them understand what it meant for their business and how they could use this information to grow.

“Not a lot of accountants had that approach back then because they tended to focus on the past, but so much has changed. Technology now takes care of most of the compliance side and clients are relying more on their accountants for advisory work, which is a huge opportunity, but I think a lot of accountants still struggle with this.”

Burn likens the role of an accountant to that of a sports coach.

“In my view, at half time accountants tended to spend their time looking at the scoreboard and explaining to the team what happened in the first half of the game,” he says. “I saw pretty early on that the real value was in explaining what the team needed to do in the second half to win the game.”

Building from the ground up

Helping businesses to succeed is also a passion for Robyn Pearson FCA, who has managed her own South Australian-based practice, Pearson Chartered, since 1991. Pearson started her accounting career in the mid 1970s and worked for Touche Ross (now Deloitte) in the 1980s, before starting her own practice.

Robyn Pearson FCAPictured: Robyn Pearson FCA

“I loved the culture at Touche Ross, but I felt that the time was right to start my own practice,” says Pearson, who received the Medal of the Order of Australia this year for service to business.

“A lot of mergers were happening among the big accounting firms in the late ’80s. I wanted independence and I wanted to work with small businesses.”

Pearson worked as a university tutor while she built up her practice. “These days, people tend to buy a book of clients when they move into their own practice, but I built mine from the ground up,” she says. “I was very driven in those days and, when I look back, I think, ‘Gosh, I did a lot’. When I started my practice, I was told there were only four other female owned chartered accounting businesses in South Australia. I’m sure that number would be very different today.”

“When I started my practice, I was told there were only four other female-owned chartered accounting businesses in South Australia.”
Robyn Pearson FCA

Pearson embraced technology in her practice and engaged accounting software provider HandiSoft (now Access HandiSoft) when she started her practice. She describes digital technologies as having an “amazing impact” on the industry.

“I can remember when the electronic lodgement service started with the tax office,” she says. “As part of the trial run, we used to send the hard copy of a tax return to the tax office but we’d also send it on a disc. That graduated to sending it just on a disc and, of course, it’s progressed from there with everything being digital.”

In the 1980s, Pearson joined Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand’s recruitment committee, which aimed to encourage young people to join the profession.

“We used to talk to students at schools and universities and careers nights about the benefits of a career in accounting and the fact that it can take you places – whether it’s working in public practice or in commerce – anywhere in the world,” she says.

That attraction to accounting has largely remained, but Cox says career expectations have changed significantly since he left public practice.

“When I was working in practice, when you were offered a partnership it was like you’d struck a pot of gold and you pretty much had a job for life,” he says. “Today, partnership is viewed as another step in a career and I think it’s much more challenging for firms to hang on to their best people. What people want from a career has changed immensely from when I started.”

“When you were offered a partnership it was like you’d struck a pot of gold and you pretty much had a job for life.”
Gill Cox FCA

Beyond the scoreboard

Legislative change has also had a significant impact on the accounting profession. The introduction of GST in New Zealand in 1986 and in Australia in 2000, for example, transformed the countries’ tax systems.

“Decades ago, clients would see their accountant once a year for their tax return, but that changed with the introduction of the GST,” says Pearson. “It put a time frame around the expectation that you were there to do more than an annual tax return. In fact, that’s now a minor part of a practice these days because clients now rely on accountants for so much more.”

Despite significant changes, Pearson says some elements of the accounting profession have remained the same. She says it is still underpinned by a strong sense of trust.

“This has always been the case,” says Pearson. “Accountants are viewed as trusted advisers and I think clients now value this more than ever.”

Cox adds that the notions of “values, knowledge and skills” still prevail today.

“Whatever we do, the profession still needs to have a solid ethical and values base to recognise its responsibility for good-faith reporting,” he says. “The need for a solid education base for accountants also remains the same.”

Pearson’s advice for a fulfilling, lifelong career in accounting includes working hard and being involved in various aspects of the profession.

“I’ve participated on many boards and committees and have had many roles with CA ANZ over the years,” she says. “I taught a course for female aspiring business owners for nine years at Workers’ Educational Association and wrote a small-business advice column in the Adelaide Hills Weekender newspaper for 13 years. I’ve always loved helping small businesses.”

Burn’s advice is to look beyond “the scoreboard stuff. Clients don’t rely on accountants to give them historical information,” he says. “I loved working as an accountant and I was always very interested in helping organisations progress and prosper.”

For Cox, accounting is a strong career base. “I recommend building up a breadth of experience and don’t be impatient about making major career moves,” he says. “You need to be a strong and practical communicator and be able to focus on what the numbers mean for your clients.

“Some accountants are still stuck in the past when it comes to producing last month’s numbers, but what’s most useful today is if you can show what the numbers mean for the future.”

Taxing times

  • 1950s


     Elizabeth II becomes queen of England on 6 February 1952.

    • New Zealand establishes the Inland Revenue Department.


    Americans Robert Noyce and Jack Kilby invent the microchip.

    • New Zealand introduces Pay As You Earn (PAYE) on income tax.
  • 1960s


     Australia changes to decimal currency and New Zealand follows in 1967, replacing British pounds, shillings and pence.


    US astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong become the first men to walk on the moon.

  • 1970s


    Kentucky Fried Chicken (now KFC) opens its first New Zealand store in Auckland.

    Evonne Goolagong wins the women’s singles tennis final at Wimbledon, playing against fellow Australian Margaret Court.


     New Zealand’s Equal Pay Act stipulates men and women should be paid the same rate for performing the same work.


    Professional accounting bodies from Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Mexico, Netherlands, UK/Ireland and the US form the International Accounting Standards Committee (IASC) and agree to adopt international accounting standards for cross-border listings.


    Advance Australia Fair becomes the Australian national anthem, prevailing over Song of Australia and Waltzing Matilda in a public opinion poll.


    Australia bans the advertising of tobacco products on radio and TV.

  • 1980s


    The Great Barrier Reef is World Heritage listed.


    1 January 1983 is widely regarded as the birthday of the modern internet, paving the way for cloud-based accounting platforms such as NetSuite in the late ’90s and New Zealand-based Xero in the early 2000s.

    • Australia brings in a Medicare levy of 1% to help fund some of the costs of Australia’s public health system. The rate gradually increases to the current 2%.


    Australia introduces capital gains tax.

    • New Zealand introduces fringe benefits tax.
    • Spreadsheet application Microsoft Excel is launched, transforming accounting and budgeting processes.


    Australia introduces fringe benefits tax and announces the system of taxpayer self-assessment.

    • New Zealand undergoes radical tax reform, including bringing in a GST of 10%. It also halves the top tax rate from 66% to 33%.


    New Zealand’s GST increases to 12.5%.

    • The Berlin Wall comes down, marking the end of the Cold War and the start of German reunification.
  • 1990s


    The Australian Taxation Office rolls out the electronic lodgement service.


    The USSR breaks up and Boris Yeltsin is elected president of the Russian Republic.


    Australia brings in the Superannuation Guarantee with a mandatory 3% contribution rate (or 4% for companies with an annual payroll above A$1 million). It requires employers to make a contribution into a super fund on their employees’ behalf.


    The European Union is formed, but it will be nine more years before the euro is introduced.


    Jenny Shipley becomes New Zealand’s first woman prime minister.

  • 2000s


    Australia introduces GST of 10%.


    Australia’s Superannuation Guarantee increases to 9%.

    • The Sarbanes-Oxley Act is enacted to tighten regulation of corporate accounting practices, following the failure of companies such as Enron. It includes provisions affecting corporate governance, risk management, auditing and financial reporting of public companies.
    • Arthur Andersen LLP, one of the Big Five accounting firms, is convicted of obstruction of justice for shredding documents relating to the Enron audit, and closes its doors.


    The Boxing Day Tsunami kills more than 200,000 people across Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and other nearby countries.


    New Zealand introduces a voluntary savings and investment scheme, KiwiSaver, to help citizens save for their retirement.

    • The Global Financial Crisis causes major advanced economies to experience their worst recessions since the 1930s’ Great Depression.
  • 2010s


    New Zealand’s GST increases to 15%.

    • Christchurch is devastated by a 7.1 magnitude earthquake.


    Xi Jinping is named China’s new president by the ruling Communist Party.


    CA ANZ is created through the merger of the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia (ICAA) and the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants (NZICA).


    The Task Force on Climate-related Disclosures (TCFD) is established to develop consistent climate-related financial risk disclosures for use by companies, banks and investors in providing information to stakeholders.


    Women in Saudi Arabia are given the right to drive.

  • 2020s


    Australia and New Zealand introduce tax relief and income assistance for people affected by the downturn in business due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


    Mandatory climate-related disclosures are phased in for approximately 200 entities in New Zealand. Reporting is required from financial years beginning on or after 1 January 2023.