PKF Australia

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The Journey to PKF Sydney

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Bob Bell


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The Journey to PKF Sydney

If the day ever comes when I cease to be amazed and humbled at how I ever came to be a partner of an international accounting firm in the middle of one of the world’s greatest cities, that will be the day I retire.

I was recently asked to speak to our National Business Services Committee on this subject, so I decided to go way back in time.

My parents were from working class families in Inner Sydney. My father went on a cruise to New Guinea in 1942 at the age of 20 and met up with a whole bunch of people mainly around his own age. They went to a place called the Kokoda Track where a whole bunch of Japanese were doing their best to get to Port Moresby and then to Australia.

During his short time there Dad volunteered for a mission with three others where they would get behind the Japanese and cut off their supply lines. Instead, the four of them became cut off and spent three days trapped. One dawn they made their break but Dad and two others were wounded, one was killed. The three wounded awaited their final fate as they heard noise in the jungle behind them, only to hear the voices were Australians who had come to rescue them.

After making his way back down the Kokoda Track, his arm bandaged, strapped and packed with sulphur; suffering the Dysentery, Malaria and Dengue Fever that afflicted nearly all that fought there; surrounded by the maddening noise of battle, interspersed with even more maddening periods of jungle silence; he sailed back to Sydney where he spent most of the next 18 months recovering in Concord Repatriation Hospital.

Dad was small in stature standing 5’ 2” in the old money, a very smart man with a natural command of numbers and words. He was encouraged to pursue a career in accounting but this would have required attending Night School while working full time and he just wasn’t up to that. He married Mum in 1944 and they proceeded to produce six children of which I was the last, apparently I convinced Mum very quickly that she’d had enough children.

I don’t tell you this background to claim my father was some kind of hero. He is certainly my hero, but there are tens of thousands of Australians who have simply done what they saw as their duty over many years. I tell you this so you understand that my path to where I am today is far from text book.

None of my siblings are accountants and in Year 12 I didn’t really know what accounting was. At Kingsgrove North High School in 1978 we had limited careers advice and Dad was very keen for me to work with the Government – “It gives you security” he said.

A teacher suggested I apply for a cadetship at what was then Peat Marwick Mitchell (now KPMG), part of the Big 8 in the day. I was offered a spot in Audit, but followed Dad’s advice and joined the Department of Finance, doing my Business degree part time and majoring in Public Administration. I don’t think the Peat Marwick Mitchell staff partner ever would have recovered from being relegated behind the Public Service.

After a couple of years of excellent uni results (given I was able to spend most of the day studying!) the realisation that the path to the top of the Public Service was not one I was wanting to follow hit me.

Enter John Vouris, six years older than me. John’s brother Gary was my best mate and the three of us had started our degrees together at what is now UTS. At the pub one day John less than kindly suggested I was wasting my life and that I should get into accounting. He spoke to an old workmate of his who had started his own firm, and on 6 July 1981 I started my accounting career at Star, Green & Co, having changed my degree major to Accounting.

John was working in Commerce then but joined the same firm the next year. The firm became O’Brien Star Green, back to Star Green, then merged with a mid-tier firm in 1986 – Pannell Kerr Forster, the firm we know today as PKF.

That firm was very different from the one we know today. The cherry in the PKF pie was the Newscorp audit and the firm leveraged off that to attract other firms to the fold, of which we were one. To us youngsters it seemed these disparate firms were remaining as such, there were few synergies. When the partners were looking for new premises and were collected by a fleet of limousines to inspect the proposed new digs, some of us thought the time was right to leave. I left in May, 1988 and started Star & Bell with one of my workmates Judy Star. Not long after John left to join Star Dean-Willcocks with our original boss John Star. The ill-fated Arthur Andersen took several partners and staff along with the Newscorp audit, the rest went to a variety of other firms and by 1989 there was no PKF in Sydney.

In 1993, John moved to Court & Co (now Nexia) and in 1994 I followed him there, then in 1997 we decided to move on with six staff. We had known of Lawler Partners, a Newcastle based firm of around 100 people with a presence of about 30 people in Sydney, via a PY mate, who was a partner in their Sydney office, and had discussions about joining them. That didn’t proceed and on 1 September 1997 we started Vouris & Bell.

In 2004, we came under the Lawler radar again and after a few talks we looked like joining them but it was another two years until we got the deal done.

On 1 August 2006 Vouris & Bell finally merged with Lawler Partners, at that stage we were based in 4 O’Connell Street, having moved from 2 O’Connell Street and Lawler Partners based in 1 Margaret Street. Our BRI (Business Recovery & Insolvency) team moved to Margaret Street and Lawler’s BAS (Business Advisory Services) and Audit teams moved to O’Connell Street.

A year later the combined Sydney firm totalled 54 and we all moved in to Level 9 of 1 O’Connell Street, then in November 2014 we moved down a floor to our current premises.

We now number around 100 in Sydney with a mix of:

  • Business Advisory Services
  • Business Recovery & Insolvency
  • Audit & Assurance
  • Tax
  • Corporate Finance
  • Forensic
  • Fraud & Risk

So that’s how we’ve come to be here today, I told you it wasn’t text book!



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