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Who was William Barclay Peat?

The P in KPMG

Peat Charter

When a young William Barclay Peat started work, as a clerk for a London accountancy firm in 1870, it's unlikely he was thinking about the legacy he'd leave behind. 150 years later, Peat is the 'P' in KPMG: a global network of firms that employs over 200,000 people.

Born on 15 February 1853 in St Cyrus, Kincardine, Scotland, Peat attended Montrose Academy and was an apprentice to a lawyer there. In 1870, Peat travelled to London, applying for a job at Robert Fletcher & Co. At the time, all accountants needed was a brass plaque on their door to trade: official qualifications did not come until much later. To test Peat's general knowledge, Fletcher set him an exam – covering areas like spelling and arithmetic – as part of his admission to the firm.

From London to Middlesbrough

Peat didn't stay in London long. The core of Britain's economy was in the north: where the shipbuilders, iron and steel factories were. In 1876 he moved to Middlesbrough, to take charge of the office there and to be closer to clients. One notable piece of work includes the vast £1.2m voluntary liquidation of ironmasters Thomas Vaughan & Co. By 1877, Peat became a partner of the firm.

Doing the right thing

Fletcher retired in 1879 and the firm changed name to Roderick Mackay & Co. When Mackay died in 1891, he left the London practice in debt. Peat decided to take on those debts, continue to practice and negotiated with creditors – offering to pay off the debts if they gave him sufficient time and support. It was said that because he did the right thing in clearing his predecessor's debts, he began to build a reputation as a man of integrity, whose firm could be trusted.

As senior partner, Peat renamed the firm W B Peat & Co. It grew, particularly thanks to its auditing and liquidation work.

Speaking up for female accountants

Peat oversaw the professionalisation of accountancy. He was president of the ICAEW in 1906 and in 1908, led an attempt to make professional registration of accountants a legal requirement (many companies were using unqualified auditors to present their accounts). The then President of the Board of Trade, Winston Churchill, said these efforts would only be successful if women were included in the profession.

In 1909, Peat argued against the creation of a separate institute of accountants for women – ICAEW members objected, for fears that their inclusion would lead to lower salaries and prestige for accountants. Peat countered: “The question is the right of a woman to work under conditions suitable to her intellect and education and I think it would be an injustice to deny to them the privileges which we reserve to ourselves.”

While progress then stalled for a decade, Sir William had helped open a door. In 1924, Ethel Watts became the first woman to be admitted to the ICAEW by examination. She started her career at KPMG - and had Sir Harry Peat as her mentor.

Support for the next generation of talent

To help develop talent, Peat funded the Robert Fletcher prize for examination performance in 1906 as well as the Peat Gold Medal & Prize for the ICAEW from 1910. Peat was knighted in 1912. Later on in his career, Peat was one of the founding organisers of the Federation of British Industries (which is now the CBI) in 1917. In 1921, he was made a Commander of the Victorian Order. He retired in 1923, just before reaching 70, although he still continued to work as a company director until he died, aged 82, in 1936.

Peat Letter
The secret is do good work... Do good work and you will get work. There is no other way.”
Sir William Barclay Peat Founding Partner, KPMG

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