One of CPA Australia’s oldest members reflects on a diverse career and the changes he has seen in the profession.
Perched precariously at the top of a massive fuel storage tank in inner Sydney, Jack Olsson was feeling decidedly concerned for his safety. It had nothing to do with his height off the ground and everything to do with the fact that he was hot on the trail of a crime ring that was stealing fuel and selling it on the black market.
As two of the prime suspects loaded fuel into a tanker, the then internal auditor for oil company AMPOL pretended to take routine notes.
“I knew they could easily throw me in,” says Olsson, adding that the workmen suspected something was up and were not happy to have an auditor hanging around.
“As soon as I got an opportunity, I scrambled down the ladder.”
One undercover police chase later, the crooked tanker driver and his two accomplices were cornered and Olsson’s auditor-turned-sleuth role was over.
That was in 1949. Some years earlier, Olsson had found himself in danger of a different kind, fighting in the jungles of Borneo in World War II. Although he narrowly escaped enemy capture, he was left with a legacy of injuries and disease from which it took more than a year to recover.
By 1951, Olsson was ready to set up his own practice, supplementing his income by lecturing in accounting at night. A chance meeting while on a trip to Canberra to sort out the tax affairs of a client then changed the direction of his life.
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During a local business get-together, Olsson was approached by a visiting official from the Commercial Banking Company of Sydney, who tried to persuade him to move his practice to Canberra to help the bank’s clients there.
While he was mulling over the idea, Olsson discovered that the Canberra Technical College was looking for a senior lecturer in accounting. The convergence of opportunities cemented his decision, and within months he had relocated to Canberra, where he has lived ever since.
Soon after arriving in Canberra, Olsson recognised there was a need for accountancy training and arranged to become the local representative of the Commonwealth Institute
of Accountants. A year later, the institute was absorbed by the Australian Society of Accountants, which then became CPA Australia.
In keeping with his practice of making his own luck, Olsson organised a high-level lunch with senior public officials in Canberra, which gave the freshly merged firm of Yarwood Vane (of which he was the Canberra partner in charge), Deloitte and Haskins & Sells entree to the lucrative government market.
Upon retiring in 1984, the accountant channelled his energies and passion into work with Rotary and was instrumental in raising funds for Ukraine to help treat hundreds of children suffering diseases and genetic disorders caused by radiation from the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. For his work with Rotary, Olsson has been awarded a Medal of the Order of Australia.
It might be more than 30 years since he finished practising, but Olsson – a remarkably sprightly and sharp 96-year-old – keeps a close eye on developments in CPA Australia and the profession generally – and he likes what he sees.
“[Accounting] is so broad-based now, it is barely recognisable,” he says.
“While we retain the word ‘accounting’, the type of work we do has dramatically changed.”
For Olsson, the most fulfilling change these days is providing valuable insights for clients.
“You become a business adviser,” he says. “I think it’s a wonderful occupation, making you part of growing a firm.”
One piece of accounting career advice
Firms comprise a mix of initiators, administrators, those who implement ideas and those who work to instruction. The trick, says Jack Olsson, is to have them work together effectively.
"You have got to be someone who is capable of listening to people, getting their opinions and working together collaboratively."
This article is from the February issue of INTHEBLACK.