There’s a certain mischievousness about Paul Dunn when he laughs about shaking accountants out of their comfort zones during his famous boot camps in the 1990s.
One of his favourite tricks was to deliberately make them late for dinner and then have an angry chef burst into the conference room to berate them. On one occasion the chef overplayed the drama by brandishing a large knife.
It was all about fostering a “mindset change,” said Dunn, who was born in Dover, UK, but who has spent much of his life in Australia. Although originally from an IT background, he has forged a career as a mentor to accountants, on a mission to make them realise their full potential.
The boot camps, a four day affair in a high end hotel, were launched in Australia in 1992 and spread around the world, including to the US and the UK.
Dunn said he was driven to help accountants to realise how “pivotal” they are to businesses, and how their advice can help shape successful long term strategies and grow profits.
“As we put it at the time, if you looked at most accountants and said ‘what do you do?’, they would say ‘we report on history’. And we said wouldn’t it be great if instead of saying that you could say we help our selected clients create history,” he said.
As well as teaching new skills and resources, an integral part of the boot camp was to become “prepared for the unexpected”, to learn to adapt to circumstances and think about situations differently.
Instead of entering a silent conference room, participants would be blasted with some rousing Michael Jackson music, and then told to crumple up the agendas in their manuals and to throw it at Dunn on the stage.
It was all to demonstrate that accountants do not need to be bound to a certain way of doing things. Delaying the schedule for dinner, provoking mock anger from the chef, was all part of that.
“It was like an environmental shift. A friend of mine says it this way, that your environment predicts your performance. And so even without being aware of that phrase at that time, we knew that we had to shake them in some way.”
The idea took off and by the time Dunn sold the business in 2000, about 17,700 accountants had come through the boot camp.
He is still being approached by accountants who tell him “it changed my life” but the organisers of the boot camp used to also keep tabs on its impact.
“We used to track it. We would find doubling, tripling, quadrupling of revenues and profits. And the biggest thing was this whole thing of it changed my life, I don’t have to fit in any more,” said Dunn.
“That is hard to quantify but, having said that, the quantification of it in terms of revenue changes was seriously significant and still continues today”
Dunn, who has been honoured with a Lifetime Service Award to the Accounting Profession in the UK, never really settled into a planned retirement in France after he sold his company.
He still maintains the passion he had for putting accountants at the heart of any business, and frequently leads speaking engagements on how to do it, including four times at TEDx talks.
Despite the success of his earlier ventures, he argues that much still has to be done before accountants start to believe that they can change businesses and lives.
“Because they’ve got everything that they need. They’ve got access to the numbers. They, more than anyone else, because of their training, know what those numbers mean,” he said.
“At some point you have to come back and understand the numbers. Why would you go anywhere else than to the guy who really understands those numbers and their implications.”
Accountants needed to adjust their thinking, not only for the sake of their clients but to secure their own future, he said.
“I was reading a report the other day that said 87% of accountants revenue still comes from compliance, and obviously the challenge with that, particularly now, is that it’s not a value-add and so one of the things I talk about is how do you become indispensable as opposed to dispensable.”
It was the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004 that killed up to 280,000 people in 14 countries, that finally pulled Dunn completely out of retirement.
“Until that point the business was all about having fun and adding value and that was it, but it was at that point when I realised that there was much more that we could do,” he said.
In 2006, Dunn helped to found B1G1, a global business giving initiative, that now helps close to 2200 small firms to make a positive financial contribution to over 850 carefully vetted charitable causes.
Their vision was based on making “something great” happen in the world every time a business transaction was done, he explained.
Dunn gave an example of a financial planner who had found a new client in the music industry. The musician was happy with her financial plan and after the deal was done she turned to the B1G1 website to donate a small part of her fee to a global cause.
Businesses can decide how much they want to donate to so-called “giving impacts”, starting from 1 cent upwards.
In the case of the financial planner, she chose a project in the Indian city of Mumbai, which helped slum children with learning difficulties to learn through music. She was then able to send a message to her new client to tell him that he had positively impacted the lives of 40 children.
Dunn, who serves as chairman of the B1G1 group, has no intention of slowing down.
“Currently we’re sitting on 120 million giving impacts. We want that to be one billion by 2020,” he said.
Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.