EY Europe revamp has partners worried over Wirecard damage

Accountancy group EY is to centralise power in a new European executive team, pooling resources across the region but raising concern that any financial hit from the Wirecard scandal might also be shared.

The overhaul breaks from the federated business model of the Big Four firms in an attempt to cut management costs by half and will authorise the central team to decide on partners’ pay, according to people briefed on the plan.

Some partners fear the new structure may lead to penalties related to Wirecard being shared beyond the German team that handled the work. EY audited the payments group for a decade until it collapsed in a fraud scandal last year.

“French partners are going ballistic about it because they say ‘why should we pay now for the Wirecard mess?’,” said one person close to the firm.

Another person close to the matter said there was “not a lot of transparency” on whether any financial hit from Wirecard-related lawsuits or regulatory action will end up being shared by partners in other countries.

However, a person at EY involved in the creation of the new structure said such concerns were “unfounded”, adding that separate legal entities would be retained in each country. The Big Four have traditionally protected against liability spreading across their global businesses by using separate partnerships in each country where they operate.

EY in February announced it was creating a new Europe West region, without providing detail on the implications. The regional grouping, which includes 27,000 staff and $4.7bn in annual revenues, will include Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Spain and 20 other western European and north African countries and is scheduled for launching on July 1. It does not include the UK, Ireland or Scandinavia.

EY and its three main rivals — Deloitte, KPMG and PwC — have been hampered by their traditional business model in which profits and resources are largely ringfenced within national member firms or small subregions, industry executives said.

Under the EY plan, business lines such as consulting and M&A advice will be run to a single income statement. The extent to which audit and tax can be merged is limited by regulations.

The integration will go further than existing payments between regions, which reflect work referred from partners in one country to another. At the moment, partners in each country also contribute a small proportion of revenues to fund shared international investments such as technology and the salaries of international executives.

European management will decide partners’ pay in each country, though there will be some consultation with local management, said the people familiar with the plans. Partners in more profitable countries are likely to continue to retain a higher share of profits.

One person close to wary partners said it was a “strange time” to align the German operations with those in other countries.

The Big Four firm is facing an avalanche of lawsuits in Germany and has lost a number of prestigious audit clients in Europe’s largest economy, including Deutsche Telekom and Commerzbank.

The EY restructuring, which is part of the “NextWave” strategy that began before Wirecard’s collapse, is intended to cut costs and to improve service for clients by reducing “silo behaviour” and allowing teams in different countries to work seamlessly, people familiar with the plan said.

International integration and sharing of personnel is particularly important in consulting.

“It’s the thing that all of these firms have been trying to crack,” said a former senior global executive at another Big Four Firm. “It’s the holy grail in a way . . . If they’re able to deliver it then it’s better for clients and it’s a competitive advantage.”

The new Europe West subregion will replace three smaller subregions, with an aim of cutting management costs by half, the person involved in the planning said.

EY declined to comment.

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