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Thought Leaders Global Elite - Forensic Accountants 2021

Q&A

WWL Ranking: Global Elite Thought Leader

WWL says

Ben Johnson is widely regarded as a leading forensic accountant, with deep experience providing expert evidence in contentious proceedings.

Questions & Answers

Ben Johnson leads the forensic investigation team for BRG in EMEA. He is a forensic accountant with 20 years’ experience, focusing on fraud, accounting malpractice and anti-bribery and corruption issues. In the course of his career Ben has worked on some of the largest and most complex investigations and disputes globally. He is an experienced testifying expert and has provided expert evidence in criminal proceedings and international arbitration in relation to fraud and corruption issues. 

What is it about forensic accountancy that you enjoy most?

The thing that I enjoy most about forensic accountancy is using my skills and experience to help clients resolve complex problems. There is real satisfaction in unravelling the story behind a fraud.

What qualities make for an effective forensic expert? 

Related to the first question, the ability to cut through complexity in the form of a lot data and information as well as financial complexity, and to be able to understand and explain the underlying issues is a key quality for a good forensic expert. Invariably our role is to explain complex circumstances simply and objectively, clearly enabling readers of a report, a jury or a judge to reach sound decisions. 

What challenges do you face with the increased volume of data being used in disputes?

According to some estimates, 90 per cent of all data has been created in just the last two years. This exponential growth in data held by corporates has had a significant impact on disputes and investigations. It has led to challenges in being able to efficiently sift through a vast volume of data to focus on relevant material. AI and machine learning are helping with this but in my experience the best way to efficiently focus on relevant data is to think hard at the outset about the relevant data landscape and set scoping parameters accordingly.

How have recent accounting fraud scandals in blue chip companies brought into question the quality of the audit market?

The past few years have seen several large accounting scandals, reminiscent of the turn of the last century when we had cases like Enron, Parmalat and Worldcom. Those cases, particularly in the US, led to significant changes in the regulatory landscape with legislation like Sarbanes-Oxley. Events of recent years such as the collapse of blue chips like Carillion and accounting scandals such as Wirecard, Patisserie Valerie and the Steinhoff group may see a similar step change in regulation here in the UK.

What regulatory developments do you anticipate will take place as a result of these high-profile accounting fraud cases? 

There have been at least five reviews into the UK audit market in the last two years, at least in part driven by cases such as those previously mentioned. While the changes that will eventually come into effect are difficult to predict, one thing that is certain is that the status quo in the audit market is going to change. At a minimum I expect that the audit businesses of the big audit firms will be ring-fenced from the rest of the business. I also expect there may be something akin to the US provisions requiring CFOs to personally attest to the adequacy of controls. I would also like to see audit firms introduce more of a forensic mindset into their audit work and be more alert to fraud.

What has been the most memorable case you have worked on to-date, and why?

That is a tough one as there are a lot to choose from. One memorable case was when I worked in-house for a large retail group in Australia and it was discovered (as the culprit was caught red handed) that a bookkeeper had stolen over a million dollars in small cash denominations over an extended period by hiding it her underwear and her purse – a reminder that frauds don’t always need to be sophisticated to be successful! The most memorable case though I would have to say was the first case I worked on, which was the Volker Commission investigation in the late 90s into potential assets of victims of the Holocaust still held by the Swiss banks. It was a fascinating case and had a major impact on the lives of thousands of families. It convinced me that a career as a forensic accountant was the way forward.

What professional challenges are you expecting to encounter in the remainder of the year, and how do you expect to navigate them?

The big challenge for the remainder of the year for everyone is going to be learning to deal with covid-19. Fortunately, a lot of what we do, particularly on the disputes side, can be done remotely relatively easily. There are several components though to investigation work, such as witness interviews or gathering of evidence which are more difficult to do remotely. We are working with clients on the best ways to continue to carry out work in these circumstances as investigations cannot be put on hold indefinitely due to the pandemic. Innovative use of technology can make a big difference in enabling a good investigation to be carried out despite less on-site presence.

What is the best piece of career advice you have received?

The best piece of career advice I have received is keep it simple! Our job is to make ostensibly complex issues clear potentially to a somewhat lay audience. Jargon and waffle are the enemy of clarity. Hand in hand with this is to be concise – the old adage “I’m sorry the report is so long, I didn’t have time to make it shorter” is apt.

WWL Ranking: Thought Leader

WWL says

Ben Johnson receives resounding endorsements for his extensive know-how regarding fraud and financial investigations, asset tracing and litigation proceedings.

Questions & Answers

Ben Johnson is a managing director in the global investigations and strategic intelligence practice, based in London, and leads the forensic investigation team in EMEA. He is a forensic accountant with 20 years’ experience in the field, focusing on fraud, accounting malpractice, and anti-bribery and corruption issues. In the course of his career, Ben has worked on some of the largest and most complex investigations and disputes globally.

What aspects of firm management do you find most exciting?

The most rewarding aspect of firm management is staff development. It may sound trite, but in our field, staff are the most important resource and greatest asset. Working with very bright new recruits and helping them develop their careers and skillset is a great privilege of management. 

As head of BRG’s EMEA forensic investigations practice, what strategies do you adopt to stand out from other competitors in the market?

The expert consulting marketplace is very competitive so it’s important to have an offering that provides real value and a point of difference to clients.

In this environment, it’s important to play to your strengths. For BRG, that is expertise. BRG was started in 2010 specifically as an expert-led firm focused on disputes. While we have broadened that offering out somewhat since then, the core of the firm is still very much focused on the application of expertise to complex matters. We have a relatively small team compared to some of the larger consulting and accounting firms but bring senior expertise to bear on every matter regardless of size.

What approach to risk and office working are you taking in light of the coronavirus pandemic?

Staff welfare must come first when considering risk in relation to public health issues. But that also includes mental health. While we have been almost exclusively working from home over the course of the pandemic, we have tried to make sure staff do not feel isolated and are connected to others through frequent and varied online social events and regular team meetings. Now restrictions have been eased somewhat, we have re-opened the office to those who wish to go in and are working on our plans for a wider re-opening after the summer.

How has the coronavirus pandemic affected networking opportunities?

The pandemic has significantly changed the way we network with clients and colleagues. The upside is that it has shown that virtual meetings can be relatively effective. However, there is no substitute for meeting face to face when establishing connections with clients and I am enjoying being able to meet with clients in person again. 

How do you ensure your firm is well equipped to deal with the increasing volume of data and new technologies in dispute resolution proceedings?

We have a very strong e-discovery and data analytics team who know the market very well and keep on top of the latest technologies. The increasing volume of data in proceedings presents challenges but technology is getting better all the time and is making the review and disclosure process more efficient. The key is to make sure humans understand how to make the most of the technology available. 

In what way does BRG promote a culture of independence for expert witnesses?

As BRG is an expert business, the independence of our experts is deeply ingrained. There is not much future for an expert who strays into advocacy because judges and arbitrators will be alive to it, and the result, in the long run, will be less favourable results for their clients. We provide extensive training for new experts and thoroughly review expert reports to ensure objectivity.

What challenges are you expecting the firm to encounter over the next few years, and how are you planning to adapt?

The best way to be able to adapt to a changing marketplace is to remain nimble and limit bureaucratic structures and internal silos. BRG’s founder David Teece established BRG with a model of a consulting firm built on the ethos of the entrepreneurial spirit of Silicon Valley and our management structure reflects that. This enables us to develop new opportunities and invest in growing areas, for example, artificial intelligence, as the market changes.

Summarise in a sentence what values BRG embodies under your leadership.

Enabling staff to develop and utilise their expertise on complex problems to achieve the best results for clients.

WWL says

Benjamin Johnson has an impressive practice which sees him regularly called upon to lead investigations into accounting irregularities and corruption matters across a wide range of industries and sectors.

Questions & Answers

Ben Johnson is a managing director in the global investigations and strategic intelligence practice, based in London, and leads the forensic investigation team in EMEA. He is a forensic accountant with 20 years’ experience in the field, focusing on fraud, accounting malpractice, and anti-bribery and corruption issues. In the course of his career Ben has worked on some of the largest and most complex investigations and disputes globally.

What attracted you to a career in forensic accounting?

My first real job was as an admin assistant on the Volker Commission investigation in the late 1990s, into potential assets of Holocaust victims still held by the Swiss banks. It was a fascinating case and obviously very important work with a major impact on the lives of thousands of families. I realised that, despite having been previously determined against becoming an accountant, a career in forensic accounting could provide intellectually challenging work and make a real impact for clients and other stakeholders.

How has the market changed since you first started practising?

I focus on financial investigations, and the market has changed significantly in a number of areas. The biggest change has been the increasing pace of the development of the information age and the rise of big data. When I started, most evidence on investigations was in the form of hard-copy documents; OCR technology was in its infancy and often ineffective. Back then, it was key to have the ability to flick through folders of documents and pick out the important documents quickly. Now of course everything is digitised, which has had a major impact on how investigations are run.

How has your previous experience of working for the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) affected your approach to your work in private practice?

Investigating a host of enforcement cases over the years for accounting regulators has given me a good insight into the means by which businesses manipulate accounts to inflate the appearance of their performance and the factors driving such behaviour. 

This experience is invaluable when investigating potential accounting irregularities for corporate clients. Increasingly, my team and I are also using this insight to assist clients in the fund industry who are thinking of investing, long or short, in companies where inappropriate accounting may be an issue. With the rise of the phenomenon of short-sellers self-publishing research on companies they accuse of accounting manipulation, this is an area that I expect to continue to keep us busy.

You have highlighted an uptick in outsourcing-related disputes. What would you say is driving this development?

The outsourcing industry has been in the spotlight of regulators recently, with several high-profile corporate failures and accounting scandals, such as Carillion, Interserve and Mitie

One factor behind the issues for the industry is the complexity of accounting for the major long-term contracts typically involved. Large and complex contracts can lead to subjectivity and scope for management judgment in the allocation of revenues and costs, which in turn can result in businesses taking more revenue and profit than appropriate at an early stage in contracts. This stores up problems for the future. The recent introduction of IFRS 15 has sought to reduce the scope for judgement in this area, but I expect it to remain an issue for some time yet.

The FRC is set to be replaced by another audit regulator – how might this change affect your practice over the next couple of years?

The enforcement division of the FRC has increased its resources markedly over the past few years, and I expect that this emphasis on enforcement will be maintained by the new regulatory body, the Auditing, Reporting and Governance Authority. I think there will continue to be a focus on audit quality and sanctioning of firms where there have been failings in high-profile cases. There are several ongoing reviews into the audit market, and it will be interesting to see how the landscape develops over the next five years. I expect that if joint auditors become mandatory, the interplay between the audit teams will be an area of regulatory focus. 

Practitioners have noted that evidence is more frequently coming from less traditional sources, such as instant messaging and mobile phones. Is the proliferation of data and evidence making it easier to build a case?

The proliferation of data has its plusses and minuses for investigators. On the plus side, it can be easier to find the proverbial needle in the haystack. Artificial intelligence has come in leaps and bounds recently, and can drastically reduce the amount of non-relevant material that humans need to sift through. Also, new forms of communication such as IMS and WhatsApp can provide valuable new sources of evidence, provided the data privacy challenges can be navigated.

However, the sheer volume of data, which is exponentially increasing every year, is a real challenge to an efficient investigation and can lead to significantly greater costs and resources if it is not well managed. A good investigation will consider the data landscape and challenges at the outset to ensure all appropriate sources of evidence are used efficiently.

How do you see your practice developing over the next five years?

The trend for e-discovery services and data analytics to be integral components of investigations will continue. The days of separate teams for these services from accountants and lawyers are numbered. I also expect the focus on accounting malpractice and audit to continue; coupled with the growth in litigation financing, this may lead to a more active audit negligence space.

What advice would you give to younger forensic experts hoping to be in your position one day?

I would advise anyone starting out in forensics to gain as much experience of different commercial situations as they can. Understanding how finance teams function and the different pressures they face is a key component in a thorough investigation or expert report.

Global Leader

WWL Ranking: Recommended
WWL Ranking: Recommended
WWL Ranking: Global Elite Thought Leader

WWL says

Benjamin Johnson is a favourite among peers and clients in the European market, with sources saying he is "a really good forensic expert" and is "highly recommended"

Biography

Ben Johnson is a managing director in the global investigations and strategic intelligence practice based in London, and leads the forensic investigation team in EMEA. He is a forensic accountant with 20 years’ experience in the field, focusing on fraud, accounting malpractice and anti-bribery and corruption issues. In the course of his career Ben has worked on some of the largest and most complex investigations and disputes globally. Ben has extensive experience in acting for regulators and enforcement agencies which enables him to provide valuable insight to private sector clients facing regulatory oversight.

Ben has led multiple investigations on behalf of accountancy regulators into major accounting scandals in the UK and other jurisdictions. He also led a team of forensic investigators assisting the attorney general’s office and the police of a Southern European country investigating potential crimes in the country’s banking sector.

In addition to his investigations experience, Ben has authored expert reports on issues relating to fraud, corruption and misapplication of accounting standards in court proceedings, regulatory proceedings and international arbitration; and he has provided oral expert testimony regarding global anti-bribery and corruption standards. He is also experienced in advising companies on their compliance processes, in particular anti-bribery and corruption measures, anti-fraud procedures including procurement and sanctions compliance procedures.

He has experience across a range of industry sectors, in particular: financial services; energy; software; IT and telecoms; support services; construction and engineering; and retail.

He is the deputy chairman and an executive board member of the Academy of Experts, the leading body for the promotion of standards for expert witnesses.

WWL Ranking: Global Elite Thought Leader

WWL says

"He provides invaluable numbers and accounting assistance"
"Ben really gets into the nuts and bolts of the key issues" 

Biography

Ben Johnson is a Managing Director in the Global Investigations and Strategic Intelligence Practice based in London and leads the forensic investigation team in EMEA.  He is a forensic accountant with 20 years’ experience in the field, focusing on fraud, accounting malpractice and anti-bribery and corruption issues. In the course of his career Ben has worked on some of the largest and most complex investigations and disputes globally.  Ben has extensive experience in acting for regulators and enforcement agencies which enables him to provide valuable insight to private sector clients facing regulatory oversight.

Ben has led multiple investigations on behalf of accountancy regulators into major accounting scandals in the UK and other jurisdictions. He also led a team of forensic investigators assisting the Attorney General’s Office and Police of a Southern European country investigating potential crimes in the country’s banking sector.

In addition to his investigations experience, Ben has authored expert reports on issues relating to fraud, corruption and misapplication of accounting standards in court proceedings, regulatory proceedings and international arbitration and has provided oral expert testimony regarding global anti-bribery and corruption standards.  He is also experienced in advising companies on their compliance processes, in particular anti-bribery and corruption measures, anti-fraud procedures including procurement and sanctions compliance procedures. 

He has experience across a range of industry sectors, in particular: financial services; energy; software; IT&T; support services; construction and engineering; and retail.

He is the Deputy Chairman and an Executive Board Member of The Academy of Experts, the leading body for the promotion of standards for Expert Witnesses.

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