Understanding the past to understand the present-day CFO: The chief accountant at Guinness, c. 1920-1940
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9th Conference on New Directions in Management Accounting
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Contemporary studies on the role of Chief Financial Officers (CFO) create a picture that before the 1960s, predecessor-positions of the CFO were bean-counters. While historical accounting publications shed some doubt on this assumption, they tend to lack detail on the roles of CFO predecessors in the early parts of the 20th century. Here, we provide a more in-depth analysis of a Chief Accountant in the period from 1920 to 1940 at the Guinness Company. Informed by concepts from Old Institutional Economics, our results suggest that the Chief Accountant at Guinness does not fit into the bean-counter cliché. In contrast, we find that even in the first half of the 20th century before any substantial company law or regulation of accounting the Chief Accountant at Guinness was significantly advising top management, managing risks and interacting with external financiers in additional to the bean-counting tasks. Our paper thus suggests a more gradual development of the role which we today term the CFO, implying that historical reflection is useful to help us fully understand modern-day, often taken-for-granted terms.