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Wise, Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. 85 Years

Reviewed by Gary John Previts Case Western Reserve University

This is really two histories—one which deals with Peat’s first 75 years—ending 1972—and the most recent decade, ending 1982. The work should have been produced perhaps for a 75th anniversary, but given the stormy events of the 1970’s, it may have been difficult for the leadership of the firm at that time to release any document which might further raise sensitive issues—as good historical research does.

The credentials of T. A. Wise, a respected business journalist, to undertake a serious investigation into one of the major accounting, firms must be acknowledged. He is thorough in detail and candid in discussing the politics of the firm’s leadership selection process. There is a valuable insight provided into firm “politics” and the author seems to have had full access to the facts, and treats the issues fully; however no major practice deficiency is ever assigned to the firm. Wise does seem more an “advocate” than an objective historian.

Thus one is less convinced as to the issues relating to the firm’s experience with the SEC and governmental panels during the turbulent period between 1970 and 1980. Each episode detailed provides a balanced pro and con but there is never an overall historical judgement. Was PMM so growth oriented during this period that the quality level of work led to so many criticisms? Or were these events just a series of unfortunate “bad” judgments which could indeed happen to any major firm? The reader may get the impression that it is the latter; the reviewer must ask if the author was remiss in not evaluating the issue from the former point of view.

Little is mentioned as to the process by which the firm responded to changing social concerns for women and other minorities.

PMM’s development is treated in 12 chapters detailing the significant influence of the ups and downs of the relationship with the Peat firm in the U.K. One is drawn close to both co-founders of the U.S. firm, Marwick and Mitchell and one is also provided the opportunity to learn about them as persons, not merely historical characters.

The treatment of contemporary practice (Chapter 11) appears to be almost an afterthought necessitated by the addressing of the current international posture of the firm. This is not a history of the international firm but a history of the U.S. firm (which has as of 1984 1,284 partners in 100 U.S. offices). Dealing with both a U.S. firm and an international firm is difficult and was not what the reader expected; thus, there is some lack of direction in the last chapters.

The bottom line of any review should weigh the pluses and minuses of the historical effort. The major deficiency of this work is that it is somewhat disjointed as between the 75th and 85th years—and that it does tend to reflect a less than critical view of the episodes of the 1970s. However, professors and historians will find this a handy guide to the firm’s current leadership and organi-zation structures. [The appendices are useful directories of key personnel and periods].

While Wise’s qualifications are as a journalist, he has also proven to be an apt chronicler of events and has used his talent to bring important historical persons and events into an interpretational focus which helps the reader.

The firm is to be applauded for this valuable, thorough, if guarded, adventure into the arena of public self-review. Many firms have been unwilling to consider such an exercise—and as a result the profession’s major firms continue to recede into the back-ground—a position which they appear to welcome after the spotlight and center stage of the 1970s.