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Connect, Winter 2009-2010 - EY: 20 years in the making - The jungles of Colombia - EY - United States

The jungles of ColombiaWilliam Kanaga

William Kanaga
Co-CEO, Arthur Young (1972-1977)
Chairman, Arthur Young (1977-1985)

In a sense, the nature of EY today can be better understood through the story of William Kanaga. It was 1948 when Kanaga began his auditing and accounting career. His employer, Arthur Young, consisted of fewer than 1,000 employees and had little international presence.

But change was in the wind. Early experience for Kanaga included international assignments for clients like Socony-Vacuum, a company that would later become Mobil Oil. But, as Kanaga recalls, they were by no means cushy postings. “I was sent to Colombia in 1951 to audit crude oil and pipeline operations,” he says. Travel to and from the client’s locations was tough, on bad roads and through the Andes on twin piston-engine aircraft. “Essentially, we were conducting audits in the middle of the Colombian jungle,” Kanaga says. “Nonetheless, I absolutely loved what we were doing.”

In 1952, Kanaga got married — just in time to be accompanied by his new bride for five months in decidedly more comfortable audit locations across Italy, again for Socony-Vacuum. At the time, recalls Kanaga, “Italy was still flat on its back from the war; seven years after the war, it was a country that was still trying to recover.” Still, he was hooked by the beauty of the country and its people. The resulting love of international assignments “set the tone for the rest of my career,” he says.

Pushing the frontiers of accounting

One of the reasons the EY of today is so decidedly global is the fact that Arthur Young had a pioneering Partner, John Deering, who took joy in building that side of the business, and Kanaga followed his path. Many of the challenges were complex. For example, says Kanaga, “international accounting practices were not codified. By and large, we had to look at each situation, and then use our experience and best judgment to solve individual situations.”

In addition to client service, Kanaga worked with various professional organizations to improve standards and accompanying literature. For example, he sat on the International Accounting Committee at the AICPA. Progress came slowly. “But over time, the momentum shifted. And today, there’s been great progress on international standards: IFRS.”

Building clients’ trust

There were difficult transactions to deal with. On one occasion, Kanaga was called upon to be the partner in the split of a major oil company between its two owners. The principals in the transaction, he recalls, were negotiating — “‘I’ll take India, you take South Africa, you take these assets, I’ll take those assets.’”

Kanaga devoted much of the ensuing decades to helping raise the standard of accounting practice around the globe. Additional assignments took him to “just about anywhere you’d ever want to see,” he says. The former Chair looks back on one business development with particular joy: the arrival of jet-powered aviation. “That made it so much easier to get around the world.”


Where is he now?

Following his 1985 retirement as Chairman of Arthur Young, Kanaga’s affinity for and expertise in international business resulted in his appointment to the US Chamber of Commerce, where he served as Chairman in the late 1980s. “Basically, my job was to help the Chamber define and defend US commercial interests around the world — it was a lot of travel, a lot of work and a lot of fun.” After that, Kanaga chaired the Center for International Private Enterprise. Here, says Kanaga, the goal was to “reach out to companies and governments around the world to help outline the role and value of private enterprise — and to improve the public image of the US.” He also became involved with the Business Council for the United Nations, serving as Vice Chairman.

Beginning in 1986 and continuing today, Kanaga and his wife, Sally, have been active with a world-class choir, Gloriæ Dei Cantores. Kanaga became involved (not singing) with the organization of the choir starting with its training in Cambridge University, England, and in setting up its tours from 1989 on as countries were freed from communism and hearing their own great sacred music for the first time in decades.

Winter 2009/2010

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