Sir Alex Fitzgerald OBE
Alex Fitzgerald's place in the pantheon of Australian accounting is unique as his lifetime of work encompassed a broad range of activities. Not only was he a successful, big city, principal-in-private-practice but also an educator and scholar of great significance. A strong ethos of service meant he also made major contributions to government and public service in causes that targeted his exceptional accounting credentials. Alex Fitzgerald was genuine all-rounder operating at the highest levels in professional accounting and academe. As a practitioner he started as a junior eventually building a large, successful, city practice that is an important antecedent of the present-day Ernst & Young. The firm of Fitzgerald, Gunn and Partners was highly regarded within the Australian business community. Alex Fitzgerald played a central role in the evolution of the firm. Along with his business success, his accomplishments in education set him apart from his peers. As a teacher and researcher, administrator and author, his contribution was immense and achievements without equal. As a part-time academic maintaining a busy practice, he administered, as head of department, an academic department that flourished under his guidance. He was appointed to the G.L. Wood Chair in Accounting in 1955. Not only was he an inspiring teacher and extremely capable administrator but he was also a prodigious author of accounting articles producing six books and writing over 250 articles and editorials. Additionally he was editor of the Accountant in Australia and The Australian Accountant. A man of immense capacity, Fitzgerald's contribution to government and public service is similarly daunting. Federal and state governments sought his counsel and utilised his expertise in the national interest on many occasions appointing him to committees and boards of enquiry. This aspect of his work commenced in 1937 with appointment as a Royal Commissioner into Water Supply in Victoria and came to a close in 1963 with appointment to the Federal government-appointed Inquiry into the Future of Tertiary Education in Australia. In the intervening years he was called to high level service on at least ten occasions. Of particular importance was his personal appointment, on the recommendation of the Prime Minister, to chair the Commonwealth Capital Grants Commission, a role he fulfilled for fifteen years between 1945 and 1960, arguably his most senior public service role. Alex Fitzgerald also held the highest offices within the accounting profession eventually serving as national president of the then Commonwealth Institute of Accountants. A multitude of honours were bestowed on him over his lifetime. He was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire in 1953 and subsequently made a Knight Bachelor in 1955. An endowed Chair in Accounting in the University of Melbourne bears his name.
The Australian Accounting Hall of Fame honours Sir Alex Fitzgerald as a pioneer, practitioner, administrator, author, editor, educator, scholar, thinker and leader of the accounting profession. In so doing it recognises his extraordinarily broad contribution to the advancement of Australian accounting over more than half a century.
1890 - 1969
Alex Fitzgerald's career in accounting started at the most junior level. He built the two partner firm of Fitzgerald & Tompson into the eleven partner Melbourne office of Fitzgerald Gunn & Partners which at the time of his retirement in 1966 employed almost one hundred staff nationally in offices in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane and Adelaide. This large, successful, city practice was highly regarded within the Australian business community. Alex Fitzgerald played a central role in the evolution of the firm; it was the cornerstone of his entire professional life. Today is an important antecedent of Ernst & Young.
As the city practice grew, Alex Fitzgerald developed a parallel career in academia. At the University of Melbourne he was Assistant Lecturer in Accounting 1925-29 and Lecturer and Senior-Lecturer 1930-54, he was Head of the Accounting discipline. As a professor he held the G.L. Wood Chair in Accounting from 1955-58. In these capacities he was a key figure in the development of the accounting discipline at the University. Although holding part-time appointments, he carried what were almost full-time teaching and administrative loads. With the agreement of his partners, he also made the resources of his firm available to the University.
Contemporary accounts indicate that Fitzgerald was an inspirational lecturer, responsible for subject offerings that were more theoretically based and intellectually-challenging than the mainstream programs provided by private coaching colleges focussed more on examinations of the professional bodies. In 1940, wearing the dual hats of Head of the University's accounting discipline and President of Australia's largest accounting body, the Commonwealth Institute of Accountants, he was instrumental in the creation of a joint Commonwealth Institute – University annual research lecture which has evolved into the CPA Australia Annual Research Lecture, the longest-running annual research lecture in the University's calendar. It is also believed to be the world's longest running annual accounting research lecture. Sir Alexander gave the first lecture on 26 October 1940 and lectured again in 1945. As Dean of the Faculty of Economics and Commerce in 1957, he was also an instrumental figure in the development of the Summer School of Business Administration at the University which was a forerunner to the MBA degree and the Melbourne Business School.
His role as an educator was complemented by authorships and editorial roles encompassing approximately 250 articles and editorials. He was sole or co-author of six books each of which were pioneering and highly influential, the inaugural editor of The Accountant in Australia (The Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia) during 1930-33 and Editor of the Australian Accountant (Federal and Commonwealth Institutes of Accountants) during 1936-54.
Many of his early editorials in the chartered journal focussed, understandably during the depression era, on Australia's economic problems and their possible remedies. However, he also urged greater clarity in accounting terminology and raising the status of the accounting profession. He also warned of the dangers of competitive tendering for audit assignments. In the Australian Accountant he extended these editorial themes to include improving the training and education of accountants, increasing the profession's research effort and the importance of developing professional unity. He deplored the proliferation of accounting bodies. Another of his editorial preoccupations was the need to keep abreast of overseas developments. To this end he introduced, to the Australian Accountant in 1937, a section devoted to articles in overseas journals.
In addition to his work as a practitioner and academic, Fitzgerald made important contributions to governments at both Federal and State levels in areas relating to accounting and finance. During his lifetime he was called to high service on at least ten occasions. A summary of his contributions to government at both Federal and State levels is given below:
- Army Accountancy Advisory Panel: Member 1942-43
- Capital Issues Advisory Committee: Member 1942-64
- Commonwealth Grants Commission: Chairman 1945-60
- Review of ABC's Financial and Administrative Systems: Chairman 1947
- Dairy Industry Cost Investigation Committee: Chairman 1953-59
- Defence Business Board: Member 1953-55
- Decimal Currency Council: Member 1957-60; chairman 1960-66
- Inquiry into Post Office Accounts: Chairman 1959-60
- Fulbright Scholarship Advisory Committee: Member 1960-64
- Committee of Inquiry into the Future of Tertiary Education in Australia: Member 1963-65 Victoria
- Royal Commission on Water Supply in Victoria: Royal Commissioner 1936-37
- Economic Committee of Inquiry into Victorian Railways: member 1939
- City of Box Hill: Councillor 1941-45
- State Electricity Commission: Commissioner 1955-69
- Summer School of Business Administration: Chairman of Board of Management 1956-63
- Graduate Union, University of Melbourne: President 1961-64
- Business Archives Council (Victorian Division): Chairman 1962-65
This range of contributions to these two levels of government has rarely been surpassed. His efforts were directed towards making government departments, systems and instrumentalities work more efficiently. The most important of these contributions was undoubtedly his long running chairmanship of the Commonwealth Grants Commission. His influence – exerted through direct discussions with government officers, through comments in the commission's annual reports, through public addresses which drew attention to advances in accounting generally and existing deficiencies in government accounts – produced considerable improvements in governmental financial reports at both State and Federal levels.
Service to the accounting profession was also high on Alex Fitzgerald's agenda. He was variously Victorian Division Councillor: 1927, State President (Victorian Division): 1928-30; 1935-37, National Councillor: 1936 and National President: 1940-41 of the Commonwealth Institute of Accountants, Australia' largest accounting body at this time. Following the creation in 1953 of the Australian Society of Accountants he was a member of the Victorian and General Councils.
Many honours, awards and other forms of recognition have been bestowed upon Sir Alexander. He was made an Officer in the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1953 and elevated to Knight Bachelor in 1955. The Fitzgerald Chair of Accounting, created in 1976 was named in honour of Sir Alex and his brother, Garrett.
Alex Fitzgerald was an absolutely outstanding Australian accounting and business figure. A man of huge accomplishments, he combined a successful career in business with an impressive career in academia. An incredible work ethic also enabled him to contribute in a very significant way to government service and to the accounting profession. As such he was a man without peer.