Professor Kenneth Wright

Executive-in-Residence

Accounting

  • Level 7, 198 Berkeley Street
    The University of Melbourne
    3010 Victoria
    Australia

Kenneth Wright was inducted into the Australian Accounting Hall of Fame in 2014.

Ken Wright has had a distinguished career as a metallurgist, consultant, cost accountant and academic. The academic component spanned 28 years—the majority of his working life. Born in Vienna in 1925 Ken and his mother arrived in Australia as refugees in 1939 having spent a short time in Nice, France, en route.

After matriculating from Scotch College, Melbourne he enrolled in Engineering at The University of Melbourne in 1942. In second year, a series of lectures on Engineering Management from Professor Gordon Wood, Professor of Commerce so interested the young engineering student that he subsequently combined full-time Engineering studies during the day with part-time evening lectures in Commerce. He graduated Bachelor of Metallurgical Engineering in 1946 and Bachelor of Commerce in 1947.

Initially emphasising his engineering training, Ken worked as a metallurgist at Port Kembla and later at Port Pirie during 1947-51. A career change came in 1951 when he joined a Melbourne consulting firm. For the next twelve years he worked as a consultant. He took a break from consulting during 1957-58 to work as Works Accountant for Massey-Ferguson (Australia) at Sunshine. Ken's natural bent towards enquiry, combined with the encouragement of his former accounting lecturer, A.A. (later Sir Alec) Fitzgerald (AAHoF 2010), asserted itself during this time when he wrote a number of articles on accounting and financial themes. Consequently, when he entered academia in 1962, relatively late in life, he already possessed a substantial publication record.

Appointed Senior Lecturer in Commerce at the University of Adelaide in 1962, he became Professor of Commerce three years later, a position he held until 1977. During this period he produced a series of major articles which have been acclaimed internationally by both accountants and economists. In these works, particularly those dealing with capital investment and depreciation of assets, he used his engineers' analytical and mathematical skills to great advantage. At Adelaide, he served as Head, Department of Commerce 1965-71; Dean of Economics 1969 and 1972-73; and Chairman, Department of Commerce 1975-76.  He also played a key role in the introduction of Adelaide's Master of Business Management degree.

Ken Wright was the first appointment to the newly created Fitzgerald Chair of Accounting at The University of Melbourne in 1977. It was particularly fitting as both A.A. and G.E. Fitzgerald, after whom the Chair is named, had taught him and he had become particularly close to Sir Alec. At Melbourne, he added to his already long and impressive list of publications. Further developing his interest in corporate finance he co-authored a finance text, Financial Management and Policy in Australia which became the leading finance text in Australian universities and ran to three editions (1981, 1985 and 1990). A collection of 17 of his works on the general theme of Asset Values and Enterprise Income resulted in the award of The University of Melbourne's fist earned Doctor of Commerce in 1986. Visiting professorships included the Universities of Vienna, Lancaster and Miami. A longstanding interest in investment policies and funding of superannuation schemes provided the opportunity to serve, for ten years, on The University of Melbourne's Superannuation Committee. He was also appointed a trustee of The University of Melbourne's superannuation funds for a similar period of time.

Ken Wright also served his university communities well as an educator. He was an enthusiastic teacher who took great pains to get to know his students irrespective of the size of his classes. He took great pleasure in their development. Similarly, colleagues benefited from his wise counsel which was freely given to those who were earnest in their pursuit of knowledge. Many, seeking his comments on drafts of their research work, would invariably receive their material back within a day or so, copiously annotated with suggestions and constructive criticisms. He has supervised the research of many honours and graduate students several of whom hold professorial positions in Australian universities. Ken supervised Merv Lincoln's PhD thesis on predicting corporate failure which was the foundation of the highly successful enterprise, Lincoln Indicators. Interestingly, this work followed on from the earlier work of Edward Altman who used a number of ratios—utilising both accounting and market-based measures—to predict U.S. corporate failures. Supervised by Wright, Lincoln used the same multivariate calculus to predict similar events in Australia. Lincoln's model however was more successful in predicting corporate failure as it relied only on accounting measures whereas Altman had spread the net wider.

As an accounting theorist, Ken was one of a handful of Australians who caused the international community to sit up and take notice of Australian accounting academics. Along with distinguished contemporaries such a Ray Chambers (AAHoF 2010), Reg Gynther (AAHoF 2010) and Russell Mathews (AAHoF 2012), Ken published extensively: many of his papers—and theirs—were published in prestigious overseas journals, principally in the 1960s and 70s. This was something of a "golden age" of Australian accounting literature with a small group of Australians authoring a disproportionately high page-count in the world's leading accounting journals due in no small measure to their grounding in economics. Ken Wright's contribution to this effort was outstanding. His list of publications extends beyond eighty papers and includes five in the Journal of Accounting Research, four in The Accounting Review and three in the Journal of Business and Finance Administration, a level of publishing success achieved by only a handful of accounting academics.

The real beneficiaries of these achievements have been the Australian accounting profession and accounting education. Later generations of Australian academic accountants have been inspired by these achievements and many have undertaken PhD studies, a number in the United States, their acceptances facilitated by the reputations forged by academics such as Ken Wright who contributed significantly to the high standard of accounting education achieved in this country.

Ken gained an international reputation for his work in the areas of depreciation, capital investment, financial management and the bases of valuation of assets. Much of this work has implications for the management of public sector enterprises as well as private sector commercial activities. Ken's expertise in these areas was recognised early by the community at large—especially the public sector. From 1972 to 1975 he was retained as a consultant by the Queensland Cane Growers' Council. He appeared as an expert witness before a statutory tribunal charged to arbitrate the price to be paid for sugar cane. In particular, his advice was sought on the use of depreciation based on current cost. In 1981 the Victorian government appointed him to a Committee of Enquiry into the State Electricity Commission of Victoria. This Committee, chaired by Sir David Zeidler, was formed to establish a more rational approach to electricity pricing, particularly for commercial users such as the recently built Portland Aluminium Smelter. This Committee's work was curtailed after a change in government in 1982, before its report could be finalised. However, the new Labor Government, coincidentally, required all government undertakings to present their reports based on current costs. Ken was engaged to advise the State Electricity Commission and the Wheat Board to successfully meet these expectations. He also co-authored a report, with Alan Lloyd, at the request of the then Minister for Agriculture and Rural Affairs, on the value to the Grain Elevators Board of the Victorian Government's loan guarantees.

Utilising his expertise in this area, during the last two years of his tenure at Melbourne, Ken offered free retirement planning advice to both academic and general staff. After leaving The University of Melbourne, Ken worked several days a week, for a number of years, with a leading firm of retirement counsellors. In these roles he brought probity and a high level of financial analytical skills to a complex area which has been plagued with incompetence and low ethical standards.

Fluent in three languages, with a particular love of French literature and classical music, Ken Wright is in every sense a well-rounded scholar. Ken is a Life Fellow of CPA Australia and served as a Councillor of the then Australian Society of Accountants, South Australian Division, 1973-77. He has been a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia since 1977.