The refugee who became the wise man of UK accountancy

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given? For Ladislav Hornan, managing partner of UHY Hacker Young for more than 20 years, the answer is simple. He tells us; “There are few opportunities in life so when they come along, grab them. Pick the winners. It sounds almost banal but it’s so true. A relative gave me that piece of advice when I came to the UK as an immigrant refugee aged 18 and it’s stuck with me ever since.”

Grab those opportunities. And don’t forget to hang onto them either. Something that Czechoslovakian-born Ladislav has done emphatically, having spent 42 years at UHY Hacker Young – an astonishing half of them as managing partner – before stepping down on May 1, 2016, to hand the reins to Laurence Sacker. In his time, Ladislav has seen huge changes and gained peerless insight into accountancy, professional services and the wider world of business.

Much of that insight stems from his career as an insolvency practitioner (IP), during which he’s been at the heart of some high-profile cases; notably the administration of the British Board of Boxing Control, and the cases of George Walker, the boxer who had £180m debt, Garth Chappell, a convicted criminal who was the gold smelter in The Brink’s-Mat Robbery and Shiraz Kassam, a hotelier who hid his assets from his creditors, whilst owing them 140m and who was subsequently jailed.

“As an IP you make heavy-duty decisions quickly and regularly,” says Ladislav, who is not retiring but taking on a business development role and continuing to build UHY’s international network. “I had to deal with employment issues, assess the likely success of the business, and consider which parts to sell, who to keep and who to let go. Aged 25, I found myself running a unionised printworks in Essex, making decisions that most accountants are not asked to make. Doing that gave me great tools for the future.”

A criticism thrown at some professionals – that they’ve never toughed it out in the real business world – could never be aimed at Ladislav. “Do you know what I was always worried about as an insolvency practitioner?” he asks. “The end result. My biggest concern wasn’t the individual decision-making but whether I would successfully sell the business in the end, because in insolvency you’re only ever as good as your last job.”

That steely background, and a clear mindset that you’re judged on the now and not on past successes, allowed Ladislav to stay focused on commerciality throughout his time as leader of UHY Hacker Young. He says: “In insolvency I had to look at figures and if something didn’t make sense – out with it. It just couldn’t happen. Likewise, here at UHY Hacker Young, if it doesn’t make business sense, we either stop it or we fix it.”

Asked to name some of the biggest successes during his tenure, Ladislav’s answer reveals his practicality. He is not a man to get carried away and he does not dispense sugar-coated soundbites. “It sounds dry but we have introduced some good information-management systems,” he says. “They allow everybody to know not just what’s going on, but what those things are about, how we make profit and how are we doing. It’s transparent and that transparency has been our backbone. We’ve created an open culture.” Touching upon his modus operandi, he continues: “I always practise and believe in improvement. Not subjective improvement, but improvement based on objective reasoning. If everyone understands the reasoning, they will support it.”

Of course, we couldn’t talk about Ladislav’s successes without mentioning UHY Hacker Young’s enviable international network, UHY International. He is widely credited with making it what it is today and it has blossomed under his leadership – he has chaired UHY International twice. Today the network covers 92 countries and includes thousands of staff in hundreds of offices.

“UHY International has been around for 30 years, although I didn’t start it,” he is quick to point out with his trademark modesty. What he did do, however, is transform it and make it fit for purpose. “At the beginning it was run more as a club,” he says. “When I first became chairman in 2002 we were in around 38 countries – not a lot considering it was 2002. I thought that if we didn’t increase our coverage quickly we’d soon be left behind by other international networks.” So Ladislav put a strategy in place to expand the network rapidly, but not randomly. “The way we recruited members had been fairly haphazard and we didn’t really have anyone dedicated to it. I realised that the best people to assess potential members were experienced partners who could kick their tyres, so I split the recruitment job between the board directors. I also introduced methodology to make sure that the firms we recruited were of the best possible quality and fitted our culture.” Ladislav’s vision to create a far larger network and to introduce selection rigour to ensure solidity and quality proved to be inspired.

During his time as managing partner at UHY Hacker Young, the UHY Group in the UK has seen growth from nine UK offices with a turnover of £12.6m to 27 UK offices with a turnover of £52.6m (source: Economia). The relative who advised that ambitious 18-year-old refugee to grasp every opportunity that came his way could not have known what a profound impact his words would have and just how beneficial that career advice would be.


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