BMetE, DCom (Melbourne), FCPA
Accounting, auditing and accountability
Obituary: Professor Emeritus Frederick Kenneth (Ken) Wright
Born Vienna 8/10/1925; Died Melbourne 1/10/2022
Born as Fritz Kurt Rechtschaffen into a secular middle-class Jewish family, Ken Wright’s comfortable childhood in Vienna ended with the Anschluss in March 1938 and he was soon wearing a yellow star, excluded from “Aryan” schools and suffering other indignities. His parents had separated earlier and his mother, Steffi, wisely saw little future in Vienna and contrived to obtain an exit visa for France. The pair lived in Nice, where he attended school briefly, before embarking for Australia.
Their arrival in Australia in June 1939 was more welcoming. When their ship docked in Adelaide en route to Melbourne, a local German-speaker overheard them as they were sightseeing on North Terrace, struck up a conversation then gave them a tour of the city in his car.
In Melbourne he was enrolled first at selective Melbourne Boys High School then, on a scholarship, at Scotch College, from where he matriculated, aged 16, to enrol in a Bachelor of Engineering degree at the University of Melbourne in 1942, specialising in metallurgy. There, during what Geoffrey Blainey has described as the ‘huts and trenches’ era of university history, Ken was inconvenienced in another way by the war: initially classified as an enemy alien, he was required to report weekly to Armadale Police Station.
His interest in commerce was stimulated by taking Engineering Management, a non-examinable subject which included a series of lectures by economist, Gordon Wood. Wood’s claim that the world would never see another 1930s-type Depression because economists now understood how to prevent them so impressed Ken that he also enrolled in the Bachelor of Commerce. He took evening classes in Commerce subjects while continuing with third-year Engineering lectures during the day.
Completing both Engineering and Commerce degrees in 1946 he faced a career choice. Initially opting for Engineering, with a brief side-track into first-year Medicine, he worked variously as metallurgist and chemical engineer, ultimately in the Port Pirie Research Department of Broken Hill Associated Smelters. His arrival in Port Pirie in February 1949 was with his new bride, the former Florence (Lin) Moore. By that time, Wright was himself a “former”: he and Steffi had changed their names earlier by deed poll with Fritz Kurt Rechtschaffen becoming Frederick Kenneth Wright.
At Port Pirie, his interest in commerce was resurrected when, via part-time studies, he obtained a cost-accounting qualification, expanding his career possibilities. The Wrights returned to Melbourne in 1951 where, after two years as works accountant for H.V. McKay Massey-Harris, he transferred to management-consultants, Ibcon. Hiatuses in consulting assignments afforded spare time to pursue unanswered questions in accounting, such as could commercial accrual concepts be applied to the government sector and did the performance of investment companies outperform Stock Exchange benchmarks, leading to articles from both enquiries.
His entry into academia in 1962, via a senior lectureship at the University of Adelaide, was the catalyst for an acclaimed series of articles on asset valuation, income determination and capital budgeting, which appeared in top-tier refereed journals. His engineering-type quantitative skills gave him a facility possessed by few academic accountants and his work, characterised by sophisticated modelling, generated a major international reputation and a chair appointment at Adelaide.
An early act after his transfer to Adelaide was tracing the German-speaker who had given himself and Steffi a guided tour of the city to thank him for his kindness.
Ken joined the University of Melbourne’s Department of Accounting in 1977, serving as the inaugural Fitzgerald Professor until his retirement in 1989. The “Fitzgerald” title had personal significance to him through mentoring by Sir Alec Fitzgerald earlier in his career. The Melbourne appointment also coincided with his election as a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia.
At Melbourne, as well as producing innovative teaching materials, particularly for the hitherto neglected public sector, his research output extended to business finance when he combined with colleague, Professor Robert Nicol, to produce Financial Management and Policy in Australia, an Australian edition of James Van Horne’s well-known US finance text. One major difference between the Australian and US cash-management systems was the presence in Australia of the bank-overdraft concept, which had no US counterpart. This led to Ken delivering the prestigious 1979 CPA Australia-University of Melbourne annual research lecture on the topic ‘is there a science of cash management?”
Known for mentoring younger colleagues, he supervised Olympian Merv Lincoln’s PhD dissertation, which became the basis of the Lincoln Indicators financial advisory business. His expertise was also sought by industry body, Queensland Canegrowers, for advice on negotiations with sugar millers and by the Victorian Government as a member, Committee of Inquiry State Electricity Commission (Zeidler Committee) 1981–82.
Preparing for retirement from academia, he had qualified as a financial planner, a career he followed for the next 15 years.
He was awarded The University of Melbourne’s first earned Doctor of Commerce in 1986 for his published work. He was inducted into the Australian Accounting Hall of Fame in 2014.
Ken was predeceased by his wife, Lin. He is survived by his daughters Lesley and Jill and four grandchildren.
Associate-Professor Geoff Burrows and Professor Emeritus Robert Nicol were University of Melbourne colleagues of Professor Wright.
Emeritus Professor (Accounting), University of Melbourne
Australian Accounting Hall of Fame (inducted March 2014)