We spoke to Mubeen about his career and how he became a partner at one of the Big 4 - as well as discovering what it’s like to be a tax expert in a land with virtually no tax!
Mubeen, it’s great to welcome you to our ‘Becoming’ series. You’ve had a particularly international career, so you’d easily qualify for our Tax Expat series too but, given that you’ve recently joined KPMG Bahrain as a Partner, I’m excited to find out more about your route to partnership and share this with our network. But before we get started, can you start by telling us a few words about yourself?
Sure, I am now a Tax Partner with KPMG Bahrain but I grew up in Australia and qualified as a lawyer in 1999 (makes me feel old!) before first moving to the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in 2008 to set up the international tax practice at EY Bahrain.
I enjoyed the challenge of building a tax practice in a no tax jurisdiction! I returned back to Australia after 3.5 years for personal reasons but regretted the move back and returned to the region a few years later. Bahrain is a fantastic expat family friendly country. We have made it our home and immersed ourselves into Bahrain life.
Coming from Australia, where it takes 22 hours to reach Europe, it is great to be in this part of the world with its proximity to Europe, Asia, and its relative proximity to the Americas compared to Melbourne!
So Mubeen, let’s start at the beginning. You entered the world of tax with Deloitte Australia in their tax & legal legal team. Why tax?
I fell into a career in tax. During my final year of law, my plan was to become a management consultant, as it seemed like the cool thing to do.
Getting an opening or landing an interview for a job can sometimes come down to luck. I think the interview opportunity I got at Deloitte was partially due to luck - I had applied for more than 50 graduate program postions in my final year of law. I got calls for three interviews - the Deloitte one was because I think the HR manager noticed the name of one of my referees, Shaun McCarthy, who she knew and thought why not give this candidate a chance with an interview!
I was selected for the Deloitte graduate program and, in my interview, a tax partner asked me why I wanted to work in tax. My first thought was, ‘you tell me?’... Obviously, I didn’t say that but I was articulate enough to land the job.
I then qualified as a lawyer just before joining Deloitte and here I am 20 years later still working in tax and enjoying it!
And to think a long and successful career can effectively come from what sounds like a well articulated blag on your interest in a tax career!
With the exception of two shorter terms roles at MinterEllison & Freehills, the majority of your tax career before moving out to Bahrain was with Deloitte. I’m sure you witnessed your fair share of colleagues chasing the partnership goal. As a junior tax lawyer, did you have your eyes set on partnership?
After falling into a career in tax, it took me a few years to find out what I really wanted. I moved into doing more corporate / commercial work for a short time and I even considered moving into more of a policy focused role in Government, coming close to accepting a role as advisor in the department of Premier & Cabinet in Victoria.
However, I didn’t like the idea of staying in one place, waiting my turn to become a partner. If I had just stuck it out at Deloitte Australia or EY Bahrain maybe I would have made partner much earlier but I don’t have any regrets - my career has taken me to different firms and countries and presented the opportunity to meet people from around the globe. I have made many friends along the way and make it a point to stay in touch with them. Except for the EY Bahrain role, which I was introduced to through a recruiter, all my other roles have been through the strong network I have built along the way.
Although partnership was at the back of my mind, I wasn’t fixated on it. I was much more interested in enjoying the roles that I was in. My parents always remind me that my grade five primary school teacher was spot on when she told them that, “Mubeen is impatient” - I guess I didn’t have the patience to wait it out for partnership!
Well your impatience has obviously paid off! What makes a good Partner in your opinion?
A good partner is someone who practices what they preach, has an open door policy, strikes the right balance between being a friend, a ‘boss’, and a strong leader.
I was fortunate to have this with the partners I started my career with at Deloitte Australia. They were great mentors - they always gave me frank advice and, even when I said I wanted to leave, they gave me the right advice, didn’t get upset and most importantly were happy for me. When I wanted to return, they took me back without holding a grudge that I had previously left them.
I am still friends with them to this day and reach out to them when I need advice - I am grateful for their valuable insights.
As a partner, it’s not about knowing everything but the key is the ability to identify issues and work with the team towards finding solutions. I keep up to date by reading tax alerts, attending in-house training and reading technical publications. Together with the team I’ve instilled a culture of continuously growing and improving so we aim to be first to the market on developments and producing technical pieces. In addition, presenting at external seminars and reviewing all the thought leadership pieces that go out forces you to keep on top of technical developments.
Before venturing out to Bahrain, you did leave the world of tax to focus on corporate law with Freehills. How did this come up and what eventually brought you back to tax?
This kind of goes back to my earlier answer - that it took me a few years to find out what I really wanted.
I was working at Deloitte and we were working closely and collaborating with a few law firms. I met one of the Freehills partners and just asked him if he would be interested in having someone like me on his team and he immediately said yes. I had a couple of interviews and joined them as a Senior Associate. I did enjoy my time but due to some team changes I decided to go back to the comfort of working in tax.
The GCC region has been a popular destination for tax professionals in recent years, particularly for VAT specialists. What was it like moving from a mature tax market in Australia to the Middle East in 2008?
I had a close friend of mine from Australia who had moved to the region as a lawyer in 2000 so the region had been on my mind for a while. I even interviewed for a role in 2004 with a law firm in the region (I was flown into Dubai to meet with them) but for various reasons we decided to stay put. Going back to my comment about the great mentors I had at Deloitte partners - they knew I was interviewing for the Dubai role and gave me valuable advice at the time.
When I first moved to Bahrain in 2008, the region was attractive to a (relatively) young 33 year old tax director. I came to Bahrain to set up the international tax practice for EY. Many of my colleagues in the Australian tax world thought I was either mad or making this up - “You are moving to Bahrain, a country with no taxation, to set up the tax practice for a Big 4?”
I was interviewed by Howard Hull who was heading up the EY ITS practice for the region and the managing partner for EY Bahrain and I was sold on the potential for clients’ appetite for outbound/international tax advice. Although I had made a ‘site’ visit before I started the role at EY Bahrain, the first week was very tough. I landed in May in a very hot Bahrain and the combination of the heat, bad jet lag, and food poisoning on my fourth day here almost convinced me to hop on the next plane back.
Fortunately, it was a great friendly team at EY who welcomed me with open arms and introduced me to their clients - I had my first engagement on an outbound transaction within the first week.
I also convinced my wife (with our young toddler in tow) to join me a few months earlier than originally planned.
It was exciting to set up a brand new practice - recruiting staff, setting up all the admin, developing publications, loads of business development and marketing, and a lot of regional and international travel. In addition to the travel within the region, my work trips included the UK, Europe, China, South Africa, India and Singapore. My role at EY Bahrain helped me realise that practice management and business development are my strengths.
The first time we spoke you gave me a lot of useful insights into Bahrain that helped me as I was recruiting for clients in the country. It was immediately clear that Bahrain holds a special place in your heart and I think it’s clear that it made a strong impact on day one! Fast forward to now and Bahrain has been home for most of your career. What has it offered you that you couldn’t find in Australia?
Bahrain is a very friendly place. The people, whether locals or expats, are very welcoming, generous and relaxed, which makes all the difference when you are settling into a new city. It’s a great place for a family and there are good schools and activities for kids.
The minimal commuting time, in addition to the availability and luxury of home help, it makes it easier to have quality time with the family. In Australia, you spend the week working and weekends juggling household chores with children’s activities and family time. We feel we have more time to spend as a family here.
With our younger daughter being born here, our children feel right at home and have now spent more time in Bahrain than in Australia. We love having family and friends come and visit us - they all enjoy it here and many of them have visited over the years (some multiple times!).
The other thing that the Middle East offers, that Australia doesn’t, is the travel opportunities - the proximity from here to Europe and Asia is great for short vacations.
We do still love and miss Australia as we have all our extended family there, but Bahrain is home for now.
Being an expat is not always plain sailing and you’ve told me about how you moved back to Australia in 2011 as your family struggled with the move. After a couple of years, you were back in Bahrain and I understand it’s been a much more successful transition for all of you. What did you learn the second time round when moving back to the region?
When we were moving to Bahrain one of my friends told me words to the effect: "Make the move thinking it’s a permanent one and it will make it a lot easier for you to settle in."
International moves can be difficult especially for the trailing spouse/partner. Although we were at a different stage in our life with one child, my wife had a successful career as a lawyer in Australia and, while she did find work in Bahrain, it wasn’t strictly in her area of expertise.
We returned back to Australia after 3.5 years in Bahrain due to a variety of reasons. I had left Australia in a booming market and returned as Australia was getting back on its feet after the global financial crisis. Moving back to Australia for me in a leadership role was tough and I found it hard to settle back in.
2014 was a challenging year for me and my wife - it’s the year I turned 40, things didn’t go to plan with the law firm I was a partner at in Melbourne so I convinced my wife to move back to the region. I landed the KPMG Saudi job towards the end of 2014 through a friend, Bhavesh Gandhi, at KPMG Kuwait - I kind of had to start back where I had left off in 2011 - but I made that tough decision to go back to being a director and work my way back up again.
We moved back to the region again in 2015, this time with a different mindset. We already had our old network in Bahrain so moving back was easy. With two kids at school, my wife was much busier this time with them, had a busy social life and immersed herself into Bahrain starting a Facebook project called 100 Bahrain Stories which she turned into a book which was published in 2018.
The Facebook project offers a unique insight into the lives of people living in Bahrain, and the book sounds like a fascinating read.
You talked about the difficulty of adjusting to a leadership role in Australian. How does a leadership role vary between Bahrain and Australia?
During my first stint, my role in Bahrain was a mixture of business development/marketing, practice management and technical delivery with a large chunk of the work also being international tax, throughbound and outbound work. In an emerging market like Bahrain, there’s a lot more activity and consultation with clients as they don’t usually have in-house expertise. Furthermore, in Australia there was less ‘running of the practice’ work as in the established firms, a lot of this is taken care of.
In Bahrain this wasn’t always the case and, in those early years when I was setting up a practice, I was also involved with the day to day running. Luckily, I enjoy practice management and, in fact, it’s an aspect of my role that I continue to enjoy to this day.
But I think that, fundamentally, in Bahrain you need to be a business advisor rather than just purely a tax advisor. There is a lot of personal interaction in Bahrain - when you attend a one hour client meeting in Bahrain you may spend 45 minutes talking about life, world politics and sport and then spend the rest talking about work. In a way, you must be more flexible and clients expect to be able to reach you at any time.
You also get to deal with professionals from all over the globe, so being adaptable and having the ability to interact with different personalities and people from all walks of life certainly goes a long way.
This reminds of the scene in Wolf of Wall Street where the banker tries to shut down the brazen American style of getting straight to business by saying that Swiss etiquette involves some ‘chit chat’ before business can get started. But it sounds like it’s more than just ‘chit chat’ in Bahrain if the bulk of the meeting is this way!
So you’ve now joined KPMG Bahrain and will be working with another of our interviewees, Philippe Norre, to expand what is already the biggest tax practice in Bahrain. Tell me about your new role and what we can expect to see from you and the team...
It’s an exciting time to be at KPMG Bahrain. With six of us joining from Keypoint, we have established KPMG Bahrain as the clear market leader with the largest, most diverse and experienced tax team in Bahrain. This expansion reinforces KPMG’s commitment to offering the best and most practical business advice and assistance to our clients.
Now you are a couple of months in, can you describe a typical day in your life?
I don’t sleep much during the week, usually getting by on around six hours of sleep. I’m an early riser so I like to get a lot of stuff out of the way before the family is up, allowing me to spend some quality time with them in the mornings before the work day starts. In pre-covid times, I would do the school drop off and reach work by 7.45am - school starts early and the commute is short!
No work day is the same - sometimes you have to go with the flow, so I’m always ready for this. A typical day includes client meetings, reviewing deliverables, catching up with the team to find out what’s going on, admin/practice management, business development, lots of calls and emails. I read all my emails and like to get my inbox down to around 15 to 20 emails by the next morning, so being an early riser really helps.
Each day at work is different - I may have a day with one client meeting, five client meetings or none. I like to really keep on top of practice management so WIP, receivables, risk management don’t get overlooked. There are certain days in the month when there is a lot of focus on this with the engagement managers.
I am a team oriented person, so one thing I do like doing is take the time to grab lunch or have a coffee with various members of the team in the mornings or afternoons - I like to get to know people and you can learn a lot about them and what’s going on with the team over lunch/coffee. Having a strong team who you can rely on and who can, in turn, rely on you, is very important.
In pre-covid times stopping off at the gym on the way home two or three nights a week was part of my routine but on the other nights I try to get home in time so I can have dinner with the family.
A busy routine indeed, once again highlighting the commitment it takes to acquire a partnership role. Who has played a role in helping you progress to where you are now?
My wife and my family. I couldn’t have achieved what I have without their unwavering support. I have had ups and downs and my wife of 18 years has always kept me sane!
And finally Mubeen, we’ve started compiling a reading list of what tax leaders read. What books would you recommend to a budding tax professional?
I am not sure if any of these books are useful for a budding tax professional but these are some recent ones I have enjoyed:
Shoe Dog - A friend recently gave me this memoir by the creator of Nike, Phil Knight. It highlights that the path to success is not necessarily easy. This is an important lesson for all professionals.
The Happiest Refugee - This is by Australian comedian, actor and artist Anh Do. It’s a story of hope as Do was a Vietnamese refugee who moved to Australia as a child. Through sheer hard work and determination he has achieved so much and I am impressed by the versatility of talents.
Thank you Mubeen, it’s been a pleasure to learn more about your route to partnership. We wish you every success in your new role at KPMG Bahrain and a Happy New Year.
Alex Mann is Associate Director, Indirect Tax & Tax Technology at Harvey John
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