The accountancy world can be a daunting prospect as an outsider. What’s it like being an Accountant? What do people enjoy about it? Do I have the qualities needed to strive in this field? (If you’re unsure of which qualifications might help you get into this industry, check out: I want to be an Accountant but what qualifications should I choose?).
An insider’s perspective can really help! I posed some frequent questions to Sean Parker, working as a Finance Director in industry. Here’s what he had to say:
What inspired you to choose finance as a career?
Finance had never been my first choice of career.
I completed a degree in business management and had always wanted to be a management consultant. I wanted to go into businesses, analyse their operations and discover ways to improve their performance.
I applied for dozens of graduate management jobs, but heard nothing back. I then came across two job adverts recruiting for trainee accountants. As part of my degree, I’d studied financial analysis and it had been quite interesting, so I thought "why not apply". I received job offers from both... accepted one, and that's where my accounting career began.
Is working in finance different to what you expected? If so, in what way/s?
Working in practice was not as I’d expected. I assumed I’d be able to quickly utilise my financial analysis skills and management degree to help practice clients grow their businesses. That wasn’t the case, I had to start at the bottom like any trainee accountant.
The work entailed presenting clients’ figures for statutory filing, whether VAT, personal tax, or limited company accounts. I had no real impact on, or dealings with a client's business.
I decided that I wanted to be the one responsible for producing the figures, rather than merely presenting them and so, once part qualified, I took the opportunity to move to industry and I’ve never looked back. It became quickly apparent that Industry accounting would allow me to get "stuck in" in a way that I’d never been able to in Practice.
My initial posting was as assistant to the financial controller. I learned very quickly the importance that a finance function plays in the success of an organisation. Many small and owner managed businesses suffer the symptoms of overtrading. They grow too quickly, and assume they have cash to do everything at once. That simply isn't the case, and one of the most important and difficult jobs of the Industry accountant is to ensure there’s always sufficient cash to support the operations of the business.
As I gained more experience, I learned to produce management accounts and key performance information that would help the owners of the business to make key strategic decisions.
Having done both, what would you say are the key pros and cons of working in practice vs. industry?
As one person’s pro may be another person’s con, I’ll instead write the differences between Practice and Industry as I found them.
What do you most enjoy about your profession?
As I’m sure you can ascertain from my answers above, I most enjoy having a real impact on the growth and success of a business. Finance Business Partnering is a bit of a buzz word at the moment, and I think that more accurately describes my role rather than Finance Director. I analyse both financial and non-financial data before turning it into useful information which helps support the other Department Heads of the business in achieving their own objectives.
A good example of this, which you may not expect of a company accountant was;
To analyse the defect rate of goods sent out of the warehouse. An order defect may be defined as the cost of resending an order due to the original order arriving damaged. The full cost of the defect includes the cost of resent stock, packaging and delivery costs, labour and lost reputation. Once I had identified and measured the extent of the problem, I was able to work alongside the Operations Manager to address the problem and reduce the defect rate at its source, in the warehouse.
In summary, I’d say my job is extremely varied, and I wear many ‘hats’.
What do you believe are the key skills and competencies someone needs to be successful working in the sector?
Each time I’ve looked to recruit for my department, I’ve been looking for someone to display an eagerness to learn. Someone who’s tenacious and will continue to research the hell out of something (even in their own time) until they fully understand it. Personal development is key, and I also think a little bit of entrepreneurial spirit goes a long way. At the end of the day, we’re here to help steer the business into growth.
Do you have any advice for a junior individual who’s unsure whether to study towards a finance degree, AAT, or ACCA / CIMA / ACA? Do you have an opinion on what route is best to qualify and where to start?
I chose ACCA, and this was merely because I’d been told that it was more ‘business’ focused. ACA was focused more towards practicing accountants or auditors, and CIMA was focused more towards the manufacturing industry. In reality, I think many of the accreditations have crossovers in terms of learning materials and, like many exams, there’s a fair amount you’ll never use. Accreditations are great, but experience is just as important.
I've met many accountants who are book/exam smart, but have no idea what they’re doing on the job!
How hard did you find balancing work and studying towards professional qualifications? How did you do it successfully?
Balancing work, life, and study was difficult for me. I started the profession late and it took me several years to qualify. My advice would be to not let it stress you out. Some Accounting Practices require you to pass a certain number of exams at each session, and again this pressure was part of the reason I made the move into Industry.
I firmly believe that taking my time to sit exams and fully understand what I’m doing has made me a better accountant today. A lot of my Practice colleagues knew they had to put a figure in a certain box on a tax computation for example, but they didn’t have a clue why. Take your time and learn why you’re doing something.
If you started your career in finance again, would you do anything differently?
I'd still work in Practice as I think it’s a great grounding, and it’s a very professional environment. I would however have taken the opportunity to work for a year or two in the audit department. Knowing that I didn’t want to be an auditor, I naively turned down the opportunity. I hadn’t considered that working for a large organisation in Industry, you’re required to undergo audit. It would have been great to have already gained a full understanding of the process.
In general, what advice would you give to someone considering a career in the finance sector?
Thank you Sean, for taking the time to share your own experience as well as give some great advice for new accounting professionals!
Georgina Trudgill is an Associate Director in the Accountancy Division at Harvey John.
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