We're happy to present the latest in 'The Tax Expat' series, with Aloïs Charpenet. Aloïs is an experienced figure in the indirect tax world, having worked as a Senior VAT Manager for PwC, with a recent move to a global law firm. France, Luxembourg and the UK (with a slight detour to New Zealand) are the subjects of today's interview, so without further ado, let's get started…
Thanks for joining, Aloïs. You’ve had a varied background full of interesting experiences, so ‘The Tax Expat’ series welcomes you! With 8 ½ years of VAT experience, I’m sure you’ve quite the story to tell. But first and foremost; can you introduce yourself for those that don’t know you?
Of course! I was actually born and raised in the North East of France where I spent the first 20 years of my life. After school, I didn’t go straight to Uni and worked as a professional horse-rider for a few years. This was an exciting time, full of many experiences and I think it, somehow, influenced the way I approach things now. I did this for 5 years and after that I decided that having a more “stable” career might not be such a bad idea. I had family living in the UK at the time, so I decided to move with them and ended up studying law at the University of Exeter and later Tax Law at King’s College.
I started my VAT career in Luxembourg where I stayed for three years before moving back to London. After two years in London, I had the opportunity to go to New Zealand for a few months and after that I decided to come back to the old continent. I now live in France and work in Luxembourg.
From Luxembourg to London (two VAT powerhouses). What prompted the move?
I was educated in the UK, so I guess the real question is: why did I decide to go and work in Luxembourg in the first place!
I finished Uni in 2010, which wasn’t an easy time to find a job, especially in London. Luxembourg had more opportunities and, being less than a 2-hour drive away from home, it was almost a natural choice for me to start things there.
That being said, when I had the opportunity to join EY in London three years later, I definitely couldn’t refuse! I guess part of me wanted some sort of revenge from when I couldn’t get a job in London before but, to be perfectly honest, being reunited with Uni friends and being able to enjoy all those things I missed when I wasn’t in the UK made me take the plunge. Of course, the opportunity to learn and develop professionally was also a strong driver.
You had a short stint in New Zealand, which has always been a dream destination of mine. How did this opportunity arise and how did you find the experience?
It’d been in the back of my mind for a long time. I’d actually been there on a road-trip with one of my closest friends and I remember sitting on a bench in Auckland thinking that I could actually enjoy staying there for some time.
A few months after that, the opportunity came up and EY accepted to transfer me from the London to Auckland office. This was when NZ introduced new VAT rules regarding e-commerce and my expertise in that field was welcomed. It all happened quite naturally, in fact.
The experience was just incredible. I learnt a lot about the country, the culture, and the working environment. It’s amazing to see how this country can be both modern and peaceful at the same time.
Having experienced three different working cultures, what’s been the biggest challenge in adapting?
I was a Senior Advisor when I moved to London and there were two things that struck me the most. People at the same level of experience in London were more autonomous than we were in Luxembourg, with regards to initiatives and interaction with clients. In Luxembourg, all my work was supervised and I was used to having everything checked and reviewed before it could get out of my mailbox. Things were quite different in London and I was more exposed, in terms of interaction with people outside the office. It was very valuable and I had to learn quickly to gain confidence in my ability to work more independently. My London experience also required me to have a more practical approach when it came to VAT issues. I also had to learn to have more of a business approach to client issues. As consultants, we’re advising businesses based on our VAT knowledge, but our job isn’t to give pure VAT advice without regarding the business practicalities. When I came back to Luxembourg, things had moved slightly in a similar direction, but it was still a bit challenging to bring all these new ideas back with me.
In New Zealand, I guess everyone was generally more relaxed than in London and Luxembourg so I had to learn to work at a different pace. It was definitely something positive though. I just had to teach myself to become more patient which isn’t my greatest talent!
What’s the most important thing you’ve learnt about yourself since moving abroad?
I think I realised that I’m more resilient and adaptable than I would’ve thought. It can be a bit stressful at first, especially when you have to deal with all the admin around relocating like finding a place, opening a new bank account, choosing the best telecom operator, etc. But once you’ve done all this, you soon realise that everything comes naturally and you’re actually settled before knowing it. There’s this one day when you wake up and ask yourself: ok, what do I need to sort out today? And the answer is actually: I’m all done!
Workwise, it’s a similar process. You obviously have to learn to adapt to different internal procedures, rebuild a network and generate a new workload, etc. But again, once you learn that you’ve been able to do it once, you’re no longer afraid of it.
Aloïs, if you could relive these experiences again, what would you have done differently?
I know this will sound cliché but, absolutely nothing. I’d live all these experiences to the fullest. Every new move was prompted by either opportunities or personal factors and I have no regrets whatsoever.
So, life in the UK & NZ as an expat, is there anything that you missed in particular?
Not really. I spent quite a long time in the UK overall (more than 7 years) so I think I’ve acquired this “double-culture” whereby I’ve learnt to enjoy what both sides of the Channel can offer equally. I like a good coffee when I’m in France and I’m just as happy when I can have a proper tea when I go to the UK. The analogy doesn’t work with beer and wine though… I drink both wherever I am!
More seriously though and, to be perfectly honest, I think there are more things I miss from the UK when in France/Luxembourg than the other way around. Good Gin and Cheddar are on top of the list!
When I was in New Zealand, everything was new and exciting, so I didn’t really have time to miss anything in particular.
How would you rate your relocation experience overall? If you could turn back the time - would you have made the same move?
Definitely and without hesitation. I was glad to be able to move back to London for a while. I have very close friends there and it feels like my second home. New Zealand was such a great opportunity that I couldn’t see myself turning it down if I had to make the same choice again. Of course, there are plenty of other places I would also love to explore. I’ve made the choice to settle down for the time-being but I could definitely see myself making a similar move again, maybe in a more distant future.
What advice can you share for other tax professionals who are considering a relocation abroad for their career?
Go for it! I know it may be scary at first, but it’s very exciting. Once you’ve turned the practicalities over in your mind, everything just flows. Of course, there will be times where things don’t happen as initially planned, and surprises (good or bad) may not necessarily be those you’d expected in the first place, but so it goes in life in general.
One thing that’s important though, is to make sure you fully understand what you’re stepping into. Things like, what’s my daily job going to be like, what part of this new town is best to live in or how easy will it be to commute to work, etc. are important as they’ll directly influence how you live the experience as a whole. Talk to people who’ve had similar experiences or people from where you’re planning to relocate so they can share insights and give you tips.
When you get to travel around, you obviously meet and connect with people who have or had similar experiences and, so far, I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t positive about their relocation experience. It’s so exciting and enriching that any little hiccups seems insignificant.
Now that I’ve said that, I think that the best piece of advice I should give is don’t be afraid to make a mistake. After a few months or weeks, you might realise that it wasn’t such a great idea after all, maybe because you feel lonely, or because work isn’t great, or you don’t like the city and then you might decide that this wasn’t the right choice. Well, it really is OK, you made a very brave choice in the first place and none of those who made a similar one before would judge (opinions from others just don’t count!). Whatever happens, just keep in mind that, worst-case scenario, you can always pack up your stuff and come back. But I know you won’t!
Ed Moore is a Senior Consultant in the Tax Division at Harvey John.
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