by Jamie Ambler
08 Apr 2009
As soon as you start studying for a career in finance, you are nudging open the door to a world of opportunity - though many student accountants may be surprised at how wide the variety of options can be, and how far your ACCA Qualification can take you.
When Nairobi-based Edmund Bernard Mndolwa was offered a scholarship by East African Railways & Harbours to study for ACCA exams, he wasn't even sure what accounting was. 'I perceived it as an extension of mathematics,' he recalls, 'and I believed that if I could solve any mathematics problem, I could be an accountant.'
On starting his studies, the reality came as something of a shock, but he 'opened his mind and studied hard' to pass his exams, then went on to build an impressive finance career. Edmund, now an FCCA, rose to become a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers in Tanzania, write a number of technical books, and hold a government post as commissioner of finance.
Natasha Winn's finance career has also taken her to some places she did not anticipate. She trained with a small audit firm in Trinidad, and after qualifying, moved to another small venture, Trinidad Shell, where the skills she acquired enabled her to relocate to the US and work for much larger companies. 'My US experience gave me a fantastic insight into all areas of operations,' says Natasha. 'It prepared me for my move to Shell Brunei, and my role as head of governance risk and assurance.'
Even so, Natasha believes she would not be where she is today without her ACCA Qualification. 'It has really helped my career,' she says, for a number of reasons. 'There were so many benefits. Apart from the obvious academic knowledge and accreditation gained, I was approached for my Shell interview at the school where I was studying for my ACCA exams.' Her contact with fellow members has also been important. 'The social and business network you gain with ACCA can form lifetime bonds that continually grow,' she adds.
Your accountancy qualification will also give you a wide range of career options. 'Finance professionals can work in any business sector, and there are lots of different specialist areas, so the possibilities are endless,’ says Beverly Cooper of Staffing Solutions. For example, Ilona Weiss FCCA is chief technology officer with the Polish software company Sage Symfonia; John Smith FCCA is chief executive of BBC Worldwide; Hassam Gaffar FCCA is chief operating officer with Botswana Life Insurance Ltd; and George Calinescu FCCA is deputy CFO at RBS Bank Romania.
Dare to dream
Your future career may be hard to imagine now, if you are struggling to pass your exams and survive on a tight budget, but if you work hard, one day you could be both professionally successful and financially secure. 'From childhood I knew that I wanted to do something with numbers,' recalls Angela Lee Loy FCCA. Although her parents could not afford to send her to university, she used her A-levels as a springboard into accounting.
'The accessibility of the ACCA Qualification allowed me to start a successful career,' she says, 'and a qualification coupled with practical experience allows you to move up quickly.' It was a combination that enabled her to become partner in a Big Four firm at just 33 years of age. 'I've never looked back since,' enthuses Angela, who now runs her own accounting outsourcing company, Aegis Business Solutions.
The ACCA members mentioned here have all followed many different career paths to get where they are today. But the variety of options they have each faced, and the choices they have made, only hint at the numerous possibilities that could be available to you. Cooper says: 'Practice, the public sector, and industry and commerce are all open to ACCA qualified and part-qualified accountants who can demonstrate the right skills and experience.' And these days, it’s increasingly easy to move between sectors.
Xia Xiao Yan started her finance career with a property management company, then moved into practice and worked in audit for a couple of years, before going back into industry as the finance and accounting manager for one of China's largest computer producers. Vince Sloyan started in the public sector, at the UK National Health Service, but even after nine years there, he had no problem stepping sideways into business and a management accounting role with Reuters, the news service and financial market intermediary.
Straddling more than one sector can even happen simultaneously, as many qualified accountants choose to do a day job in finance and work part-time in the education sector. Laksha Mehta, for example, is a finance manager in the shipping industry, as well as working as a tutor with N2P2, a registered ACCA training provider in Singapore; while Jane Boucher runs her own practice, acts as a tax adviser, and works as an ACCA lecturer for Finance Business Training in the UK.
Start small, think big
Who knows where you could be 10 or 20 years from now. When Ang Hui Keng started his accounting studies, he did not know that he would eventually sit on the board of one of the world's best known companies. After qualifying, he worked as an internal auditor with a shipping company in Singapore, but a move into the technology industry led to the role of financial controller at Sony Pictures Entertainment Networks Asia (SPENA).
'I started up the financial and internal controls system of SPENA operations in Singapore and Taiwan,' he recalls. He then worked his way up through the business: 'I now play a key role in the company's strategic initiatives, planning and executing medium and long-term business objectives.' The FCCA was recently promoted to senior vice-president of channels management and finance, and is also a member of the board of Animax Broadcasting, a Sony joint venture in Korea.
In the past, it has been difficult for female accountants to rise as high as men. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of ACCA, and members such as Mei Sim Lai, women can now share the same access to opportunity. But the world was different in 1970, when Mei left Malaysia to train as a chartered accountant in the UK. She had to work much harder to prove herself, but she went on to become the first female partner at the London firm of Pridie Brewster, and eventually left to start both her own accountancy firm LaiPeters, and a management and business consultancy.
'I always aim to be successful and effective in whatever I do,' says Mei. This extends beyond her professional life; as well as building a career in finance, she has been actively involved in charities, public bodies and initiatives to support ethnic minorities and women in business. 'I enjoy working hard, being busy, meeting people from different backgrounds, developing new ideas and making things happen,' she says, adding: 'I also enjoy helping others.' So much so, that in the Queen's 2004 New Year Honours list, she was awarded an OBE in recognition of her services to equal opportunities.
Mei Sim Lai is obviously an exceptional individual, but she has something in common with a great many other aspiring and successful accountants: the experience she gained while working for others eventually led her to start her own accountancy practice - and it's not hard to understand why. 'It's a tried and tested business model,' says one small practitioner. 'If you do a good job, you'll get repeat business, no matter where in the world you live and work.'
Louise Walsh is a sole practitioner offering business accountancy and taxation services in the North of England; Mohamed Taha Hamood Al-Hashimi is the founder and managing partner of a thriving firm in Yemen; Pratap Pradhan runs PP Pradhan & Co, one of the leading accounting firms in Nepal; and Eilis J Quinlan has built a successful practice in Ireland, where she advises businesses and the government. Visit the ACCA website if you want to follow in their footsteps after you qualify.
For some ACCA members, however, starting their own accountancy practice isn't entrepreneurial enough. In Brisbane, Australia, Heather Smith FCCA runs her own company, Anise Consulting, helping small business owners install and set up MYOB business software, and offering follow-up training and support. 'I created Anise Consulting as a business that would let me develop my career in a way that fits in with my family life,' she says. And indeed, running the show means she can work hours that suit her schedule as a busy mother.
After training with Coopers & Lybrand in the UK, then working in industry, Robert Burns decided to go into business and move to a new country to do it. 'The decision was based partly on lifestyle, partly on opportunity, and partly on an affinity with Spain and Spanish culture,' recalls the FCCA, whose previous roles had included being the financial controller of a sanitary ware manufacturer and the finance director of an internet company.
'I was going to Spain on a regular basis,' he explains. 'My commercial and financial experience led me to notice an opportunity to build on my strengths and set up a business.' Taking a leap of faith, Robert co-founded both an investment fund and a business brokerage, specialising in commercial property, before relocating himself and his family to Spain. Five years later, he has no regrets. 'While I return to the UK on a regular basis,' he says, 'I am always glad to come home to Spain.'
So, if you thought that your professional life would be as simple as choosing between industry, practice, and the public sector, think again. In 10 years, you could be a management accountant in local government, tax specialist with a software developer, entity controller with an investment bank, audit partner in a Big Four firm, or anything else you want to be. As a student accountant, your brilliant career is only just beginning, but armed with your ACCA Qualification, there’s no limit to what you can achieve.
LOOK AND LEARN
As a student, it can be difficult to gain a broad view of the many career possibilities available to a qualified finance professional. But as long as you can get (even intermittent and occasional) access to the internet, there is a world of enlightenment at your fingertips. To find out about the possibilities in practice, visit the websites of some of the world's most successful firms.
Don't forget to check the websites of small, medium and regional firms, too. To learn more about careers in business, commerce, or the public sector, try visiting the websites of leading recruitment agencies.
Looking through the advertisements for various finance roles, and reading about the skills and expertise they require, can broaden and deepen your understanding of the accountancy profession and the career opportunities it provides.
To get a greater insight into the experiences and achievements of ACCA members and students, visit the ACCA website and search for 'member profiles', you can read articles from the archives of ACCA's magazines and publications. The more you know about the careers of others, the more you can do to shape your own future.
SHORT-TERM PLANS, LONG-TERM GOALS
No matter where you want to be in five or 10 years time, try to acquire as many of the following skills and experiences as you can from your early roles:
- Broad technical experience - cover as many different areasof accountancy and finance as possible.
- Responsibility - for specific tasks, projects and people.
- International experience - working abroad, or on international projects.
- Exposure to non-finance people - both inside and outside your employer.
- Software skills - spreadsheet skills are essential, but accounting, finance, budgeting and forecasting systems are also important.
- Access to good role models - you can learn how to put theory into practice by watching others exercise their skills.
- Time to learn and revise - a supportive employer will want you to study hard and pass your exams.
- Practical experience - theory is all very well, but there's no substitute for experience, and you can't qualify as an ACCA without it.