"Our job is about communication. Accounting is simply the language we communicate in"

Ronnie Patton, Council member

There is no single route into accountancy.

There as many reasons for people choosing the profession as there are accountants. But a gift for figures and a knack for mathematics is often part of the decision.

Not for Ronnie Patton.

He takes the entirely opposite point of view. 

‘Accountancy is not just about numbers,’ he said. ‘Above everything else our job is about communication. Accounting is simply the language we communicate in. The technical skills we learn in textbooks aren’t the most important ones. It’s how we use them to connect with people – with clients, colleagues, employers – that really matters.’

That has been Ronnie’s philosophy ever since he joined the profession in the 1970s in his native Northern Ireland, choosing to study for the ACCA qualification over a degree in English Literature and Philosophy, because he feared that degree could only lead to teaching. 

The thought appalled him – ironically, given his later career.

Technical stuff

 ‘I was working in a small practice and I took a client’s accounts to him,’ said Ronnie.

‘I was just a kid, he was much older, an experienced businessman, and I began to tell him about all the technical stuff in the report.

‘He looked down at the plastic folder, looked up at me, and said, “Never mind all that, son. How did I do?”

‘It was a real epiphany. What he really wanted wasn’t rows of figures and pages of numbers. He wanted a human being to talk to him about what the accounts meant, and I never forgot that lesson.’

"It’s not about the sums. It’s about what the sums mean."

It is a lesson that Ronnie was soon sharing with young accountants, as he took the job which he’d always vowed to avoid – as a teacher, first at an FE college giving students a second chance at education, and later as a university lecturer. He is now senior lecturer at Ulster University in Belfast.

‘A lot of what I teach can be boiled down to one thought,’ he said. ‘It’s not about the sums. It’s about what the sums mean, and I think that fits in really well with the modern profession, which has changed since I started.

‘My students, and ACCA students too I would say, are trained in business, not simply accountancy,’ said Ronnie. ‘They have a really wide array of skills, and I really notice that when I am on Council. I look around at all those brilliant men and women, and hardly any of them do what you would call the classic accountant’s role. They are leaders of businesses, managers of organisations, and they bring so much more than technical ability. They bring creativity and intuition, and that’s what our profession is about.’

Above all else for Ronnie, accountancy is a deeply personal profession. It is built on trust and forging relationships with people. It is no surprise that Ronnie’s career in teaching and in accountancy was inspired not by a cold professional calculation, but by an individual, a former head of ACCA Ireland, the late Liam Coughlan.

Value of generosity

‘So many of the things I have learned about accountancy, and teaching, and life, come from Liam,’ he said.

‘I was still teaching at the FE college, and I was looking to establish revision courses for ACCA students in Northern Ireland.

‘I got in touch with Liam, and we got on so well. It was through his guidance that I became an ACCA examiner, which helped me get my job at the university, and opened the way to so many of the things I have done, including ACCA Council.

‘Liam showed me how much of a contribution accountancy and accountants could make to the world.

‘His life was a lesson in the importance and the value of generosity and I am so lucky that I can pass that on to my students.

‘I say to them that you shouldn’t really call what I do ‘work’. I enjoy it so much that it can’t be counted as a job. I really believe that.’