This article was first published in the April 2016 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

These days, opportunities have never looked better for young accounting professionals. More and more are studying or working abroad, and globalisation has allowed them to take their skills and apply their knowledge anywhere. Yet they still face plenty of challenges, as illustrated by the career of Slovak accountant Marianna Trnavská ACCA. She has risen through the ranks of a television company and is now its CFO.

A passion for order sparked Trnavská’s interest in accounting at a young age. ‘Counting, and working with numbers and principles, was something I liked a lot,’ she says, adding that she first decided to learn about banking and finance in Žilina, at a high school specialising in business subjects, between 1994 and 1999. She worked hard and achieved very good marks, but one incident sticks in her mind. ‘I remember that my first mark in accounting was not something I was proud of because I mixed suppliers and customers. But after that, I understood the principle of how the two sides of the coin – credits and debits – must be equal. Accounting then became my love.’

Trnavská subsequently gained a master’s degree in accounting and audit at the University of Economics in Bratislava. Upon graduating, she worked for three years as an assistant to the plant engineer at Continental Matador before becoming an accountant in international billing at telecom operator Slovak Telekom. 

She then moved to global audit firm EY in Bratislava. After a year there, Trnavská worked as part of a team delivering a new business system for several branches in Europe, including Slovakia. It was then going to be implemented in both New Zealand and Australia. ‘I wanted to take a part in the deployment project at EY Australia, but it was postponed,’ she explains, adding that she did not want to stay on in Slovakia in the meantime. So she applied for a short-term position in New Zealand, followed by a longer stint at EY in Australia.

Her decision was personal rather than career-focused. Her husband (her partner at that time) decided to spend some time in Australia on a career break from working in telecommunications, while studying in order to develop his career opportunities. ‘I just wanted to follow him, even to the bottom of the world,’ she says. ‘So I was happy to accept the offer to work in the controlling team at EY Australia and stayed one year longer than I originally planned.’ 

Those two years spent in Australia and New Zealand were to prove crucial later in her working life. ‘I believe that my professional experience abroad helped me a lot in moving quickly in my career, she explains. ‘It also enabled me to develop and improve my skills.’ In addition, Trnavská feels that she can now look at business problems with a broader perspective. ‘I think that the trust I had earned abroad gave me some additional points when I returned home,’ she notes.

When she came back to Slovakia in 2008, Trnavská took up a position with Slovak television channel Markíza Group as CME planning and analysis manager, and then as CFO at MediaPro Entertainment, a production company set up by Markíza. Trnavská was then promoted to deputy finance officer at Markíza Group and, in 2013, she rose to the rank of CFO. 

In this role, she is responsible for accounting and reporting under both US GAAP and Slovak accounting standards. She heads, among other things, financial planning and analysis, including budgets and forecasting, as well as tax issues, and risk and compliance. In addition, Trnavská is responsible for facilities management, which includes everything from car parks to air-conditioning. 

Last year she carried out a facilities management review to identify savings. Among other things, such work involves re-tendering services and finding new suppliers. Although juggling finance and HR roles may appear difficult, she says: ‘I have middle managers below me and they have other people, so my role is not to carry out tasks but to manage them.’

Trnavská became CFO at a challenging time. In 2013, Markíza Group posted a loss of €19.8m, the company’s most serious loss since the beginning of the financial crisis. However, the resignation of the previous CFO was not directly related to this crisis. ‘Markíza Group went through a restructuring programme from October 2013 to improve the bottom line and operating effectiveness. The whole process was a challenge, not only for me but for the whole team,’ Trnavská explains.

‘We had to go through every cost line once again and reduce the number of full-time employees by a considerable figure in a short time.’ She argues, however, that the biggest test is to meet increasingly demanding targets. ‘This issue is not specific to Markíza Group, and I believe all companies have faced such challenges during and after the financial crisis,’ she says.

Selecting the right staff

Her CFO remit covers human resources too, and she has had to resolve personnel and training issues. ‘From my perspective, the main challenge is finding the right people.’ Trnavská describes them as those with a passion for everything that they do, who have a ‘never-give-up attitude’ and a ‘willingness to build on their skills and knowledge’. She points out that they must be ready to challenge the status quo and accept the need for personal development, with the right amount of self-awareness. ‘They need to be able to look in the mirror and see their strengths and weaknesses.’

Unrealistic expectations of junior staff have posed problems too. ‘I have had several experiences of hiring new colleagues for the teams. Younger people believe they have to be managers immediately just because they studied management,’ she explains, adding that some have expected to receive everything without working hard to gain additional benefits. ‘For example, the most valued benefit ever was the trust shown and opportunity given to me as a reward for my enthusiasm and hard work.’ 

Trnavská attributes these problems mostly to a lack of practical experience gained at university, or easier opportunities for the younger generation, such as the ability to work abroad. She has some practical advice for them. ‘I believe that full-time employment during my external studies helped me to learn working practices and to have realistic expectations.’ Trnavská adds, though, that working while studying was relatively easy for her because at that time she did not have a husband or family, and her job was not so demanding.

Media – a different industry

Trnavská has also had to face a range of other challenges, including the specifics of the media sector, which she notes is highly sensitive to changes in marketing budgets. ‘During a crisis companies normally tend to reduce the marketing budgets as one of the first savings,’ she explains. ‘And if the companies have less money for spending on TV advertisements, we have less revenue as a result. However, this changes again because companies know that this is a very effective way to gain new customers and improve their sales results.’

This is why audience figures also have to be factored into such firms’ accounting. ‘Of course, audience loyalty, which is linked to the media company’s production output, counts,’ she explains. ‘We have many tools to analyse our audience performance, and they enable us to react immediately and to improve. The larger the audience, the better it is for advertisers and the media industry.’

Trnavská adds that this arrangement makes the media sector different from other industries, but also very attractive to work in. ‘In television we are broadcasting, as well as creating products, such as news content, public affairs and entertainment. We work with various topics and it is a fast-paced business. The media sector is very different from the manufacturing industry.’

Familiar issues

When it comes to professional and personal challenges, Trnavská explains that women in the accounting and finance sector in Slovakia still face hurdles in their careers. Although she points out that they are reasonably represented at the lower levels in organisations, the same does not apply at the higher echelons. ‘Women tend to feel they need to work harder to be noticed and trusted. Once they gain that trust, they tend to be afraid of losing it. I think men do not think this way.’ Trnavská also argues that women will tend to be more thankful if they are given an opportunity. ‘I have several colleagues – women – in leading positions in Markíza Group. The truth is that chances for career growth for women are much better within media compared with other industries.’

The work/life balance issue is another familiar challenge. ‘I am just one of thousands of women, and it does not matter at what level of position a woman works, once she wants to have a private life it is always a fight balancing it with her work life. It is about constantly setting priorities, and questioning if I’m good enough in both roles consumes quite a lot of energy.’ Trnavská points out that this issue becomes even more complex when a woman becomes a mother.

In terms of future career prospects, although she has reached a senior position relatively quickly, Trnavská has mixed feelings. ‘It may look like I have already reached the top – and from a career perspective this is probably true.’ On the other hand, she says that she has dreams and goals, and has had to put them on hold for a while as she is currently ‘living in a two-dimensional world’ of work and family with little time for studies or relaxation. She is also heavily involved in charity work at Markíza Group and in 2013 became an executive at the Foundation Markíza, which supports children in need.

Trnavská still wants to keep abreast of current developments in the accounting and finance profession, and develop her language skills. She wishes to gain further experience too. ‘But I would always like to stay in the finance and accounting sector.’ 

David Creighton, journalist