This article was first published in the April 2017 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

In 2014, Rachel Grimes stood face-to-face with Pope Francis in the Vatican. The meeting was, she says, an ‘amazing and overwhelming’ experience. The leader of the Roman Catholic Church addressed the delegation of which she was part on the importance of the accounting profession to society. Grimes recalls: ‘He said, “You control the money. Don’t leave anybody behind in the process, and be aware of fraud and corruption.”’

Grimes’ career has been defined by that broader contribution to her profession and society, and Pope Francis’ message resonated strongly with her. ‘I don’t want to sit on the sidelines,’ she says. ‘I want to get in and help. That’s my standard modus operandi. I’m prepared to roll up my sleeves.’

As a former president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia (ICAA), which merged in 2014 with its counterpart the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants to form Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand (CA ANZ), Grimes recently became president of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), the global organisation for the accounting profession. Her appointment comes at a time of significant change for the accounting profession, not least as a result of technology disruption, which she wants the industry to be better prepared for. 

Another major challenge is the ever-growing global regulatory burden, particularly around standards and frameworks. Grimes believes that the profession is on a strong footing and living up to Pope Francis’ lofty vision. However, she wants to use her presidency to defend against regulatory overreach. ‘We need to draw a line in the sand in terms of standards setting,’ she says.

Early influences

Making a contribution to society was instilled in Grimes as a child. She grew up in Sydney, where her father was a lawyer, and her mother a nurse. ‘My parents were dedicated to community service,’ she says. ‘They set a fabulous example in trying to contribute as much as you can.’ At school fetes, Grimes would help her father count the takings.

Starting her career at PwC, she worked in audit, specialising in banking, but also helped with other clients, including the global sports talent management company IMG. ‘As a self-confessed sports nut this was heaven,’ she says.

Rob Ward, a former ICAA president himself, now head of leadership and advocacy at CA ANZ, employed her as a graduate. ‘Rob has been a big influence throughout my accounting career. I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today without his guidance.’ 

It was Ward who introduced her to the broader role an accountant could play. When he was ICAA president, Grimes would sit in on meetings with him. ‘I saw a different side of accounting in terms of the influence on outcomes, such as in meetings with regulators.’

Grimes completed her ICAA qualification at PwC, and sees it as a passport to the world. ‘If you want to travel, having that qualification allows you to work anywhere,’ she says, adding that CA ANZ has members in 122 countries.

Grimes’ initial goal was to become a partner. ‘I had my blinkers on,’ she admits. But then wealth manager BT Financial Group approached her with a very interesting offer. She was torn, but decided to make the move. ‘The hardest path often works out the best as you learn the most,’ she adds. ‘You need to challenge yourself in different ways.’

After BT, in 2007 Grimes became director of mergers and acquisitions at Westpac, where she spent seven years working on major transactions, including the IPO of BT Investment Management and the merger of St George and Westpac itself. 

In July 2014, she became CFO of Westpac’s group technology division. ‘Westpac is an amazing organisation that has supported me in each stage of my volunteering with the accounting bodies, and it complements my desire to assist people,’ she says.

Grimes joined ICAA in Australia in 1994, becoming a fellow in 2002 and a director in 2006. In 2011 she was appointed president, only the second woman to hold the title. She laid the foundations for the successful merger between the Australian and New Zealand member bodies by aligning their education and technology platforms.

Grimes joined the IFAC board in 2011. The goal then was to provide greater representation of accountants from the business sector, and she saw an opportunity to work closely with someone she deeply respected. In 2014, IFAC was about to appoint its first female president, Olivia Kirtley, who was also IFAC’s first president from industry and business rather than public accounting. 

‘I think Olivia is outstanding and I knew she was someone I could learn a lot from,’ Grimes says. She put her hand up to work alongside Kirtley as IFAC’s deputy president, and succeeded after a rigorous selection process that included mock presentations and press conferences, and an eight-person panel interview. As deputy president she was responsible for setting a three-year strategy for IFAC.

At the end of Kirtley’s two-year tenure as president in 2016, Grimes was elected to replace her as the leading voice of the accounting profession globally. She has moved quickly. By setting up a technology advisory group, she has positioned the accountancy industry to manage the risks and embrace the opportunities of technology, particularly artificial intelligence and robotics. The group’s first meeting this year included the CEOs of all of IFAC’s member bodies as well as computer giant IBM.

Grimes says accountants need to differentiate themselves in a world where technology can perform many core tasks in areas such as auditing, but where analysis and high-level business understanding remain crucial. ‘People will always want that face-to-face service. What skillsets do we have to build around young people so they can deliver on that?

‘We need to make sure we are across things that are changing quickly, like technology,’ she adds. ‘Data, for example, is the most valuable asset of any company. But it’s not on any balance sheet. How do we audit that and place a value on it?’

Grimes also wants to help attract and retain young talent, and to recruit more women. As ICAA president she met pioneering female accountants from across Australia. 

But her key ambition is to create certainty around the setting of accounting standards and frameworks. The Monitoring Group of international regulators and financial institutions, and the Public Interest Oversight Board, are reviewing the standards-setting model to ensure the public interest is being met and that the industry has the most appropriate governance structure. Grimes says IFAC is always looking for ways to improve the standards-setting process and has allocated significant resources to this.

She warns against diluting the role of accountants in the standards-setting model. ‘Accountants are experts in their respective fields,’ she says. ‘The technical expertise is such that a lay person cannot assume that responsibility. It is absolutely in the public interest that the best possible individuals from diverse geographic regions and backgrounds from the accounting profession are best placed to develop standards.’

There is a fine line, she says, between creating an ‘overly independent’ standards-setting model and having the deep expertise of accountants to draw on. ‘With ethics at the very foundations, accountants operate within the public interest,’ she says. ‘This should never be forgotten.’

Knee-jerk reactions

Another concern is to avoid ill-considered changes to the process in response to events. ‘The model should not be constantly tinkered with to account for extreme scenarios,’ she says. ‘Rather, the focus globally should be the speed to market of standards, and the adoption. This will ensure that scarce capital is allocated to the most efficient users.’

Grimes firmly believes the accounting profession is on track to live up to the message of Pope Francis, and plans to defend it staunchly during her tenure as IFAC president.

‘The accounting profession is first class,’ she says. ‘A profession, by definition, is something that’s ethically based. The global accounting profession is strong, it has robust foundations and a solid framework for our members to turn to in difficult times. The member bodies are always looking at better ways to support their members – that’s three million accountants across the globe.’ 

Ben Power, journalist based in Sydney

This is an edited version of an article that was first published in Acuity, the member magazine of ACCA’s strategic alliance partner Chartered Accountants ANZ