Engineering a snapshot of accountancy

ACCA boasts one of the most diversely rich memberships of any industry body in the world. No two ACCA members and future members are the same and they all experience different journeys on the way to becoming finance professionals. Here, we meet Charlie Shearn, who admits that if he’d been told 10 years ago that he would be training to become an accountant, he would never have believed it!


Charlie Shearn was born and raised in Bedfordshire, UK. With a natural aptitude for sciences and mathematics at school, along with a keen interest in querying how things work and fixing them, engineering was, he says, ‘a natural choice’.

With support and encouragement from his school, Charlie applied to Cambridge University.

‘At that time large engineering firms were offering sponsorships for engineering students, helping them with their college fees,’ says Charlie.

‘I was offered a sponsorship by Rover/Land Rover Group. Like most 18-year-olds I was mad about cars, so this was a fabulous offer. I worked first in vehicle engineering and testing, then gradually moved into concept engineering (on a concept car project that eventually became the Land Rover Freelander), then sales and marketing.’

A change of focus

At the same, though, Charlie was indulging in his real passion – photography – and began to wonder whether his hobby could turn into something more.

I was also shooting photos and receiving increasing encouragement to become a professional photographer. I began exploring this idea, not really believing it would happen,’ he says. ‘In 2000, aged 32, I suddenly found myself being offered a place to study photography for a year at the old Central St Martins in London. At the same time, Rover Group was in difficulties and offering very generous redundancy packages. It was a no-brainer, at least in my head!

‘A month later I was studying photography in the basement of one of the most famous art colleges in the world.’

Charlie set out doing commercial portraiture and PR photography, making a reasonable living and working with interesting clients. It was, he says, ‘a dream come true’.

However, the advent of digitisation and the disruptions it brought to traditional photography (‘suddenly everyone with a phone is a photographer’) meant that Charlie found it increasingly difficult to make a living. So in came Plan C: rock climbing!

‘I was hooked and spent increasing amounts of time climbing at my local gym, The Castle Climbing Centre. I became a part-time instructor to fill in during quiet periods in my photo business,’ explains Charlie. It was this role that was to be the first step towards the world of finance.

‘The sport of climbing was growing at a crazy rate, and so too The Castle. Already employing over 100 people, they decided the business would benefit by offering a trainee accountant position, growing the existing book-keeping role towards a more financial management and business advisory role as the candidate’s skills improved. I applied and was offered the position.’

Charlie was drawn to accountancy because it is ‘intellectually challenging, with skills widely applicable to almost any business’.

Charles says he is delighted to be training with ACCA because it offers him accreditation from a highly reputable professional body.

‘I have taught myself entirely through self-study, using materials from Kaplan and BPP. It’s regularly been a real challenge to keep motivated and keep going. I view the exams as only the start of my journey as an accountant – the experience I gain afterwards and the mentors I learn from will be what really make the difference,’ he explains.

No barrier to a new beginning

Now 54, Charlie is a poster boy for not letting age or prejudice become a barrier to taking on a new challenge.

‘I have been astonished by the number of people my age who have asked me, in all seriousness, if I find learning difficult “at our age”. Absolutely not! If anything, I find it easier. I know the learning methods that work for me – physical books and lots of practice questions – and I’m as motivated as I’ve ever been to learn as this is my new career and I want to do well.’

With such a rich and diverse career history, Charlie has been able to transfer a plethora of skills to help in his training, from ‘doing my own accounts as a freelancer, including being registered for VAT’ to ‘making connections with strangers quickly – crucial when being a people photographer’ to ‘working in the car industry (a big business) and remembering that there is an authority process and that individuals can’t work in isolation – their actions have an impact on others and the business as a whole’.

Charlie is the envy of others with his dream job and says he is ‘very grateful to The Castle for giving me a new chance in life’.

With a lifetime of dramatically different careers, accountancy may just be the one that takes Charlie to retirement, although – by his own admission – his ‘latest obsession is in sailing dinghy racing’… So who knows?

"I view the exams as only the start of my journey as an accountant – the experience I gain afterwards and the mentors I learn from will be what really make the difference"