Growing a tax practice and developing the profession. All in a day’s work for Dr Claudius Williams-Tucker FCCA, head of tax, regulatory and people services at KPMG Sierra Leone
This article was first published in the February 2014 international edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
Sierra Leone is an exciting growth economy. ‘We are one of the 10 fastest developing economies in the world,’ says Dr Claudius Williams-Tucker FCCA, president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Sierra Leone and head of tax, regulatory and people services at KPMG Sierra Leone. GDP growth in 2013 is expected to be around 11 per cent, and to reach somewhere between 10 per cent and 15 per cent in 2014 – mainly due to expansion in the mining sector.
‘In the recent past the mining and petroleum sector has grown exponentially and a lot of activity in Sierra Leone is now focused around mining and oil and gas exploration,’ Williams-Tucker says. ‘We have one of the biggest iron ore mines in Africa and in the next five years, Sierra Leone is positioned to be the highest producer of iron ore in Africa. We also have a big diamond mine, and in the oil and gas sector there is a lot of exploration happening.’
Such growth is helping to drive the workload of KPMG, where Williams-Tucker is responsible for the day-to-day management of the 17-strong tax practice in Sierra Leone – built from scratch after he joined the firm in 2002. ‘It’s the fastest-growing side of our business,’ he says, identifying two key reasons. ‘A lot of companies are coming into Sierra Leone because of the growth in the economy. Secondly, donor funding is drying up and therefore African governments are becoming more aggressive in terms of mobilising domestic revenue.’
The UK government is currently supporting an initiative to modernise the Sierra Leone tax authority and help it raise tax revenue. ‘The authority is very aggressive now, which means we have a lot of work – tax compliance and tax advice. We work to effectively manage tax exposures and tax structuring, and advise on specific transactions.’
Williams-Tucker’s workload isn’t confined to business activity in Sierra Leone, however. ‘We also cover Liberia, the Gambia and Guinea because KPMG doesn’t have offices there,’ he says. ‘I travel a lot.
There is a huge volume of work. I have loads of meetings, discussions with staff, phone calls and work to review. My clients are mainly multinational corporations. When they make a decision to invest, they look at the tax benefits. It’s quite challenging to get them to understand the tax issues and implications of their operating in Africa.’
Alongside his tax focus, Williams-Tucker’s role includes ‘head of regulatory’. He is in charge of the range of legal services the firm offers, such as Companies Act compliance and company set-up. ‘We also provide ad hoc legal advice on commercial issues,’ he says. On top of that, his ‘people’ role has both an external and an internal remit. ‘We help our clients deliver HR solutions,’ he explains. ‘Then within KPMG I am the partner in charge of administration and HR.’
Not surprisingly, managing his work-life balance is a big personal challenge. Williams-Tucker works long » days – typically from around 8.30am until 10pm. ‘It’s a difficult situation – to be on top of your game and do the balancing act. Luckily for me, my wife is also a professional accountant, trained at KPMG, so she understands.’
The life of the professional accountant in Sierra Leone in general is challenging, Williams-Tucker says. ‘One of the biggest challenges the profession faces here is the competence of the auditees. Rather than being presented with a full set of accounts ready for audit, staff are more likely to receive a basic trial balance. We have to write up the accounts and then do the audit.’
Being able to charge appropriate fees is also an issue. ‘Businesses want to scale down their costs, but the costs of accountants are going up,’ Williams-Tucker says. Maintaining the basic infrastructure to run the office is itself costly. ‘A lot of what professionals in developed countries would get through public utilities, we have to provide ourselves,’ he explains. ‘For example, we have to provide power ourselves because the national grid is not very reliable.’
Staff costs are also relatively high. ‘We have to pay our people market rates, and so our charge rates go up,’ he says. ‘We find it hard to balance that – maintaining our skills pool and paying market rates, and managing the clients’ expectation that the fees remain the same. We explain the issues – that we have our professional costs.’
Although Williams-Tucker’s two fellow partners are not ACCA members, all trainee audit and tax staff within KPMG’s Sierra Leone office are required to study for the ACCA Qualification. ‘ACCA gives me a broad understanding of our business,’ Williams-Tucker says. ‘I am not only proficient in what I do as a professional accountant, in the tax and the accountancy sides of our firm, but I also see the business from a holistic point of view. That helps me to develop a proper business strategy and grow the business, as well as helping me with challenges such as talent management and people retention.’
His technical and personal strengths are recognised in KPMG. In 2013 Williams-Tucker was appointed ‘lead reviewer’ for the KPMG practice in South Africa. ‘On an annual basis we undergo peer reviews – a partner goes from one office to another to review the work being done and ensure it is up to the KPMG standard,’ he explains. ‘It’s an elaborate process. This year I was signed up to do the reviews in South Africa – our largest practice in Africa. In the past South Africa was always reviewed by partners from Europe or the Americas. This is the first time an African has been given the role. It was quite a challenge.’ The ground-breaking appointment also attracted public attention, with local press carrying the story.
Williams-Tucker believes his ACCA Qualification has equipped him well to meet such challenges, and he wants to give something back to the profession. He is currently in his second year as president of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Sierra Leone and has been a member of Council, honorary treasurer, vice president and chairman of the Education and Training Committee.
On leaving office in May 2014 he would like his legacy to be more ACCA accountants qualifying, and for them to be ‘the envy of every Sierra Leonean’. He says: ‘As the economy is expanding, there is also a huge demand for accountants and if we don’t keep pace, there will come a time when we have a serious shortage.’
Law to accountancy
As for Williams-Tucker himself, an accountancy career wasn’t always on the cards. He originally envisaged becoming a lawyer, but after sixth form began studying for the ACCA Qualification. ‘I thought there would be a greater opportunity for me in the field of accountancy than law,’ he says, revealing that his father was also an accountant. He began his studies in Sierra Leone before completing them in London, qualifying in 2001. ‘I did some tax work in the UK, then went back to Sierra Leone and started my career in the petroleum sector as a finance manager.’
He believes his UK experience helped his career. ‘People are quite ambitious in the UK and so you are pushed to give of your best,’ he says. ‘It’s also a busy, more stressful environment. If you are able to work in an environment that is dynamic, volatile and fast moving, you can work anywhere.’ KPMG tries to give its own staff international exposure. ‘We have a programme where we move people around,’ Williams-Tucker says. ‘It’s quite hard to come to Europe, but we try to give them international experience so they can see work ethics and processes in other offices and bring them back. It’s a big learning experience.’
Though Williams-Tucker originally worked in industry after returning to Sierra Leone, the opportunity soon arose to join KPMG and he was attracted by the challenge of starting up its tax practice. As the tax practice burgeoned, so did Williams-Tucker’s career. ‘Within five years I was able to become a partner in the firm,’ he explains.
Grateful for his own success, helping others achieve is important to Williams-Tucker. He maintains an open door policy for all KPMG staff and mentors a ‘quite huge’ number of people. ‘It’s difficult to turn people down, so I do try to accommodate them – to find time to talk to them and advise them on their career. It’s a challenge, but something I have to try and do.’
"There is a demand for accountants and if we don’t keep pace, there will come a time when we have a serious shortage."