I came to the Falklands to help set up the office here,” says Karen Lee. “It was supposed to be for six months, and I loved it so much I’ve never found a reason to go back. Six months has become 18 years.”
You’d think any accountancy firm might struggle with an island population of just 2,000 people – but Lee, director of Wilkins Kennedy’s practice in Stanley, says business is booming.
“When I arrived we had two clients but we’ve grown and are now extremely busy. It’s a great place to work and live.”
She recently received the Queen’s Certificate and Badge of Honour for her voluntary work – a rare award given to those who have “provided services of exceptional benefit to the people of the Falkland Islands”.
“Not bad for an Essex girl,” laughs 41-year-old Lee. “Although this is the sort of community where everyone volunteers, so I’ve asked: ‘Why me?’”
Here’s why: away from the day job, she’s a parent-helper with the Scout group, a parent-coach at the swimming club, a member of the Falklands Education Board and a trustee of Stanley’s Citizens Advice Bureau.
“But I just love doing these things,” she says. “I’m humbled by the award – I’m merely doing something I enjoy.”
It’s not her first honour. In 2003, under her maiden name Ballantyne, she was named Accountancy Age’s Accountant of the Year. All proof she’s come a long way from her Chelmsford roots, and the accountancy training that began during her final year at university. “I got a placement at Barron Rowles Bass and joined at about the time of the merger with Wilkins Kennedy in 1996. They would send staff to Stanley for three weeks a year for fishing company audits but then opened an office and asked if I’d come for six months. I offered to stay until the office turned a profit.”
It did that quickly, by which time Lee was converted to island life. “From getting the 7.19 from Chelmsford into London I suddenly had a minute’s walk to work,” she says. “Islanders are so welcoming. Everyone knows everyone – including the island governor. We all help each other.”
Which brings us back to volunteering. “I’m passionate about helping youngsters reach their potential,” says Lee, who with Falklander husband Myles has children George, nine, and Anna, seven. “I got involved in Scouts when George joined. There are about 22 kids – sometimes boisterous, always fun. The swimming’s great, too – being a small island, our children compete internationally. And then I was asked to join the government’s Board of Education.
“In our profession you can go round the world chasing money and status, but in the Falklands you don’t need to do that. There’s full employment, no crime, everyone is comfortable. I work hard, but I also have a fantastic family life. We don’t have to worry about the mortgage or the stresses of life. And I love the penguins and our other wonderful wildlife. It’s a true privilege to live here.”