George Richards 5 Dec 2017 01:32pm

The path less travelled

George Richards explores some of the specialist, more diverse career options available to those accountants armed with an ACA

Caption: Illustrations: Neil Stevens
Accounting as a profession can be misunderstood. People tend to think of it as secure and reliable but not that exciting. This could not be further from the truth. As the needs and environments of business change, so too does the work of accountants, and for those offering specialist services, their work lives can be even more diverse.

ICAEW has a thriving network of communities to support these members. For instance, it is launching its Personal Financial Planning Community and Lifetime Wealth Planning Guide this month to provide more support to members with an interest in regulation, pensions, investments, tax and estate planning, probate and practice development.

The communities also provide an excellent opportunity for accountants starting their careers to consider what options are available. Here three accountants – one trained in insolvency, one in forensic investigations, and another who works in entertainment – discuss what makes their jobs different, and give advice on how to start a career in their chosen discipline.

Forensic accounting: Gavin Pearson, partner, HSNO

“There are two routes into forensic accounting, one where you train in general accounts and audit before transferring across, and another where you can train more specifically in forensic accounting while doing your professional qualification. Those who go through the accounts and audit route have the advantage that they’ve got a broader set of skills, while accountants who train in forensic have the advantage of getting more experience and can potentially move quicker with their careers.

“A good forensic accountant will need an analytical brain: someone who enjoys getting into detail, analysing things and working out the answers. You’ve got to be happy dealing with large amounts of data and you need to have an investigatory mind. Forensic accountants also need good communications skills because the vast majority of forensic accounting work results in a report written or spoken – that needs to explain complicated content in a simple way.

“Forensic accountants are involved in large fraud cases, where there might be millions, tens of millions, or even hundreds of millions of pounds that been defrauded; those cases can be high profile. In civil terms, we can be involved in highly publicised disputes between major corporations. These stories can be widely reported on and it’s that high-profile nature of the work that makes it interesting.

“When people work for large firms, or firms where there is forensic accounting, then having a secondment or helping out the forensic team is often the best way in. Otherwise a large proportion of forensic accounting teams recruit people at a newly qualified level and that’s the logical time to move. I came through the traditional route of audits and accounts before taking a secondment with my then firm’s forensic team. I also spent some time at the Serious Fraud Office

“No two cases are ever the same so you have to think about how you approach each one differently. It’s our role to be as independent as possible and it’s important that, even when we are instructed by a particular party, if we think they haven’t got it right we tell them at the earliest possible stage.

“Forensic accountants are always working on different cases with different clients, and ultimately working towards a resolution that is better for them: to effectively solve the problem. I enjoy the variety and contributing to an outcome that will hopefully be positive to our clients.”

Insolvency: Allison Broad, senior manager, professional standards, ICAEW

“Before I joined ICAEW I worked in the insolvency department at PwC in Sheffield. Training was very much on the job, working on insolvency cases with more senior staff.

That training can be supplemented with formal learning. Exams such as ICAEW’s Certificate in Insolvency can give staff a broad introduction to insolvency concepts and key aspects of the different types of insolvency.

“Accountants who want to become licensed insolvency practitioners need to take the Joint Insolvency Examination Board, or JIEB, exams. These are tough and tutors will often say that it will be a year out of your life if you want to pass them. The number of papers is reducing to two in 2018, but the rigour won’t change.

“The exams tend to cover different scenarios, because you need to be able to deal with a wide range of situations and sectors in insolvency. Practitioners are highly regulated and there are only a small number of them: 1,606 in the UK. They have specialist, detailed knowledge, and that’s why the exams are hard.

“One important skill in insolvency is getting people to work with you. Generally, the people you are dealing with are aggrieved or upset. The directors don’t want you there, they aren’t in a good place, and staff are worried about losing their jobs. Creditors will be on the phone, or may turn up at the premises; they have lost money and don’t understand why you can’t do anything about it. You need to be able to pull everybody in, to get them to work together, to work with you, so you can achieve the best possible outcome. Time is generally critical. There can be a potentially short window to deal with the appointment, sell the business or assets or get a CVA approved, so it can be high-pressured with long hours. Every day costs money, and insolvent businesses don’t have that.

“The most difficult part is if you have to make people redundant – it’s horrible. While day to day insolvency practitioners are working with legislation and Statements of Insolvency Practice, they also need to be aware of tax issues, health and safety and employment law. They don’t necessarily need to be experts in all those areas, but they need to have enough knowledge to be alert to potential problems and to know when to seek specialist advice.

“It’s rewarding when you sell a business and save people’s jobs. You get a real buzz from that. These days, a lot of accountants working in insolvency get involved in advisory work, so they’ll be working upstream before a company is actually insolvent, helping to restructure it. There is a great satisfaction from achieving a successful restructuring and saving a business.”

Entertainment: David Stead, finance director, Foxtrot Delta

“I started at Deloitte with quite a wide cross section of clients and it just so happened that at the time when I was looking to move into industry, a role came up at a marketing company. Technically speaking, the work differs very little. The difference is in the characters working within the entertainment industry. It’s not just the talent but the people who occupy that space. They tend to be more colourful and more volatile and you need to rely on your soft skills and communication.

“On the royalties side, the entertainment industry has been affected significantly by technology, but this hasn’t affected accounting. We still have to keep up with technological trends, but that’s true of most sectors.

“New starters in entertainment have to understand that as well as following the regulatory and accounting rules, you also have to operate within certain boundaries rather than the strict letter of the law. Accountants have to realise they control expense policies, cash management and so on, but in a way that also manages the people involved – you have to comply with legislation in a way that people in the entertainment industry can deal with. You have to be flexible.

“Professionalism is key. It would be very easy to go native, to try to be mates with these people, when actually you are their accountant. It’s a nice environment, it’s a sexy environment, but you’re still there to do a disciplined job. You see people drawn in by the bright lights. I think if you started out in entertainment at 21 or 22, it might be harder to deal with.

“If you are looking after a celebrity or a person in the entertainment industry, you need to protect them from tax schemes. You need to show them that all that glitters is not gold, and actually there is a reason that the returns on offer are so fantastic: it’s because it’s not quite as legitimate as it would appear.

“When someone comes in with a fantastic, too-good-to-be-true offer, you need to have built up a relationship with them so that they believe you. You can’t be a technical accountant who just says ‘no, that’s not right’ – to be honest, they wouldn’t listen. You have to build that relationship with them to make them see.”

In November ICAEW’s Special Interest Groups (SIGs) rebranded as Communities. These offer chartered accountants up-to-date information and guidance tailored to their sector and professional specialisms. For further information visit icaew.com/en/groups-and-networks/communities