My priority for this year,” says Paul Aplin, incoming president at ICAEW, “is to get the message across to young people from all backgrounds that accountancy is for them. It’s the most meritocratic of professions, with no class ceiling: we don’t hear accents, or see school ties. We simply want to cast a wide and inclusive net to bring in and train people who have a passion for accountancy. All we look for is potential. The only obstacle to becoming an ACA should be the exams themselves – a hurdle that must remain high. We don’t want anything else standing in the way.”
Aplin is the living proof of what he preaches. Having failed his 11+, he went to a secondary modern that became a comprehensive soon after he started – a fortuitous happenstance that meant he could sit GCEs, and ultimately go to university, where he read biology and chemistry.
“I loved science and wanted to forge a career in it, but when I graduated I wasn’t able to find work in my field so I started applying for every single position I saw advertised in the local paper. On Friday 13 June, 1980, I walked through the rain to an interview for a job at AC Mole & Sons, in Somerset, and on Monday 16 June I started work. Thirty-eight years later, I’m still there.”
The length of his tenure proves that you don’t have to jump jobs to succeed: among his many achievements are being named Tax Personality of the Year in the 2007 UK Tax Awards for his role in persuading the government to reverse its decision to shorten the tax return filing deadline; receiving the Outstanding Industry Contribution prize in 2013’s British Accountancy Awards; and being named seventh most influential person in guiding tax and financial policy in the 2014 Accountancy Age Financial Power List (he was 12th this year). Add to that an OBE in 2009 and chairing ICAEW’s Tax Faculty and technical committee and he’s certainly a compelling advertisement for being a “lifer”.
“When I joined, my intention was only to be there for the summer, but I so enjoyed what I was doing that I accepted a full-time job,” he says. “When other firms came calling, I always thought I had more to lose than to gain. I don’t mean materially, but in friendships and job satisfaction and being able to have an active involvement with ICAEW. I love what I do, I love the fact that tax has given me an opportunity to influence government policy, so that it works for the SMEs we represent, and I see the fact that I’ve been able to find my perfect job in the one firm as a huge bonus.”
Aplin has devoted his whole career to tax. On 23 April 1997, AC Mole & Sons filed the UK’s first-ever electronic tax return, which brought Aplin to the attention of ICAEW. It was, he says, another example of how seizing opportunities paid dividends, kick-starting his relationship with the Institute, which has resulted in his becoming president.
“I was reading Taxation magazine and a three-line news item about how HMRC was going to launch digital tax returns caught my eye. The snippet mentioned the software company that we used, so I phoned them and, by the end of the call, we had agreed that AC Mole & Sons would be their test case. Suddenly we were the experts – purely through virtue of having been the first. We were in the FT the next day, and on the radio that night, and as I was the tax partner, I was approached by ICAEW to speak at the Tax Faculty’s annual conference; I’ve been deeply involved in Institute business ever since.”
Aplin says: “We have an obligation to give something back, to work for the public benefit. Our profession is built on integrity – the words “public interest” are in our Royal Charter. When we meet with government ministers, we can tell them how policy will affect businesses and taxpayers in very practical terms. Vince Cable once said that ICAEW ‘is a body with no axe to grind’; the fact that we’re not a traditional lobby group makes us all the more powerful. It’s an enormous privilege to act as a voice for business and that’s an essential part of the job.”
Aplin also hopes to use his presidency to champion the benefits of technology and to see more practices using it effectively. “Technology has brought rapid and radical changes to all aspects of society and to all businesses, and accountancy can’t be an exception. We’ve got to eliminate any remaining perception of us as a quill -pushing, ledger-hugging profession and show that digital is our natural territory. If we want to attract the best talent to the profession, if we want to do the best for our clients, we have to view modernity and digitalisation as the assets they are.”
His third aim is to put ICAEW and accountancy more firmly in the spotlight across the world. Currently, 25% of its students are overseas, but Aplin wants to see that number increase, particularly in the run-up to and beyond Brexit. Good accountants are vital to the creation of strong economies, he says, and ICAEW can play a significant role in capacity building on a global scale.
I like being an ACA because… It’s given me a fulfilling life.
I’m happiest when… I’m walking our border collie, Misty.
My favourite book is… The Once and Future King by TH White. I’ve loved it since I was a child.
The hardest lesson to learn has been… You can’t do everything (but that’s never stopped me trying).
I’d like to be remembered as… An effective voice for the profession.
Love of my life is… My wife Sharon, of course.
My worst habit is… Adding to my collection of duck ties – a bad habit because I rarely wear a tie.