Ashley Steel has the sort of commitment and passion for her job that corporate recruiters dream of. And that’s after 28 years at the same firm. Imagine what she was like aged 25 when she walked through the door of what was Peat Marwick Mitchell, now KPMG, armed with a PhD, a competitive instinct, and the zeal to use her family business background to help others.
She refers to her work ethic often, as well as her love for business and the importance of family and team. And while she’s aware that her unwavering dedication to work is not for everyone, she’s unapologetic about it.
“I have always put KPMG’s business top of my agenda. In many regards that means family and friends come second. I spent 28 years getting out of bed every day, including bank holidays and weekends, thinking about KPMG. A lot of people will find that insane but I’ve had the advantage of not having had children by choice and it’s my hobby as well as my career.
"Satisfying a client, doing a great piece of work: I love it.”
Steel comes from a family of high achievers: her astrophysicist brother names asteroids after his family, her sister is a world-renowned expert on hearing. As one of five children, she was taught by her entrepreneurial parents to “work hard, do your best”. This can-do attitude was “the difference between us being fed properly and not”.
So it’s unsurprising that Steel has risen from her trainee analyst role to partner and is one of the few women to have sat on KPMG’s UK and European boards.
Variety of roles
Citing her low boredom threshold as the reason she’s enjoyed a variety of roles – for example in KPMG’s financial services practice, its infrastructure, government and healthcare practice, media practice and two years in America’s Silicon Valley – she says she’s enjoyed doing something different every couple of years.
Is every CEO of the FTSE 100 really saying that they can’t find a qualified woman to fill half of their executive posts?
“Coming to one of the Big Four professional services firms is good because if you work hard, deliver, and stick with something for two to three years, you’ll be recognised and enabled to take on another challenge somewhere else. I always took advantage of that. When they were looking for someone to lead our technology practice, a role based in California, I was the first to say I’ll go. I have this attitude that I can do anything and therefore throw myself at it.”
Of the 35 countries she’s worked in, Steel describes the US as the best environment for a woman. She’s passionate about equality in the workplace and is a member of the board sub-group for diversity and has been named in the World Pride Power List – a list of the 100 most influential lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people.
She says, “I went to the US at the beginning of 2001 and found a greater acceptance that women have an equal place in the workplace and add equal value. You don’t find yourself in meetings being slightly talked over or ignored. There’s a general culture of equality of women in the business culture in the US that does not exist here in the UK.”
Steel feels Britain’s organisations still need to make big cultural shifts; that laws such as the equal pay act “only take you so far, they don’t change behaviour”. So she’s now an advocate of quotas, because promoting on merit alone is not getting women onto boards. “Is every CEO of the FTSE 100 really saying that they can’t find a qualified woman to fill half of their executive posts? I believe they can.”
When she put herself forward for a position on the KPMG UK board she had the support of Sir Michael Rake, who was chairman of KPMG International from 2002 to 2007. “I knew Mike Rake very well, I’d worked with him before I went to the US, I had massive regard for him and I wanted to work on his board.
I was 43 when I joined our UK board and was four years on it, and then went on to the European board. When I stepped down I said they should find a woman to replace me. They didn’t,” she says.
But she’s optimistic that new chairman Simon Collins will push the agenda. “Simon has been quite publicly outspoken about the need to have more women in management and board roles,” she says. Agreeing that the accountancy profession seems a bit more enlightened than, say, banking or insurance she counters: “We still don’t do enough.
I think Simon will change that, but it’s not something you can do overnight.”
Her current role as global head of transport, logistics and leisure takes her all over the world talking to CEOs, CFOs, chairmen and board members of global transport groups. So what sense does she have about the way business is coping with the economic slowdown? “While the UK is in a particularly dangerous situation where it could talk itself down if it’s not careful, Osborne and Cameron have gone out of their way to make foreign companies and governments want to invest in the UK. That’s why I get frustrated about [another runway at] Heathrow. I want it built, because it’s the door to the country.”
She reckons the accountancy profession adds huge value to the capital markets. She refutes any notion that there’s a cosy relationship between auditors and their clients and can’t imagine any professional putting their personal integrity at risk to sign off an audit opinion that’s anything less than rigorous. “When a partner puts their ink on an audit that’s a heck of a brave thing to do because their whole future depends on that. I’m only as good as my personal integrity. If I lose that, if I give bad advice or say something inappropriate, I could not do what I do,” she says.
Plans for retirement
If rotation improves quality or changes public perception, bring it on, she says. “KPMG opposes mandatory firm rotation – but everyone agrees that there is a need for improved audit quality. You wouldn’t want to rotate every five years but there is somewhere sensible in the middle.
"If that’s the right level of public assurance, or what the capital markets want, let’s accept that and move on.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Steel mentions that she wants to retire from the firm in two years’ time when she’s 55, although she will be seeking different board positions. And she says she’s got a lot to be thankful for.
“When I joined the firm back in the mid 1980s, I thought I was going to be here for two years. The reason I stayed was because I’ve loved the intellectual challenge; whenever I’ve worked hard I’ve been rewarded. I’ve done wildly different things: I’ve advised many African and Caribbean governments.
"I’m the most privileged and lucky girl in Canary Wharf.”