Features
2 Mar 2016 11:20am

Practice versus industry

After qualification, ACAs have the choice of a career in accountancy firms or out in the business world. Both have their appeal, based on personal aptitude, lifestyle and interests. Choose wisely, says Sandra Haurant, and you will never look back

Whether it was all part of the master plan or by virtue of a fresh opportunity, making the move from practice to industry represents a significant career change for chartered accountants.

It’s a popular route – according to a global survey last year of chartered accountants and auditors carried out by specialist recruitment firm Careers in Audit, 48.2% of 1,701 candidates surveyed said they would prefer to work in-house within a business rather than within an accountancy practice, compared with 33.3% who said they would rather work in a practice. Of the rest, 8.6% said they would like to set up their own business while 9.9% wanted to change career completely.

Catherine Driver decided to train as a chartered accountant when she was a teenager. “My grandfather told me I should be an accountant because of the stability and the salary, so I made up my mind to become a partner of my own practice,” recalls Driver. “Originally, I wanted to join the top four, but I chose [Leicester-based] Newby Castleman in 2011 so that I had a better chance of experiencing lots of types of accounting in case I didn’t like practice,” she says.

It turned out to be a wise decision. “I knew about one year in that I didn’t enjoy making financial accounts so I moved into the audit team. Another year later I knew practice in its entirety wasn’t for me and that as soon as I qualified I’d leave for industry.” She joined Southern Housing Group, a housing association, where she is both commercial accountant on the business planning team and business partner to the group development director. “It is a very interesting job right now, with all the changes that the government is making to social housing, benefits and the construction industry. It’s super challenging, but in a good way,” says Driver.

But the transition away from practice had certain challenges, too. “It was very easy to get job offers as a financial accountant, but I wanted to do more financial planning and analysis and strategy, and it was harder to get a recruitment person to take a punt on me,” she says. “The actual work is very different, so I had to go back to the bottom of the pile in terms of knowledge, while I had been leading teams in my last role. Other than that, there are similarities, but you have internal customers instead of external.”

“I could never go back [to practice],” she adds. “My job is diverse and I get to do work that helps people. My new goal is financial director and then CEO – aim high, right?”

Pros

Moving from practice to industry can give you the opportunity to use your skills in a very different environment.

Greater continuity you can focus on core areas of the business rather than working with multiple clients in practice.

An opportunity to stand out, make an impact and move things forward within an organisation.

A vast variety of opportunities across all sectors, from charities to commerce, from industry to government.

With such a sought after qualification and skillset, the world is your oyster. Commerce and industry need finance experts more than ever.

The chance to move into operational jobs and move away from accountancy or finance roles.

As people look to reposition their teams from a growth point of view the need for that kind of skill is very real

Stephen Ibbotson, director of business at ICAEW, says that he chose to leave practice and move into industry after building up a wealth of experience with a Big Four firm. “I was an auditor with Ernst & Young [now EY] and I wanted to do something that was more proactive,” he explains. “I wanted to get involved with a company that made a product, and the opportunity to help drive that business forward.”

Ibbotson joined Dunlop in Liverpool, and although it was the right decision, it was not without its challenges. “The move from practice to business can come as a shock,” he says. “In practice, you are training with people who are very similar to you; it’s very collegiate, you get a lot of support. When I joined Dunlop, I was the only qualified accountant, and I had people working for me who were twice my age and who had been there years and years, doing all sorts of different jobs. The situation is quite different. It is challenging. Are you resented? Are people wary of you? In these situations, you have to learn to be not just a manager, but a leader.”

For Jeremy Roberts, senior finance manager at Openreach, the transition was relatively smooth. Roberts trained at top-20 firm Moore Stephens, and before heading into industry he made a strategic career decision: “I went to a smaller practice first, to improve my breadth of skills and exposure to different industry sectors,” he explains.

From there, he made his first steps into the world of business. “It was a choice between becoming a manager in practice or making the move into industry,” says Roberts. He went for the latter, and it worked out well from the outset. “My first move into industry was with Tui Travel, where I was corporate accounting manager,” he says. “The change was really positive and I found my skills easily transferable. I think that was because of the working environment and the team I moved into.”

Reasons for choosing business, and beyond that selecting a particular industry, vary, but often they are linked to exposure to different clients within practice. Simon Wright, sales and marketing director at Careers in Audit, says: “It’s very much down to the individual, but often you find people who have really enjoyed working with certain clients or sectors and that is what they go for."

Cons

The culture shock a move from the often collegiate, supportive environment of a practice into industry or commerce can take some getting used to.

Focusing on core areas of a single business appeals to some, but others might miss the variety that comes from dealing with different clients and their varied requirements, cultures and business practices.

Depending on the role, you may not have the same contact with external clients that you get in practice.

It can be challenging to get back into practice should you change your mind later advances in the profession would require a serious catch-up after a few years away.

And, of course, with a strong grounding in finance, the choice of sector and company is wide open. “People who have gone through that professional qualification are definitely sought after,” says Paul Strong, vice president at recruitment specialists Robert Half. “Demand for people with that level of skill is greater than supply. Anyone who has trained in the Big Four, or any other firm, will be of interest and I can’t see that trend shifting. As people look to reposition their teams from a growth point of view in 2016 and beyond, the need for that kind of skill is very real.”

Wright agrees: “Some of the graduate schemes see trainees working their way round, spending a period of time in each department. You can’t really get better training than that in any job

It’s about gaining experience in different sectors, and a lot of the time people make a plan from there. People will train in a good firm and then use that to do something they have always dreamed of – perhaps working in an industry they have always wanted to work in.”

Indeed, the ACA is seen by many as invaluable in forming the bedrock of a successful and sustainable career in business. “There are plenty of people who have no intention of staying in practice or even the accounting profession,” says Ibbotson. “They just see the ACA as great grounding and training that they can use to move into a more general business or other type of career – becoming an entrepreneur, working in charity, working in government, all kinds of things.” (Many are unaware that it’s possible to take the ACA qualification within industry from the outset, bypassing the practice stage altogether.)

For some, the lure of industry comes in the form of a large firm – only a FTSE 250 name on the CV will do. Some want to have a broader role within a smaller company, while for others, the thrill of a start-up, and with it the chance to combine a thorough understanding of finance with pure entrepreneurial spirit, is appealing. It is a very personal matter, says Strong: “We get candidates who want the exposure they would get with a big brand, but there are a lot of people who want to work with an SME because it might give them more of an overview of the whole organisation.”

Or even start up on their own. Matt Quinn studied civil engineering at university, working through his studies at a civil engineering firm. But it was categorically not for him. “It was the worst thing I had ever done! I was left not knowing what I was going to do, but I did always have an idea that I would like to start my own business. Just before graduating I decided I would apply for finance roles across the board. I thought that would be a solid foundation for business, and also, if anything goes wrong you have something to rely on.”

We get candidates who want the exposure they would get with a big brand, but there are a lot of people who want to work with an SME because it might give them more of an overview of the organisation

“I joined PwC and never really had the view that I would stay longer than four years, and if I did stay at the firm it would be to move into consulting or something more business-related.” After qualifying in 2014, Quinn was trying to negotiate a move into the consultancy side, but found that there was a recruitment freeze. Coincidentally, a friend was starting up a business at that time. “I was helping him in the early stages and in the end he said ‘come and do this as a job and we will make it work’. I resigned and we started the company that exists today.”

Sauce provides personalisation technology for ecommerce, explains Quinn. “We help online stores communicate with their customers on a personal level, whether through email or Facebook, or enabling a website to change dynamically in response to who the person is.”

While it has “nothing to do with accounting”, Quinn still relies on his ACA skills. “I do bookkeeping one day a month but running the company is very analytical and I use my accounts experience in that.” Quinn’s business partner has now decided to move on, leaving him as CEO. At just 26 years old, he has achieved his aim of running his own business: “It is funny because the freedom is what you look forward to most, but in reality you have so much less freedom. I thought I worked hard in audit, but now I will easily work 100 hours a week at least once a month. But I don’t even realise it – I have so much fun doing it.”

Losing good employees is a challenge for the practices left behind, of course. Investment in each individual through to qualification is considerable, and when good staff move on, it leaves a gap to be filled. On the plus side, losing an employee frequently means gaining a client, if not immediately then in the future. Many say they feel loyal to the firm they trained with, and much work is done to create a network of former employees who remain connected in the long term. “Firms often do not make it difficult for people to leave, because they know they will be the clients of the future,” says Ibbotson. “They have strong alumni programmes. The Big Four model expects people to move on, and they use that to their advantage.”

Building networks is crucial, and perhaps even more so for those who go on to work in-house. It’s an area in which ICAEW is increasingly active. There are a range of areas of support for members, which can be extremely helpful, and networks in particular can create opportunities for people to meet and share ideas with peers, brought together under the ICAEW umbrella.

Another useful element is ICAEW’s Finance & Management Faculty, which requires additional paid-for membership, and which can be invaluable to people needing support outside practice. There is a wealth of assistance available to people first leaving practice, and when they become more experienced they can find courses which will support their own teams, too. ICAEW’s helplines can be helpful. If chartered accountants become less interested in the technical element when they leave practice, the free helplines can offer a lot of information, whether it’s on reporting, accounting, company law or other areas. There is also confidential support in that area, which can be very helpful if members have questions and do not have the right sort of back-up in-house.

Heading into industry is an appealing prospect for many, but there are plenty of people who intend to build a lifelong career within practice. A third of candidates surveyed by Careers in Audit said they wanted to work in practice, and there is a healthy flow of people moving between the different tiers. However, the bias remains towards the big name firms. According to Careers in Audit’s survey, more than 72.1% of those who wanted to work in practice said they wanted to work in a Big Four firm, while 27.9% wanted to work in a medium-sized or smaller firm.

Although she’s not ruled it out, Laragh Jeanroy, partner at independent Cambridge firm PEM, currently has no desire to move into industry. However, she has carefully chosen the size and type of firm she works for within the profession, tailoring her job to her stage of life. Jeanroy started out with plans to go into chartered accountancy, and had an offer from Coopers, now PwC

Her life took a different turn, though, and she ended up living and studying in France. When she returned to the UK, a little older and wiser and with a young family, she went back to accountancy and found that what she wanted from the job had changed.

“I had interviews with big firms, smaller practices and a national firm. I decided the national firm would give me all the variety and exposure I was looking for – I was determined to make manager quite quickly and I thought in a medium-sized firm I would have that opportunity for career progression.”

Jeanroy joined Robson Rhodes, impressed by the firm’s “culture and vision”, and qualified in 2000, becoming a manager in 2001. She became a partner in 2006, and the firm merged with Grant Thornton in 2007. “It was a big change, moving from a medium-sized partnership to a large partnership,” she says. Then, six years ago, she moved to Cambridge-based PEM, a smaller firm, in search of a new challenge and the chance to reduce the time she spent travelling.

So far, Jeanroy has not been tempted to move out of partnership and into business, though she says that she is still open to the idea. “I have thought about it several times – including when I qualified and before I took the decision to become a partner. The thing that has stopped me is that I don’t think I would get the variety I get here. I thrive on challenge, and I get that in practice. You never know what the day is going to bring, I enjoy the variety, moving from one thing to another, going out and seeing people. In industry I would have to find the role that ticks all those boxes and I haven’t yet found it.”

For those who do make the break, though, the decision can be literally life-changing. Roberts has this advice for those considering the move: “Make sure that you have a clear five-year plan and that this particular role and organisation can help you get there. Investigate the company, speak to people who work there and make sure you are making a correct, informed decision.” For him, like many others, it has worked out.

Sandra Haurant

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