6 Sep 2019 09:18am

A day in the life: David Morris

Having changed career from audit to industry to achieve better worklife balance, David Morris fulfilled a long-standing dream to conquer Everest. He tells Xenia Taliotis how the experience tested his mental and physical fortitude

david morris 630
Caption: Photography by Angela De Cenzo

How I changed my career

I’ve always been quite goal-orientated. My degree is in mechanical engineering, and though I flirted with a few companies in that field, I was keen to get a job where I could study for a professional qualification that would broaden my career options. Accountancy fitted the bill. Studying for the ACA is incredibly hard work, but I made some life-long friendships. I was with KPMG for 17 years, first in London, then in Plymouth running the audit department, and finally San Francisco.

I moved my family here in 2004, initially for a two-year secondment. I’m no longer with KPMG, but California is home. I left auditing, and KPMG, because the demands of SOX (the Sarbanes-Oxley Act) meant I was working 12-hour days, even at weekends. I didn’t want to live like that. In 2009 I went to biotech company Celera Corp as senior director, finance. Two years later the CEO of CAI International, who’d been a client at KPMG, offered me the role I’m in now – VP finance and corporate controller.

My responsibilities

CAI is a global shipping container leasing and logistics business. We have about a million containers under our control, own and lease railcars, and run domestic and international logistics operations. I deal with all accounting and reporting, and manage a team of 15: 11 here in the US, in our San Francisco and Seattle offices; and four in the UK and Germany.

Working for a growing public company (our revenues have quadrupled in the eight years since I joined and last year reached $432m) means there is always something that needs immediate attention, against a backdrop of meetings with auditors, bankers and advisers. We outsourced our tax and internal auditing functions, so I supervise those teams too. We own $2.7bn of assets, funded by approximately $2bn of debt; there are always refinancing issues to deal with. The job is full on, but I’m lucky to have an excellent assistant controller and understanding CFO who support me and who make my occasional extended climbing trips – most recently two months to Mount Everest – possible.

My typical day

Is there ever such a thing? However meticulously you plan your day, something invariably happens to force a different course of action. Dealing with accounting issues takes up most of my time, but I am planning a trip to our logistics business north of Seattle, and to our London and German offices before the end of the year.

The challenges I’ve overcome

Moving overseas with two young daughters was a challenge, particularly for Kathryn, my wife. I had work to keep me busy, whereas she had to figure everything out largely by herself. Climbing Everest was a huge challenge that touched every aspect of my life. There was wifi lower down the mountain, so I managed to review our Q1 earnings release while at Base Camp, at 17,600ft; and my climbing partner, Thierry, had a satellite phone, which I used to message my family once we lost the internet.

Despite the fact that I’m a very experienced climber, the reality of taking on Mount Everest is beyond imagination. You don’t know if you’ll make it until you’ve done it. The climb was hard on my body and my spirit. There was a lot of resting at base camp in between acclimatisation climbs, which was frustrating – although the team’s card-playing skills improved considerably. The summit day didn’t go to plan either; we left Camp 4 on the South Col soon after midnight, but were held up on the South East Ridge by slower, less-experienced climbers. We turned our oxygen flow rate down, but were still concerned whether we would have enough to make it to the summit, and, more importantly, back down. We finally summited on 23 May at around 11:30am (it should have only taken between eight and 10 hours).

I’m very glad we stuck with it – it’s something Thierry and I have wanted to do since climbing Cho Oyu, the sixth highest mountain in the world, in 2014, and seeing Everest from the summit. Fewer than 5,000 people have scaled Everest, so I’m enormously proud of the achievement, but I’d never do it again. I couldn’t do that to my family, or myself.

Industry quirks

While equipment leasing – primarily shipping containers but also railcars – doesn’t sound particularly complex, there are various complicated financing arrangements in place, and that, along with customers who are always looking for alternative lease structures, often to ease their tax obligations, can stir things up. For example, we enter into JOLCO arrangements with Japanese special purpose entities (SPEs).

The SPEs, which provide beneficial tax treatment to their investors, buy a pool of containers from us, which they then lease back to us. Conversely, we have shipping line customers who ask for various types of sale and leaseback arrangements. Another quirk is how quickly we feel any downturn in trade anywhere in the world. Trump’s trade war with China has caused uncertainty in the global shipping market, which, in turn, impacts our business.

The habits of an accountant

I think most ACAs would say that accountants have an eye for detail, and I believe that not only applies to numbers, but also to words. I am typically the final reviewer of our public documents, such as annual reports and press releases – the person responsible for spotting the typos and ensuring consistency of voice and argument. Of course that might be because Americans like to defer to someone who’s English where grammar is concerned, but I think it’s more to do with the fact that I have an accountant’s brain. We’re able to see both the wood and each individual tree.