|Careers in finance and financial services: Profile of an accountant
|The role of an accountant has changed considerably over the past number of years, and while a head for numbers is still important, Vincent MacMahon, a partner with the Investment Management Audit and Business Advisory Services practice of PricewaterhouseCoopers in Dublin, says that to excel in the profession, a desire to work with other people is what is really needed.
|1. What is your educational background?
I was educated in Gonzaga College, Dublin. After that I completed a two-year commencement course under the auspices of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland in NCI and the College of Commerce in Rathmines.
2. How did you get into accountancy?
I have a number of family connections in the accountancy profession. My father was an accountant, as is my sister. What really attracted me to the profession was the opportunity to travel and work abroad for a period of time. In the late ‘80s when I was making up my mind about career choices, my sister was working as an accountant in Barbados. I really liked the idea of working in a sunny climate and made up my mind to do accountancy. I have to admit I never made it to that sunny climate!!
3. Are your peers from similar backgrounds?
The backgrounds of my partners are very diverse and this is one of the strengths of our partnership. We have seventy partners in the practice and it is fair to say that we all come from very different walks of life. Many of my partners would not have started their careers in accountancy but have found their way into the profession through a variety of different routes, for example, as engineers, tax inspectors, lawyers and educators.
4. What has been your career path to date?
I joined what was then Craig Gardner/Price Waterhouse in 1991. I completed the examinations of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland in September 1993 and my training contract with the firm in October 1995. For the following two years I worked with our office in Boston MA on a ‘tour of duty’. Obviously this satisfied my ‘wanderlust’ even if it was in a climate much cooler than Barbados. I returned to PwC in Ireland in 1997 as a manager in our audit and business advisory practice and was admitted to the partnership in July 2004.
5. Have you worked abroad? Would you do so again?
In addition to my two years with the firm in Boston, I have worked on a number of shorter assignments in places such as Hong Kong (2 months in 1995), London and the Netherlands. One of the great advantages of a global practice like PwC is that it provides you with many travel opportunities. Obviously living abroad provides people with a great experience of other cultures, and allows them to benefit both from a work perspective and in terms of personal development. My job entails quite a bit of travelling. I would say that I tread the halls of Dublin airport at least every month. Many of our clients have substantial operations outside of Ireland and to really know how the business works we have to get on a plane and go visit them. It goes back to my previous point that to be successful in the accountancy profession you have to like meeting people and learning to understand their businesses. Conference calls and e-mail, while very convenient, are no substitute for sitting in the same room as your client. This being said I have no current plans to work on a more permanent basis abroad but I have learned to ‘never say never’.
6. How would you compare career prospects internationally to those in Ireland?
Ireland has developed tremendously in the last 15 years since I started my career. In every area the economy is moving from strength to strength. I believe that in most financial areas, Ireland can offer comparable career opportunities to anywhere else in the world. Obviously there are still some niche areas within finance where the opportunities presented by New York, London or other major global financial centres could not be replicated in Ireland. However as Ireland develops these niche areas are fast disappearing.
7. Have you undertaken any additional professional training since becoming an accountant?
I promised myself, after passing my final accounting exams and my driving test, that I would stop doing any further formal exams. This doesn’t mean that I have stopped learning. Our profession and our clients are continually facing realms of new legislation and regulation. I undertake many hours of formal and informal technical and development training each year. The examinations come in the form of solving complex problems and assisting clients with business issues. I don’t think there are any tougher examiners around.
8. What skills/aptitude would you identify as being key/beneficial to a career in financial services accountancy?
I believe that auditing is one of the most misunderstood professions. I am heavily involved in our graduate recruitment program where we interview hundreds of college graduates who want to become auditors and accountants. As part of these interviews I will always ask ‘why they want to become an accountant’. For most people the most common response is ‘I like working with numbers and I like working in teams’. These are definitely skills that you need to be a good accountant but to really shine in the profession you need to be good with people. The old image of little grey men working in dark rooms with quills and ink is gone and forgotten. The modern auditor has to be able to work with management, quickly get an understanding of the business and the challenges/risks affecting that business. If you can’t work with people then you will never gain the respect and trust of your clients.
9. What aspects of the job do you like most?
I think it must be one of the most varied jobs someone can have. We work with clients and however much we plan and seek to proactively deal with things, complex problems affect our clients everyday. If we are doing our job right we foresee these challenges and are there to help. I normally try to have a good idea about what will come across my desk when I reach the office in the morning. Sometimes the schedule works, most of the time it gets altered. There will almost never be any day that you could call similar to the last. I love the variety.
10. What aspects of the job do you like least?
The volume of regulation that has been produced over the last few years is one aspect that challenges every business. In many cases these regulations are a knee jerk reaction to questionable business practices which the media portray as endemic in business life.
From my own experience I believe that the vast majority of business people are honest and ethical people who do not need chapters of regulations to know right from wrong. You get bad apples in every walk of life and what we should do is punish these people to the extent necessary to keep them out of Irish business. Grand ideals I know, but I would far prefer to see guiding principles of business replace the masses of legislation and regulation which is slowly grinding business to a halt.
11. Where would you see yourself in five years? How do you define success in financial services accountancy?
I have always hated this question. I spin it out at interviews whenever I want to challenge a very good candidate. My own response is really very boring. I would like to be in Ireland growing in my current position, assisting my clients and continuing to learn from them. You have to remember I am in the service industry and therefore success for me is closely linked to the success of my clients.
12. Is there anyone in particular you admire in your industry?
Obviously there are many people that I admire in the Irish business community. Ireland has sparkled in the international arena for the last decade. I have been very fortunate to work either directly or indirectly with people who I believe have been leading the charge in making Ireland a true member of the global financial community. There are some many people that I know that fit into this category that I would do them all an injustice by mentioning just one.
13. What advice would you give to others who might like a career in financial services accountancy?
I work in a very young and dynamic practice. We have recruited 45 trainee accountants into the investment management group this year alone. Most of those people are just out of college and starting their own careers. I constantly advise them to get the exams out of the way as soon as possible. The opportunities multiply once you are qualified as an accountant. Once qualified, people should be proactive in their career choices. Too many people go with the flow rather than properly plan where they want to be. It’s back to that terrible question of ‘Where do you want to be in five years?’ Even if you don’t like asking the question you have to keep your eye on the answer that is right for you.
14. In what areas are there the most opportunities in Dublin?
Ireland has enjoyed a consistent and significant pattern of growth over the last decade. I think at this point there are opportunities almost everywhere you look. The business community faces great challenges, but as one of my mentors used to say, these challenges create opportunities. I think Ireland’s experience of growing from an insular economy into one of the wealthiest nations in the world means that we are in great position to assist others attempting to do the same. I believe that there are great opportunities for Irish business to grow in the developing economies of Eastern Europe and China. Whatever commentators may say about these economies, they involve massive market places where people have the aspiration to become what Ireland is today. I think Ireland has a tremendous advantage marketing to these countries as most of us remember what it was like to be where they are now.