Young accountants under 35 – The ones to watch

Helen Verney

FD, Multiple Sclerosis Society

Helen Verney is no stranger to getting stuck in. She’s been at the financial helm of the Multiple Sclerosis Society for three years, having moved there from homeless charity Crisis. But behind her unassuming exterior lies a well-respected individual whose passion is infectious.

Verney started her career in the charity sector as an accountant with mid-tier firm Saffrey Champness, before making the move away from audit to the client side of the equation as Crisis FD at the age of 27.

‘It was a bit daunting but I thrived on the energy of the place and the fact that is was so focused on changing the lives of individuals.’

One of her biggest bugbears is a desire for the volunteer input of charities to be valued. She is vice chair of the Charity Finance Directors’ Group and recently presented to a committee of members of the House of Commons and Lords looking at the government’s proposals for changes to the law on how charities operate.

Verney – now 33 – has no ambitions to return to the private sector. ‘I find profit really boring – it’s a formula. In my job you’re constantly questioning where you should put your focus. It’s not just about producing costs or cutting admin costs.’

Adrian Colman
FD, Numerica

At 34, sport-mad Adrian Colman finds himself at the lofty position of group finance director of Numerica, the listed accountancy consolidator, and 15th biggest UK firm with fee income approaching £50m.

Having trained at Morley & Scott and worked at PricewaterhouseCoopers in the UK and Thailand, followed by M&A work at KPMG Consulting, Colman joined Numerica in 2002 to help with its acquisition strategy.

Following the decision of Numerica chief executive and co-founder Tony Sarin to step down in March this year and then-FD Peter Jenkins’ promotion to CEO, Colman stepped up to the finance plate.

This has been something of a baptism of fire after poor annual results released in June followed by radical restructuring of the business model, which saw Numerica introduce a traditional partnership element to the firm, while retaining its plc status as one of 70 new partners.

Colman, though, has experience of turbulent times, having worked through the merger of Coopers & Lybrand and Price Waterhouse while working in the Thailand office.

After just months in charge he has already set about bringing tighter control of costs and re-aligning staff capacity, while looking at both organic and acquisitive growth opportunities.

Penny Avis
Transaction services partner, Deloitte

When Penny Avis joined Andersen as a partner in 2001, little did she know just how big an impact that particular career decision would have – but it proved to be a valuable experience. ‘I joined a sinking ship – even my mother rang up to say she’d read in the newspaper that we were going to be sued down to our last cufflink. Nothing could be harder in my career.’

Now a transaction services partner at Deloitte specialising in corporate finance, 35 year old Avis admits she’s ‘much more relaxed’. She is currently one of the youngest partners at Deloitte to lead a FTSE100 client relationship, and admits that the corporate finance sphere is possibly the most demanding part of the business in lifestyle terms.

A lack of female role models certainly doesn’t help attract other women into the sector – but Avis thrives on her environment. ‘You have to believe you’re a good service provider, and you have to be a bit of a deal junkie, but it’s completely manageable.’

‘There’s also a lot of kissing of frogs going on, particularly in the M&A environment,’ Avis admits. Networking is key to building relationships. It’s a skill she developed when she was chosen as one of eight partners to form a Younger Partner Advisory Group reporting directly to John Connolly following the integration with Andersen.

Avis is a founding member of networking group, the City Women’s Club, set up last year.

Sean McCallion
Director, KPMG

Eleven months into a year-long secondment to the CBI as executive assistant to Digby Jones, Sean McCallion is busy boosting his impressive CV.

As part of KPMG’s Out of the Box programme, the role involves briefing, accompanying and follow up on business and governmental matters for the director general. It has certainly given McCallion an invaluable insight into some of the issues affecting the clients he will face once he’s back in the KPMG fold.

‘It’s been great for building confidence and being involved in so many high-level meetings will definitely help me.’

The experience has, McCallion admits, been an eye opener. ‘Something I’ve learned from Digby is you’ve got to put yourself in your clients’ shoes and you’ve got to be a great listener – accountancy is no exception. ‘And you’ve got to know your internal contacts because you can’t be an expert in all fields,’ he says.

After qualifying McCallion worked on a number of audit and transaction services assignments before transferring to KPMG in Vancouver for two years dealing first hand with a number of clients including the world’s second largest funeral home operator.

Prior to the CBI secondment, he ran an audit department of 40 specialising in manufacturing clients including FTSE100 and multinational accounts.

Laura Frazer
Partner, BDO Stoy Hayward

Joining BDO Stoy Hayward from University in 1994, Laura Frazer has been working her way up the career ladder ever since. Currently the youngest partner in the firm, she set up and now runs BDO’s HR Consulting Group – People Solutions – which provides HR advisory services to clients.

As well as a general advisory role, she runs business education programmes for clients and partners on a wide range of issues facing growing businesses.

The 35 year-old is also responsible for BDO Stoy Hayward search and selection service, which specialises in recruiting senior finance and management personnel for client organisations.

The human element is key to success as an accountant, in Frazer’s view. ‘Communication is the thing that makes the difference between a good accountant and an exceptional one. When things go wrong it’s rarely because of something technical.’

But all too many accountants are promoted on the basis of technical competencies. ‘Partners aren’t necessarily the people with the best management skills,’ she concedes.

A three-month stint at Harvard studying for a certificate in general management drummed home the importance of broader management skills. ‘It was a life-changing experience – not simply because it happened over September 11.’

Ultimately Frazer’s ambitions lie as the first female managing partner of the firm, but until that time she’s on a mission to overcome the barriers that prevail to crossing the divide between accountancy and HR.

‘I set this division up and I’d like it to be recognised as one of the leading providers of this sort of advice.’

James Hender
Senior tax partner, Smith and Williamson

You might not think that being a keen sailor could help your career in accounting, but for James Hender there are distinct advantages to making small talk about the latest yachting and power-boating trends. As a senior tax manager in Smith & Williamson’s private tax and trust administration department, his job involves advising high net worth individuals, often successful entrepreneurs, on managing their finances in the most tax efficient way.

It’s a major shift from his previous role as a manager in the transaction tax group at Ernst & Young, where he assisted multinationals and private equity houses on tax issues surrounding acquisitions and disposals. But his background has proved invaluable.

‘If you’re helping an individual and saving them millions, they’re always thrilled. I’m most proud of the fact that I’m doing a job where you can be of real service to clients. Coming from a corporate background has stood me in good stead.’

Hender has lectured on the taxation of offshore trusts and other issues affecting his clients. Earlier this year he wrote a guide to the taxation of yachts and powerboats which features in May’s edition of Yachting Monthly.

Helen Jackson
Business development partner, Jackson Stephen

Helen Jackson, 32, always had her sights set on being an accountant.

‘Both my grandfathers, my father and my uncle are chartered accountants and my aunt is a tax inspector – it’s in the genes,’ she jokes.

She qualified with PwC in 1998, and after training in the audit department moved to Deloitte for a taste of corporate finance.

Although she admits she initially followed the accountancy route to gain what she saw as a solid business qualification, it was her stint at Deloitte that inspired her to make her mark closer to home. ‘It was the most amazing experience. Kourosh Mehrabani was the most fantastic director and he inspired me to care about clients, to drive to perfection.’

Now she’s quite literally on home territory, having last year joined Jackson Stephen – the firm her grandfather started in 1921 and which her father, John Jackson, took over in 1968. Her arrival marks a shift away from the organic word-of-mouth approach to growth.

‘When I joined we had no website, brochure or referral system. In a couple of years I think we could be the biggest firm in the northwest,’ says Jackson

Chris Robertson
Partner, Deloitte

Chris Robertson put his career success down to luck, but you can’t help thinking there’s much more to his rise up the ranks. He transferred from London to the Birmingham office of Deloitte in June 2001, when he became one of the firm’s youngest partners. ‘I was enjoying myself and I was lucky with some of the projects I worked on,’ he says.

Since arriving in Birmingham, he has become a champion for technology in the region, alongside his day job as audit partner. ‘There’s no leading accountancy firm with a dominant market share within the technology community and we wanted to associate our brand with that sector.’

Delivering excellent client service and building good relationships with key accounts are his two main recipes for success, with a peppering of energy and enthusiasm.

The 2003 Birmingham Young Professional of the Year is heavily involved in the recruiting and mentoring or up and coming talent within Deloitte but his interests span much broader. Next year he will assume the role of chairman of Birmingham Future, the city’s lobby group for young professionals.

As to his own future, Robertson insists he has no grand plan. ‘I want to be busy and challenged but I don’t have a closed mind as to the direction my career will take.’

Joanne Wright
Partner corporate advisory and restructuring group, Kroll

Taking her first tentative steps in the world of insolvency straight from school, Jo Wright unwittingly set out on a career that was take her to the heady heights of partner by the age of 30 – and Kroll’s first female partner at that. ‘It was the late eighties when I started working in the sector, the economy was going bananas, so where traditionally people perhaps would have moved around other areas of accountancy like audit and tax, I was so busy I never moved out.’

Her role at Kroll is divided between client work (from corporate recovery and restructuring to formal insolvency and business reviews), practice management and developing people within the Birmingham office.

‘Every day is completely different,’ she enthuses. ‘You need technical skills but so mush of the job is about getting the best out of people. The best part of the job is working out with the client what the problem is and how we’ll work with the team to make something good out of what was a very difficult situation.’

She has lectured on business survival and raising awareness of the early warning signs of business failure. And for the last seven years has been organising the ‘women of influence’ lunch – a networking charity fundraiser, one of the biggest in the Midlands, which so far has raised £100,000 for local NCH projects.

‘Success is all about attitude,’ she says. ‘Having a can-do attitude makes all the difference in the world.’

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