PracticeAuditProfile: Helen Brand, CEO at ACCA

Profile: Helen Brand, CEO at ACCA

Helen Brand won't let her lack of accounting experience stop her leading ACCA's global charge

Helen Brand, ACCA

Helen Brand, ACCA

‘CEO remit confusion adds to crisis at
ACCA’, ‘Hudson swaps
ACCA for Scotland’, ‘ACCA announces interim CEO’, ‘ACCA loses new CEO’ … the
headlines at the time must have sent the PR machine at one of the world’s
biggest professional bodies into overdrive. At first glance, a retrospective
look at the apparent succession plan within the ranks of the Association of
Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) doesn’t bode well.

Along with a colourful and debatably tainted history of changes to the CEO
position, the ACCA board has also had to endure criticism ­ often from within ­
centred on the absence of accountancy qualifications for both past and present

Helen Brand, the newest incumbent of ACCA’s top job, refuses to let concerns
about her lack of an accountancy qualification affect her, and says her response
will be to lead the organisation onto bigger and better things.

Brand readily concedes the transition in 2003 between former CEO Allen
Blewitt and his predecessor, Anthea Rose, was by no means seamless, but denies
suggestions there was hostility within the board.

‘Anthea announced her retirement well in advance of when she left. She
retired. It was about finding a smooth transition to the successor and it wasn’t
particularly smooth,’ she says.

Charged with steering the strategy and future direction of the ACCA, Brand
hopes to bring both experience and renewed vigour to the role.

Brand acted as interim CEO five years ago, during the transition between Rose
and Blewitt, and while initially overlooked to replace Rose permanently, she
harbours no ill-feeling.

In fact, such a prospect was never entertained by Brand ­ who was heavily
pregnant at the time, and she regards the opportunity to act as the interim
replacement as ‘useful and character building’.

Following on from Blewitt’s stint in the role, she speaks of a quiet
confidence when recalling her response to being offered the role full-time last

‘I knew I stood as good a chance as anybody. I knew I had to go through the
selection process where external candidates were also involved. I obviously
thought I could do the job ­ it was just a question of whether I was the best
person to do the job,’ she says.

A new dynamic

After harsh lessons had been learnt over the change of leadership from Rose
to Blewitt, the shift between Blewitt and Brand was, by all accounts,
exceptionally smooth. Brand says the handover didn’t halt or hinder the
organisation in any way.

Despite inadvertently having to absorb much of the recent criticism herself,
Brand accepts it as part and parcel with the role.

‘No-one should ever moan about being ACCA CEO. There are so many wonderful
aspects to it. Of course there’s hard work, but that’s what you should expect. I
was very enthusiastic in going for it,’ she says.

At 43 years old, Brand is at a stage of her life where she’s been craving the
next challenge ­ an additional layer of responsibility and arguably pressure.

If she hadn’t been successful in her bid for the ACCA role, Brand would have
continued the pursuit of such a position elsewhere.

An obvious contender for the job, given her stint as acting CEO, she insists
the recruitment process was rigorously undertaken by external agents as ‘there
was always the chance that a better person for the job could be out there, and
if that were the case then I’d rather that person were appointed to the role ­
that’s what ACCA deserves.’

Her history with the organisation has ensured an understanding of the
complexity and scale of ACCA ­ comprising some 80 centres worldwide, 122,000
members and 325,000 students. Brand continues to draw on this experience in
fostering new drive and initiative.

‘I’ve been able to hit the ground running… I haven’t had to go through the
learning process in order to come to my conclusions in terms of what we have to
do next as an organisation. We haven’t lost any momentum. If anything we’ve
gained momentum,’ she says.

Brand expects some parallels to be drawn between herself and Blewitt, known
to many for his energetic, outward-facing style of senior management.

Her method of leadership differs from Blewitt’s ­ while she may have the same
energy and drive to promote the organisation, she insists her style is far less

‘I’m more considered in my approach… I think Allen being Australian and male
and me being British and female is bound to bring some differences. And there
are some differences, but not in terms of running the organisation,’ she says.

Some five months into the role, her tenure coincides with the unprecedented
fallout in global financial markets. However, she is adamant this won’t hamper
the organisation’s strategy.

When Accountancy Age spoke to Brand, ACCA was on target to reach
turnover forecasts of £100m for the year-end 2008. Despite the affects of the
economic downturn, turnover predictions have remained on target with the
previous year despite some expectation that forecasts would need to be revised.

In building on this figure, the focus is on ACCA’s expansion into new
markets, such as central and Eastern Europe, China, Vietnam and Pakistan ­ all
of which are experiencing rapid growth. The likes of Bangladesh and Nigeria have
been identified as emerging markets for ACCA, and expansion into these
territories in 2009 could prove significant.

Wider world view

According to Brand, it’s this global perspective and understanding which
differentiates ACCA from its competitors, and managing relationships at global,
regional and national levels is pivotal to the CEO role.

‘It doesn’t matter if you’ve got a small operation in Malawi, you still need
to look at the relationship with the government, the regulators, the
professional bodies, the students, and the employers within the national
context, and ensure that they are being dealt with consistently within a global

We bring an international perspective to the table ­ Romanian, Chinese, North
American… as a professional body it’s a valuable contribution to have,’ she

As perceptions of ACCA as a less than prestige organisation have faded over
time, it now seems better positioned to satisfy employers both in practice, and
those in the corporate and public sectors.

Competing with the likes of CIMA and the ICAEW drives up the standard of
training provided for members, and Brand says it ensures the delivery of
innovative products within accountancy.

She believes any change to the competitive structure among professional
bodies through merger activity would be to the detriment of the profession, and
is confident ACCA is suitably placed to serve its members.

‘We’re absolutely on par with the likes of CIMA and ICAEW. Every academic
study will come up with different findings, but we all acknowledge the quality
of each others’ qualifications.

‘In terms of inherent quality and standard, it’s taken as read that our
qualifications would be on a par, and so it should be given the regulation we
have now,’ she says.

Brand on brand

Brand speaks candidly on a number of issues facing the profession and her
personal profile…

ACCA’s position…
‘It’s well-respected throughout the world. We genuinely offer high-quality,
world class accountancy qualifications to anybody in the world – which is a
unique attribute. Once upon a time, we might have been considered a second-class
citizen in the profession.’

The Prospect of a merger…
‘Quite slim. M & A activity has traditionally been seen to divert
organisations from their strategy, and take up lots of resources, time and
effort. It’s not on my council’s agenda or on my agenda as a priority or as a
necessity. At the end of the day if you’re trying to make yourself more relevant
than someone else in the market you’re going to try that much harder. I’m not
sure whether a single body would be of more benefit to business or anybody else.
There have been many merger attempts over the past 20 years.’

The relevance of the Consultative Committee of Accountancy Bodies

‘From ACCA’s perspective it’s an organisation of UK bodies. It’s not the entire
focus of our activity. It’s not on our minds all the time but it can be useful.
We put a lot of technical effort in there and make our contribution. When you
get everybody there and they are competing, sometimes it will come down to the
lowest common denominator in terms of decisions that are made. There has to be a
consensus. People criticise it, but we don’t want to see it disappear.’

Life as a female CEO… ‘I’ve never felt like I have a point to prove
being female. The first CEO I worked with at ACCA was female and I’ve never
pursued it as an end in itself. The way I’ve viewed my appointment is that if
women do see me as a role model – even if ten women think it’s possible and that
they can do it too – then that’s fantastic. Women deal with things in different
ways – I’m absolutely convinced of that, and there’s no single way to do a job
and there’s certainly no single way to be a chief executive. I have an
incredibly good memory in relation to what has been agreed to and what decisions
have been made. A lot of women are like that. It’s about using the talents and
attributes you have to your best advantage. It’s great that I’m female –
differentiation is the key. The thing with ACCA as well is it’s a very
female-skewed organisation. We have the largest number of female members and
students – over half of the student members are female.’

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