Overseas careers: where in the world?

world map

Gaining overseas experience is universally accepted as a good thing for any
accountant’s CV. But where are the best places to go? The answer will depend on
your own interests, aspirations and lifestyle choices.

The benefits to be gained from overseas experience are well documented. As
well as new technical knowledge, travellers gain enhanced understanding of
foreign cultures and business practices, which can be useful in future when
dealing with colleagues or clients from other countries. Personal development
also tends to be rapid, as being thrown into a foreign working environment can
be challenging.

Given these benefits, a decision to work overseas is a natural one. It’s much
harder, though, to decide where the best place is to go. The solution will lie
in your career interests, and your personal aims.

For example, those keen to work in a dynamic market could find Russia an
attractive choice. ‘What Russia has to offer is a lot of hard work, but real
career and personal development,’ says Gavin Stoddart, managing director of
Moore Stephens CIS. ‘There’s a shortage of accountants, so you will never be
short of work and you will get different types.’ Auditors will, for example,
have plenty of opportunity to work on stock market listings or other
transactional activities. ‘You may also get responsibility earlier,’ Stoddart

He believes experience of Russia will be beneficial. ‘Russia is turning into
a world economic power,’ Stoddart says. ‘Having a knowledge of Russia will be
useful for people’s careers. Even if they are working in London, they will
probably come across Russian businesses. A lot of Russian companies are listing
on AIM.’

Sector specialists could also find there are some obvious locations to
consider. ‘Financial services are booming in Sydney,’ says Richard Parnell,
Robert Walters’ Asia Pacific CEO, based in Sydney. ‘It’s Asia’s largest hedge
fund hub. All the investment banks are crying out for help.’ Other sectors are
also keen to take on UK talent in Sydney, notably in property, IT and telecoms.
However, most roles in Australia are more likely to be relatively insular. ‘You
won’t get the breadth of international experience that you would in Hong Kong or
Singapore,’ says Parnell. ‘It’s very Australia-focused here.’

Financial services are also strong in Hong Kong and Singapore. The latter
destination has the advantage that the main language is English, whereas in Hong
Kong there is a preference for speakers of Mandarin or Cantonese.

Ian Turnpenny, senior consultant in the Shanghai office of Michael Page
International, says: ‘The Hong Kong and Singapore markets are very buoyant at
the moment and well placed for good quality ACAs. Even without the language
skills or any particular Asia experience, it is still possible to get a
position, particularly in Singapore, in back or mid-office banking. A lot of
banks have shifted operations to Singapore, so there’s a shortage of talent.’

There are also some opportunities in mainland China, though language could
well be a barrier for UK accountants who only speak English. ‘It’s pretty
difficult for anybody without Mandarin language skills or at least significant
working experience in China,’ Turnpenny says. The best bet for UK accountants is
to transfer within one of the Big Four firms, he suggests.

Working in Hong Kong could still provide good experience of mainland China,
however. ‘A lot of work in Hong Kong is focused on China,’ says Turnpenny.

In addition to Hong Kong and Singapore, David Jones, UK managing director of
Robert Half International, notes that New York and Tokyo could also be
CV-enhancing destinations for financial services specialists. Time in Auckland,
New Zealand, however, would generally be considered less valuable. The same goes
for commerce and industry. If you are working in New Zealand, you will typically
be working for smaller firms,’ Jones says. ‘When you come home, people might
consider your work experience to be a bit parochial.’

The term parochial couldn’t be applied to the United States, which is a
popular choice for many UK accountants seeking overseas experience. Sarah
Shillingford, graduate recruitment partner at Deloitte, notes that accountants
keen to work with US clients can benefit from direct experience of US GAAP and
Sarbanes-Oxley legislation. ‘Equally in some tax areas, it can be good
experience to go to the US,’ she says. ‘A lot of our international tax planning
would be for companies with US interests.’ US firms will also value having UK
accountants on hand with an understanding of UK tax law.

Jenny Ramsbottom, audit manager at Deloitte in Liverpool, returned last
autumn from an 18-month stint in New York. Her interest in the US was triggered
by working on a client in the UK with a US parent.

‘I thought the US would be good to go to, because I could do a lot of US GAAP
work,’ she says. ‘It’s great to have that experience in your back pocket.’

She feels her time in New York was beneficial professionally and personally.
‘I met a whole bunch of new people,’ she says. ‘You learn how to deal with a
different culture.’

Richard Jordan, head of Ernst & Young’s employer brand, also believes
overseas experience can be valuable. The UK firm has more than 100 of its UK
people currently working overseas. ‘There are another 100 or so in the
pipeline,’ Jordan says.

Opportunities tend to be driven by client needs, though there is also an
emphasis on matching individual skills and interests with locations. For
example, people interested in the emerging markets would find appealing
opportunities in E&Y’s offices in Russia, China, India, Brazil and Eastern
Europe. Infrastructure experts might head to Sydney, as Australia is highly
active in private finance initiative (PFI) projects and public private
partnerships (PPP). New York is a draw for real estate experts, because of the
active REIT (real estate investment trust) market in the US. Paris might appeal
to financial services people wanting to stay in Europe.

However, Antoine Morgaut, MD of Robert Walters in France, notes that
opportunities are rare for most UK accountants in his country. ‘95% of the
accounting business is in French and the standards are different,’ he says.

Fluency in French is therefore almost always necessary, except perhaps in
some multinationals. Similar barriers exist elsewhere in continental Europe.
‘It’s the same in Spain, in Italy and Germany,’ Morgaut says. Holland is an
exception, however. ‘In Amsterdam there are many international companies and
they are quite keen on integrating accountants from everywhere,’ he says. ‘They
also have a lot of shared service centres.’ There are also opportunities for UK
accountants in Eastern Europe, Morgaut adds.

Work to live

The choice of location shouldn’t be solely about career development, of
course. Lifestyle preferences are also relevant. For example, Russia would offer
plenty of culture, Hong Kong hustle and bustle, and Australia an outdoors
lifestyle. Helen Campbell, now an audit manager in KPMG’s Edinburgh office,
spent three years in Sydney after qualifying.

It was the mix of professional and personal opportunities that attracted her.
‘I got to work in a large office with many financial services clients, so that
was an exciting opportunity,’ she says. ‘And Australia is a country with a real
focus on the outdoors, so I swapped my hill-walking shoes for a paddle and did a
lot of canoeing.’

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