SARAH MCCREATH WANTS it all: a successful career, a fulfilling home life and a chance to travel the world. And, at age 35, she might just succeed.
“I am under no illusions that it will be extremely difficult to get the balance right, some if not all of the time, but that won’t stop me from trying,” she says.
McCreath is one of KPMG’s emerging talents. She is an ICAEW graduate who began her career at the firm in 1999 as a trainee. She is now head of Consumer Products and Retail Audit, picking up the odd accolade and award on the way, and earning a reputation as an emerging leader. McCreath is not just a senior partner in waiting, she may leave her mark on the profession as a whole.
In July, she was named one of Management Today magazine’s “35 women under 35”, a list of noteworthy women from business, arts and government circles. McCreath was in good company, listed among self-made women who have used initiative and nouse to stand out.
And it is little surprise. McCreath counts high-end fashion brands including Gucci, Hugo Boss and Bulgari among her clients in a role which spans industries and nations.
Success, according to McCreath, is the mixture of three elements: “Being myself, being brave and having balance in life. I have tried to hold true to those three principles as I have been promoted through the organisation and it seems to have worked for me.”
A career in accounting seems an odd choice for someone who has a masters in international history and politics.
“I did explore graduate management training programmes, consultancy and banking as well as accountancy,” she says. “I chose to do accountancy and specifically auditing because I thought it would offer me a broad business training, the opportunity to meet clients on a daily basis, varying from big to small, domestic to international and from a range of industries.”
She speaks of her firm as a type of extended family. Not just an organisation, but a place where she “instantly felt at home”. To her, work has to be more than a pay cheque.
“I found KPMG’s commitment to developing people both professionally and personally very enticing, along with the opportunity to work in different parts of the business and all around the world,” she says.
“The variety of opportunity and experience has been enjoyable, ensured my development and enabled me to be promoted on an accelerated path.”
Accounting also seemed an odd choice for someone with a penchant for travel. Before joining KPMG, McCreath travelled to Belize with Raleigh International and something of the adventurer is still there, in her enthusiasm.
So far she has travelled to China, the US, Iceland and Brazil. McCreath seems an explorer at heart and international travel remains a perk of the job, not a tiresome extra.
“The international nature of the major audits that I work on is one of the aspects of my job that I enjoy the most,” she says. “I love travelling with my clients, meeting new people, learning about different cultures and understanding how companies do business in different parts of the world. The opportunity to work on global clients and… go on secondments around the globe was a big factor in my decision to commit myself to the profession.”
McCreath does not want to limit herself to working with the familiar safe, tried and tested firms in Europe.
“It is my ambition to go on secondment to a part of the world that is very different from Western Europe and immerse myself in a different culture for a couple of years,” she says.
A male-dominated profession
In choosing audit, McCreath has selected a profession dominated at the highest level by men. All the heads of audit across the four firms are male, as are the managing partners. A City survey by the Equality and Human Rights Commission found men working in the financial sector receive five times more in bonus payments than their female colleagues.
McCreath is not intimidated by the gender gap, and believes this does not reflect a lack of opportunity for women.
“It is more to do with the fact that when you work in an organisation that serves clients, be it as a lawyer, accountant or consultant, balancing family life with the demands of the job is extremely challenging,” she says.
“That applies equally to men as it does women. While it would be great to see more women at senior levels within professional services, organisations I suspect that we will never see an equal balance of men and women. I don’t have a problem with that, as long as it is due to personal choice and not due to a lack of opportunity for women.”
McCreath’s career so far has passed through some of the most tumultuous periods in the industry. After only two years in the job, the Enron scandal rocked the audit profession. The collapse of Anderson saw the creation of the US Sarbanes Oxley Act, while in the UK the Financial Reporting Council was remodelled with harsher disciplinary and regulatory requirements imposed on firms.
The financial crisis left auditors flat footed. As McCreath rises through the ranks, her profession remains in flux, with senior partners from the Big Four all calling for reform.
“There has been a great deal of debate around the role of auditors and whether or not that role should change,” she says.
“The role of the auditor is changing and that is as it should be. As auditors, not only are we in the best possible position to observe and comment on the broader risks facing organisations, but if we are to attract the brightest and the best to the profession then the role of the auditor needs to be challenging, commercial and varied.”
She envisages a future where auditors provide assurance “in the widest possible sense” to boards and corporate stakeholders.
For McCreath, ambition is not a dirty word. She believes one essential ingredient to her success has been her ability to remain focused, dedicated and above all else, true to herself.
“Being yourself is about recognising that who you are is why you have been promoted,” she says. “I haven’t tried to mould myself into my image of the perfect corporate citizen.”
Name: Sarah McCreath
Qualified with ICAEW
Position: Head of consumer audit department in London
Clients: Gucci, Hugo Boss and Bulgari
Mazars has announced the appointment of Michael Tripp as the new head of financial services
A new leader, Darra Singh has been appointed to lead EY’s UK government and public sector practice
Carter Backer Winter has acquired Edwards Financial Services, expanding its financial planning department
Colin responds to the call for 'Darwinism' in accountancy