When studying for her A-levels, Gina Gardner was encouraged to drop one of the four subjects she was taking.
Her teachers didn’t want pupils’ grades to suffer as a result of them stretching themselves too thin. For Gardner, it was never a consideration: “I was enjoying all of the subjects so I continued and came out with very good results. I like going against what people think isn’t possible and proving them wrong.”
Her love of learning is part of what won the corporate tax trainee accountant the AAT Rising Star of the Year Award in 2017. Having joined Gloucestershire-based accountancy firm Randall & Payne straight from school in 2014, the then 18-year-old went on to complete an AAT Advanced Diploma in Business Skills and gain MAAT status in just 16 months. Now 21, she is the first person at the firm to jointly train for the ACA and CTA qualifications and is hoping to complete these, earlier than usual again, by November 2019.
After successfully applying for an internal vacancy, she joined the firm’s corporate tax team at the end of 2016 where she has embraced the challenge of winning new business and guiding clients through the research and development (R&D) claims process. Since joining the corporate tax team, the firm has made £7 million of R&D savings for clients. Gardner meets clients without her manager shadowing and is involved in winning new business, she’s also building her own portfolio of R&D clients: “I’ve got quite a bit more responsibility than is normal for a trainee. I’m in charge of filing for my clients and going out to meetings on my own. I now regularly see clients and will complete claims with my boss acting as reviewer.”
“Her ability to network effectively is wonderfully natural and she regularly comes away with leads for us to follow up – even chatting with people on trains to her training courses have generated leads,” says James Geary, head of corporate tax at Randall & Payne.
“Taking on Gina full-time to the team has been a very positive decision and I hope to be able to help her develop for a good many years with the firm.”
For Gardner, winning the AAT award last year was a proud moment, and recognition of the hard work she has put in to push herself and her career forward. The awards, which are presented at the AAT’s annual conference, celebrate the successes of AAT’s professional members and their dedication and commitment the industry.
“It wasn’t an easy process having completed the qualifications so quickly and managing full-time work at the same time, so to be awarded star of the year meant a lot. It’s driven me on to want to try and achieve bigger and better things again,” she says.
Seeking out new opportunities
Gardner hopes to build her portfolio of clients further and, in addition to studying for the ACA and CTA qualifications, would like to take on more reviewing responsibilities when the time comes. What might seem a daunting combination of work and study for others, is viewed as an opportunity by Gardner: “I accept challenges that are thrown at me rather than taking an easy option. If an opportunity is there I may as well take it and see what happens.”
The support of her employers has been crucial to her success too, she says, from running through mock exam questions with her boss to being able to take time off ahead of exams.
“From the outset, they’ve shown a commitment to me. I was a brand new employee, straight out of sixth form and they didn’t know me, but they saw something in me. They are investing a lot of money into you to support not just the training courses, but the resources and time out of the office as well. It can be weeks at a time and that’s time I’m not working. They appreciate it’s not easy to manage the workflow and the study,” she says.
Training partner Will Abbott says the firm commits itself to training for the benefit of the local community, young recruits and the firm itself.
“We have been training for many years and it’s very important to us because we know that people leaving school or graduates aren’t quite ready for the world of work. They still need a technical skill really,” he says.
“We get some very high calibre candidates coming through to us, the people that would have traditionally gone to university, approaching us when they’ve done their A-levels because they like the idea of earning and learning.”
Investing in a training programme that incorporates leadership and management skills alongside the technical qualifications required in the accountancy sector can help smaller firms appeal to trainees and young talent, says Abbott. The firm also encourages trainees to take on project and community work.
“What we realised a few years ago is that we want our trainees to realise their full potential. We think that’s one of the key things that helps us attract high calibre candidates that might otherwise go to larger firms,” he says.
Seeing one of its trainees win an award has confirmed to Randall & Payne that it’s “doing something a little bit different” when it comes to training and has given the firm added credibility.
A role model to future rising stars
“It’s a message to the wider community, clients and prospects that we’re committed to doing things that benefit not just us but everybody. It’s also motivation to some of the youngsters to think: ‘Gina’s a great role model, maybe we can get some support from Randall & Payne to do something similar?’”
Abbott would encourage others to apply for the awards – even if you don’t win it’s a good chance to step back from the day-to-day and assess what you and your firm are doing against independent criteria.
To other would-be rising stars, Gardner advises pushing yourself beyond the everyday and going outside of your comfort zone: “Be willing to go out of your way to achieve both for your personal fulfilment and for your firm. Be willing to work extremely hard if you want to achieve something different. By growing and learning as an individual you will become more helpful and valuable to an employer.”
There are seven categories at the 2018 AAT Professional Member Awards, including Professional Member of the Year, Licensed Member of the Year, Rising Star of the Year, AAT Champion of the Year and Branch of the Year. The winners will be announced in a ceremony at the AAT Annual Conference on 7 June 2018.
Image left to right: President of AAT, Nicky Fisher and AAT Rising Star of 2017, Gina Gardner.
Laura Oliver is a Freelance Journalist and Former Head of Social and Community at the Guardian.