Life after accountancy

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Accountancy has the potential to be a life-long career and for many it is with the sector providing ample opportunities to specialise and vary roles and responsibilities.

But for others, accounting skills are a springboard to an entirely new vocation – once you’ve found the confidence to make the leap.

Combining your skillset

A management accountant with extensive experience, Sarah Pettegree left the field 11 years ago, swapping pie charts for pork pies. She runs Brays Cottage, a specialist pork pie producer in Norfolk that supplies independent shops and markets.

“I knew there was a niche for something really delicious and much more contemporary, a market that was not being filled at the time,” she explains. Having moved out of Norwich to a more remote location, she also wanted the opportunity to work more locally in an area she loves.

Her accounting experience meant she was confident she could launch and run a business before she had a fully-formed idea of just what that business should be: “Watching Dragons’ Den, I thought, I know this stuff. I worked out the shape of my business and whether the bottom line made sense. Before I did anything I went into management accountant mode, analysed it and I knew then that it should work.”

Carving out a niche

Pettegree, who worked in industry for most of her accounting career, derived enjoyment from her previous job by carving out a niche: she helped run training for financial managers in new financial and employment systems.

She has used this experience in her food business, looking to replicate how technology and infrastructure was introduced to bigger organisations: “I knew from my training experience that I didn’t want to be the only one who could use the systems so I needed something really simple.

“You can do a business straight after school but if you work and get those skills it’s like a boot camp for your own business. You can pick up information and watch how things work. It makes it much easier to run your own.”

Learning how to adapt

Craig Strachan, former accountant and managing director of Glasgow’s FOAL drinks, agrees: “Working with intelligent and really successful people in the profession instilled a degree of confidence and a good set of communication skills. I worked in management positions and dealt with different levels of people with varied backgrounds which has really helped me adapt to different environments. I’m now working with clients and suppliers, and lots of different people who require a range of tones of voice.”

Strachan was working full-time as group accountant for car dealers Arnold Clark when he launched his new business and its titular product: a low calorie-version of a staple Scottish drink, fresh orange juice and lemonade. FOAL now has a range of beverages and stockists and led to the Start Up Drinks Lab – a chance to develop new drink concepts and products by manufacturing on a smaller scale, something unavailable through existing contract manufacturers in Scotland.

“We are almost ready to start bottling for external clients. It’s felt like a long process but we have actually been pretty fast in setting up a manufacturing business in less than 18 months,” says Strachan.

Value the transferable skills and the time to develop future plans or gain real-world experience

 You don’t have to leave accountancy behind

While the manufacturing side of his business is largely self-taught, his early accountancy career with PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) gave him the opportunity to visit some clients’ manufacturing sites. Strachan hopes to enable more small-scale drinks business across the UK, duplicating the model in Glasgow, with a particular focus on bringing local jobs and manufacturing back to areas that have fallen on tougher economic times.

His accountancy background has been really helpful with the day-to-day aspects of running a business, from VAT returns to employment tax calculations, and, having worked in a mergers and acquisitions team, with operational management: “M&A experience teaches you to spot places where things might go wrong or be sceptical about certain conversations you’re having.  I got a feel for how businesses had been run in the past. A lot of these were family businesses now being taken over, so I could take inspiration from how they got started.”

Exploring passions and interests

Fellow entrepreneur Gregory Keane brings an auditor’s eye to his recently-launched construction business, Weaver Tech, which allows him to combine his financial skills with his design interests. The London-based start-up matchmakes homeowners with builders for renovation projects and provide digital tools for managing budgets, costs and quotes: “The builder can be the longest relationship and have the most impact during a renovation but is also one of the most opaque, non-standardised and hardest parts of the trade to understand and so archaically managed with nothing online.”

ACA qualified Keane, started as a graduate trainee in audits also for PwC, which gave him the “obsession with understanding that auditors have” – a great skill for entrepreneurs wanting to develop ideas and solve clients’ problems: “In auditing, you jump into analysing and understanding massive companies, you have one month to understand what they do in 12 months. You have to have the confidence to say what you don’t understand. This makes you search deeply into a problem and understand it more quickly.”

Take time to develop plans

All three entrepreneurs value the transferable skills and the time to develop future plans or gain real-world experience of how different types of businesses and industries function that a career and training in accounting has given them. Support from fellow business owners has also been crucial – not least to manage the transition from working in teams and larger office environments. Keane and his partner are based in a branch of co-working space WeWork (“the risk analyst in me came out so renting an office didn’t appeal”), while Pettegree found her community when starting up on social media.

While the calendar-bound and structured nature of many accounting roles can provide stability and security, this feature is what prompted Keane to join forces with an old university friend who had practical design skills to launch their business: “The urge to create lead me away to property – construction has a creative objective. In audits and accounting, you are not creating something yourself. Your nose is always in someone else’s business.”

Pettegree shares his view: “[As a business owner] be realistic about how hard you are going to have to work but it’s a great opportunity to be creative. I worked with many management accountants who were really creative. Working for yourself, you get to do lots of creative things. You can mould work to be what you want.”

Laura Oliver is a Freelance Journalist and Former Head of Social and Community at the Guardian.

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