John Thornton is determined that his year in office looks to the future of the accountancy profession and how to rise to the challenges ahead.
Thornton started out working for a shipping company when he left school after A levels. But he wanted a career in which he could progress professionally and thought accountancy was ideal.
Thornton says: “I looked into it and at the time, some local authorities in London were offering training. I’ve not looked back since; accountancy has given me a skill set which has enabled me to move across sectors, to travel the world and experience different roles”.
Thornton adds: “That’s why I am so enthusiastic about the AAT. You might have someone who didn’t do so well at school – but why should that hold them back in the future? It is crazy to say that you should make important decisions about your future career when you are a teenager.
If you screw up at school, it doesn’t mean you can’t have a great future and earn qualifications later. That’s what AAT does, it gives you the opportunity to get qualifications which are globally recognised and enables you to forge a great career”.
Thornton saw for himself how holding AAT qualifications can be life changing. “What is fabulous about the AAT is the opportunities it offers. I’ve met many people whose lives have been transformed, whose standing in the community and their own confidence has grown thanks to holding AAT qualifications. It can change lives”.
He explains: “I was in Botswana recently presenting Achievement Awards to newly-qualified AAT members. There was one lady there who came with her mother. They’d spent nine hours on a train travelling across the country to receive her award. She explained how her AAT qualification had changed her life and how her pride in her achievement was felt through her whole community”.
Climate of change
There are many challenges ahead for those in the accountancy profession, says Thornton. But he’s determined that AAT members will face these head-on. And while, for example, increasing regulation – particularly in the UK – might seem a burden, Thornton says that AAT members are well-positioned to help.
“Our members are the people who can interpret and apply the rules, helping to ensure their organisations and clients comply with the regulations. Globalisation too brings challenges”.
Even possibly difficult changes can be positive, says Thornton. “The tectonic plates of accountancy are moving and the AAT is helping our members respond to the challenges ahead. We hear about the increasing growth of AI (artificial intelligence) and how that will mean fewer accountants in the future.
But actually, I think the impact of AI will be that the role of accountants and accounting technicians will change. AI might be able to produce figures but you need someone to sanity-check them and explain what the numbers are telling you. And that’s what accounting technicians will increasingly be doing”.
Helping AAT members with their changing roles is the central aspiration of Thornton’s presidency. “The other is to help accountants and accounting technicians embrace the changes in technology. We need to plan for the future, for the changes in the world and that is what the AAT can help with.
We need to focus on how accounting technicians can better exploit innovation and changes in technology. We don’t have all the answers and we have a long journey ahead of us but it is vital that we start to ask the questions” he adds.
Thornton points out that the AAT has currently some 80,000 students and 50,000 members worldwide, a total of more than 120,000 people studying for and holding AAT qualifications. “That’s nearly twice the capacity of Wembley stadium” he points out. “What we do, how the AAT and its member progress is hugely significant.
I am proud to be the President of this organisation at such an important time for the accountancy industry. Together, we can have an impact on so many lives”. From a village in Botswana to a worldwide membership of 120,000 the AAT is doing just that – and Thornton is keen to play his part in preparing all of them for a challenging future.
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Charlotte Beugge spent more than 20 years as the deputy personal finance editor on The Daily Telegraph and then The Daily Mail. A freelancer since 2010, her work has appeared in national newspapers, magazines and websites.