Samantha Gregory often pinches herself to be sure that she is not just imagining reality.
After growing up in the sleepy Cornwall town of St Austell, she stumbled into accountancy at the age of 18 and has since had a high flying career across the Middle East and South Asia.
Gregory, is currently based in Singapore and working on a global financial management project for multinational law firm Clifford Chance. It’s a position she reached by taking risks and seizing every opportunity offered to her, she says.
Previous achievements include helping to open up the company’s new office in Saudi Arabia, after Clifford Chance became the first international law firm to be awarded a licence to operate in the conservative Kingdom.
Gregory laughs when asked if she ever thought she would end up having such an international career.
‘No. Sometimes I pinch myself and think I’m this average person from Cornwall who did their homework, hoped that they would do something well and have a nice life,” she said.
“But I never thought I would experience anything like this or have the opportunities to meet the people I have met or the travel I have done.”
Gregory almost missed her calling as an accountant when she decided to take the traditional route of attending university in London straight after high school.
She realised, however, just one week into her studies in hotel management that it was not the path she wanted her life to take.
“I just thought I really don’t want to do this, there is no point in persevering for three or four months. It’s going to be a huge amount of money. Draw a line under it now and move on,” she said.
Instead, Gregory returned to St Austell and found her first accountancy job a few months later.
“It made a lot of sense. Without properly realising, I think that was the path I should have taken and it obviously came about in a slightly different way than normal.”
It was a small firm and she learned how to do accounts, VAT returns, extended trail balances, and key skills without relying on a computer.
“I basically learned the trade doing it all manually, which was a great grounding for me,” she said.
Her employer suggested doing an AAT qualification while working. She qualified in 2003 and Gregory never looked back.
She moved to a bigger firm in Plymouth, but when her husband was offered a job with KPMG in Dubai, the couple decided to take a chance on it.
“I ended up working for a couple of law firms before I moved to Clifford Chance,” she said. “Dubai gives you a lot more opportunities than if you moved to London to do the same thing. People take a chance on you,” Gregory added.
“The pot over here [UK] is massive and full of very good people. There are fewer in Dubai, so if they like you on paper and you seem like you could do the job then you’ve probably got more of a chance of getting your foot in the door.”
Gregory started off as a senior accountant in October 2011, before being promoted to finance manager in 2014.
Managing two people in the office, and with the power to delegate to a shared service desk in India, she was completely responsible for the pay roll of 180-200 people in the Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Riyadh and Doha offices. “They all had their own quirks,” she said.
She also took over as travel manager for the region, overseeing clearances for employees to go to higher risk countries like Iran or Egypt, which had more detailed insurance policies. “It was not really finance-related but it was a nice extra task,” she said.
She grew to love the “experience of being immersed in different cultures” in the melting pot of Dubai, and “learning how other nationalities work because we’ve all been brought up with different cultures and customs.”
But she added: “It can be challenging at times especially when you have to learn new ways of motivating people which might not be the traditional ways.”
She found the expat lifestyle also very appealing. “It gives you opportunities you wouldn’t have had and the travel is amazing,” she said.
“I was known for my holidays in the office. We would go to the Maldives probably three or four times a year and I’ve done few big trips to the States, to watch the Ryder Cup.”
When Clifford Chance opened its office in Saudi Arabia, she was thrilled to be part of the key management team and travelled there several times.
“It’s daunting when you go but I’m really glad that I can say I’ve been to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia,” she said.
As well as her financial duties, the cultural differences of working in the conservative Muslim country, with tight business security rules, were challenging but also fulfilling.
When she first started going, there were only a handful of women on the flight to the capital, Riyadh. She and her female boss were also required to wear an abaya, the robe-like dress worn by women as a sign of modesty.
But her work, in a country that still does not allow women to drive, was not hampered by her gender, insisted Gregory.
“The majority of people are very welcoming, and pleased that we were coming into their country,” she said.
“You’re going to have the traditionalists who aren’t used to it, who have grown up thinking that women should be at home and not really out there in the same working environment as them, but I think on the whole, the new generation coming through are very receptive to it.”
Gregory now hopes to transfer the skills and lessons she learned to her new job in Singapore, where she is just a few weeks into maternity cover for a regional Asia Pacific role, looking to overhaul the management account system.
She is also helping the firm roll out new global financial management software that consolidates results.
“I feel privileged to be picked for it,” she said. “It’s going to be challenging but it’s going to be interesting to be able to apply a lot of the changes I did in the five and a half years in the Middle East offices.”
Her ambition is to become a “super-user” of the new system, taking on a regional guidance role.
“My message to other people is to grab every opportunity,” said Gregory. “When I moved to Dubai, I went there knowing that I might hate it. The lesson that I’ve learned is that you have to try, or you’ll never know what’s out there.”
Nicola Smith has spent a decade reporting for The Sunday Times on both the European Union and South Asia.