Meet the experts – Mark Lee on standing out from the crowd

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“My career is probably the traditional path of children’s party entertainer, accountant…tax adviser and professional speaker,” says Mark Lee.

Growing up in London, Lee hoped his “passion” for magic would impress the girls at school.

“The girls went for the guys who were either really good at sport, played guitar or were really good looking. I was no good at sport, couldn’t play a musical instrument and had loads of spots.”

Magic (card tricks and “close-up” magic) helped him stand out. In his spare time, he was an entertainer at children’s parties. “I used to say that I specialised in [entertaining] four to seven year olds. In those days the under fours couldn’t distinguish magic from real life and over sevens were too damn clever.”

He now advices accountants how to stand out from their rivals. He’s also treasurer of the Magic Circle.

From sleight of hand to audit

A career in magic was an option. In the late 1970s in the UK, magicians such as Paul Daniels were a staple of light entertainment TV. However, when Lee was in his in late teens he decided that he wouldn’t enjoy the career path required to become a full-time magician.

Instead, he trained to become a chartered accountant at a small firm of accountants in central London.

“I went into accountancy not through any great love for it but as a way for deferring a decision about what to do,” Lee says. “It was a good business qualification.”

He qualified as a chartered accountant in 1982. He advised on tax for about 25 years, including as a tax partner at (Crowe) Clark Whitehill and lead tax partner of the professional practices team at BDO.

He was chairman of the tax faculty of the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales between 2003 and 2005.

Despite this impressive career Lee says that he had to work hard to pass accountancy exams and understand complex tax rules. “I struggled with tax. If I have a skill, it’s to explain complicated things in a simple way. [That’s] because I have to understand them that way.”

The ability to explain tax in plain English, plus an ebullient personality, made Lee a popular contact among journalists in trade magazines and the national media.

Later in his career, before corporate tax avoidance caused public anger and governments attempted to prevent it, he struggled with the ethics of tax planning. “[I] felt antipathy towards tax schemes,” he says.

Accountant mentor

Ten years ago, Lee started a blog and joined an online business-networking site.

Lee’s current job is varied. He’s a speaker (in June he spoke at AAT’s annual conference), a “mentor” for accountants and other professionals including lawyers and financial advices, and a writer/columnist.

What’s his career advice for accountants?

“The biggest challenge whether you’re thinking about building your career in a firm of accountants or setting up your own practice is distinguishing yourself from the other accountants in a way that benefits or is perceived to benefit your clients.”

Social skills

If you’re an introvert that’s good because introverts tend to listen more than they speak, Lee says.

“One of the secrets of having more powerful conversations is to listen more than you speak. And when you speak to make sure that what you’re saying is relevant to the person that you’re with. So you’re not just running through your standard spiel of what you do and how you do it.”

Sounds like common sense. “Nothing I say is rocket science,” Lee says. “I have tips and techniques and acronyms, strategies and processes to make things easy to remember. Most people may say, ‘Ah, I know that’ but are they doing that?”

Lee helps accountants avoid common mistakes such as not spending enough time on getting new business and sticking with clients who pay low fees.

Some accountants are nervous about getting rid of clients because they’re worried about how they’ll get new ones, Lee says. “Once we look at the sort of clients they want, how might they find those clients and how they would they negotiate fees with those clients, taking into account modern methods for securing payment compared to the past, it all becomes less daunting.”

Does he agree with predictions that technology, including cloud computing and HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) making the tax system online, will automate many accounting tasks, including audit?

“Somebody still has to enter all the bloody data and the client doesn’t want to do that,” he says

Technology such as analytics and “Big Data” can help accountants focus on what they’ve been trained to do: analyse and interpret data to help businesses grow, Lee adds.

It’s not magic but accountants with good IT and communication skills can look forward to a more stimulating and varied career.

Nick Huber is a freelance journalist and has written for Accounting Technician magazine, The Guardian and BBC.

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