By Nick Huber Video and podcast Meet the experts – tax specialist Michael Steed 1 Aug 2016 Michael Steed worked in oil exploration before switching to accountancy. The former president of the Association of Taxation Technicians talks about tax controversy, career switches and office romance. In business the phrase “burning platform” describes a company in crisis that needs to take urgent action. Michael Steed, a former president at the Association of Taxation Technicians, has experienced a real one. Before he worked in accountancy he worked in oil exploration. He worked on ships in the North Sea doing geo-physical surveys and on rigs. Jobs could take a couple of months. He worked on Piper Alpha shortly before the oil platform in the North Sea exploded in 1988, killing 167 men. Once, when Steed was drilling for oil in a Yorkshire moor the team hit a gas pocket deep in the ground. “It was quite unexpected,” he says. There wasn’t enough mud in the hole. It “blew out”, caught fire and destroyed the rig in about three hours. “So that was quite fun,” he says drily. He was unhurt. Career switch In the second half of the eighties when the oil price fell sharply Steed, who studied economics at university, switched career to accountancy. An acquaintance who worked in tax told him it was “quite intellectual”. Steed began his training with what was then Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC). He advised the oil industry. He travelled regularly, working in cities including London, Hong Kong, Dallas and Vancouver. “I worked up [oil] prospects, results from geo-physical surveys, and turned them into prospects, selling them to the board, basically [saying] ‘Do you want to spend £3m on drilling this well?’” Steed met his wife at Coopers. Business culture was more conservative then. “I got into terrible trouble [with the firm],” he says. “I was carpeted and up before a partners’ meeting.” It didn’t harm his career, though. Steed completed AAT, ATT and the CTA (chartered tax adviser) qualifications. In 1995, he was awarded a Chartered Institute of Taxation Fellowship in 1995 for a thesis on VAT groups. Taxing tasks “Taxation is very analytical,” he says. “It’s rather like looking at a Rubik’s cube. Part of a job of tax is to put all these little shards together to make a coherent story.” Since the financial crisis of 2008 tax (how much rich people and large companies are paying or avoiding) has become political and highly controversial. Governments are passing tougher laws against tax evasion and tax avoidance. “Tax has a moral element now that it never had when I started in the trade in the late eighties,” Steed says. “And of course, there is some very strong stuff coming in about anti avoidance. HMRC has been in the ascendant over the last five years.” What motivates him in work? “I don’t get up in the morning thinking about money. I get up thinking about doing another 15-hour day solving tax problems.” Career advice Steed is now a consultant for Kaplan, an education and training company. He works for Kaplan’s “leadership and professional development team”, advising clients on subjects including how Britain’s exit from the European Union may affect companies’ VAT bills. Most VAT and excise duties are directive driven [from the European Commission] and the member states have to stamp them into their own legal canons, Steed says. What’s his advice for a trainee accountant at the AAT? First, get good training − ideally with a large firm or business then move to a smaller one after you’ve gained experience. Most important, though, is to understand tax. Most clients have two main questions, he says: ‘much tax have I got to pay?’ and ‘how can I reduce it?’. Accountants tell Steed that their biggest challenge is coping with rapid changes in regulations, international accounting standards and tax law. Technology is also changing how accountants work. “Who’d have thought for example that 20 years ago we’d be storing all our information on a cloud?” HM Revenue & Custom is using technology to modernise the tax system, including replacing annual tax returns with digital tax accounts. Accountants will probably need to change how they work in response to the digitisation of tax. Financial paperwork for company year ends may have to be done much quicker. Tax advice may be given more often, rather than annually or quarterly. Downtime Steed is a busy man. How does he relax? “The short answer is I’ve long forgotten how to relax.” Leisure time includes working on his farm in Kent. “We’ve got cherries, plums, apples, Kentish cobnuts. We also have some sheep. I quite enjoy the hustle and bustle and going up to the farm, I suppose in a sense, it’s the real me.” Nick Huber is a freelance journalist and has written for Accounting Technician magazine, The Guardian and BBC.