My Chartered Accountancy Journey – the Story so far…

I’ll be honest from the outset….the catalyst for wanting to share my Chartered Accountancy journey might have something to do with the current Chartered Accountants Ireland competition that is offering members under 35 the opportunity to win a once in a lifetime all-expenses paid trip to represent the body and profession at the prestigious One Young World Summit in Bogotá, Colombia if they submit an article about their Chartered story. The summit is an international conference that brings together the brightest young leaders from around the world, empowering them to make lasting connections and create positive change and I would absolutely be delighted to be given the chance to attend. In saying all of the above, while the competition has been an incentive to put my thoughts on paper it is not my only motivation to take time out and share my experiences; I am genuinely very passionate about the Chartered Accountancy qualification and profession and I would hope this piece may go on to inspire others to tread (or continue on) the same path as I would say it was the best decision I ever made. I have chosen to make my article a very personal and honest account but if I can inspire one person to keep going or to get signed up, I will have achieved what I set out to.

Where it all began…

Truth be told I fell into Chartered Accountancy. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I ‘grew up’ but I was motivated and ambitious from a young age and knew I wanted to forge a successful career. I came from a family of simple country folk, who worked hard, but education wasn’t something they had the privilege of enjoying – in fact my parents and most of my wider family left school at a young age and just went out to work to help supplement the household income. I think that’s where I get my drive from and I was fortunate to do well at school. I was encouraged at home to see the value of education and always had support to pursue an academic route through to University. The careers advice then, when you were lucky enough to have strong grades, was to put them to good use and we were signposted to explore the major profession degrees.

Not many people know this but I actually started out on a Law and Accountancy degree course at Queen’s University in Belfast. I thought I would hedge my bets and pick a joint degree just in case I didn’t like one of the subjects. At the end of year one I confess I dropped the Accountancy element and decided to progress with the just the straight Law degree; I thought I was better suited to it as I had always had a literary flair but as the time passed I started to question if that path was indeed right for me after all.

Luckily at the start of final year (2006) a representative from KPMG came into our lecture and invited us to attend a careers info session that they were hosting at lunch time and my friend and I decided it would be worthwhile to go along as we were at a crossroads of deciding what we wanted to do after graduation. Being Law students we were perhaps a little naive in thinking our course restricted us from exploring such a route. Thankfully our preconceptions were put right and we were advised that graduates from all backgrounds are indeed eligible and welcome to apply for Chartered Accountancy training. Our eyes were opened and we were educated on all the many benefits of training as a Chartered Accountant. We left the session inspired and went about doing some more homework on the qualification and were quickly sold on it. I suppose I had always considered an Accountant to be a traditional number-cruncher type figure and I struggled with identifying with that. I couldn’t have been more wrong – the role of a Chartered Accountant is so much more. The qualification was not only offering a passport into conventional Accountancy roles but it would also open doors to the wider business world. It was no coincidence then to learn that Chartered Accountants are at the helm of many of our most successful companies. The qualification is also geographically transportable and can be carried around the globe and enjoys international recognition. I had worked in the local convenience store from the age of 14 and had got a taste for business and I found it easier to imagine myself in a commercial role so I knew the qualification would be a solid foundation upon which to build my career. My friend and I each submitted applications and we were both successful in securing trainee roles with KPMG starting Autumn 2007 and the rest as they say is history.

Now my journey doesn’t come without the odd speed bump and to my utter disappointment I fell short of getting a 2.1 degree by a mark and so graduated with a 2.2 classification. For a straight A student and for someone who had a job offer conditional on achieving a 2.1 degree things got very gloomy. But I was resolute to overcome the set back and I had a meeting with KPMG and managed to convince them not to retract my offer. I had got complacent with my study and in hindsight perhaps this failing (by my standards) was the wake-up call I needed as I was left more determined than ever to redeem myself (and my CV) so obtaining the Chartered Accountancy exams was the best way to do it I firmly believed.

My official journey with Chartered Accountants Ireland then began formally on 10th September 2007. I remember the induction day at the Belfast Headquarters clearly; the lecture theatre was packed with bright eyed and bushy tailed budding Accountants from various backgrounds and we got briefed on what lay ahead with our training. It was an exciting but scary day as we knew the road ahead would be tough – juggling full time work with study was not going to be an easy feat. I had 3 years of exams (and 3.5 years of training) to do as I had no exemptions, having graduated with a straight Law degree (had I studied pure Accountancy I would have had only 2 years of exams and had I completed a Post Graduate Diploma I would have had only 1 year of exams). We left the induction feeling supercharged and the rollercoaster ride had begun!

My Chartered Accountancy training…

I undertook my training contract with KPMG Belfast in their Advisory department – I specifically wanted more commercial/consulting type exposure. I worked across Corporate Finance and the Public Sector Advisory teams on a diverse range of assignments. One day I could have been undertaking an Economic Appraisal or preparing a Business Case for a major public sector spend and the next I may have been putting together a Funding Proposal or Due Diligence Reports on behalf of a private client. It was a fantastic training ground and I thoroughly enjoyed it. 26 trainees started on the same day and it was brilliant to be part of that support network; I made friends for life while at KPMG and also at class with trainees from other firms. Many of my closest friends now are those I have met along the Chartered Accountancy path. Having like-minded individuals share the journey is what got me through the tough times because it’s not a ride for the faint hearted. It is a really challenging undertaking – balancing a demanding job and study is really difficult. Thankfully the Chartered Accountants Ireland education and training is second to none – the courses are designed to ensure the student gets the best experience. The materials, lectures and programme structures are of such a high standard so you feel confident that you are being given all the tools needed to succeed.

The examinations are tough and I found myself failing a few papers in first and second year but I got back on the horse and re-applied myself and passed the re-sits. When it came to my final year exams I was determined to achieve them first time round ensuring I would complete my training contract within the 3.5 years’ timeframe. Unfortunately I was to face another bump in the road and in the Spring before my exams I lost my younger brother and only sibling in sudden tragic circumstances. My world was turned upside down and I was forced to take some time out. When I returned to work I was a few weeks away from starting study leave for the biggest exams I had ever faced. KPMG and Chartered Accountants Ireland were more than supportive and I was given the opportunity to defer my finals; I did a lot of soul searching as I knew I wasn’t in the greatest of places to face the exams but I decided I wasn’t going to let the recent events take me off course. I had committed to qualifying and that I did!

I will forever remember the morning of Friday 19 November 2010 like it was yesterday – getting the pass news was absolutely amazing. I had never worked so hard for anything before that and the sheer joy (and relief) to get over that final hurdle was immense. In truth I genuinely believe that having that end goal is what kept me together after the loss of my brother. It might sound odd but in the midst of all my personal life chaos I almost found comfort in having something to focus on and work towards – it’s what kept me from derailing so when I reached the finish line it was really emotional. When writing this article I was torn on whether to share so much of the detail of my journey but I was keen to paint an honest and true picture. It isn’t always plain sailing for people and so why not share my story with warts and all. We live in a world now with social media almost taking over real life where we dress everything up in the best light and guise. I have been embarrassed in the past about my blips but I am now almost glad of them because greater lessons are learnt when you have to deal with obstacles, difficult situations or failure. These things are character building which is something that can’t be taught. Obtaining my Chartered Accountancy qualification is most definitely my proudest achievement and I think that will remain the case so I am proud to share my complete journey. After all the twists and bumps in the road I felt I had finally redeemed myself and I was excited for the next chapter!

Post qualification…

After qualifying I decided I wanted to broaden my horizons and explore new terrain. So I have been fortunate to enjoy a really varied career which is in no small part attributable to my Chartered Accountancy qualification. My first role after KPMG was with a local recruitment firm but it wasn’t meant to be and after a few short months I was forced to explore other prospects, but I was quick to get over the disappointment, given the lessons embedded from previous bumps in the road. I had learnt it was ok for things not to work out so I took the opportunity to go down another direction and since then I have undertaken a mix of roles including a Commercial Financial Analyst post with Bombardier and a Relationship Management post with Ulster Bank. I am now an Associate Director with McKinty Associates, a leading specialist Accountancy and Finance recruitment consultancy in Northern Ireland. While I have the core skills to ‘number crunch’ I have been trained to add so much more value. I am a far cry from that of the stereotypical Accountant image many have but I love that the qualification can still be of value to us who chose to prefer exploring more non-traditional or unconventional roles.

My current role…

I joined McKinty Associates in 2014 as a Business Manager and was promoted to Associate Director in 2016. My role involves recruiting Accountancy and Finance professionals across a variety of sectors as well as balancing management responsibilities in the business. Drawing on my first-hand knowledge and experiences of working in Practice, Industry and Financial Services has empowered me to develop a unique personal and professional service offering which adds value, and ultimately allows me to more effectively help candidates and clients alike. I am a respected go-to consultant for many leading NI businesses, as well as being considered a trusted career partner to those seeking to explore new opportunities. I am endeavouring to set a new benchmark for recruitment and this has been recognised and welcomed. Through McKinty Associates, I also act as a Career and CV coach to Chartered Accountancy trainees in Ulster and I run CV bootcamp sessions throughout the year to help those coming through the ranks prepare for post qualification.

My main passions are people (promoting engagement, professional development, relationship building), the arts, entrepreneurship and education. Along with the day job I also get involved with a lot of additional activity and I am a keen contributor to the local professional community in other ways.

Other benefits of Chartered Accountancy…

An advantage of training with Chartered Accountants Ireland has been the opportunity to get involved with the various committee activities. In 2007 when I embarked upon my training contract I found out about the local Student Society CASSU (Chartered Accountants Student Society Ulster) which exists to support and run events for all ACA trainees in NI; I bought into their mandate and quickly joined the committee which I then went on to Chair in 2010. After qualifying I progressed onto the Ulster Young Professionals Group committee and again went on to Chair this committee from 2014-2016. I have since progressed on to Chairing the Ulster Society Chartered Accountants in Business sub-committee. I also sit on the main Ulster Society committee and on the Member Services and Conference committees. In addition, I am a member of the Dublin based Members in Business committee. I have personally found such huge benefit in getting involved in these groups. These committees are the manifestation of Chartered Accountants Ireland on the ground and I enjoy giving back by getting involved. I seek to get student/member feedback and then tailor activity in relation to their needs. Over the years, I have run countless events for the membership in the guises of seminars, networking sessions, social mixers, balls, company visits, luncheons, dinners and conferences. It is important to contribute to our profession and to the wider business community and by getting involved in this way allows me to do that. As a collective, Chartered Accountants have a strong voice for business and we have an important advocacy and influencer role in our economy.

Beyond the specific Chartered Accountancy committees I also contribute to other groups in the local market. I was a founding member of the Young Leaders NI committee (and Chaired the group for 4 years) and have played an instrumental part in the success of this collective and its annual Young Leaders Conference which recently celebrated its 6th birthday. This group comprises Chartered Accountants Ulster Young Professional Group, NI Young Solicitors Association, JCI Belfast and the Chartered Institute of Public Relations NI. The group was formed to ‘Inspire Leadership’ amongst young professionals and so a collaborative approach getting various bodies together was an effective way to do this. We now enjoy an annual sell out Conference of over 200 delegates and have had fantastic speakers such as Simon Weston CBE, Gerald Ratner, David Meade, Sahar Hashemi and Baroness Michelle Mone of Mayfair OBE. Organising this event and finding relevant themes and identifying and approaching relevant speakers has been a thoroughly enjoyable and worthwhile experience year on year as I have got to see the lasting impact and benefit it can have on our young professional population.

Of all the speakers I have invited to events I was particularly impressed with Michelle Mone – I found her story to be inspirational and her words ‘work hard, play hard and always give something back’ resonate with me. Giving back is hugely important and I believe that Chartered Accountants are ideally placed and have an important role in getting involved in their local and wider communities to help build a better and more prosperous society for all.

I have always been someone who gives back and in addition to the above activity I am also a Trustee for my local theatre company Belvoir Players and have recently been appointed as a Trustee to the board of Arts and Business NI. My Chartered Accountancy qualification and training has allowed me to be a rounded contributor and as an amateur actress and Arts enthusiast I am pleased to be able to offer my expertise with the aim of adding value to these fantastic organisations.

I also have volunteered time with other various Charities and have ran Interview Prep sessions with The Prince’s Trust and Business/Money basics workshops with Young Enterprise NI. The skillset of a Chartered Accountant can add value to so many initiatives.

For my contributions and achievements both in and outside of work I was recognised in both Business First’s ‘NI’s Rising Stars – Top Forty under 40’ and ‘Top 20 NI Inspiring Women in Business’ listings in 2016 which was fantastic and took me by complete surprise. I have always been a person who likes to get involved; I remember at my school leaving prize giving a new award for contribution to school life was invented and awarded to me because I was part of so many societies and clubs. Getting recognition like the above is not why I do it (I do it because I enjoy it) but it is really heart-warming. So for those seeking acknowledgement and accolades Chartered Accountancy can certainly bring opportunity.

Advice to future Chartered Accountants…

For those considering exploring the qualification I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. It has changed my life for the better. I am a true champion for the accreditation. On the professional side it will add such value to your CV and give you credibility in the market. On the softer or personal side I have always felt part of a community since joining and there is such a strong network there to support both students and members. I have made the best of friends on my journey and I even ended up marrying a fellow Chartered Accountant – how cliché. It is a testing path but it has to be to ensure that the brightest and best talent is produced. My advice is to work hard and persevere – as you have read above it wasn’t plain sailing for me but sticking with it will be absolutely worthwhile.

Vision for the profession…

The role of the Accountant is one that has evolved and that I believe will continue to evolve. As artificial intelligence develops it is likely some of the transactional Accountancy duties will be taken over however I believe there will still be a role for Chartered Accountants. We are trained to the highest standards and constantly encouraged to add value in our workplaces and beyond; I believe we will continue to do this in the future. Our role is bigger than that of a ‘bean counter’ – we can take a more birds-eye strategic view and commercial outlook. We are astute problem solvers and are often seen as respected voices for our economies and we have a role to play in lobbying and ensuring effective decisions are being made for the benefit for wider society.

The Chartered Accountancy qualification equips you be an effective business leader and there is an encouragement for lifelong learning which ensures our members remain at the top of their game and are trained to be the highest calibre of professional. In addition to that there is a real focus on ethics and integrity which is as important as the technical training. The fundamental foundation of Chartered Accountancy membership is built on values and this is promoted and intertwined in everything we do. In my view there will always be a need for Chartered Accountants – we are adaptive and will continue to have a place no matter what change is ahead.

The One Young World opportunity…

If I were lucky enough to be afforded the opportunity to attend the One Young World Summit in Bogotá as part of the international Chartered Accountants Worldwide delegation, I would use the visit as a forum to have open discussions about how we can help enact change. I am an advocate of collaboration which is seen from my interests and activities above. I believe making new connections and expanding networks enabling knowledge transfer and the sharing of ideas is core to progressive movement forward. People are at the heart of everything so working together positively can help us achieve great feats together. We live in a small world and relationship building is crucial to our global economy’s advancement.

I recently attended the Ulster Society Annual Away Conference which went to Boston and was proud to be part of the 120 strong delegation promoting NI being open for business; winning the trip to Bogotá would allow me to continue to promote NI.

I am also keen to promote the role of the Chartered Accountant and the value of the qualification to both individuals and companies. I would hope I could help dispel the notions that we are just ‘old-fashioned bean counters’ as evidenced by my own journey. Chartered Accountants are rounded, emotionally intelligent, dynamic and strategic advisors – we are the best breed of business leader. I have held various roles and taken an unconventional path and the recruitment element of my current role is hardly orthodox but yet my qualification has allowed me to add value and credibility to the role and sector.

Education is vital to ensuring our global economy grows and thrive so I am keen to ensure that the importance of same is recognised. There is an excellent education system underpinning the Chartered Accountancy qualification and it can be seen how much of an impact this makes noting the talent of our membership.

I am an active social media user and if I were attending the Summit I would ensure I would capture and document the trip. Feeding back all learnings and sharing best practice tips would be a priority for me.

I am a fun, outgoing person who likes to engage with others, and I would like to dismiss the myth of Accountants being boring introverted characters, which is the complete opposite to my own personality and outlook. I love performing and drama and I am currently spending the summer on tour with my local theatre group enjoying treading the boards. There is so much talent and creativity in our membership – I would be keen to ensure the colour and vibrancy of our profession is also recognised and communicated.

I am already an ambassador for Chartered Accountants Ireland and have taken part in various marketing campaigns and regularly speak at events so I believe I could be a positive representative for the brand and profession at the One Young World Summit.

Final thoughts…

My journey to my Chartered Accountants Ireland qualification was by no means a straight or easy one, but I could recognise the value in committing myself to get to the end, and so I would urge those considering the path, or who are on the path, to keep focused and to keep the end goal in sight, as it is very much worth it. I recruit Accountants for leading client companies and organisations across NI and I can see first-hand how Chartered qualification is held in the highest esteem. There is mass respect for the accreditation and the market is buoyant with job opportunities for Chartered Accountants.

My journey is by no means over. In fact it is just getting started and I am looking forward to many more decades of adventure. I am 32 years old and the qualification has allowed me to already achieve so much. It has been a game changer for me and I have reaped so much reward from my association. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate my decade of affiliation with Chartered Accountants Ireland than a trip to Colombia. I have so much passion and pride to share and it would be an absolute privilege to be afforded the opportunity.

Sinead Fox-Hamilton ACA