Interview with Eileen Rae – director of finance, ACCA


Q. First and foremost can you tell us a bit about yourself and your career to date, just a sort of general starter?

A. I went to university in 1980. Back in those days, most people who wanted to be an accountant went to Glasgow to do the BAcc. I wanted to be a bit different, so went to Edinburgh Uni to do an MA Honours in Economics and Accounting. I graduated in 1984 and joined Arthur Young McClelland Moores in their Glasgow office, which has now morphed into Ernst & Young, on a standard trainee CA contract. I enjoyed my time with them, but felt I wanted to work outside the profession, so left there in 1987 and joined a small mutual life organisation called FS Assurance.
That was a great learning experience. It was the first life company to demutualise and was acquired by Britannia Building Society and then consumed a number of other life offices. Dealing with legacy systems became a way of life! I left there in 1995 to move to National Australia Life, which was a brand new company that was being set up by National Australia Bank Group.
Again, really exciting times having to set financial systems and processes up from scratch! I moved on to CIGNA in Greenock in 1999 and then to Student Loans Company in 2001. SLC was a first dip into the public sector and it was very interesting to experience the differences in culture and approach in that sector. I joined ACCA in January 2008 as head of finance, and am now director of finance.  

Q. How has the four years been for you here?

A. ACCA is a fantastic organisation to work for and has been a great career choice. We are a not-for-profit organisation and are a membership body governed by a council of 36 of our members. Strategy and delivery of that is the responsibility of our executive team. Our success is dependent on communication of that strategy and engagement of our staff and there is tremendous focus put on that. ACCA is a great place to work, with people who really live our values (diversity, integrity, innovation, accountability, opportunity). The pace of change is very exciting and there are loads of opportunities to get involved in that. 

Q. What are the biggest challenges facing ACCA currently and conversely what are the biggest opportunities in the current market for you as an organisation?

A. I think the challenges are probably similar to every other global organisation. We operate in 170 countries through 83 offices and various networks, and we see the impact the downturn in the global economy is having in many of our markets. However, the strength of our product and our dedication to customer service has enabled us to maintain growth, albeit at a slower rate than our historic growth. The biggest opportunities we have are really helping our prospective students to understand what an ACCA qualification can offer them compared to the other qualifications they have access to.
So it is really about emphasising the quality and accessibility of our product and the customer service and support they can expect from us not just as a student, but throughout their careers. We also work very closely with a number of key employers both globally and in individual markets, and our success in building these relationships will underpin our future growth.   

Q. What do you think the perception is in the marketplace of ACCA as a professional qualification?

A. I think the market place thinks very strongly of the ACCA brand. Given our focus on meeting the needs of employers around the world, the findings of a recent independent survey of 1300 employers in 20 countries in which 50% rated ACCA as the leading global professional accountancy body in reputation, influence and size are particularly significant.
The beauty of our qualification is that it is genuinely global and many of our students and members migrate across borders and their qualification is immediately recognised in their chosen destination. I’m sure our half a million students and members would agree that we have a very strong, global brand! 

Q. Looking more at yourself personally, what do you attribute your success to? Obviously you have a very successful career get to where you’ve got to, how do you achieve that?

A. Perseverance and hard work. I have always been very dedicated to my career so I have always had a very clear vision of what I want to achieve and where I want to get to, and I have usually had a pretty clear plan of how I am going to get there as well. The career moves I have made have always been to gain new experience, whether that be in role type or sector. Once you’re in a role, you need to work hard and really demonstrate that you can bring something to that role. Having said that, there have been elements of luck as well and being in the right place at the right time on occasion has definitely helped!

Q. Talking about there being a plan, you’ve been at ACCA for four years.  Have you mapped out where you are going over the next 5-10 years? 

A. I would say I’ll definitely still be here at ACCA. I really enjoy my role here and work with a great team. The senior executive team are very, very clear about what the organisation is going to achieve and that inspires the people that work with them, so I have no plans to leave ACCA for another organisation. But I doubt if I’ll last another 10 years – I’m planning an early retirement to pursue all the external activities I enjoy! 

Q. If you had a crystal ball, where do you think the economy is going over the next year or two? 

A. I wish I knew that but obviously I don’t, or I’d be very rich and retiring even sooner! 
I suppose I’m a little pessimistic - I don’t think there is going to be tremendous growth in the next year. I think until the eurozone sorts itself out it will be difficult to achieve sustained, positive recovery. It’s been good to see the stock market begin to pick up over the last two to three months, but it still feels vulnerable to me. I’d love to be proved wrong. 

Q. We obviously read a lot in the news and press about the economy, what are your opinions about the press talking us into recession, do you follow that line of thought?

A. To an extent yes – every time you hear the news headlines it’s the same old stuff and I am fed up hearing from Robert Peston! However, without doubt there has been a genuine downturn in the economy and many people are having to tighten their belts and review spending plans, so I don’t think we can blame it all on the press. 

Q. Given the very successful career you have had, if you were giving yourself advice now looking back to when you were a newly qualified, what would that advice be?

A. The first bit of advice I would give is decide what sector you want to specialise in because I think it is quite difficult to operate across multiple sectors. I’ve had no regrets about choosing financial services. The second bit of advice would be to take a risk. If you see an opportunity and you think you are not quite sure if that company will survive or allow you to develop in the long term, just go for it. Even if the company doesn’t survive or doesn’t expand the way you would have wanted, you are still going to get a lot of opportunities and a lot of learning whilst you are there. Finally, work really hard and volunteer for as many projects outside of your normal job scope as you can.

Q. What are your views on the Y generation?

A. I think they are far more technologically aware than me!  I also think their expectations of the work place are quite different from what they where when I was graduating back in 1984.  There seems to be much more expectation of employers offering flexible working options. I would never have dreamed of that back then, I just came in and did whatever I had to, got my head down and got stuck in, and coped with whatever system and technology constraints were in the way. I think the Y generation is less forgiving of lack of technology and has more urgency to resolve process and technology issues rather than accepting them as the norm. The Y generation, I think, will also require many companies to adapt their product to new delivery channels, and we’re seeing that in ACCA as well.

Q. What do you look for in a new recruit? 

A. It’s so difficult because there are so many good people out there looking for jobs, and we need to find some way of differentiating. A lot of the roles we have in our finance team are about getting out into the business and talking to our internal customers. So we want our team to have outgoing personalities so that they feel comfortable doing that customer engagement role. We also want them to have demonstrated that they have put some effort into their career so far and preferably got some work experience, even if that is only a few weeks in the summer in some kind of finance or customer facing role. That’s a big tick for us. 
They have got to find some way of differentiating themselves, so we look for someone who has done an exchange to another university for a semester or done something just that wee bit out of the ordinary. And of course, they need to be willing to buckle down and apply themselves and study hard. 

Q. What’s the one question that you would always ask in an interview? 

A.  I am inherently a very nosey person and I always ask the candidate what they do in their spare time. It’s a good way of getting them to relax and really open up and communicate.  I get all sorts of wonderful responses and I think my favourite one was a girl who told me she was a belly dancer. I’m sorry to say she didn’t get the job – she could have been good for a team day activity! 

Q. What do you think is the best professional qualification to get you where you are in your career?

A. That’s an unfair question given who my employer is!  I am an ICAS member and it is a very valuable qualification and one of which I am very proud. ACCA is also a wonderful qualification which can lead to a fantastic career. I think in choosing a professional qualification, you need to decide what sector you are likely to focus on and what study approach is going to suit you best and then choose based on that. Today’s budding accountants are very lucky to have such a high quality choice.  

Q. What’s the most disappointing thing a candidate can do for you in an interview?

A. To not be prepared. I absolutely hate it when they turn up and know nothing about the organisation. If they’ve made no effort to do any research on the internet, then I am not interested because it means they are not interested.

Q. What’s the funniest thing you have came across in an interview?

A. Well, we had a candidate turned up and when I came to pick her up from reception there was a gentleman beside her. I greeted the candidate and she didn’t say anything back, but the gentleman introduced himself as her father and advised me that he would be attending the interview because it was inappropriate for his daughter to be interviewed without him being present. So, we did the interview, he answered many of the questions and needless to state, the candidate was unsuccessful!  

Q. What are your thoughts on Scottish independence?

A. I am going to sit on the fence with this one! I am proudly Scottish but I would really worry about whether we are big enough, sustainable enough to make independence work in financial terms. I worry that independence will just lead to duplication of government services at enormous cost to the taxpayer. I would certainly like to see more devolved powers coming to Scotland where it makes economic sense to do so and where there are clear, tangible benefits, but not full independence.

Q. Would you be in favour of devo max then if that was an option?

A. I would probably have to understand more what was in devo max, certainly I would like to see more powers coming up Edinburgh’s way but only if there are tangible, sustainable benefits.

Q. What do you see the main differences between students when you were doing your CA and students going through their studies just now? Do you see marked differences between them?

A. Yes I do actually. I think back in the days when I was graduating it was all very much about theory. You did your degree and then you did your apprenticeship and the degree course and the CA exams were very much about studying theory and then answering questions on that. What students seem to come with these days is much more of an idea about how to apply that to the real world and I think that is a fantastic thing and a really positive step forward. They seem to do much more by way of teamwork, so they have lots of project activity and they learn how to liaise and work with other people to get the end result.  We just didn’t have that – we all worked on our own and focused on our own results. 
The ACCA qualification is changing just now. We have a project under way to move our exams off paper and deliver them online. That means the exam is going to be much more aligned to the skills that you will actually need when you join your employer. Very exciting, but I’m glad I’m passed that stage now!