• Tom Maughan

How the hell did I end up in tax?

How the bloody hell did I end up working in tax, eh?

That’s probably a question every tax advisor has asked themselves after a hard day’s slog chasing clients, rifling through spreadsheets and trying to explain what it is they actually do to colleagues for the 1000th time.

But it’s a pertinent question given the lack of tax advisors in the UK. One that I thought I’d investigate further.

I went out and spoke with as many industry professionals as possible. As I had such an overwhelming response, I haven’t been able to include everyone, but it means there might be a part two!

So, what follows is a diverse array of stories; some hilarious, some surprising, and some just downright weird.

One guy, who wished to remain anonymous, got into tax just because he fancied a girl who worked in the industry.

Seriously.

The one constant in all the tales is that the people I spoke to never knew they wanted a career in tax. In fact, most of them didn’t even know it existed.

Let’s take Sarah Brock, Tax partner at Haines Watts. Nobody in their right mind would associate beauty therapy with tax, but prior to achieving partnership, Sarah dreamt of running her own beauty salon and studied Health and Beauty at London College of Fashion.

Or how about Philip Rogers, Tax partner at PKF Cooper Parry. He openly admits that tax was “certainly not my first choice career” before going on to tell us how he wanted to be a mountaineer or explorer type and whilst at University applied to overwinter in the Antarctic with British Antarctic Survey. Luckily he was turned down, and now spends his days climbing mountains of tax returns instead of weathering snowstorms. The Discovery Channel’s loss was the tax industry’s gain.

Oh and then there’s Alasdair Cairns, Corporate Tax Assistant Manager at French Duncan LLP, who remembers dreams of being a train driver.

“Tax definitely wasn’t a first choice career – in fact, it wasn’t really even on my list of career options. I was hell-bent on being a lawyer having been inspired by many a John Grisham novel but I hated law school. My second choice was a grad scheme of some sort such as those offered by Lidl or Aldi. After that, my thoughts were more childish dreams such as being a train driver.”

There are also quite a few careers that, on paper, have transferable skills that would give a person good grounding for a job in tax. Quite a few of the tax professionals that we spoke with started out in admin or secretarial work. It kind of makes sense when you think about the organisational skills needed in both careers. However, after her father refused to let her study Art History at university, Sue Davies, Tax consultant at DAA Tax Consulting, found that her secretarial talents weren’t quite up to scratch in her first job after school.

“I applied for a secretarial job working for the Tax Manager of a small oil company in London. I was obviously inexperienced but, at that age, had the brash confidence of youth, which carried me for at least 1 week, until he discovered how bad my skills were. Bless him, rather than have me fired, he suggested that I help him with research and general tax administrative work. Now after 41 years qualified and practically semi-retired as an old warhorse in tax, I’ll give you three guesses as to what I finally returned to study at University.”

It was a different experience for Victoria Tunaley, Tax Manager at Magma Chartered Accountants. She became an admin temp in a factory and, unlike Sue, she had mad admin skillz, but felt like she needed more of a challenge.

“It wasn’t challenging and so I letter bombed local accountancy firms* for an accounts job. I had no offers other than a corporation tax trainee position. The rest is history. It was a job with progression.”

*please note, no accountants were harmed by letter bombs.

As the final term of sixth-form approached in 1975, Peter Rayney, of Peter Rayney Tax Consulting planned out his future as a Sainsburys Supermarket Manager or Laskys Hi-Fi Technician. But not under 6th Form Head, Mr Winmil’s watch. Encouraging Peter to “aim higher”, he set off on his new career path, qualifying as an accountant and discovered his love for tax.

“I really enjoyed my studies and discovered I especially liked tax and seemed to excel at it in the various exams at Financial Training.  I knew then I had to take up a career in tax.”

Props to Mr Winmill. However, all he really wanted to do was follow his love of Hi-Fi and live his days as a Lasky’s techy.

Cadet Alastair Kendrick, Tax Consultant for MacIntyre Hudson via AK Employment Tax Services, pictured himself in the Police Academy line up alongside Mahoney, Hightower and Tackleberry. Well maybe not, but he did try to become a Police Cadet. Sadly (but not for us), it wasn’t meant to be. Instead, he found a different way into tackle law, with the Inland Revenue. What an institution!

Now, it’s no surprise that people often underestimate the technical aspects of tax. It’s a bloody complex job I’ll have you know. So, you can imagine that those with the type of mind that can figure out how to build an engine, or design the architecture of a huge building, would probably be well suited to tax.

Glenn Collingbourne, Chartered Tax Advisor at Hazlewoods, did a degree in construction engineering, but what he really wanted to do was architecture or mechanical engineering. However, in his own words, his “maths wasn’t good enough.” Now we know what you’re thinking. A tax advisor that’s rubbish at maths? Well, as Glenn so rightly puts it, “Those days are long gone; computers do all that. It is now about discussion, interpretation and as tax has become fantastically complicated, analysis of the law. I spend much more time writing than calculating, and finding answers to problems that Google won’t help with.”

As Glenn alluded to, nowadays, tax is much more about soft skills like communication, which is probably why Senior Manager at Saffery Champness, Lisa Macpherson-Fletcher’s degree in English and French, stood her in good stead.

“I had no idea what job I wanted to do, I just knew I wanted to work in “business”. I was trawling Milkround looking for something where I could use my languages and came across graduate jobs at Deloitte & Touche, as it was then. Having never heard of the Big 4 and not knowing anything about accountancy, this sounded very French to me (I pronounced it de-lwat ay touche!) so I had a nosey around the site and decided I’d quite like to do wealth management. I was invited to interview to be told they had already taken someone on for the wealth management graduate position but how did I feel about private client tax.”

Sure, admin, engineering and linguistics all marry into tax in their own ways. Music, however, not so much.

Which is why you might be surprised to learn that John Kavanagh, a Charted Tax Advisor, studied music at university.

“The kind of music I was interested in (mostly pretty avant-garde and obscure) was unlikely to furnish me with much in the way of creature comforts. So I took the first job I was offered, which was at my local tax office.”

Then there’s Stephen Barratt, Partner at James Cowper Kreston. He, like so many others, got into tax by accident and, like John, he realised that putting bread on the table as a musician was going to be difficult.

“I did a music degree but didn’t feel that I could earn a living as a musician and did not want to teach. After some months out and on the advice of my brother I applied to the civil service citing three preferred departments and locations. I was offered Inland Revenue in Oxford, which wasn’t even on my list!”

Whilst tax might be a strange choice for a musician, for a wannabe barrister, tax is almost the perfect alternative career for someone who likes nothing better than being waist deep in complex legislation. Lee Holloway, Head of Tax at Next is that someone.

“I originally wanted to be a barrister and after being “called to the bar” in 2000 I spent time at some barristers chambers and realised I needed to have more structure around me. They seemed to like law grads as the degree is very analytical and tax work is a good mixture of analysing problems, understanding legislation and putting together decent arguments (as well as all the mathematics!).”

After a long stint at KPMG, he took the opportunity to move to Molson Coors, home to the world-famous Coors Light. Rumour has it that Lee used to be Jean Claude Van Damme’s body double for the Coors Light adverts.

He does love tax though.

“Tax is considered difficult and complex and this is certainly true. The skills and abilities learned though are transferrable. A good tax person can save a company or individual money just by getting things right and maximising the correct reliefs and incentives (like R & D tax credits). This in itself is rewarding. Looking back now I wouldn’t have picked another career and I’m glad I fell into Tax like most Tax people do!”

Like many in the tax world, Abusina Qureshi, Client Finance Director at MAP, fell in love with numbers whilst helping his family who ran businesses. What’s unusual though and different from other stories in this article, is how he knew the direction he was headed early on.

“I went through my education knowing that I wanted to be in this industry so training to become a practising accountant was a given.”

But it wasn’t until he joined MAP that he discovered his true passion.

“Getting more involved with bigger agencies, naturally more tax questions were raised, I spent days just catching up and reacting to clients’ requests. It’s a weird way to find your feet but the reactive approach initially just spurred me into looking into tax opportunities. I could literally spend a whole day reading a piece of legislation and I’d be smiling ear to ear after it. That’s when I knew, this is the route I’m taking and what makes me the happiest, and now I’m studying CTA and helping clients with tax issues that I would’ve only dreamed about.”

Stephen Day, Tax Advisor at Finling Associates Ltd, nearly ended up taking the more traditional route of joining one of the large accountancy firms audit graduate schemes but had his head turned by the bright lights of a career working in tax after attending a careers fair in his final year of University.

“I had always intended to apply to join one of the large accountancy firms audit graduate schemes along with many of my friends from University. I attended a careers fair equipped with the questions that I thought would assist me with successfully applying for one of these audit graduate schemes. Little did I know that I would end up leaving the careers fair full of enthusiasm for a career in tax, not even the Manchester rain could dampen this enthusiasm. I had spoken with several inspiring tax professionals who convinced me that a career in tax was for me, and I have been extremely fortunate to work with some truly amazing, albeit quirky, people.”

Though audit might seem like an easy jump into tax, marine biology definitely doesn’t. Why? Because tax has absolutely nothing to do with fish. Anyway, Chris Lee, an Independent tax consultant, began life as just that, a marine biologist, working on the behaviour of shellfish larvae (as you do).

“A PhD then might have got me a job washing test tubes, so I took and passed civil service entrance exams, then joined the Inland Revenue because otherwise they might have sent me anywhere and I didn’t fancy the MoD. The rest is history.”

So there you have it.

You have to admit, the range of stories and routes into the industry are about as diverse as you can get. From history to marine biology, and Antarctic explorers to train drivers, many of those working within tax certainly didn’t expect to be where they are now. But there’s also a passion for the industry that seems to grow the longer people work within it. There’s an unwavering love for the challenges, frustrations and complexity of what appears to be, for most, an accidental career.

Sure the routes into tax aren’t clear. The support and education on a career in this industry are lacking. But maybe, just maybe, those destined to save businesses from ridiculous tax bills will continue to find their way here by accident.

Nick Edgley, Private Client Tax Manager at Ensors, told us “For me, it was fate that I ended up working in tax!”

Luckily for the industry, it appears many had the same destiny.

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