California dreaming: Lessons for CAs

california-bridge
By Robert Outram

11 February 2015

Robert Outram talks to some of the CAs who have made California their home to see what opportunities the US state has to offer.

If California were an independent country, by some measures it would have the eighth largest economy in the world. Within this state, however, one region – "Silicon Valley", as the southern part of the San Francisco Bay Area is known – is a powerhouse within a powerhouse.

Silicon Valley accounts for, by some estimates, as much as a third of the venture capital finance in the US. It was the birthplace of the modern microprocessor and has the highest concentration of skilled high-tech workers in the world. Although much electronics manufacturing has steadily transferred to lower-cost parts of the world, particularly in Asia, Silicon Valley has become home to tech giants like Google, Adobe, Oracle and eBay as well as a host of start-ups.

John Pinkerton CA, Salesforce.com

A number of CAs have made their home, temporarily or permanently, in California, many in or around the Bay Area. One of them is John Pinkerton, senior director, revenue recognition with Salesforce.com. He has lived in San Francisco for more than 18 years.

Pinkerton trained with KPMG in Glasgow and moved to the US on rotation in 1996, eventually leaving the firm to work directly with businesses in the booming technology sector, including 3Com and Pinnacle Systems.

He joined Salesforce in 2004 – then an up-and-coming cloud computing business that had only just gone public – and moved up through internal audit and shared services to his present role in revenue recognition. The company, meanwhile, has grown from about 750 staff to around 15,000, with revenue up from $300m to more than $5bn.

Pinkerton sees a contrast between the image-conscious society of Los Angeles and Silicon Valley: "The Bay Area is well known as a centre of technology innovation which leads to an enthusiastic, creative and fearless culture. Technology being technology, this sector has more than its fair share of 'geeks' but this talent pool is often the generator of new ideas. Generally the Bay Area culture is very hard working, often successful in business, but at the same time doesn't take itself too seriously and manages to retain its idiosyncrasy and sense of fun.

"Working in technology, particularly at younger companies, can be quite chaotic and all-consuming, but very rewarding professionally and economically." 

Liz Murray CA, Monsoon Commerce

Liz Murray is another CA who went west. In her case the route to California was via a Scottish subsidiary of the Hughes Corporation, which eventually led to a move to HQ in Los Angeles. Since then she has worked with a number of companies in the tech space – including consumer website operator Oversee.net – and she was recently appointed as executive vice-president and chief financial officer with Monsoon Commerce.

Murray says: "I think it is the classic adage of 'success breeds success' that makes Silicon Valley and now 'Silicon Beach' [west of LA] prosper. There is much technical expertise here and an environment that facilitates 'out of the box' thinking. The lifestyle and climate are huge factors that attract the technical talent and thus perpetuate the spawning of business opportunities."

She adds: "There has been significant investment, especially in the tech space, recently with the development of new ventures in Santa Monica and Playa Vista (a relatively new area) in LA; all of which has been particularly exciting and fuelled by VC firms. Additionally, some of the start-ups have included tech sharing arrangements whereby services can be provided to the incubator sites including facilities, hosting, traffic/users, in exchange for small amounts of equity, that allow faster business development."

Don Macleod CA, former chairman at National Semiconductor

Don Macleod CA, former chairman at electronics giant National Semiconductor, says: "The infrastructure of Silicon Valley goes way beyond its financing/venture capital (VC) funding, although the scale of our VC community is much larger than any other – for example in the US about 50 per cent of each quarter's reported funding is placed in Valley start-ups."

He adds: "We have a lot of seasoned executives who have gone through many cycles of learning in business growth, who continuously impart these skills to the next generation of start-ups and the budding new entrepreneurs with the next set of new ideas. We also continue to attract people from around the world who are keen to learn and participate in our business innovation culture." Macleod stresses that the global outlook of the West Coast and its cultural diversity are key strengths. As an example, those directly reporting to him at National Semiconductor included one Chinese-American, a Malaysian, a German, two Indians, an Iranian, another Scot and two Americans. He says: "This is a major asset here in the Valley; an opportunity to leverage the best brains from anywhere in the world. There is no negative attitude towards any form of immigrant – we are nearly all immigrants here anyway."

Chris McCrum CA, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation

Chris McCrum came to California with Price Waterhouse (now PwC) with the expectation that he would stay for a couple of years and then move back to the UK. Instead, he chose to stay; having been born in the US he had dual citizenship, which helped. McCrum says: "The combination of great weather, an active lifestyle and terrific work opportunities make California in general, and the Bay Area in particular, a hard place to leave.

"My own path led from PwC to banking, then briefly CFO of a tech start-up, then a multifaceted stint in investment management at Barclays Global Investors where I was CFO, head of HR and chief administrative officer. My most recent position has been COO at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation [the multi-billion dollar philanthropic foundation set up by the founder of Intel and his wife]."

He is about to take up his next opportunity. Regarding the Bay Area culture, McCrum says: "The abiding themes are speed (things get done more quickly and decisions are made rapidly), creativity married with intelligence, heavy reliance on personal networks (more than people realise), merit-based thinking and a casual, active lifestyle of work hard, play hard."

Simon Abdo CA, KCB Management

Simon Abdo is an associate with KCB Management, a Southern California-based private equity and real estate investment firm. He says: "I moved to California in 2011 with my American wife, who I met in London in 2009. I was in the process of completing my ICAS exams and she was on vacation. We hit it off straight away and she moved to the UK for 18 months to study for her master's degree."

Abdo says: "The West Coast has a more informal and co- operative approach to business with great importance placed on building and nurturing business relationships over the longer term. Also from what I've seen, there is more consideration given to a good work/life balance."

Chris Walder CA, Lincoln International

Charles Walder, a CA working in M&A with Lincoln International, is also a dual US/British citizen. As a vice- president with the company he leads deal teams and executes transactions across a wide range of industries. He describes his role as a "quarterback".

Walder comments: "Elsewhere in the world, I sometimes get the feeling that people are not as forthcoming to offer their support to new ventures. For example, if you suggest a new idea in California, someone might say, yeah that's a great idea and what about x and y as other opportunities? In the UK, someone would be more likely to tell you the reasons that they don't think it will work."

Colin Dishington CA, Matthews Asia

Colin Dishington has been living in San Francisco for a little over a year, following a year in Hong Kong. He is a research analyst with Matthews Asia, an Asia-focused mutual fund manager, which means that a large part of his job – while California-based – involves dealing with people in other parts of the world. Dishington says the meritocratic ethos of California is one of its strengths. He comments: "While not completely non- existent, the 'old boys' club' mentality that can exist in the UK and overseas does not appear to be as prevalent."

Will he stay in the long term? He says: "After just over a year, my wife and I are fairly settled and it already feels like it would be very difficult to leave in the foreseeable future. However, I would have said the same thing about the UK if I was asked a couple of years ago!"

The typical route to the US West Coast, for a CA, is a transfer either through one of the larger accountancy firms or a multinational company. This was Don Macleod's story – he had been working at National Semiconductor's facility in Greenock, Scotland – although he points out that many of the electronics manufacturers that set up in Scotland in the 1980s and 1990s have since moved on.

Those going through the accountancy firm route, such as Chris McCrum, do not have to be limited to the Big Four. Alanna Dible, who works in Los Angeles with public accounting firm Moss Adams, had been working in Edinburgh with Mazars and transferred in October last year as the two firms are affiliated through the Praxity network.

David Brander, senior vice-president, operations and finance with Warner Brothers in Los Angeles, advises: "I would strongly recommend firstly identifying the industry you wish to be in. Then find a position in the UK for a British subsidiary of a US- based corporation in that industry or at least market sector. It is far easier to move here when sponsored by a potential employer and that is easiest to achieve if you are moving within the same group. Alternatively, join one of the big firms then, in due course, try to transfer to one of their branches in the US." He adds: "Don't be tempted just to try to get a visa and come here. That's unlikely to work. Also, the tax regimes are very different, so make sure that you understand how your UK financial affairs will be taxed, or not, in the US."

Cameron McAulay CA, National Semiconductor

Cameron McAulay, a CA who has been working in California for nearly 10 years, came through National Semiconductor, on a programme set up by Don Macleod. He is now finance director, customer group controller, for the worldwide sales finance team. McAulay says: "It is a dynamic, exciting working environment with ample opportunity for career progression. Furthermore, the expertise and characteristics that the CA qualification develops translate well in the West Coast. I would encourage anyone with the opportunity to work in the Bay Area to take a chance and try it."

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