Ian Thomson CA: Taking CA knowledge to the masses in print
In the lead up to the ICAS Insights: The Business of Media and Communications event, Ian Thompson CA talks about his experiences retraining in journalism in the US and why it fundamentally changed the way he approached accounting.
Ian spent the first 13 years of his career in finance before attending Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. After graduating in 2010, he became a stock market reporter for the Wall Street Journal’s newswire service and went on to found The Soccer Observer, publishing ‘Summer Of '67: Flower Power, Race Riots, Vietnam and the Greatest Soccer Final Played on American Soil’.
Recently, Ian returned to his roots and is now an accountant at the Furniture Solutions Group based in Annapolis, Maryland.
How did journalism school change you?
It took me completely out of my comfort zone. In the summer of 2009, within two weeks, I went from being a finance guy to running around Manhattan with a microphone, camera and notebook desperately trying to get complete strangers to talk to me - those first few weeks were very hard for me. I remember wondering, “Why am I doing this? I can’t do this,” and then I’d think about my investment and there was no going back.
As I started to approach people to ask questions, listen, react and ask more questions, I started enjoying it and became more confident. I felt that no matter the challenge, I could do it.
School also sharpened my professional scepticism. Accountants are trained to question numbers, and being Scottish, we’re deemed to be quite sceptical. Formal journalism training teaches you how to ask questions and react because what you’re told can often be so wrong.
How do you analyse the numbers now?
The Dallas Cowboys were recently valued at $4.8bn. When these numbers are bandied around, I question the underlying fundamentals driving this value. The Cowboys are a successful NFL franchise, but the game’s played in one country and streaming services without adverts are eroding traditional broadcasting revenue from television networks.
Can they really be more valuable than teams with massive global followings like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United?
There are so many instances where people get caught up into a bubble. Accountants and journalists are under pressure to create a finished project in a timely manner - sometimes you need to step back and ask if this makes sense. You need to ask questions until you’re truly convinced.
What types of questions do you ask?
Who, what, where, why, when and how.
I’ve attended management training where they talked about layering questions, but it wasn’t drummed into me like in reporting class.
I need to hear rational explanations otherwise I’ll have nagging doubt and ask more.
I remember my first assignment in journalism school. I thought I wrote a good story, but there wasn’t a line without a red pen going through it. From that point forward, I knew I had to frame questions to start a discussion.
You may not know what you need to ask, but open-ended questions will provoke a conversation so that you can dig deeper. I also need to hear rational explanations otherwise I’ll have nagging doubt and ask more.
How do you tell the story behind the numbers?
I now work in a procurement business and I'm focused on cash flow. I talk with the project managers for detail on our projected contract spend, funding received and actual spend on each project, so I can find any anomalies.
I know that if I want to get the best answer from a project manager, I need to be clear in my communications, keep my language simple and focus on two or three things. That’s something that I take from journalism - you can’t afford to lose your reader, and you have to explain your main point up front.
How has journalism helped you to become more transparent?
A key journalism term is attribution - when you put something in an article, you have to have that backed up to a quote or a source document, so people know what you’re telling them is real.
Back to accounting, I need all that backup and have to be meticulous, so I can explain exactly how I arrived at something.
In ICAS ethical training, topics like transparency and ethics are steeped into you - journalism and my exposure to American soccer helped to reinforce this.
I went to Georgetown University and took a certificate course in forensic accounting and fraud.
Scandals exist because you have fundamental problems with governance, accountability, conflict of interest policies and transparency.
These sports organizations operate as boys’ clubs. For me, being someone who’s trained with ICAS, it’s very unsettling to be around this type of environment and it pushed me back into accounting.
This spring, I went to Georgetown University and took a certificate course in forensic accounting and fraud. I learned how occupational abuse and fraud materializes and how businesses aren’t aware or don’t have the controls to combat it. This helped me get back into the career that I stepped away from.
About the author
Andrea Murad is a New York–based writer. Having worked on both Wall Street and Main Street, she now pursues her passion for words. She covers business and finance, and her work can be found on BBC Capital, Consumers Digest, Entrepreneur.com, FOXBusiness.com, Global Finance and InstitutionalInvestor.com.