‘I'd like to use accountancy to help others’ – ICAS Gold Medal winner Katie Close CA
Katie Close CA speaks to Robert Outram about working with Lithuanian teenagers, circus skills and winning this year's ICAS Gold Medal for achieving the highest TPE grades.
Accountants are more likely to be found balancing books than balancing on a trapeze. For Katie Close CA, however, the ICAS Gold Medal winner for 2014/15, circus skills training is the way to relax after a hard day’s work.
Katie, who is a tax associate with Grant Thornton in Glasgow, says: “You have to overcome a lot of fear. Now, I can climb 20 feet into the air on a rope and it doesn’t bother me. Two years ago I would not have been able to do that, or I would have thought that I couldn’t do it. It’s about pushing yourself further and further to see what you can achieve.”
It’s just one more challenge for this young CA, who was presented with the Institute’s Gold Medal at the Admissions Ceremony in March, as the candidate achieving the highest marks in the Test of Professional Expertise (TPE) sittings in 2014/15.
It was an inspiring day for her and a proud one for her mother who, as Katie says, “has had to put up with a lot” while her daughter was studying hard for the CA exams.
'A problem-solving area of accountancy'
The CA route was not something Katie had originally considered when she started out at university, where she took one undergraduate and two post-graduate degrees in Russian, Central and Eastern European Studies, and Equality and Human Rights, at the University of Glasgow.
Her plan had been to take a PhD in her chosen field, but as time went on she became more attracted to the possibilities that chartered accountancy offered. At her graduate careers fair, it was the team from Grant Thornton who made the strongest impression, and within a few weeks she was hired.
She joined the tax department and has continued with that in her career, having just finished a secondment in tax accounting with Clydesdale Bank. Katie says: “I like that tax is a problem-solving area of accountancy. There’s a lot of interpretation of rules and applying it to situations.”
Since she started, she has seen her specialist area taking an increasingly higher profile: “Tax has gone from being something people didn’t really bother about, to being a headline issue, and a moral issue as well. People now have very strong emotions about the way tax works.”
Meanwhile, Katie has registered for the ICAS Career Connect mentoring programme, and is in the process of being paired with an experienced CA mentor. She explains: “It’s good to have advice from someone impartial.”
Katie had not expected the CA exams to be easy, but balancing a full-time job and study proved even tougher than she had imagined. Taking the Test of Competence – for which as a non-accountancy graduate, she had no exemptions – was “like taking an accountancy degree in three months”.
Tax has gone from being something people didn’t really bother about, to being a headline issue, and a moral issue as well. People now have very strong emotions about the way tax works.
The TPE itself, in November 2014 – the final exam in the ICAS programme – was another challenge.
Katie recalls: “The day of the exam was a bit of a disaster. I got on the wrong train and ended up in Paisley instead. Fortunately I had left super early and managed to get back to Glasgow and get on the right train. So I showed up 10 minutes before the exam started; it was nerve-wracking.
“I found in the TPE exam it’s difficult to tell how well you are doing. So I did not think, at the end that I had done well. I just hoped for the best!
“It’s a long day, six hours of writing so by the end of it you are just exhausted.”
Using accountancy in international development
It was not until the following June – once the May sitting of the TPE was completed – that Katie learned she had won the Institute’s top prize. Meanwhile, she also went on to take the Chartered Tax Adviser qualification.
Katie says: “I’d really like to use accountancy to help other people. For example, we have social mobility programmes in Grant Thornton to help people from different backgrounds access accountancy, and I think that’s really important for the profession.
“I didn’t come from a typical background; my parents aren’t accountants. I think it’s important to have people with different life experiences in the profession. Also, I would really like to use accountancy in international development.”
I’d really like to use accountancy to help other people. For example, we have social mobility programmes in Grant Thornton to help people from different backgrounds access accountancy, and I think that’s really important for the profession.
She has already had some experience of the latter, with a year in Lithuania working with troubled teenagers. Katie recalls: “It was really tough. I didn’t know anyone out there, I didn’t speak Lithuanian and the kids I worked with did not speak English. It was a very testing time, but we fully adapted to each other. I learned some Lithuanian and I taught them some English, which was what I was there to do.
“The teenagers had different issues in their lives; some had alcohol problems themselves, some had parents who had addiction issues or their parents weren’t alive. It would have been difficult even in an English-speaking country!”
Katie adds: “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was also the best time of my life. It completely changed me and it changed the way I see things.”
That might not seem to have much connection with her new-found enthusiasm for trapeze work and handstands, but as Katie explains, there are parallels. She says: “My friend went to one of the classes [at Glasgow’s Aerial Edge] and I joined her after a couple of months. I loved it, because it was so challenging. If it had been easy I would probably have never showed up again.”
Advice for this year's students
So what tips does the 2014/15 gold medallist have for those preparing for the TPE exam this year?
Katie says: “Keep it simple – the TPE exam can be really overwhelming due to the amount of information provided on the day and there is a temptation to assume that you won’t pass unless you come up with really complex technical points. I think identifying the basics first helps to pick up a lot of points and also calms your nerves.
“I also think it is essential to manage your time – I know I heard this over and over at TPE preparation courses but it is absolutely critical. Knowing when to move on and start work on a different aspect of the exam will help you pick up more marks and also helps you to look at the scenario as a whole instead of focusing too heavily on one particular point.”
Lastly and most importantly, she says, “You have to study and tackle the exam in the way that is right for you. A lot of my fellow students found it helpful to discuss the mock exams during the break, but discussing the morning paper made me feel really anxious before the afternoon paper.
“If something isn’t working for you, don’t do it! Don’t feel that you have to do what everyone else is doing just because it works for them. You know what works for you, so trust yourself that you got this far and you will get through TPE.”
This interview is from the May 2016 edition of CA magazine.