Meet six CAs over 60 celebrating career longevity and offering advice to the next cohort of CAs
There’s no substitute for experience, but some older workers found themselves in the firing line during the pandemic. We meet six CAs whose rich careers demonstrate the lasting value of the qualification
The UK workforce is ageing: a third of all workers are now aged 50 or over. Yet, according to the Centre for Ageing Better, the majority of people are not working by the time they hit state pension age: as of September 2019, only 40% of men and 30% of women were still in work at 65. And the pandemic, of course, has taken its toll. Older workers have taken a hit in the workplace, with analysis revealing that the number of redundancies among people in their sixties soared by 296% in the third quarter of 2020, as the economic effects of lockdown really took hold.
Here, six CAs who are bucking the trend share insights from their long careers, discussing how the qualification provides an extraordinary range of working opportunities and how the over-60s continue to add value to many organisations.
JUDY WAGNER CA
The best teams are those that are truly diverse, with everyone learning from each other. Older staff can learn much from younger people, and vice versa.
A few years after graduating from the University of Edinburgh, Judy Wagner CA went to a recruiter looking for a job – and had a lightbulb moment. The meeting triggered the start of a long career in the recruitment industry itself. “After a few years, two colleagues and I set up our own business, Finlayson Wagner Black, now known as FWB Park Brown,” she says. “With my CA qualification, I not only had a really solid grounding for setting up the business, but also for working with the boards of other companies in terms of recruiting directors for their businesses.”
Not long afterwards, Wagner decided to shift her focus: “I wanted to look at opening up the funnel for women.” At the time, she was sitting on the board of the University of Edinburgh Business School, and in 2016 started a programme to help women into the boardroom. “We’ve had more than 220 women through it and we now have a really broad network across Scotland, called Executive Women in Leadership,” she says.
Wagner is also on the board of Salvesen Mindroom Centre, a neurodiversity charity for young people. “For many companies, their diversity and inclusion focus has mostly been about gender until now. We’re hoping to change that,” she says.
Wagner believes that working in audit in her early career gave her the skills to deal with senior businesspeople throughout her career. “Aside from the technical accounting skills, I was dealing with finance directors, chief executives and other senior management,” she recalls. “Being able to communicate and build relationships when you’re still quite young is really good experience. Working in audit for all kinds of companies, big and small, really expands your perspective.”
Looking to the future, Wagner is enthusiastic about the growing acceptance of the need for a multifaceted workplace. “The best teams are those that are truly diverse, with everyone learning from each other,” she says. “Older staff can learn much from younger people, and vice versa.”
CLIVE BELLINGHAM CA
Professional services firms want people who are willing to spend time outside their own territory.
“Among the younger generation there’s a view you can only work for one company for two or three years – then you need to move on. I could just write ‘PwC: 37 years’ on my CV,” says Clive Bellingham CA. “But I’ve worked in three countries in multiple sectors with multiple clients.”
Joining PwC in 1984, Bellingham spent two years working in Saudi Arabia and now lives in Zurich. “I was in the audit practice until 2002, when I switched to an advisory role, looking after big global clients. This meant travelling, building relationships, and understanding clients’ needs,” he says. “That has been invaluable in terms of getting to understand local business practices and building a network”.
Before retiring in 2021, he was on the global board of PwC: “It was a huge learning experience. When I look at my career, I feel very lucky.” He is now on the advisory board of PwC India, works on the firm’s partner development programmes and is the current Vice President of ICAS.
“Accountancy has evolved to be much more about forecasting,” he says. “Another change is the huge wave of demand for companies to report on sustainability matters. You need to marry the two. CAs have a huge role to play in that.”
Bellingham’s advice to new CAs is to gain global experience: “Professional services firms want people who are willing to spend time outside their own territory.” And, crucially, whatever your age, remain relevant and enthusiastic. “You can’t feel entitled to opportunities just because you’ve had an impressive career,” he says. “You’ve got to show you’re keen to contribute something and add value.”
MARTIN GILBERT CA
My advice to younger members at the start of their career is that it’s better to try and fail than not to try at all.
When he co-founded Aberdeen Asset Management in 1983, Martin Gilbert CA often found the responsibility nail-biting. “There were just three of us in a room and we built it into a big global asset management business,” he says. “It’s been good fun, but of course there have been some difficult times too.”
One of the company’s most important decisions was relocating the team that managed Asian equities to Singapore in 1992, building a massive business in Asia: “We were going through a very tough time between 2000 and 2004 and moving there so early saved the business to a certain extent.”
Gilbert counsels that fear of risk should not thwart ambition. “I’ve always been a great believer in giving it a go,” he says. “My advice to younger members at the start of their career is that it’s better to try and fail than not to try at all. It’s far more rewarding if you can join a small company and build it. Be adventurous and work abroad. You can do all these things when you’re young.”
In December 2019, after a merger between Standard Life and Aberdeen Asset Management, Gilbert stepped down from the board, and has since taken on roles as Chair at AssetCo and challenger bank Revolut. “The former is a start-up asset management operation and I bring the experience and contacts I’ve made over my 37 years at Aberdeen,” he says. “On Revolut, my experience of building a global business will hopefully help them not make the same mistakes.”
Also a board member of mining company Glencore, Gilbert believes that CA training guarantees longevity in the asset management world. “Accountancy is a great foundation. Fund managers get better with age and there’s no reason they can’t keep managing money well into their sixties and seventies,” he says. “Clients don’t want to see change, they like the same fund manager managing their money.”
MARTA PHILLIPS OBE CA
Follow your own moral compass. Do the right things for the right reasons, regardless of how successful you become.
Marta Phillips OBE CA had two goals on leaving school: “To have a job and portable qualifications. When my family came to the UK, my mother had been deputy headmistress at a school in Guyana, but she didn’t have any graduate certificates. She ended up working as a clerk at the DHSS, which was hard for the whole family.”
While suffering from both dyslexia and dyspraxia, she excelled at maths and, after an accountancy degree at Newcastle, had the foresight to do a master’s in computing. Working at EY, auditing big companies like MAI Reinsurance and Mobil Oil, she ran courses in computer auditing. Later, working in international audit at Midland Bank meant travel opportunities, particularly after its buy-out of US bank Crocker. “I spent three weeks at the South Korea branch and led the Singapore audit,” she says.
Phillips’ recent projects include being a non-executive board member for the restoration of the Palace of Westminster (“It’s a complex project to modernise a building from the 1860s while it’s still occupied”) and chairing the audit committee for the London Fire Brigade. “It’s been going through a difficult time, especially since the Grenfell Tower fire,” she says. “I’m working with the senior team to shift the needle on some of the entrenched attitudes.”
Phillips endured racial discrimination early in her career. Things have improved, but some prejudice lingers. “It’s disappointing,” she says. “But when I look back on my career, being a CA has enabled me to do interesting things. The richness of my offer has enabled me to get a foot in the door. From that, other things come.” She advises young CAs to “follow your own moral compass. Do the right things for the right reasons, regardless of how successful you become.”
ALICK HAY CA
My circumstances were dictated, but if you’re young and ambitious, be open to opportunities worldwide, even in places you least suspect.
It’s not every day you inherit a castle. But for Alick Hay CA, whose family have owned the Duns Castle Estate since 1696, taking over its running in his late twenties, shortly after qualifying as a CA, meant handling two roles at once.
“The finances were in a dreadful shape. I had to turn it around – but I also needed a job,” he says. “I joined Greaves West and Ayre as a newly qualified CA. Within three years I became a partner and remained for 30 years. I worked with a lot of private clients, farmers and rural businesses. The problems I was advising on were the ones I was facing at the castle. The roles were mutually beneficial.”
Working out how to bring the castle up to standard while also making it pay was a big challenge. “But in 1991 we were asked to hold a wedding there,” says Hay. “Since then, the wedding venue side of the business has gone from strength to strength.”
Being a CA has many advantages: “For one, I didn’t have to pay an accountant. And the bank was always very helpful, knowing, as a CA, I would be conservative about the business.” Despite that, he advises young CAs to seek adventure: “My circumstances were dictated, but if you’re young and ambitious, be open to opportunities worldwide, even in places you least suspect.”
Hay’s other roles include the Historic Houses Association, for which he chaired the Scottish branch. “Being the laird, I feel I have a responsibility to the local people,” he says. “I sat on the steering committee when the local district council set up a housing association to provide good quality social housing in the area and I was its first Chairman. I’m proud of that.”
ALAN BEGG CA
Do assume that you can attain the highest position in an organisation and aim to give back that excellent training you’ve received in assisting that business to become a success.
Becoming the Managing Director of a family-owned haulage business while still in his twenties gave Alan Begg CA a hunger for challenge. Moving between Scotland and England, he has also worked as Finance Director of Athena International and Chief Executive of Aberdeen and Grampian Tourist Board among other jobs.
“Holding a variety of roles has given me different perspectives,” he says. “And that’s stood me in good stead for the range of roles I’ve been performing since retiring in 2014. If anything, I’m busier now than I’ve ever been before.”
These include being on the members board of ICAS, the audit committee of Penge Churches Housing Association in London and the audit committee and pensions board of Islington council.
“One of the highlights was ending 2018 as Chairman of the board of Queen Mary University of London and board member of the primary care unit in South-East London NHS,” he explains. “And being a non-executive director, I’m looking at these businesses from the outside, using my experience to provide an overview and advice.”
CAs are well respected at home and internationally, says Begg, with around 80% of FTSE 100 companies employing them at the highest level. “It gives that all-round experience, thinking not just financially but strategically too.”
Once qualified, do not assume that you will remain in the same role or business forever, he advises: “But do assume that you can attain the highest position in an organisation and aim to give back that excellent training you’ve received in assisting that business to become a success.”
Alan Begg CA shares his career journey in Championing Unique Perspectives