Alastair Bainton CA reveals how the qualification has helped him pursue an international career
From a summer job in Colorado to a couple of decades in central Europe, Alastair Bainton CA has built his career in foreign lands. Fiona Nicolson hears what he’s picked up along the way and how the CA has made it all possible
For some CAs, working abroad is a one-off adventure before they settle into their career back in their home country. But for others, such as Alastair Bainton CA, working internationally is a way of life. Having built his career in Europe since leaving Scotland more than 20 years ago, Alastair has now moved to North Carolina, to take up the role of Chief Financial Officer for two fashion brands within luxury-goods firm, Richemont.
The seeds for his international CA career were sown many years ago. Alastair was born in Kenya, where his mother and father were both teaching at the time. And although the family moved back to Scotland when he was an infant, he inherited his parents’ enthusiasm for living and working in a foreign country. He began testing the waters for a life abroad during his student days, working in a hotel in Colorado as a handyman one summer, followed by a gap year in Australia, which included a job as a deckhand on a catamaran, taking divers out to the Great Barrier Reef.
These experiences confirmed for him that his future lay overseas. After completing his degree in accounting and economics at Strathclyde University, followed by five years working at PwC in Glasgow, where he trained for his CA, the time was right. And he and his wife started to implement the travel plans they had put in place as students.
When considering which country to move to, my wife and I agreed we didn’t want to be too far from our families. A PwC colleague had worked in Prague and another had been to Switzerland, and they had both spoken favourably about central Europe. So, I moved to Prague with PwC, and was later transferred to work in its Geneva office.
I then took up a position with my biggest client, the luxury-goods group Richemont, where I worked for its spin-off, Reinet, as CFO of the division responsible for private equity and venture-capital investments, including setting up its Jersey office. I enjoyed the work, but ultimately Jersey was a bit too similar to the UK for me, having already worked in Switzerland and Prague. I next worked for tax-refund company, Global Blue, in Geneva, where my role also included taxation and strategic projects, but I was drawn back to Richemont to take up the role of country CFO for Switzerland. A few years later, I became Group Controller at the firm’s HQ in Bellevue, outside Geneva.
After eight years working for Richemont in Switzerland, I moved to North Carolina in September, where I’m now Chief Financial Officer for one of its operating companies. This includes all the financial, legal and intellectual-property responsibilities, as well as managing a team of 40. I’m also a member of the executive committee.
From a technical point of view, working in different countries is not all that different from working in the UK: business is business, accounting is accounting and budgeting is budgeting. However, you do have to make more of an effort with the cultural and linguistic side of things.
We lived in Prague for three years, then in Geneva for 21 years, so we learned to speak Czech and French to help us blend in. My wife and I were lucky because we both like playing sport and that is a good way to meet people. Then when we had children that also helped us integrate. When your kids make friends, you get to know their parents and before you know it you have got a social circle.
The biggest culture shock that I experienced when I first moved to Prague was that everyone went for lunch for more than an hour every day. I was used to working in Glasgow, where you grabbed a sandwich, a packet of crisps and a can of Irn Bru, then took five minutes to have lunch at your desk, before going back to work.
In central Europe, it’s very much about working from 8am on Monday morning through to 8pm on a Friday night, but then the weekend is for family. In Switzerland the shops are closed on a Sunday, so that helps encourage people to have a day off to relax and chill out. Now that I’m working in the US, things are different: the shops are open 24/7 and the work-life balance here is definitely more blurred than it is on the continent.
One downside of moving abroad is that you miss your family and friends, but these days with technology, you’re never far away from them. You do also make new friends and find a support circle when you’re working in another country.
Moving abroad is not for everyone, but if you’ve got that curiosity about living somewhere else and you want to learn different languages and immerse yourself in other cultures, having the CA qualification is the ideal way to explore this. It is well respected around the world. It teaches you to be rigorous and deliver high-quality work to deadlines. With this qualification in your hand and several years’ experience proving you can manage teams and deliver projects, doors open for you internationally.
Having international experience has definitely advanced my career. I now work for a Swiss listed company that has 38,000 employees, as the CFO of one of its operating companies with responsibility for 650 colleagues. I’m not sure I would have reached that level if I had stayed in Scotland.
Another benefit of working abroad is the number of people you meet along the way. In my role now I’m still working with colleagues that I met at PwC when I transferred to Geneva in 2002 – including those that I mentored. Some are now senior financial leaders here at Richemont. The fact that some of the people I worked with previously still give me a call if they need some advice – that to me is personal success. One of the biggest achievements of my career has been sharing my experience to help others.
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