Alex Sieroczuk CA: Life in Iceland
Iceland is a challenging place to be an accountant, but its rewards outweigh its obstacles. Alex Sieroczuk CA, Chief Accountant at Elja, tells Rachel Ingram about moving from Jersey to Reykjavík in pursuit of a better life.
For many accountants considering a secondment abroad, finance capitals such as Singapore, Dubai or New York are the obvious first choice, but for Alex Sieroczuk CA, there was only one option: Reykjavík. The capital of Iceland may seem like an unusual place in which to find a British accountant, but the city’s unique lifestyle and family-first culture make it a place that’s hard to leave once settled.
No stranger to island life, Sieroczuk grew up on Jersey, just 14 miles from France. After leaving briefly to study water sports science in England, he returned home and found his way into accounting via finance. “Jersey is not a great place to find a job in sports science, so the finance industry was the way to go,” he says.
Sieroczuk was working at wealth management firm Osiris, a sister company to Baker Tilly, when he decided to pursue accountancy. After a bit of convincing, the company agreed to put him through ACCA and ICAS training and, when he passed his first exams, he started working on a 50/50 basis for both arms of the company. The four-year period between 2014 and 2018 changed everything for Sieroczuk, both professionally and personally. In 2014, he married Linda, an Icelander; in 2015, they had their first daughter; in 2017, a second daughter was born; and in 2018 he qualified as a CA.
It was then that the family decided to take some time off to explore the world. “We did four months of travelling to New Zealand, Australia, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Hong Kong and then we thought, ‘Why don’t we just move to Iceland after all of that?’” And in May 2018, that’s exactly what they did.
With a population of just 350,000, Iceland is much smaller than the UK but coming from Jersey, which is home to 100,000 people, Sieroczuk wasn’t fazed by that. His primary concern was the notoriously tricky language. “Icelandic is a really difficult language to learn, particularly for English speakers,” he says. “I didn’t quite realise it was going to be as difficult.”
Even with basic conversational skills mastered, a further challenge lay in convincing potential employers of his qualifications. “I could move anywhere in the world and call myself an accountant and most places would know what that is, but here they’ve got protected titles,” he says. He contacted the government ministry to enquire about obtaining the Icelandic title, but decided against it after being told he’d need to sit the exams using Icelandic tax law. Instead, they granted him an equivalent title that roughly translates as business administration specialist.
It was then that Sieroczuk joined short-term staffing firm Elja as Chief Accountant. “I’m everything in the finance department,” he says. “I do everything and anything finance related, from invoicing and book-keeping to accounting and processing payroll.” A year after Sieroczuk was settled in his new role and the company was beginning to see the results of his streamlining and cost-cutting strategies, Covid-19 struck. As a staffing firm that recruits widely from countries such as Lithuania and subcontracts on a short-term basis to other companies, Elja was hit particularly hard.
“It’s been really tough,” he says. “Our main industries are construction and tourism. Tourism has taken a massive hit. We’d normally have 15–20 guys working directly for the airport, then various hire car companies taking orders from us for sales staff, plus restaurants and hotels needing chefs. I reckon we lost 60–80 six-month positions. Luckily, construction has still been going.”
In fact, Iceland has remained fairly open during the pandemic. The government didn’t enforce a total lockdown, but created a furlough scheme that has been extended until the end of 2020 in an attempt to save local businesses. “The good thing is none of it’s been politically motivated – it’s all been science driven,” says Sieroczuk. “The epidemiologist, the Chief of Police and the Health Minister have been doing the press conferences together – the politicians have been at arm’s length. They’ve kept us really well informed and have been straight up with information.”
The good life
Iceland’s governmental style, pandemic or no pandemic, is part of its appeal, according to Sieroczuk: “We watched the David Attenborough documentary recently. When he stops and effectively says ‘it looks like we’re doomed’, I thought about it and realised that’s not so true in Iceland. I like the way they go about things here. The food is mainly locally sourced and grown, so I don’t feel bad eating meat. Even with things like geothermal power, they are always trying to improve.”
The lifestyle is also very different, with a focus on nature and health. “The UK has pubs; Iceland has swimming pools – that’s where they go to socialise. They’re all outdoors and they’re amazing. There’s always a shallow kids’ pool at 35-37°C and adults’ hot tubs that go up to 44°C. They spend the whole day there.”
Iceland is also a family-first country that offers residents a great work-life balance – Sieroczuk’s main reason for moving. “It wasn’t a career move at all; we moved for family reasons,” he says. “I’ve spent more time with my daughters than I would have done if we’d stayed in Jersey. I’ve got friends and colleagues who’ve progressed while staying in Jersey and they’re now doing really well for themselves, but I sometimes think, ‘Do I want to be in that position of having to have my phone on all the time or be responsible for work problems when I’ve got a young family?’ No, I want to go home, forget about all that and be with the family.
“Schooling is different too, which the UK could learn from. Nursery fees are cheap, kids don’t go to school until they’re six. They don’t finish college until they’re 20, so they don’t go to university until they’re largely decided on their profession.”
Iceland may not be the easiest country for CAs to settle in, but there are some smoother roads aspiring expats can take. “My advice to other accountants would be to see if you can get a secondment through your firm first. If you work for one of the Big Four, that’s going to be your best way to work here,” Sieroczuk explains. “They’ve also got a scheme called Startup Iceland and they’re trying to get businesses to come here. So, if you’re an accountant who has a business, that is another way to go about it.”