Graeme Morrison CA reveals the details of his transition from professional rugby to accounting
When Graeme Morrison CA called time on his injury-ravaged rugby career, he was struggling with both his physical and mental fitness. Happily, qualifying as a CA led to a world of possibilities – including the chance to return to his old school and a pioneering new project
Life is good for Graeme Morrison CA. He recently returned to his alma mater, Dollar Academy in Clackmannanshire, this time as Head of Finance, lured in part by the launch of an ambitious new project, Futures Institute at Dollar Academy (Fida), more of which later.
Next month marks 10 years since Morrison retired from his former career as a professional rugby player. He is now able to reflect on his achievements, including 35 caps for Scotland and 176 appearances for Glasgow Warriors, without feeling there is a void in his life. He can also enjoy games as a fan – especially as this interview took place shortly after Scotland had won their opening two fixtures for the first time in Six Nations history.
“Yeah, it took a few years for that desire to be involved in rugby to die,” he says. “But I’m happy to be sitting on the sofa with a beer or two and watching Scotland. I don’t need to limp to the bathroom any more because of injuries. And I’ve learned to fall in love with the game as a spectator now.”
There are countless tales of retired sports stars who struggled to adjust to “civilian life”. While every story is unique, there tends to be a common theme – it wasn’t playing they missed so much as the dressing room. “It’s the special connections you form with people in that environment,” Morrison explains. “Through my rugby career, I became best man to several of my teammates, godfather to their children, and vice versa. The connections you make, the relationships you build are unbreakable. It’s not something that you could replicate too easily in just any workplace.”
Towards the end of Morrison’s “first act”, however, there was a nagging concern about what would come next. “When you’re dedicating your whole being to be as good as you possibly can on the rugby pitch, you develop a blinkered view that there is no time for anything else,” he says. “In hindsight, if I had lent myself to experiencing other things, or being educated in other areas, that would have made me a better rugby player. A bit of time away from the game often helps to improve you.”
A series of knee injuries forced Morrison to retire aged 30 – one doctor told him that carrying on playing would put his long-term health at risk. Although it had been his father’s chosen profession, it took a meeting with a former ICAS CEO to convince Morrison to become a CA. “I was a boarder at Dollar, so I wasn’t well exposed to what my father was doing from day to day or what it meant to be a CA,” he says.
The CEO wanted to open up the profession to people who hadn’t pursued the conventional path of university followed by CA training. "At first he wanted to see if I had a brain cell or two,” he jokes. “But he was quite an out-of-the-box thinker, who was looking towards people who had skills they’d learned in different industries or environments, including sport or the armed forces, but could transfer those skills into the business world. Skills like decision-making, leadership, teamwork, communication – which are all hugely important, but you can’t learn so well in a lecture theatre.”
Morrison did his due diligence, spoke to working CAs, and realised that the qualification would open the door on a whole new world of possibilities. Although the crossover from rugby player to CA doesn’t seem an obvious one, his experiences in that previous career proved invaluable, especially when he discovered just how difficult the qualification process could be.
“My first thought was that I don’t know what I’m doing! I remember seeing all these folders stacked up on a desk and thinking, ‘This is pretty daunting’, then discovering that was only the first three months of work,” he laughs.
“Having played rugby, not really studied at all, and maybe read a handful of novels over 10 years, to suddenly become exposed to something that was going to take a lot of dedication was quite uncomfortable. But if rugby taught me anything, it was to keep disciplined, keep focused, and to keep pressing forward when things get tough. And you will get through it. You have this ingrained sense of discipline, desire and work ethic to say, ‘This will not beat me.’ You learn about resilience as a player. Having that desire to get better and continually try to improve is something that will never leave me.”
What did his former teammates make of Morrison’s move into accountancy? “They could see how hard I was working to get through it,” he says. “They could see the dedication and hours I was having to put in. There were days when I was getting up at 8am, and studying until maybe 9, 10 even 11pm. Then going to bed and doing it all again. But over time it started to click. The day I got that scroll was right up there with getting my first cap for Scotland!”
It was also a chance to put some distance between himself and some aspects of the game that have become part and parcel of professional sport and modern life, namely the unruly court of public opinion that is social media, where you can go from hero to zero in 80 minutes. Some of the criticism, from people who had never met him, at a point when Twitter was still in its relative infancy, crossed the line of acceptability. That coupled with his injuries took a serious toll on his mental fitness. Although business leaders would not expect to deal with anything like the scrutiny or intensity that comes with playing for Scotland, increasingly they may be looking to make a name for themselves, attract new business or launch a start-up through personal brand-building. Sometimes they have to deal with negativity – and sometimes that gets personal.
“It’s very easy to say just ignore it,” he says. “We live in a society that is so thirsty for information, and social media platforms keep growing and growing. But, on the whole, they’re not healthy places. There’s a need to switch off for the benefit of your mental health, to take time out. Stop looking at Facebook or Instagram or Twitter and you will start to feel a lot better about yourself. There are many benefits to social media, but you can also waste time comparing yourself with people who have created a false image. Sportspeople can get drawn into reading criticism from so-called fans who have no idea of the hard work that has gone in. If we focus more on the people and things that really matter in our lives, not on the external noise, then everyone’s going to be a little happier.”
After retiring from rugby Morrison took six months out before signing up for ICAS training while working at RBS. He also took on board two external mentors to have the kind of frank conversations that aren’t always possible in the office environment. “What I would say to someone as a trainee is to get involved in as many things as you possibly can within the organisation, instead of being siloed in your team,” he says. “If there are opportunities to get involved in CSR programmes or other charity work, social committees, business development groups or networking, take advantage of them. At RBS I was able to rotate around various parts of the bank and see so many different elements. That was what helped me to identify that corporate finance was the area in which I wanted to focus.”
Back to school
From RBS, Morrison moved to Johnston Carmichael, where he was part of an expanding corporate finance team. Yet, rather like a rugby player having the chance to join the club they supported as a child, the opportunity to become Head of Finance at Dollar Academy was too good to turn down.
The school is home to more than 1,300 pupils. Famous alumni include former Unilever and ICI chairman, Lord Heyworth of Oxton, chemist and inventor Sir James Dewar, and, more recently, Andrew Whalley OBE, Chair of Grimshaw, the architecture firm whose credits include the Eden Project in Cornwall. Whalley’s latest commission is Fida, an innovative learning environment built around open-access education and the conviction that children need to learn about sustainability. “This will be a world-leading educational facility built around the UN’s sustainable development goals,” says Morrison. “It will also have a really positive impact on the local community.”
He was at a rugby dinner with some old classmates when they received an email outlining the plans for Fida. “Around the same time, I got approached by a couple of people at Dollar, asking if I knew about this new project on the horizon and would I consider a role there? I hadn’t thought of anything other than being at Johnston Carmichael. But Dollar Academy is a place that I hold very, very dearly in my heart,” says Morrison. “I was a boarder here from the age of 10 until 18. My dad and his siblings studied here, as did my siblings. My boarding housemaster, John Foster, who sadly passed away a few years ago, was also the Head of Rugby and he was a great mentor to me throughout my time at Dollar, and beyond. Without him, I would never have achieved what I did in the sport.”
Morrison’s new role also offers a chance for him to give something back and make a positive impact on a place that was pivotal to his development. He concludes: “The Head of Finance deals with the finances of the whole school, which may seem quite straightforward. Actually, it’s quite a complex place. But I’d come to a point where I’d had a successful rugby career and had qualified as a CA. Now I’d like to be able to make an impact on other people’s lives and for a community that served me so well. I hope that I can contribute towards young people becoming successful adults.”
From turf to accountant
Three more sporting starts who made the switch to chartered accountancy:
The former Australian women’s hockey player won Olympic gold medals in 1996 and 2000. Straight after retiring she studied to be a chartered accountant in her home country, and would later become a member of the executive of the International Hockey Federation.
Emma Brownlie CA
Brownlie has played for the Scotland Under-19s football team and enjoyed spells with both Everton and Rangers, before joining Hearts in 2022. Having qualified as a CA, she works in practice for DB Living – where she would seem to have found her niche in sports tax.
Hobson hit the headlines for his star performance in Perth Scorchers’ victory over Brisbane Heat in the recent Big Bash Final – the Aussie equivalent of Twenty20 cricket. Amazingly, he is only a part-time cricketer, being otherwise occupied as a chartered accountant at EY.
For more resources visit the ICAS mental fitness hub