ICAS Vice President, Karen Scholes CA: Championing small practices
Orkney-based Karen Scholes CA has long been a champion of small practitioners within ICAS. Now Vice President, she explains how the new 2030 strategy is a game-changer for the profession
Everyone has at least one moment in a career where they decide on a course of action that takes them in a different direction, one they later reflect upon and wonder: “What if I hadn’t done that?” For Karen Scholes CA that sliding-doors moment happened in 2013 – and it has taken her to the point where she is now ICAS Vice President.
“I was wondering how ICAS could do more for members in practice. I felt perhaps they weren’t doing as much as they could, so I decided to speak up about it,” Karen recalls. “I was then asked to chair the first ICAS Members in Practice Advisory Board (MiPAB). I did that for two terms and thoroughly enjoyed it. I got to learn so much more about ICAS from doing that. It’s very easy to sit at your desk and criticise or expect things from ICAS. But you can understand so much more when you’re involved. One of the things we achieved was to create a pathway from Acca [Association of Chartered Certified Accountants] to CA, because a lot of us had partners in our firms who were Acca qualified but wanted to continue being regulated by ICAS and still be a CA firm.
“There were also things such as the general practice procedures manual, which we made available to all, free of charge, on the ICAS website. I think that was hugely beneficial. We needed to improve communication. We needed ICAS to get out there and see members for things like spring tax updates. That has improved greatly.
“MiPAB is still going strong with a very good Chair, Suzy Kerton CA. Through MiPAB, I gained my first introduction to Council, which I think is fascinating because there is such a diverse range of people. If you’ve always focused on practice, then you can look at everything through that perspective. But then you realise there’s a big, wide world out there where CAs have reach and influence.”
After two terms on MiPAB, Scholes was asked by ICAS to be Convener of the Authorisation Committee and a member of the Regulation Board. “Practice is constantly evolving, changes are happening around audit monitoring and AML [anti-money laundering]. So, when I’m commenting and speaking about how changes affect practice, I can draw on my own experiences and those of my colleagues.”
Having made her mark at the institute, Karen felt there was an opportunity to take it further. “I was of the opinion that practice needed a voice fairly high up in ICAS and it had been some time since we’d had an office bearer who came from a small or medium-sized firm,” she says. “But I had to make sure if I was going to do this that I could do it properly. I’m now at that stage in my career where I’ve got two great partners in the firm – that will allow me the necessary time, because the reality is that most accountants in practice are just always busy.”
Her father’s daughter
That has been especially true for Karen, whose father founded the firm AJB Scholes 53 years ago in Kirkwall, Orkney, where his daughter is still based, despite its subsequent growth. “He was a real entrepreneur and that is in our DNA,” she says. “He set out a vision for the practice, which was to be the best accountant for people who want to grow their business. We want to work hand in hand with those businesses because their success becomes our success. And we want to work with people who will leave a legacy in their community, however small that community is.”
When her father passed away in 1993, aged just 61, Karen suddenly had to step up and build on his legacy. That would inevitably have come with its own set of pressures, but embracing opportunity has seen the firm grow from a sole practitioner to four offices and 36 staff without compromising the firm’s identity.
“It’s our family foundations, our roots. We do it as one team, regardless of whether you work in our Kirkwall office, Aberdeen or Edinburgh,” she adds. “We can bring the expertise that we’ve gained in the Orkney islands in terms of agriculture and renewables to the Aberdeen area. And we can then take the knowledge of professional services from Aberdeen and Edinburgh and bring that up to the Orkney islands. It really, really works.
“We can do that because we’re not too big. The key is being proactive, knowing your client and being able to spot where opportunities or problems may arise and work hand in hand with them. We’re now working with third-generation businesses and we’re really proud of that.”
She brings this confidence and belief that she has something to offer. “When the office bearer role came up I felt that all the time I’ve spent with ICAS has given me the grounding and knowledge that maybe I could do the role and be successful at it,” she says. “I guess you could liken it to an apprenticeship.”
Although her appointment as Vice President represents a break with the recent trend, she has been pleasantly surprised by the reaction. “Ah, I was overwhelmed by all these messages coming in,” she says. “I didn’t think anybody knew who I was!”
Now that Karen is in the role, what would she like to achieve over the next year and perhaps beyond? “One of the factors that was really important when I was putting myself forward to do this was the new strategy. It is something I’ve been waiting for,” she says with tangible enthusiasm. “Something I’ve been very actively vocal about is the different pathways to education, not just for practice, but for industry and for financial organisations. We had to be more flexible, and to realise times have changed.
“The new syllabus, which launches next year, gives students a chance to learn the core [of accountancy], which is an absolute given. But if they’re interested in one or two other topics, then there will be those specialist electives for them. I want to get out there and communicate that to practice, so they know we now have this flexible option. What may be best for some students would be a hybrid between digital and face to face. For students in more remote locations, it could all be done digitally.
“To do that, I would like to visit area boards and communicate our new education strategy and the enhanced 2024 CA syllabus, because I know how busy people are. It is also about visiting schools and colleges. That could be with other representatives from ICAS, and saying to students, ‘Here’s what the CA qualification can do for you, here’s where it can take you.’
“I want people to understand how the strategy works and that there is this flexibility. In the past, training was very structured, very rigid, and that was right for that time. The way I studied is not how a student studies now. So, we needed to adapt to what young people are looking for and what will be the future of our profession but without compromising on our standards.
“We should also look at people who have been doing another job for a long time, but who think, ‘I quite like the idea of accountancy or being a CA. How can I take my engineering qualification and come over? Because business and finance really interests me.’ So, I think it’s a game-changer.
“Another objective of mine is to see how we can enhance the ICAS Foundation, because sometimes the barrier to entry for becoming a CA comes down to finance. We talk a lot about equality and diversity and inclusion, but we need to make it possible. For students who come from more rural areas, we also need to ensure they have a mentor to support them.”
Finding the balance
This year’s office bearers are neatly divided both geographically and by sector. Karen can provide a voice for practice, Deputy President Alison Cornwell CA has vast experience of industry, with Disney and Vue Cinemas, where she is currently CFO, while President Clive Bellingham CA spent 37 years with PwC, with whom he has worked around the world. That unique dynamic should allow ICAS to spread the word around the 2030 strategy far and wide.
“Clive is based in Zurich. Alison is in London but also goes to LA. I’m in the islands, and I regularly visit Aberdeen and Edinburgh,” says Karen. “It’s really exciting and I expect to learn an awful lot from them. I never go to an ICAS event without learning something. I spoke to a lot of younger members at one in London recently and they talked about having more events and opportunities to meet, although obviously that wasn’t possible for a couple of years.”
Recent events have also seen a growing trend in practice. “There is a lot of consolidation,” says Karen. “That poses a threat to small and medium-sized firms but it also presents an opportunity for firms like us. Forward-thinking, entrepreneurial clients, want to work with firms who are motivated to stay ahead but which can provide a tailor-made solution. I’m still doing the day job. I’ve got files in front of me, I see clients, I do tax returns. Everything I do will be to represent those small and medium-sized practices. The best advice I ever received was ‘don’t be afraid’. I could’ve stayed running a single practice in the islands. But I wanted to explore the opportunities that were out there. I hope I can help others to do the same.”
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Learn more about the 2030 strategy