Peter Macnab CA reflects on the twists, turns and lessons that marked his career
In the first of a new regular feature, Ryan Herman speaks to retiree Peter Macnab CA to look back over an extraordinary career that has taken him to Russia, Ukraine and Angola
Accounting wasn't in the blood
My father Peter was a writer. He was raised on the Isle of Mull, one of three children. Although his siblings went to university, severe pneumonia struck him down. He took up banking instead, but combined it with community work and a successful career as an author. He was still writing at 98, probably Scotland’s oldest active author. Although from a prestigious Glasgow school, my mother was not academically ambitious, but was a much-loved wife and mother. I was not particularly good at maths at school and had a bent towards English, Latin and history, but, like many on leaving school, was unsure of a career to follow.
You never know when your career plans might change
I was 19 in my last school year, having lost a year through illness. Evacuee children had arrived in our Ayrshire village early in the war and many of us country kids picked up every disease going.
I had thought of becoming a lawyer, but a meeting at the golf club between my dad and a partner in a local CA firm changed my ideas. He said I could start with his firm as a five-year indentured apprentice CA – the rest is history.
My first lesson: be thorough
As a young apprentice I submitted an early set of financial statements for audit review by a partner. He glanced over the balance sheet, picked up on a number and said: “That does not look right. Let me see your work papers.” I had fudged the number and was suitably reprimanded.
The CA is a platform to work worldwide
I gained this experience, while also acquiring the confidence to contribute effectively and react positively. Contrary to the popular “bean counter” image of our profession, the qualification offers exciting opportunities for any young person, working nationally or internationally. I have worked in audit in Scotland and abroad, before pivoting to industry and finally being a consultant on EU, World Bank and government-funded restructuring projects overseas.
Mutual respect is vital for negotiation
In the 1970s, the UK government provided regional development grants at 20% of the allowed investment cost. I was working for a US oil company that built two offshore platforms near Aberdeen and a pipeline to the Orkneys, where it was spending millions to build an oil terminal.
We claimed these grants for our terminal, but were met with political dismay. Why should a rich US oil company be awarded for an investment it was making anyway?
We identified and prepared the costs. I negotiated the claims with the government, supported by our tax manager. The London-based civil servants had thought they would be dealing with brash, tobacco-chewing guys from Texas. They were shocked to find a Scot and a Scouse tax manager. When the government’s Glasgow office took over, it transpired the chief negotiator came from the Easter Ross village where my father was born! Ultimately, we had our claims agreed.
The Piper Alpha disaster left a permanent mark
I was Occidental’s Chief Accountant, Operations, in Aberdeen when the Piper Alpha platform blew up in 1988, killing 167 men. I waited with HR colleagues to meet the shocked survivors coming off the rescue helicopters, most wearing nothing except their underwear, and all covered in oil. I gave each a sum of money for immediate needs before they were escorted to their hotel rooms. What these men went through to escape that ordeal I will never forget.
Don't be easily put off
In 2002, the post-colonial Angolan government was suffering the aftermath of civil war. I was the only accountant in a small team which had a contract to restructure its oil tax department, essential to improving its financial administration in dealing with the oil companies flocking to exploit the offshore fields. The tax laws were fairly effective, but the department’s resources and administrative systems were inadequate, leading to substantial tax leakage. One oil executive privately told me we would never succeed. It took many years, but succeed we did.
There was a natural suspicion of European consultants, as in most former colonies. Simply providing methodology for the project was not enough. The key was the second stage – the costly implementation of the methodology in order to gain the client’s trust as they saw positive results.
Angola can now maximise its oil tax revenues, declarations are produced online, it has new IT and forecasting systems, and a better relationship with the oil majors. Most importantly, the department is now managed by Angolans, whom we trained.
Be adaptable and communicate well
Two examples where this was important to me. First, to support our North Sea operations, the London accounting department was merged with its smaller Aberdeen counterpart. I had to contend with the reluctance of London employees to relocate 500 miles north and their “cultural” concerns. And when leading teams of Russian and, later, Ukrainian experts on complex restructuring projects, I had to gain their confidence, despite knowing neither their languages nor their laws.
Be careful about taking information at face value and do not be afraid to ask “daft laddie” questions.
Work abroad if the opportunity arises
Consider working abroad for at least a few years. Until recently, it was common to remain with one employer for decades. Globalisation has changed this. Your career is now likely to be broken up into segments. Choose a job and a country where you will learn enough to be more attractive than rival applicants for your next job.
Working for an international company could give you the location flexibilities you might want. And do not be afraid of change. My daughter recently gave up a prospective partnership with a major law firm due to prospective burnout. She is now a successful entrepreneur in London.
We live in Brussels, but Scotland will always be home
We recently holidayed in Mull and spent time trout fishing. I manage regular skyping with former rugby teammates around the world. Knee problems meant giving up golf but, like PG Wodehouse’s Oldest Member, I can criticise other members’ efforts from the safety of our clubhouse and offer golf hints to my long-suffering wife.
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