Robin McPhail CA shares details of his extraordinary career
Robin McPhail CA has had an extraordinary career, co-founding Deloitte’s emerging markets group and working in more than 70 countries. Now Singapore-based, the MD of Volta Associates tells Ryan Herman about the importance of team building, experience and sustainability.
The CA is a ticket to travel
My grandfather served in the merchant navy and my father worked in shipping, so I guess I had a yearning for travel at an early age. I saw the CA qualification as a passport to work across the globe.
I had two great early career influences
One was Sir Jack Shaw CA, President of ICAS in 1983, and later Governor of the Bank of Scotland. Jack was the keynote speaker for the first management conference, which helped lay the foundation for building Deloitte as a Kenyan-owned and led practice. When we later went to Nairobi to celebrate the firm’s 100th anniversary, this was a visible accomplishment. The other, Thomson Aikman CA, was a young partner at Deloitte, Kenya. He was keen to modernise the profession. We formed an alliance because we had the same ideas.
Working abroad is a world of possibility
The UK economy was struggling in the 1970s, so I took a chance to move to Washington DC, which was, and still is, a centre for international development. At that time, development was seen as the responsibility of the public sector. I saw an opportunity for the private sector to play a role in economic development in poorer countries. I had a tough time persuading partners in the US this was something Deloitte should even look at. But it took off after we secured one project. It wasn’t a big contract, either. We had to restructure the banana industry in St Lucia, which resulted in improved incomes for small farmers. A satisfying aspect of my career was being able to grow this emerging markets practice at Deloitte into a global business with operations in 50 countries.
Take that chance
The first important lesson I learned as a CA was to manage upwards. People are sometimes too structured in their way of operating. You will have plenty of opportunities in your career – if you seize them, as a rule, no one gets in your way.
Ask the obvious question
Foreign advisers may come in assuming they know what that country needs. For one project, we were developing a tourism masterplan for Kuwait, which was a huge challenge. I came out to review it and asked the team: what do you think is the Kuwaiti government’s primary objective for tourism? I got a long technical answer. I asked the minister the same question. She said: “Shopping for the tourists.” This had absolutely nothing to do with what the team had been working on for the last six weeks. We recovered, but sometimes people in an unfamiliar environment don’t think to ask the most obvious questions.
You can’t put a value on experience
Another satisfying aspect of my career was being able to build practices in many emerging economies from Kenya to Vietnam, Indonesia to Turkey, and enable these practices to collaborate with those in the US and Europe. For example, I helped the Turkish practice get started, and went back there for its 25th anniversary. Deloitte’s global board were there and when its Senior Partner asked his 50 Turkish partners to stand up in the room, more than half were women. The UK partner’s face dropped – at that time, I think they had one female partner. Things have changed a lot since then.
Challenging convention is invigorating
A proud moment came in 1993 when Deloitte was selected and funded by the World Bank to work with the PRC Ministry of Finance on the development of China’s accounting standards. This landmark project was pivotal to China’s enterprises participating in international capital markets. Concurrently, Deloitte expanded its Beijing office to a multinational team of 60. China could have simply adopted IAS at the time. But, through discussion, we understood the client’s primary goal was first to learn the process of standards development and then implement by doing. Ultimately the project led to China adopting international standards. In parallel, we developed the first continuing professional education programme for Chinese chartered accountants.
Seize your opportunities
As I was ending my time with Deloitte, I was able to contribute to a major UN agency by chairing its new advisory board. The agency has multinational teams, working in more than 80 countries on peace and security, humanitarian and development projects. This required working closely with the Secretary General to turn the agency into a high-performance organisation.
A second opportunity was as a member of the International Finance Corporation’s (IFC) independent panel to enhance the environmental and social outcomes and transparency of its projects. IFC works in 100 countries to create markets and opportunities in developing countries to leverage the power of the private sector for sustainable investment.
Never assume anything
I’ve always operated with a couple of rules. One is when you’re in a hole, stop digging. The other is never assume. Go in with an open mind and be willing to listen.
Energy transition is an opportunity
My current company, Volta Associates, provides strategic advice and insight to corporates, investment funds, international financing agencies and government-based entities. The EnergyCC project includes reducing methane emissions from the energy sector to benefit climate, human health and energy access.
My advice for young CAs is: climate, climate, climate
It is a huge challenge for the world – and for accountants. When I look at the work we’re doing on energy transition, we can see that the accounting profession could be doing a much bigger job – for example, by helping to put pressure on companies to really rethink their whole risk profile. Company reports need to be quantifying the climate risks that businesses face and communicating them clearly to investors and others.
If you would like to share your experiences as a CA, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.