Career insights: Aarti Balachandran CA
Andrea Murad speaks with Aarti Balachandran CA, Vice President of Treasury at the Paramount Group, about transitioning within industries, choosing opportunities, and working within real estate.
What interested you in accounting? How did you start your career?
Accounting exposes you to a lot of new experiences in your career, and you can see how many industries work. You’re always learning because the technical rules are constantly evolving, and I sensed that this career would provide exposure to change and continuous learning.
When I started at Warwick University, I studied math and economics, but realised I was better suited to an interdisciplinary degree, so I changed to MORSE (math, operations research, statistics and economics). There was exposure to computer science, business, accounting and finance. The MORSE degree provided access to many departments, and I learned problem solving skills from these studies.
Warwick University also had a very good career counselling system, and I signed up for interview practice and the practice courses held by the Big Four firms, which gave me exposure to these companies. I interned at the end of my second year at a Big 4 accounting firm in Birmingham, and then I interviewed for a full-time job at various accounting firms after graduating – I accepted the EY offer as an Audit Associate. The audit department in Birmingham was not split into industry specialisations, and therefore I was exposed to many different clients and industries and learned about the different business models.
When I qualified with ICAS, many of my clients were reporting under UK GAAP, but transition to IFRS was also topical. I had an opportunity to work on this on several clients where they were subsidiaries of larger entities with parent companies in Europe. As the parent companies were already reporting under IFRS, the local subsidiaries went through an exercise to do the same in relation to their standalone financial statements.
Why did you move to NYC?
I moved to New York after I got married for family reasons. I had been at EY in the UK for about 12 years and transferred within EY. There were opportunities in the real estate department – I had worked with automotive, manufacturing and retail, but had never done a real estate audit in the UK. There was a very vast learning curve, especially in the first few months, because I was new to real estate and US GAAP.
When I interviewed for the position, I tried to ascertain if I could prepare beforehand, but I think you just have to learn as you go along. I had one public client and a group of funds – for the fund audits, there were valuation reports for their investments, and we reviewed the models underlying the reports and their assumptions.
What were some of the challenges with your move?
The clients in New York were larger and more complex, the teams were bigger, and I had to learn about both REIT and fund audits – it was a lot. The EY trainings for real estate audits helped. I worked on the corporate side of a REIT audit – accounting teams in other offices did the property audits, and we liaised with them. I was auditing the tax provision at the central level and share based payments. The entity produced consolidated financial statements – it was the amalgamation of the corporate and property financials. We worked with audit teams in other offices that worked on the assets.
To manage such a large team, I had to be on top of what everyone is doing, which sometimes seemed impossible to do. I try to be very hands on with my teams because the more you’re present with your team, the more you can see what’s going on.
Why did you leave EY? Where did you move to?
I wanted to try something new and to see things from the other side and gain experience of working in industry. I left EY New York after three years and joined the Paramount Group in 2015. They had just completed their IPO a few months before I joined and needed to become SOX compliant by the end of the year. I was the Director of Accounting Policy and Internal Audit – my assignment was to transition the company from privately owned to a public company with the full suite of SOX controls.
The main challenge was the speed at which I had to accomplish this and getting buy in from everyone because there would be many more controls. Paramount worked with an external auditor and a firm that provided advice on the internal audit side and liaised with the Big Four firms and internal management – I liaised between internal and external audit.
First, we identified the risks from a financial repeating perspective and then we ensured people had sufficient guidance and support to operate those controls – I had to be as hands on as I could to guide people.
What did you do once this was complete?
Once the company was in a place to be more stable with SOX compliance, my role became more about accounting policy as opposed to internal audit. I was involved in reviewing joint venture structures and agreements and preparing memos to evaluate whether we would consolidate the applicable entityreport it as a partially owned structure. Eventually, the internal audit role diminished, and I was approached with an opportunity within treasury.
In my current role, I am still involved sometimes in accounting policy. In terms of treasury, we use a treasury workstation in our day to day procedures to automate standard processes such as reviewing cash balances, making debt service payments and payments to third party vendors. We manage the balances with various banks and review interest rates to make sure we are optimising wherever we can. I am also involved in cash flow forecasting on a regular basis and ensure that I work alongside our transaction teams accordingly.
What tools and skills do CAs need to stay relevant in the future?
Project management skills can be very helpful, especially when working for a company that has a lot of transactions. While we’ve automated the cash flow management process with an easy-to-use workstation, exposure to cash flow forecasting is also very helpful.
How has ICAS and the CA qualification helped you in your career and business?
The CA qualification is very broad and exposes you to problem solving and analytical thinking. Also, the CA qualification is widely accepted by employers and gives you a lot of scope for different fields.
What advice do you have for new members and just-qualified CAs?
Take your time when making career choices because you’re in high demand. After qualifying, it can be tempting to leave practice right away, but make the right decision for you.
About the author
Andrea Murad is a New York–based writer. Having worked on both Wall Street and Main Street, she now pursues her passion for words. She covers business and finance, and her work can be found on BBC Capital, Consumers Digest, Entrepreneur.com, FOXBusiness.com, Global Finance and InstitutionalInvestor.com.