Highland Spring's Mark Steven CA - Flexibility is key for new CAs
Mark Steven, Group Finance Director at Highland Spring, shares his advice for newly-qualified accountants with Ross McQuarrie from Wilkinson & Associates and tells us about his career plan.
Tell us about your career so far...
After leaving University I joined Deloitte Haskins + Sells, now part of PwC, where I worked in audit for eight years before leaving to join Grampian Country Food Group. I subsequently worked for John Wood Group PLC for five years, mainly in Miami, as Finance Director for a number of their businesses before returning to Grampian as a Divisional FD in 1999. I spent 14 years with Grampian and its successor businesses in a number of senior management roles in the UK and overseas, latterly as CFO for VION Food Group UK, a food processing business turning over £2bn. I joined Highland Spring as Group Finance Director in 2013.
At Highland Spring, I am responsible for the Finance, IT, Legal and Procurement functions. As Group Finance Director my main role, along with the rest of the Board, is providing the strategic direction for the business and continually challenging the management team on delivery of our corporate priorities. We are currently looking to significantly expand our production capacity to take advantage of the continuing growth in the bottled water category and finance plays a key part both in ensuring funding is available as well as challenging the business case for investment.
What advice did you receive when you were a newly qualified CA (NQ)?
Around two to three years post-qualification I finally recognised that finance was a stepping stone to a wider management role and most of the CEO’s/MDs that I have subsequently worked with have also been accountants.
In retrospect I probably didn’t receive any advice, either good or bad. At the time, there was a rush for newly-qualifieds to move away from the profession or take an overseas secondment, but I believed the additional experience I would gain in the first few years in the profession post-qualification would benefit me longer-term. As well as client responsibilities, I spent some time on secondment to the training and technical departments in London which also benefited me. Whilst I was offered a secondment to Australia I turned it down because I believed the work experience I would gain in the UK would benefit me more longer-term. From a lifestyle perspective I sometimes regret turning down the opportunity, but I have subsequently spent a number of years living overseas in Norway, USA and Thailand.
My degree was in Accountancy, although at that stage I did not have a clear opinion as to whether long-term I wanted to work in the profession or in industry. It was only after a number of years in the profession that my career plan became clearer. Probably around two to three years post-qualification when I finally recognised that finance was a stepping stone to a wider management role and most of CEO’s/MDs that I have subsequently worked with have also been accountants. Once I had decided to leave the profession I was able to have a good discussion with a recruitment agency on my specific requirements for my next role and was able to wait until the right opportunity came along.
Given that a large amount of newly qualified CAs will have similar experiences, what can they do to differentiate themselves from their peers?
It is vital that candidates can demonstrate a wider business understanding than simply keeping the books
Following my appointment at Highland Spring we have significantly upgraded the calibre of the finance and IT teams as we have moved from scorekeepers to business partners. We have made a number of NQ appointments as part of this process. I am looking for talent to continue to drive our business forward. They need to be proactive, show initiative and a desire to get involved. It is vital that candidates can demonstrate a wider business understanding than simply keeping the books, I always want finance personnel to regularly be seen on the factory floor rather than simply sitting behind a desk. At an interview I need to be confident that they have an appreciation of our business and I will question them on what they believe the challenges facing our business are. They should also be prepared to question me on the role and the business, the questions they ask can be more insightful than the answers they give.
Some CAs fear being pigeon-holed in the discipline that they first move into. What would you say to them?
I would agree that this is indeed a risk. Ideally NQ’s need to gain a breadth of experience in a number of areas to demonstrate their adaptability. With the exception of very specialised technical knowledge, the skills they possess are reasonably transferable between roles. However, it is equally important not to move around too often, potential employers need to be persuaded that there will be a reasonable commitment to the business. I think it is important to be reasonably flexible in the first few years post-qualification. At that stage they are still developing their skills and gaining experience. It is only once they have been round the block a couple of times that they will have a clearer view on what areas they enjoy and have demonstrated an aptitude for. At that point they can narrow down their options and be more specific on longer-term aspirations.
What general advice would you give to newly qualified CAs about their first or next career move?
Be clear on why you want to move and what you expect from the move separate from any monetary considerations. This first move is important but will not necessarily define the rest of your career.
About the author
Ross McQuarrie, Senior Consultant at Wilkinson & Associates, began his recruitment career in 2007 and he has specialised in the Accountancy and Finance market since. He has a depth of knowledge across all areas of industry, commerce and financial services and his predominant area of attention is the newly / recently qualified accountant level through to circa 5 years post qualified. The skill sets Ross regularly focuses include: Financial Reporting, Decision Support and Business Partnering, Regulatory Reporting, Statutory and Technical Accounting, Cost and Financial Analysis.
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The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of ICAS.