Insights

July 2022

Maximising a career in tax and beyond

Contributed by Chris Nelson - Tenet Search Chairman

I’ve spent nearly 40 years in the tax industry, from working with Arthur Andersen in the early 80s as a tax consultant, to 35 years in the search industry – firstly with Michael Page and, from 1999 until 2019, with my own firm, Pure Search. The world of tax has changed dramatically during that time, as have the people, their approach to work, and its impact on business.

Here in the latest article commissioned by Tax Weekly, I speak with some of the ‘leading lights’ of the industry to find out what attracted them to tax in the first place, how it challenged them and fulfilled them in equal measures over their careers, and how and why they developed a career beyond tax.

Talking to Mat Mealey a senior international tax partner at Ernst & Young, he describes what a career in tax has meant to him. A feeling and enthusiasm shared by many others.

Mat says he ‘fell into tax’ after University… ‘But I landed on my feet. My career in tax has been constantly varied, I have done projects all over the world and I have had extraordinary access to the highest quality learning and development – in areas far beyond legal and technical training including leadership, communication, sales, relationship building, and business
strategy. It has been a great privilege and a fun journey and I would recommend it to anyone.’

It’s important to acknowledge that tax today is a big industry. HMRC estimates that there are 43,000 paid tax agent firms in the UK , ranging from sole traders to international corporations generating over £5bn of revenue. The common stereotype of tax professionals often belies the fact that a background in accountancy is increasingly the commercial driver of the boardroom, with qualified accountants now at the helm of one fifth of the UK’s FTSE 100 companies.

Working in tax is dynamic and fast paced, requiring not only analytical ability, but excellent problem solving and commercial skills. It requires a high level of attention to detail, good English and Maths skills, and the ability to communicate. Although many people assume that it is a ‘maths job’, most of the work is law-based.

This is evident when you investigate why people join the tax profession in the first place.

Many started lives studying to be chartered accountants (ACA) and found tax to be more interesting, intellectually challenging, and with clients more engaged and appreciative of the value-added nature of tax as opposed to audit. Others studied law at university and saw the attraction of a career in tax whilet studying revenue law. Big firms targeted law students to hire, finding they possessed the intellectual, commercial, and numerical ability to thrive in the profession.

A career in tax is immensely challenging and fulfilling for the following reasons.


•It is continually evolving and changing and is dynamic and fast-paced. Few industries move as fast as tax. Every time the law changes or there is a new budget, tax advisers need to expand their knowledge and adapt their strategies.


•Tax planning is strategic and international and offers the opportunity to work in high performing teams.

•It evaluates your communication skills as often the most complex concepts need to be explained in terms that the ‘layperson’ can understand and act upon for the benefit of a business.

•It allows you to be part of a business, often at the centre, advising on complex transactions and making judgements on ‘acceptable risk’ that a company should take in pursuing its commercial goals.

All of the above is perfected summarised by Sarah Cooke, Vice Presidenttaxation at OneWeb :

‘I would say that being in tax lets you see the whole business, from legal to finance to operations to procurement from the most junior person all the way up to the Board. You learn from a career in tax, the necessity to be collaborative and that effective business decisions involve bringing the right people together at an early stage. A career in tax is seldom boring and enables you to bring your different perspective to help businesses to make better business decisions.’ All that being said, tax can have its limitations – especially in a commercial business!

This partly revolves around the fact that tax is very niche to many people outside the field, and outsiders will often perceive you as a subject matter specialist only. In fact, it can run deeper than that, with a real risk in getting ‘pigeonholed’ in a smaller, niche area of tax, such as ‘transfer pricing’ or VAT. Although many enjoy this further specialisation, it does narrow the breadth of your future career options in a wider financial, operational, or commercial role.

Tax is undeniably narrow and deep, where the concentration and value-added tends to be below the line, predominantly, in managing earnings per share. As such, it’s harder to get to board level or top table where commercial, strategic, and top-line growth, gross margin and EBIT tend to dominate the agenda. So that’s the dilemma for many in tax. They enjoy the intellectual stimulus of the subject matter, the recognition of the value added, and greater financial rewards that often come from tax over and above a career in mainstream finance. However, there’s a barrier to leadership in a commercial environment. Tanya Richards Group Financial Controller at Sky was one who made the most of her career in Tax, before seeking out a broader Finance role and comments:

‘For me, tax was a great platform for my career – I focussed exclusively on tax until I had a number of years as a Head of Tax under my belt. But then the opportunity to extend my career came along and I decided to be brave and take on the challenge. Once I had successfully taken on Treasury, I could see how the skills I had developed through my tax career could be applied to many other areas, and I then proactively sought them out. I definitely have no regrets!’
In talking to Tanya and some of the other most successful people in tax who have made the move into broader finance, they suggest there are two critical times in your career where it’s optimal to make the move. Firstly, and perhaps most obviously, a move can come relatively early in your career. Soon after qualifying, many move into related areas such as:

•Financial Control or Commercial/Group Finance;
•Corporate Finance;
•Strategy or Consulting;
•Front Office structuring or Investment Management.

The second ‘well-trodden path’ is to wait much later into your career, when you’re established as a Head of Tax or experienced Partner in a firm. David Smith Group Head of Tax and Corporate Finance at Balfour Beatty is one such individual and comments:

‘The skills and experience I learnt from working in the world of tax have served me well in developing my career into a broader portfolio. The ability to think about and solve problems analytically and logically, and the skills to communicate complex issues, have plenty of wider applications’

Despite the perception that tax is ‘narrow’, the reality is that you develop a commercial overview, an eye for detail, analytical and critical thinking, and business partnering skills, all of which can be harnessed and put to valuable use in the wider financial and commercial sphere.

Typically, a Head of Tax or Partner will have gained the trust and respect of a particular organisation, which has witnessed some of these more generic skills listed above and may be willing to offer a wider role incremental to tax for the individual. In practice, especially for a Head of Tax, this involves taking responsibility for something in addition to tax. Typically, we’re talking about one or more of the following:

•treasury;
•trade compliance;
•pensions;
•insurance;
•M&A/corporate development;
•risk.

In each of these areas, the technical leadership and ability to run teams are just as important and relevant as they are in tax.

Someone who has had a remarkable career inside and out of Tax isI an Brimicombe SVP Group Finance at Burberry . From a leading light in tax, Ian broadened his exposure to include treasury, insurance, pensions and corporate
development while at Astra Zeneca. At Burberry, he’s delivering across all Group Finance areas covering financial and management reporting, specialist finance and finance transformation projects. With typical modesty Ian says:

‘The opportunities to expand my role beyond tax was a great challenge and experience, leading to a fulfilling and extended career.’ Finally, let’s have a look at how tax is changing and what it may mean for the next generation of leaders in our Industry.

Some would say that it’s becoming more compliance and risk-management led, where systems, processes and technology will drive the agenda. This may appeal less to the intellectual who likes ‘puzzles’ and more traditional tax planning requiring ‘out-of-the-box’ thinking and solutions!

That said, with greater regulation and geopolitical tension, tax is moved further up the commercial agenda within a business and into the boardroom. While the tax structures and schemes of the past brought short term EPS benefits, they didn’t add sustainable value to the business.

Now, with the increasing risk of double taxation brought about by the vagaries of transfer pricing and elastic rules over permanent establishment, together with greater disclosure through country-by-country reporting, it’s crucial that your business footprint is taxed once only on the same profit. Dispute resolution and managing tax risk are key skills that the Head of Tax, combined with an ability to communicate potential outcomes effectively at Board and Audit Committee level. Environmental taxes and sustainability are also on the agenda of a modern-day Head of Tax.

So, while tax is becoming more data, systems and technology-based in response to digitalisation, it remains of interest to the boardroom as an increasing risk in the context of the geopolitical and social agenda changes. This makes tax for the next generation different but no less interesting and should facilitate broader careers and opportunities for those who are brave enough to grasp them. Don’t just take my word for it. Listen to what Paul Fox Group VP Tax, Customs & Insurance at Klockner Pentaplast has this to say:

‘If you want to take a broader path outside tax, you need to be bold and not afraid to try something different and off the beaten track. If you’re good and have experience, you can always go back to tax and have a very successful and rewarding career. But take that leap of faith and little bit of risk, as it won’t just come to you.’

Document downloaded on 09-08-2022 from Croner-i Navigate, the UK’s leading online research service for tax, audit and accounting professionals. Find out more at www.croneri.co.uk or call 0800 231 5199.

This article was correct at the date of publication. It is intended as an aid and cannot be expected to replace specific professional advice and judgment. No liability for errors or omissions will be accepted. It is the responsibility of those using the information to ensure it complies with the law at the time of use and that it is used in line with relevant rules and regulations governing the subject matter in question.

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