While the accounting profession has been around for many years (publicly recognised by the Bankruptcy Act of 1831), it's a career that rarely hits the headlines, unless it's in connection with a scandal such as the collapse of Enron. Disasters aside, the image of accountants has stayed much the same - dependable men in suits who are just a little boring - and there is yet to be a sexy TV drama featuring the much maligned number crunchers.
But management accountants see themselves as multi-skilled business managers working in a demanding job with excellent financial rewards. And while most people associate accounting with auditing, it is much more than that. "This isn't a career for everyone," says Paul Gillot, regional business development manager at the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (Cima). "Compared with auditing, management accountants work in a far more complex business environment. It is more in-depth, it's about the slicing and dicing of business."
Management accountants help a company manage its finances, rather than presenting data to the world as an auditor does. They give management the information needed make decisions, by preparing and controlling budgets, and by making financial reports and forecasts.
Jobs are in the public and private sectors - from the NHS to banks and building societies - as well as self-employment. Recruitment websites reflect the variety of jobs, whether a management accountant for the police or for a breast cancer charity.
Employers in industry, commerce and the public sector will probably expect you to be Cima-qualified. It takes a minimum of three years to qualify as a Cima member, with people studying as they work. Many big organisations have graduate recruitment schemes that offer support through exams and training. But find out if the employer will pay all the fees, how you will study for your exams and if you get study leave.
Russell Nott is group reporting finance analyst at Arcadia Group and he started studying for his Cima qualification six months ago. "I don't want to be on the outside of business," he says, "I want to be on the inside." His employers have a study support package that enables him to study two evenings a week in a 10-week block. The 24-year-old aims to qualify in two years and then to work his way up to finance manager and, finally, finance director. Good salaries remain one of the major perks of the job. According to Hays Accountancy and Finance, a newly qualified management accountant working in financial services gets a typical salary of £47,000, while those with five years experience could be looking at £65,000.
But Gillot says the main joy of the role is "serious job satisfaction" and cites Cima members in very senior positions. One of these is John Rishton, chief financial officer at British Airways.
Rishton took a degree in economics and then joined Ford straight from university. But in those "dim and distance days", he says support for those who wanted further qualifications wasn't what it is today. He took his Cima exams because he thought it would be good for his CV and it would give him the theory needed for the work he was doing in Ford's finance department.
"When you work in a large company you don't always see the whole picture," he says. "Chartered accountants spend their entire life reviewing and checking company accounts, but management accountants are involved in the financial aspect of running a business. The attraction is that you get involved in the big stuff going on, you are at the centre of an organisation." Rishton has now been tipped as a possible candidate for the job of British Airways CEO when the current incumbent stands down.
While the image of accountants in general is "serious, introverted, detailed, back office", Rishton says this is changing and accountants are becoming more visible.
Gillot describes those studying for the Cima qualifications as bright and exciting and says far more women are moving into the job. "Some are outstandingly good, you can see they are the future business leaders." As for why there are still no sexy dramas featuring accountants, Gillot's response is, "You'll have to ask the BBC about that!"
Chartered Institute of Management Accountants: www.cimaglobal.com
Institute of Chartered Accountants: www.icaew.co.uk
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