Take the future into account

Management accountants plan the best way forward for a company rather than auditing its past. Kate Hilpern reports
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The Independent Online

Never before have organisations needed a more forward-looking management approach to accounting and finance. This, according to CIMA (the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants), is why management accountants have never been in such demand. "Conventional accountants look backwards, auditing past business. But increasingly, organisations need to assess what they are capable of in the future. This is where management accountants fit in," explains Robert Jelly, director of education at CIMA.

Anyone who goes along with the popular perception of accountancy being dull and involving little more than "bean counting" should look no further than management accountancy to see just how dynamic it can be, says Steve Harvey, a qualified management accountant at Microsoft. "My role is as much about people as it is about profit," he says.

It's also an important role because you can shape the future of organisations, he says. Ultimately, management accountants help develop a company's strategy. They use their expertise to help managers make decisions, often crucial ones.

Angela Harris, CIMA training manager at Marks & Spencer, says: "Our management accountants help us make decisions about everyday things like how much stock we should and shouldn't have and how we can best negotiate with suppliers on cost. Then, if we're introducing a new line like Per Una, management accountants evaluate how much money we need to do that and where it should be spent."

Other rewards of the job include the sheer variety of the work, the fact that it is constantly challenging and that it involves so much teamwork. "My training has allowed me to experience working in different areas of the company, to get to know the company and be a part of it. There is lots of interaction with other departments," says Sally Walker, a management accountant in the retail industry.

There is the potential to earn a high salary and opportunities to step into positions such as management consultant or business analyst, moving on to finance director or chief executive. Recent research from CIMA found its qualified management accountants to be in 190 different roles ranging from directors of IT through to CEOs. And as with conventional accounting, you can work in almost any field you choose: commerce, financial services, consultancy, government, the public sector or manufacturing.

You can even take some time out to use your professionalism more altruistically, points out Alex Jacobs, director of Mango (Management Accounting for Non Governmental Organisations). "We are a registered charity that exists to help aid organisations improve their management, more particularly their financial management. One of the ways we do this is by placing management accountants with aid agencies all over the world. We have just placed several in Sudan."

Most people work in the aid agency for about a year and most assignments are outside the UK, he says. "People come from all stages of their career - from newly qualified to retired - and every one of them comes back having found it enormously rewarding. Some move into the sector permanently."

Graduates interested in becoming management accountants can have a background in any degree discipline. In fact, of the current graduate trainees studying for the examinations of CIMA, only half have a relevant degree in business or finance. That said, having an accountancy or business degree is definitely a bonus when it comes to training because CIMA offers exemptions from some of the professional qualifications.

"We have engineering graduates right through to arts graduates," says Kevin Hayes, international CFO at Lehman Brothers, which currently employs almost 100 management accountants who are either in training or already qualified. "More important for us than their degree subject is their academic ability and that they have a passion for working in this area."

Whether you want to work for a small or big organisation, your first step will generally be to apply to an employer. Since job titles vary, you'll need to keep an open mind. Above all, advises CIMA, check that they provide support for studying recognised qualifications in management accountancy and wide-ranging work experience. Indeed, the CIMA syllabus is designed to work hand in hand with your day-to-day work. "The theoretical learning is only effective if it can be applied in business," explains Jelly. "That's why three years' relevant practical experience are required before you can become a chartered management accountant."

If an employer provides mentoring, even better, Jelly says. At Lehman Brothers, for instance, graduates join the Horizon programme, which lasts five years - three spent in different areas of the business, while carrying out CIMA examinations, and an extra two years being mentored. "The idea is that half a decade after joining our organisation, the person will be at a level where they can help us with decision making in an effective way. That's why CIMA is so much more than a qualification," explains Hayes.

Lehman Brothers has decided to work exclusively with CIMA. "We chose CIMA largely because it's an internationally recognised qualification and because students can apply what they've learnt directly to the business," Hayes says.

Once you've identified an employer you want to work for, your next step will be to convince them that you have what it takes and that it's worth investing in you. This will involve demonstrating certain key attributes including decision making, management, communication and analytical abilities - not just pure numeracy skills. In addition, you should have IT proficiency, possess an aptitude and liking for team work and have the confidence to know where your expertise ends and another member's begins. You should also have the stamina and motivation to juggle the demands of examinations and career, as well as a willingness to work long hours.

Steve Swientozielskyj, financial controller at Network Rail, says he looks for graduates who have attention to detail and those that show potential for being able in the future to develop strategic vision in a complicated business. "The reason this is so important in our business is that the emphasis is on billions of pounds," he says. Network Rail currently employs 30 management accountants, a figure that Swientozielskyj says is growing.

Many employers will pay for your exam fees and the taught courses and revision courses you attend. Some time off is usually given for study leave too. However, you will inevitably spend some of your own time on study. "Managing full-time employment and study certainly isn't easy," says Ruth Hall, who is training to become a management accountant. "Motivation is the key and I continually try to remain focused on my goals, although sometimes I do have to force myself to study. But it is definitely worth it. The work is endlessly fascinating and you learn so much every day."

How it all adds up

What are management accountants?

Management accountants look to the future (rather than the past, as in auditing accounts and tax returns). They can analyse the performance of a business and advise on how it can develop.

Where do they work?

Management accountants can be found working in:

*industry

*commerce

*not-for-profit organisations

*public sector organisations

They may work in a finance function or within specialist departments providing financial advice and insight to other professionals.

What do they do?

Typical activities include offering professional judgement on financial matters and advising on ways of improving business performance, as well as giving input into strategic planning.

How do you become qualified?

The training is a combination of examinations and practical experience. The examinations of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) are arranged in three stages: foundation, intermediate and advanced. To achieve Chartered Management Accountant (ACMA) status, you must complete all three levels and gain three years of relevant practical experience. Those who have relevant degrees may qualify for exemptions from certain examinations.

Do employers support staff to become qualified?

Many employers offering training to graduates will have a structured programme that combines the practical experience required with opportunities to study for the examinations. Some companies offer excellent packages to cover the cost of studying, including tuition fees and paid study leave.

What is the earning power?

You can expect your earning potential to increase as you advance through your qualification, and rise dramatically when you become a chartered management accountant. At foundation level, the average salary for a CIMA student is £18,000. This rises to £23,500 at intermediate level and to £25,000 at final level. A passed finalist can expect an average salary of £35,000 and four years later, that rises to £45,000-£70,000.

'You need to be strong-willed and patient'

Guido Strampelli is training to become a management accountant at Procter & Gamble

I think there are three main advantages to training to become a management accountant. First, there are very good jobs to be had once you're trained. Second, CIMA is of benefit even at the beginning of your career. Third, CIMA gives you an overview of strategic points of view. Some of the exams aren't even finance related but instead focus on things like HR and management. So the training helps in wider problem solving.

Procter & Gamble are very good in providing full financial support, as well as time off, to study for CIMA. But I still have to give up a lot of my spare time.

That's why I think you need to be strong-willed to become a management accountant. You also need patience because it takes a long time to get qualified. And you need excellent analytical skills because some of the exams are quite complicated.

I did my degree in business administration, with a focus on corporate finance. Although it doesn't matter what your degree is in, I have found it to be a good foundation.

'I'd like to get to management level'

David Gilbert is training to become a management accountant at Marks & Spencer

With a maths and philosophy degree, I found myself increasingly interested in the finance and analytical side of business, but I didn't want to become an auditor. The obvious career choice was management accountancy.

I wanted to work in retail because I'd enjoyed working in the sector while at university, and I chose M&S because they offer graduates a chance to study for CIMA qualifications in a very structured way. You move jobs every year so that you get a wide range of experience, and the support package for an organisation that isn't an accountancy firm is one of the best. For example, we get fix days study leave per paper, full line manager support, plus all our courses are paid for.

I still have to put in an enormous amount of my own time, though. There is a lot of studying and so management accountancy is not for people without commitment.

In the future, I'd like to get to management level in the finance group, managing a team of accountants. I'll see where my career takes me from there.

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