Member profile: Richard Cartwright
After refusing to let a devastating accident hold back his career, Richard Cartwright tells Peter Taylor-Whiffen why he will always see where the challenge takes him.
“Someone described me as having happiness hard-wired in,” says Richard Cartwright. “I’m not sure that’s true, but I do think I’m lucky I’m so accepting of my situation. Some people in my position never reach that.”
Most of us cannot begin to envisage the road travelled by Cartwright over the past decade. Having left university, he was a mere 14 days into a graduate post with KPMG when a horrific accident left him permanently paralysed. But not only has he resumed his accountancy career, he is back playing competitive sport and is preparing for his wedding.
“Ever since my accident the challenge has always been that red or blue pill moment from The Matrix,” he says. “Take the blue pill and just carry on as you are, or take the red one and see just how deep the rabbit hole goes. I like a challenge.”
Cartwright’s interest in finance emerged at the age of 14 because, “I liked the way economics explained the world”.
But he never considered an accountancy career until, following his economics degree at Birmingham University, he spent a summer as a graduate intern at BDO. “I realised accountants were fun people,” he says. “Some were geeky and nerdy, but don’t you get those anywhere?”
He was delighted to secure a full-time graduate audit role at KPMG’s office in Southampton. “It was 2006 – the last financial crisis was in 1929, the last recession in the 1990s. I was 21. I went back to Birmingham to celebrate with my old uni pals, on the highest of highs. On a night out, I did a racing dive into the university fountain – and broke my neck.”The accident left him without any sensation below his shoulders, a paralysis doctors told him he would have for the rest of his life. “They say there are five stages of grief,” he says. “Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I did them all. I was also in shock.”
That prompted him to ring KPMG to call in sick. “I had been told I’d never walk but I was in such a weird space I didn’t know what I was doing. When the receptionist asked what the problem was, I said: ‘Everything will be fine, but I’m paralysed from the neck down.’ Apparently when she put the phone down she burst into tears.”
When Cartwright did finally allow his prognosis to sink in, he was distraught that his career was over before it had begun. But KPMG had other ideas.
“They were fantastic,” he recalls. “The lead partner called my parents and said: ‘Just get Richard better and when he’s ready, his job is waiting.’ You would not believe how important that was to me, making me realise I could go back to at least part of my life. KPMG was as good as its word. People I’d known only a couple of weeks came to visit, they raised thousands to support me while I recovered. And a year to the day after my accident I was back at KPMG. Same job, same desk – just a rather different chair.”
In setting him up for life outside the office, the Chartered Accountants’ Benevolent Association (CABA) made a huge contribution. “CABA have been incredibly supportive of me in respect to helping me with house adaptations and in getting a car adapted. I now act as a CABA champion for the region.”
Back at work, Cartwright resumed his ACA. “ICAEW was very supportive, letting me take exams in the office, and one at a time.” In a year of largely office-based compliance, KPMG found him clients that would suit his level of mobility.
“But disability lends itself to predictability,” he says. “KPMG was fantastic, but the more responsibility I took on, the more allowances they had to make, the less I was competing with my peers. Screw the disability, I just wanted to do well.”
However, Cartwright’s life was about to change again. “I got a secondment to the Department of Professional Practice to run courses – and I loved it. It suited my disability. I only breathe diaphramatically, like an opera singer, so I can project. My legs couldn’t shake, so I didn’t look nervous. I could do this better than an able-bodied person – I felt liberated.”
Unfortunately, KPMG could only provide such work temporarily – but having found his vocation, Cartwright applied for a senior lecturer’s post at nearby Southampton Solent University, and was astonished to get the job. “Academia is so different,” he says. “The guidance is ‘bring students up to a certain standard, but you can do it however you like’. That freedom freaked me out.”
And then, in the way events sometimes simply fall into place, another door opened. “It was 2012, the Paralympics was on television and someone asked what sport I would do. I said wheelchair rugby. It turned out Dr Stuart Lowe, sports scientist for GB’s wheelchair rugby team, was based at the university.”
Cartwright, whose inspirational recovery has won him two ICAEW awards, attended a couple of taster sessions outside the university but “there was no exit route, nor any Paralympic legacy funding. So we brought the club into the university and convinced them to buy 12 chairs”.
The result was Solent Sharks, a community-based wheelchair rugby team. “I train three times a week. I’m a defender and blocker because my upper mobility is less functional, as I’m paralysed from the chest down with limited dexterity in my arms – others do the attacking, my job is to get in the way and hold play up.
“I feel part of a fraternity again,” adds Cartwright. “I’m not some ridiculous alpha male but it does allow me to compete on a level playing field again.” The team is now looking for sponsorship to help support them.
Cartwright has since moved on again, having “done the dastardly deed” and become a senior teaching fellow at nearby Southampton University. He’s also on the ICAEW Council. And with a job among students, his rugby and a wedding to fellow accountant Laura Wagner Veary this summer, life is almost perfect.
“It’s good, yes,” he says. “I am really happy. People find it strange, but I can honestly say I wouldn’t go back. Sure, if someone said: ‘You can walk tomorrow’, I’d take it. But I wouldn’t give up the last nine years to change what happened.”
CAREER IN A NUTSHELL
2015 Senior teaching fellow, accountancy, Southampton University Business School
2013 ICAEW Everybody Counts awards winner
2012-2015 Senior lecturer in accountancy, Southampton Solent University
2009 ICAEW/CABA Inspiration Prize Winner
2006-2012 Assistant middle manager, Audit Middle Markets, KPMG
2006 Attained BSc (Hons) Economics, Birmingham University
Originally published in Economia, February 2016.