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The right chemistry

Author: Paul Aplin

Published: 12 May 2019

Last week in Cambridge, I gave my final District Society dinner speech as ICAEW President. The next morning, I walked across Parker’s Piece to revisit, for the first time in over 40 years, the campus of what was in my day the Cambridge College of Arts and Technology (it is now Anglia Ruskin University). I studied Biology and Chemistry there and I was pleased to find that the library still holds copies of Lehninger’s Principles of Biochemistry, still after all these years a standard text. My guide asked if I thought a science degree had been helpful in my career as a chartered accountant. Without hesitation, I said yes.

A few weeks ago, I presented an award to one of our international prize-winners, a former colleague at my firm, A C Mole & Sons – Jackie Essex – who had also trained as a biochemist before qualifying as an ACA. She now works at Markes International, a firm specialising in the manufacture of thermal desorbers and time of flight mass spectrometers. Her role benefits from both her science and accountancy expertise. A few days later in Northern Ireland I met two more ICAEW members with science backgrounds.

Ian Hunter, managing director of Camlin Photonics has a Master’s degree in Physics with Astrophysics and a PhD in massive star evolution. He qualified as an ACA and after a short time in internal audit at the Bank of England, joined Camlin Group (which delivers high tech products into markets around the world) as a company accountant, subsequently being promoted to managing director of his division. We discussed grant support and the effectiveness of R&D tax credits and I was struck by the fact that we could so naturally combine finance, tax and science in a single conversation.

The next morning in Belfast, I met Jamie Andrews, another ACA with a science degree (in his case, Chemistry) but who is now an investment director with Techstart Ventures LLP, a seed investment partner. We talked about the venture capital scene in Northern Ireland and Scotland and about the effectiveness of the SEIS and EIS tax incentives. Again, the value of being able to think and speak with insight and authority across different disciplines was clear.

But it isn’t just about science. Our members come from a variety of backgrounds. We have classicists and engineers; musicians and historians; philosophers and geographers. And we are not – and I hope will never be – a graduate-only professional body. We ask only that those who aspire to the ACA clear the examination and experience hurdles: it doesn’t, and shouldn’t, matter where on the track they start from. All that should matter is the ability to clear those hurdles.

For me this is one of the core strengths of our qualification. We bring together people with different backgrounds, different expertise, different enthusiasms and we utilise that variety - that diversity - to great effect. When we add to the formula the essentials of professional life – ethics, integrity, lifelong learning, confidentiality, judgement and professional scepticism – we create the mix that makes our qualification so special.

Writing this blog reminded me of another book that captured my imagination as a teenager and led me to study science, The Chemistry of Life by Stephen Rose.

Our qualification is constantly evolving, but I think that in the ACA we have the right chemistry: you might say the chemistry of professional life.