Michael Izza has been Chief Executive of ICAEW since 2006. Here he tells us about his inspirational career so far, and his vision for the future of the profession.
Tell us a bit about your background – why accountancy?
Work experience opportunities were in short supply when I was thinking about university, but I was able to get a week in a solicitor’s office. I thought it was interesting, so I applied to study law. It was part way through my degree that I realised that I was more interested in business and the commercial side of things – and that’s what led me to chartered accountancy.
I didn’t know at that stage whether I wanted to be a practitioner or in business – or even running an institute – but that was what led me in that direction. One of the great things about our qualification is that you don’t have to be a graduate with an accounting or finance degree. If we can maintain that diversity of entrants – if you’ve got lawyers, mathematicians, physicists, musicians, linguists all rubbing shoulders with people who did accountancy and business and finance – I think the profession is so much richer for it.
What do you remember of your ACA training?
Before joining Coopers & Lybrand, I spent a year as president of Durham Students’ Union. For a 21-year-old that was a really interesting experience: we employed 25 members of staff, I was on the university’s Council and Senate, I met the Secretary of State for Education – and I got an early taste of some of the things I have in this job. It was a really important time in my life.
When I started training, I absolutely went in at the bottom – I was making tea and doing photocopying – and initially I did wonder, “Don’t they know I’m the immediate past president of Durham Students’ Union?” But you’ve just got to get over that and get on with it! Pretty quickly I started doing things that were more interesting. I trained in the Manchester office, and we had a wide range of clients from small businesses to multinationals, so I got a real spectrum of experience.
Tell us about your career before you joined ICAEW. Did membership open doors for you professionally?
Qualifying changed everything. I stayed at Coopers & Lybrand for another three years – which was three years longer than I had planned – because I started getting much more interesting work to do. I moved from Manchester to London, and began working with a client called John Labatt, a Canadian brewing business that was making acquisitions in Europe.
After a long secondment, they asked me to come and work for them. My first week in the office didn’t go according to plan, because they said, “You know that acquisition you’ve been helping us with in Italy? We’d like you to go and be the finance director of it.” So at the age of 30 I became finance director of Birra Moretti – and I got it because I was a chartered accountant. It was a baptism of fire. I was being asked to do something that was pushing me to the limits of my skills. I found out very quickly, though, that what was far more important than financial reporting, management accounting and tax was the people management, the communication skills, the problem solving, the ability to think strategically. All of those things were required almost from day one.
After a year, I came back to the UK. The business had started to acquire pubs through a series of joint ventures, and wanted to consolidate them all into one company. I was asked to help with the consolidation and, on my 32nd birthday, became managing director of the new business. Again, it was a massive learning curve: we had 537 pubs at its peak, and 1,600 direct staff. It was an absolutely fascinating business. And again, I got it because I was a chartered accountant.
I did that until 1996, when I moved to a FTSE 350 training and recruitment business called Spring Group. One of its businesses was in government-funded training, and there had been some issues around the funding being inappropriately used. I became managing director of the biggest business in the group because I was a chartered accountant. They needed to be able to put someone in there who they knew had a strong moral compass and ethical underpinning.
How did you come to join ICAEW?
What are the biggest changes you’ve seen over your time at ICAEW?
When I took over as Chief Executive, the Institute had been in a period of stagnation. Our membership was ageing, we had been losing market share, and we needed to do something about it. In 2006, we had just under 10,000 students studying for the ACA; we now have over 33,900. Turning that around has brought our average membership age down, and has completely transformed the Institute’s future pipeline and prospects. The second thing is that we’ve become more than just a UK body. The UK is our core market and our home, but in an accountancy profession that’s international, we needed to get out there and have more of a profile. The fact that a quarter of our students and 28,000 of our members are now outside the UK is a fantastic achievement.
Another thing is that we have been talking about sustainability and the transition to net zero for 17 or 18 years now. It was obvious to some of us long ago that businesses were going to have to change how they operate and transition to a lower- or zero-carbon model – and to do that the accountancy profession was going to have a really important role to play. I think we were really ahead of our time in that respect. And I think we helped change the conversation not just in this country, but to some degree internationally.
Earlier this year the government launched a Transition Plan Taskforce to make the UK the world’s first net zero-aligned financial centre – and we have a seat at that table. The reason I am sitting around the table with the CEOs of NatWest, Aviva and the London Stock Exchange is because we’ve been talking about this for a long time, and they recognise our commitment and the value we can add. This is potentially the new tax or the new audit: it is potentially the next big service line for the accountancy profession. It’s no accident that our vision says that ‘ICAEW Chartered Accountants enable a world of sustainable economies’. It doesn’t say we’re good at financial reporting, it doesn’t say we’re great at tax. The vision is so much more important now.
What are your other priorities as Chief Executive?
ICAEW has a good strategy, and it’s a strategy that anticipates where we will be in 2030, which will be our 150th anniversary. When we put that strategy in place pre-pandemic, we weren’t anticipating what we would have to deal with for the past couple of years, but strategies have to flex to the changing environment. In addition to the things I’ve already mentioned, there is a massive market capacity issue at the moment, not just in the UK but internationally, and a real shortage of qualified accountants within practice, business and the public sector. We have a role to play to train that next generation. Technology continues to change all our lives, whether in business, practice or any other area, and keeping abreast of that is a challenge. We continue to try to be as much in the vanguard of that as it’s possible to be. Part of what we’ve been able to achieve with the larger number of students we have today is that we are changing diversity within the profession. That is something that comes over time, but we will be better for it because we will bring diversity of thought into the profession.