From Formula One to electric motorsport via innocent drinks, the ACA has given Alan Chan the foundation – and confidence – to take chances.
When Alan Chan started his ACA training, he admits it wasn’t with much idea of what a career in finance would involve – or quite how challenging the work/study balance would be. “I did maths at university and I liked numbers, so it seemed like a good segue into finance,” he says. “But in truth I had no idea what that meant. I didn’t really have a reference point – my parents immigrated to the UK in the 1970s, and both worked in the NHS.”
Having studied at University College London, Alan wanted a break from the city and joined Deloitte’s graduate programme in St Albans. “I thought it was going to be easy – or at least not as challenging as studying maths,” he admits. “And maybe it wasn’t in terms of content, but I really struggled to balance work and studying. I failed my first exam. I got it wrong: I thought I could work and then just study when I had a moment. But actually it was quite tricky finding the right balance.”
Three years on, and he was relieved to qualify and leave behind the stressful cycle of studying and exams. He was spending his Christmas break thinking about what he wanted to do with his career when he spotted an interesting opportunity, with the newly created American F1 Team, Haas. “I remember it was Boxing Day, and there’s something strange about that week between Christmas and New Year – I get quite reflective and think about setting goals,” he says. “I grew up watching sport, and I had heard about this new Formula One team coming, so I just put in an application on their website.
“They weren’t looking for Formula One people – because it was a brand-new team they wanted people from different backgrounds to bring different things to it. And later after speaking to my new boss, the value he saw was the ACA, the fact that I had a good qualification behind me.”
Coming from a Big Four firm, joining an entrepreneurial startup, even in a machine as big as Formula One, was a very different experience. “I was the 10th person there, and the youngest [at 23],” says Alan. “Because it was a startup, everything was new for everyone. It was hard to do anything wrong, but also hard to know you were doing something right. You really had to roll your sleeves up – one day I’d be pitching in manning the reception desk and the next representing Haas at the finance council at F1 headquarters. But that’s what made it exciting.”
Over the next four years, Haas grew from 10 to 200 people, and started to enjoy some success, finishing fifth in the Constructors’ Championship in 2018. By that time, Alan had been promoted to Global Financial Planning and Analysis Manager, and felt he was ready for a new challenge. “I took a risk by joining, and I didn’t want to then just be comfortable,” he explains. He joined innocent drinks, attracted by the company’s brand and culture. “My time at innocent was short, but it was probably one of the most fun parts of my career working there. They taught me a lot, especially about culture and work/life balance.”
He had only been in the job for a few months when a former colleague from Haas contacted him about joining another startup, an international electric race series called SuperCharge. “When he started to tell me about SuperCharge it got me excited again,” Alan says. “I thought it could really take off. So I joined them in 2019, and became Finance Director last year.”
Although another motorsport startup, the SuperCharge experience is so far proving different to Haas in many ways. “Haas F1 is primarily a marketing platform for Haas Automation, whereas the goal for SuperCharge is to be profitable,” Alan says. “So it’s a much bigger challenge – but a lot more real, actually. There have been some wins with R&D credits and early-stage funding, but it’s been tough with COVID to try and put on events around the world. So it’s taking longer than planned.”
That has also brought opportunities, though – since January, Alan has been working three days a week on a ‘flexi furlough’ arrangement, giving him time to focus on setting up his own accountancy practice, Cornerstone – and, most importantly, on his new baby daughter, Florence. “I don’t want the biggest house or the fastest car, it’s about having the happiest family life,” he says. “My grandparents in Mauritius and Trinidad were shopkeepers, and my parents run their own care home business – but the common theme is that they had a lot of family time, and that’s what I remember growing up. I still need a career, I still need a job and a purpose outside of family, so that’s what I’m trying to figure out now – what’s the right balance, and what lifestyle could work.”
He believes that the lessons of the past year, and the ways in which the accountancy profession is changing, mean that there can be more flexibility. “I think professional services can actually have a really good balance – it doesn’t just have to be Google and Apple and innocent that have these progressive policies,” he says. “Corporates are now understanding that if you’ve got your deadlines, your timesheets, your milestones and you can deliver remotely, there’s a blend to be had there.”
With Cornerstone, he hopes to be at the forefront of this progressive approach, embracing the opportunities that technology can offer and shifting the emphasis from ‘number crunching’ towards professional skills. “I think that’s what’s exciting – and that’s how the profession should be looked at,” he says. “Rather than, ‘Hey, you’ve got a maths degree so you’re probably good with numbers’ it’s about being able to talk to someone, getting to know them and their business, what motivates them and what they’re passionate about. And actually you can do that a lot in accounting. More than I perhaps realised or even thought about before starting. And that’s only going to get more central to the role.”
Throughout what has already been a varied and exciting career, Alan believes it is the ACA that has been fundamental to his success, and given him the self-belief to try new things. “The ACA has been this central thing throughout my nearly 10 years of working now,” he says. “It really has given me the confidence but also the recognition that I can do it. Without it I honestly don’t know whether all these doors would have opened.”
Alan was part of a panel session entitled ‘Future Leaders: driving forward your career’ at ICAEW Virtually Live on 17 June. ICAEW members can watch the recording now.