• Bio: After nearly 25 years in the business, Paul has worked his way from audit trainee to head of finance. As he stops to enjoy a career break, he looks back over his career so far and gives some insider tips on working in finance and the retail sector.

Paul Steeples

How did you hear about the Arthur Andersen vacancy and what did you enjoy about your training?

As part of my degree I could do a sandwich year placement. I was keen to do this with one of the big accountancy practices and most offered sandwich placements. Arthur Andersen attended the Loughborough careers fair, which gave me an insight into the people and work I would do.

What I enjoyed about accountancy practice was the variety within the role – there was rarely a typical week. Audit assignments lasted one or two weeks. I moved between clients frequently, learning about new businesses and building relationships with the finance teams so they could provide the support and information required to complete the audit. Routine elements of the role included bank reconciliations, preparing audit schedules, conducting audit testing and performing stock counts.

Did you always want to be an accountant?

I decided on a career in accountancy whilst studying A Level economics. Economics gave me a broader interest in business which I felt could be best pursued through gaining an accountancy qualification. I was driven by a desire for success. At the time I was making my A Level and degree choices the majority of finance directors in FTSE 100 companies were ACAs – I believe that remains the case today. A career path to managing director via ACA and finance director was a well-trodden route.

Having worked at senior levels of industry, what has been your career highlight so far?

I have many highlights from the various roles and companies I’ve worked for. The majority of these boil down to working with, training or developing people. At Arthur Andersen, I was seconded to the world-wide training centre in St Charles, Chicago to help develop training material. I lectured new audit trainees at Arthur Andersen’s European training centre in Segovia, Spain. At Rolls-Royce, I was seconded to mergers and acquisitions and learnt a huge amount about corporate finance processes. My highlights in Boots include leading the people agenda for finance, successfully launching a finance graduate scheme at Boots and introducing the ACA qualification.

How has the ACA has helped your career progression?

The ACA qualification develops a range of skills and knowledge which have been essential in many aspects of my career. A grounding in technical accounting and understanding accounting standards is the foundation for almost all finance roles. Working in an audit practice gives a broad insight into different businesses through the numerous audits I worked on. It allows you to meet and work with a range of clients. This breadth has given me useful experience, particularly in relationship building which has been essential throughout my career.

What do you enjoy about working in the retail sector?

I’ve worked in the retail sector for the majority of my career. I have a passion for retail, which has grown over my time working in the sector. Retail is fast paced, continually changing and developing. It is easy to relate to retail customers as we are all shoppers. I enjoy the opportunity to:

  • Make a tangible difference to the business and help improve the overall performance.
  • Think strategically about the future direction of the business and deliver these plans in the business.

What are the challenges and opportunities the retail sector faces today?

Today’s economic climate has a big impact on the confidence of businesses and consumers. Some businesses are struggling to get funding whilst others have cash available but little confidence to invest in further growth opportunities. Consumers have less disposable income and are reluctant to take on debt to fund spending. In response, retail is more price competitive which results in an increasing number of failing retailers. This has a negative impact on the shopping experience of many high streets as more shops are empty. Retailers now must be ready to seize opportunities as they arise – for example, new store locations that may become available.

How can graduates contribute to these changes and opportunities?

All employees must be flexible and adapt to changes in the economy. Think about how you, as a graduate, can demonstrate your flexibility and adaptability – these are transferrable skills which you may bring from being involved in a team sport, university society or part-time job.

What is your advice to graduates wanting to work in the retail sector?

Research and understand the retail sector and the specific businesses that you’re interested in working for:

  • Visit shops – the specific retailer and their competitors.
  • If you aren’t a customer of particular retail brands talk to others who are (friends, family etc).
  • Visit different formats of retailers’ shops, for example out of town and convenience stores.
  • ‘Google’ them – research online to look at retailers’ websites, corporate pages and what is in the news about them.
  • The annual report and accounts is a fantastic source of information, not just on the numbers but on the business itself, and will often give useful information about customers, business model, consumer markets and recent significant activity – which will be great background and show that you are interested in the business.

Any ‘insider’ tips for graduates looking to secure finance roles or internships?

Try to get as much work experience as possible. It doesn’t have to be office based – look for opportunities to develop skills which will be transferrable to the corporate environment, such as team leadership, decision-making and dealing with customers.

Think about people you know that can help with work experience or approach companies which offer work experience direct. It’s vital you are clear why you want a finance role (this is true for any area of the business) so that the recruiter can see that you’ve thought about your career choices. It’s not sufficient to say ‘I like working with numbers’!

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