How this South African Chartered Accountant became a Partner at Big Accounting Firm in Australia

  • How should I become a Partner at a big Accounting firm, what does it take to become a partner, how long should I stay in one firm etc. 
  • Today I want to introduce you to - Fiona Hansen who shares with us her journey from working at Deloitte for almost 16 years to becoming a partner at an Accounting firm. 
  • Fiona is a qualified Chartered Accountant from SAICA (The Institute of Chartered Accountants of South Africa) and has worked in different countries, in different profiles ranging from Audit to Corporate Finance to M&A.
  • Presently, Fiona is a Senior Managing Director (Valuation Advisory team) at FTI Consulting, Melbourne.

How I Pursued my Career as a Chartered Accountant

I enjoyed maths and accounting so pursuing Bachelor in Commerce was the most logical choice of study for me. I enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand (in South Africa) to pursue without knowing what I wanted to do after graduation.

While choosing my subjects for, my selection of subjects was quite broad. Thus, giving me the option to change the direction of my studies if at all I wanted to! I would recommend others have a broader selection of subjects unless you are 100% sure of what you want.

I suppose one thing led to another and I wanted to finish what I started studying so I continued pursuing a Bachelor in Accounting Science (Honours) and later pursuing Chartered Accounting seemed to be the most logical. That’s how, after graduating I enrolled for the CA course from SAICA (The South African Institute of Chartered Accountants).

So, you can say becoming a Chartered Accountant was not planned from the outset.

Also while studying, I worked for 2 years at Deloitte during my university holidays. So, I guess being around Chartered Accountants and watching them was an influencing factor in my career choice. I would definitely say that doing an internship while still studying is highly recommended, and almost certainly helps in securing a graduate position.

After graduating, I had applied for a graduate position to both Deloitte and Arthur Anderson (at the time). I received an offer from both of them. However, I went ahead with Deloitte, Johannesburg.

After qualifying as a CA, I continued working at Deloitte, Johannesburg in the audit team which took me to different cities and countries. I was fortunate that my work and qualification gave me the mobility to travel overseas and work at Deloitte in cities where my husband’s job transferred him.

After a number of transfers to various cities internationally, we (my husband and I) were fortunate enough to be transferred to Melbourne where I joined Deloitte, Melbourne. 

Moving to Australia and Starting a Career in Mergers and Acquisitions 

When I was at Deloitte in Johannesburg we were all generalists in corporate finance and did a bit of everything - financial due diligence, lead advisory, valuations and M&A. To my surprise, when I came to Melbourne, each discipline in corporate finance was separate, so I had to select one.

I decided on M&A. I chose M&A because I had experienced some successes in a few M&A transactions that I really enjoyed.

Having a Mentor and Dealing with 'Human Complexities'

The journey is not easy and it is often made more difficult not because of the job or its complexities – but the personalities of your colleagues, bosses or other associates.

Most people who are career-driven, especially those who are obsessively ambitious don’t like to be ‘shown up’ or challenged.

Because you may have to take a step down from the position that you would ordinarily have accepted in your home country, you may find yourself ‘overqualified’, which may pose a threat to your manager. If this occurs the situation could become politically complex.

At times, a lot of decisions are often made by staff in consideration of personal perspectives that are not necessarily the perspectives of the organization.

It is advisable to seek out any experienced staff members in the organization (who may not necessarily be more senior) who can be your mentor or sponsors to help guide you through the ‘human’ complexities.

How to select your mentor? There is no right or wrong way in selecting a mentor. I suggest selecting a mentor on the following basis:

  • Identify the person: Identify someone (not necessarily in your line of work) that you admire – this could be their qualities, values, success or anything else that you want to achieve.
  • Know what you want from a Mentor: Work out what you want from the mentor and have an idea of how they can help.
  • Approach and share thoughts: Approach the person and ask them whether they would be happy to be your mentor – share your thoughts, and what you want from the relationship and you see how they can help you.
  • The mentor relationship and meetings (schedule and agenda) should be driven by you.

Questions I get asked the most.

"What does it take to be a good M&A Advisor?"

M&A is the top of the tree in corporate finance. It takes many years of experience, knowledge of corporations and great networks to become a good M&A advisor. To be good, it is worth spending some time honing disciplines such as:

  • Accounting
  • Finance
  • Financial due diligence
  • Valuations.

Without a solid understanding of these, you could land up being an overrated business broker! The firm’s leadership team (especially finance) will continually exert pressure as to ‘when will deal XYZ complete and we get our $XX million success fee?’ So it also takes a lot of stamina to pursue a career in M&A, as most deals do not complete – which can be frustrating.

Also, there is a big difference in M&A at an accounting firm compared to M&A at an investment bank. It is best to decide early which would you prefer. At an Investment Bank, the hours are long and demanding – but the salaries and bonuses are great. It all depends on how much work-life balance you are seeking.

To be a leader in M&A, you need reliable networks with:

  • Lawyers
  • Accountants
  • C-suite
  • Board members
  • Have a good knowledge of the corporate landscape.

"Crucial Factors to Reach a Partnership Level Position in an Accountancy Firm?"

1. Longevity. In my opinion, longevity in one firm does a lot for one’s career. I was at Deloitte for almost 12 years before I moved to another firm. In hindsight, I believe that I left Deloitte prematurely. I  was ‘headhunted’ to another accounting firm and the opportunity looked promising.

Don’t underestimate the time and energy required to re-establish yourself at a new firm. Despite anything, staying at one firm can be just as or even more rewarding than moving to another role for career progression, even if there are issues at your current firm. You will most often overcome the issues.

2. Patience and tenacity. Becoming a Partner at an accounting firm is not without its additional challenges and stresses. If this is really what you are aiming for, I would also suggest patience and tenacity.

Things will get tough, there will be roadblocks. If I had my time again, I would definitely suggest “toughing it out” at a current firm. I believe in the saying “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” so be tough and ride out the hard stuff.

Sometimes promotion to partner is worth waiting for and until life is less stressful (ie children are older and can look after themselves a bit more – ie later into primary school / high school).

3. Business sense. Having a strong “business sense” is important for becoming a partner at an accounting firm. Firms look at the billing benchmarks that a partner is expected to achieve and evaluate whether the potential partner is able to deliver a certain level of revenue and profitability. So, having an entrepreneurial acumen will be of great help. 

4. Cultural exposure is vital in global multi-national corporations like international accounting firms. Overseas exposure plays a key role as well.

5. Technical expertise and Ethics are very important and to a large extent, a given. Along with it a strong sense of integrity and ethics. It is perhaps the most important principle of leadership.

6. Be Tech-Savvy. In today’s digital age, you have to be tech-savvy and be aware of the potential tech-related risks. Apart from the above – good communication, leadership, networking and interpersonal skills are very important as you will have to manage teams.

To sum it up, the following will increase your prospects of becoming a partner at an accounting firm: Good Communication Skills, Leadership skills, Interpersonal Skills, Client Management skills, Great Attitude and Have a mentor

"What is the importance of networking for Chartered Accountants?"

Networking is very important as it is the source for leads and work. A variety in the network is important to ensure diversity of support such as lawyers, accounting firms, banks, and corporates. You never know where work will come from or where you will need guidance or support.

Your network is also a good source for information and keeping up to date with developments in the industry. There are many opportunities to network such as utilising LinkedIn and free seminars hosted by legal and accounting firms. Apply for inclusion on their mailing lists for invitations.

Every professional body such as AICPA, CAANZ, ICAI or SAICA in most of the cities in Australia has networking events (refer to their websites for details).

Also, keep the contact details of all parties involved in engagements/matters you are working on and keep in contact with them.

Do not forget your ex-colleagues - keep in contact with them as well.

"Could moving to a smaller firm help if you want to advance your career progression?"

My recommendation is that this is a one-way street. If your decision is to join a smaller firm, it may be very hard, thereafter to join a bigger firm (although not impossible). It is important to understand what is on offer at a smaller firm compared to a big firm. Two big distinguishing factors are:

  • Training: There is less available at a smaller firm
  • Brand Goodwill: It is much easier to win work with a recognized firm’s brand compared to in a smaller firm, with a lesser-known brand, and where work is generally won through personal relationships (mostly) and it not as easy to win work.

"My role as a partner of an Accounting firm?"

Overall, my role was to generate revenue, deliver work and have regard to the risk policies. There are, however, a few perks such as:

  • Selecting and hiring new staff
  • Attending ‘fancy’ business development functions, although it may become tiring after several years
  • Being part of the leadership decision-making process

However, some days, I don’t feel any different to any other staff member because, no matter what staff level, there are always – Engagements to work on, reports to draft or review, billing to take care of, timesheets to complete, etc.

What is different is that partners are responsible for sourcing the chargeable work for the staff and to keep them busy. I love this challenge – but sometimes it is not so good when the workflow is slow. This is the time to focus on business development activities and work on your business.

When there is not sufficient chargeable work to keep staff 100% utilised, partners are responsible to find business development or professional development activities to keep staff occupied.

I don’t think that there are partners in the 21st century that ‘do nothing’ and get paid heaps. Those days are no longer.

Partners in accounting firms carry a fair level of responsibility for the success of the overall business and are answerable when things don’t go according to plan.

I really like to contribute and feel that I can make a difference in the careers of my staff and help them succeed.

I believe that if I can do this, they will, in turn, make my life easier as they will be able to deliver quality work without too much rework after a review and they will also be able to source and generate chargeable work.

"What Does The Daily Work Life Of A Senior Accountancy Professional Look Like?"

  • Wake up at 6 am and go for a run, then have breakfast and shower, etc.
  • Arrive at work at about 7.30 am. Work hours are from 9 am to 5.30 pm. I enjoy the extra  1 ½ hours before the rest of the staff arrive. It gives me the opportunity, without interruptions, to clear emails, sort out other admin and review reports.
  • I try to leave the office early-ish – 5.30 pm – 6.30 pm so my husband and I can prepare dinner together and join the family for dinner.
  • After dinner, I usually log on to my PC and work for 1 -3 hours.

Yes, it does involve a lot of effort to achieve what you want, but that is what it takes.

"How Do I maintain Work-life balance?"

Being a Chartered Accountant the job doesn’t end at the office. There are many days where you will have to work from home. Understanding and accepting this fact is the first step to finding balance.

My job is part of me and I can be working anytime day or night. But I do ensure that when matters and clients have been taken care of, I turn off the phone and laptop. And I make time for my family.

Clients generally respect your time if you advise them that you are going on a family holiday or have a school event and they won’t purposely disturb you.

I like working from home – for various reasons, it sets a good example for my children and colleagues. My children often sit next to me and complete their homework. They have become very diligent.  And I think partly because I demonstrated that I am diligent about my work. There weren’t many mums when my children were young. I was one of the few that I can remember.

At one particular firm, there was one male partner who worked Mon – Thur and another who regularly attended his children’s school assemblies and other activities, etc. This set a great example for the young staff.

The firm hosted a Christmas party for the children of staff and the firm was admired for its commitment to its staff.

I believe work-life balance starts at home.  

I strongly believe that both partners need to support each other in their careers and taking care of their children. Both partners may need to make sacrifices and both should have the same level of responsibilities for caring for their children.

For a working professional, the challenges are many. Just to name a few:

  • When the children are sick during the day if they attend day-care they will be required to be collected
  • School holidays and having to find daily activities for them
  • Having meetings scheduled around or after 5 pm that is the time close to the children’s pick up time from daycare (as day-care centres in Australia charge high penalty rates for late pick up)

"How can Accountants from South Africa move to Australia?"

Australian employers generally require Australian experience. Therefore, the easier option is to secure a position at an accounting firm with international offices. Another option is to seek contract positions in order to build and demonstrate the requisite Australian experience.

In short, when commencing your career in Australia, it is suggested that you accept whatever offer (within reason) you can to build your Australian experience. There have been a huge number of ex-South Africans who have had successful careers in Australia.

If one of them can be used as an advocate for you to secure a position, don’t be hesitant in reaching out. They generally will be willing to assist because they were in the same position starting out in a new country, at some stage.

Need Some Guidance?

Take the opportunity to ask Fiona all your questions by commenting below. ASK NOW. 

You can follow Fiona on LinkedIn at - Fiona Hansen.

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