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Commercial Accountants: Demonstrating Their Worth

25 Oct 2013
Paul Buchan

Hang up your tweed suits, the world of accountancy is changing.

Accountants have traditionally been viewed as number crunchers that analyse and communicate historical financial data to their clients. A process driven role, accountants were regarded as the bookkeepers in a business, the sort of people who put blocks on marketing budgets and business investments to protect the bottom line.

Modern accountants think differently. Coupling their technical ability with commercial acumen, they are very much at the core of business activity, consulting and partnering with other key departments.

The Accountancy Evolution

But what prompted this change? Well six years ago, the world slipped into a global recession that meant businesses needed to be much more agile and reactive to changes in market conditions. This required a finance team that were much more proactive and able to make decisions quickly for a positive impact on the business.

In that time, there has also been a digital evolution. Finance professionals are now able to analyse and forecast mass amounts of information, enabling them to influence corporate decision making.

The New Accountant

Over a third of senior executives and board members in UK businesses are chartered/qualified accountants. Their commercial ability as well as ability to influence the bottom line makes finance professionals a natural fit to sit at board level.

This ‘new breed’ of accountant is capable of analysing the numbers, but they also possess a natural ability to think creatively on how a company can achieve its business goals and provide a tangible impact on the business.

Margins are important to management, so it’s no surprise that the demand for accountants with commercial knowledge is growing. Hiring managers are looking for an accountant who is going to be able to utilise qualitative and quantitative analysis and interact with the entire business, to make an informed decision about the future.

Commercial Aptitude

The accountant’s voice is now welcome at board meetings. Businesses are trying to get the best value from their finance team. Whilst professionals will still cover the fundamentals, such as sales activity and operational performance, it’s vital that those working in the industry develop their secondary skills; such as communication, presentation and feedback loops.

Putting financial information across in a concise manner can be more challenging than you would think. Management teams will look to the accountant to clarify industry concepts in a jargon free manner. Put yourself in the audience’s shoes; how can you engage them to understand the key points?

That said commercial accounts need to have a genuine interest in business and be ready to interact with all areas of the business. Sales professionals, marketers, logistics and HR teams will now be knocking on your door to get your take on a particular business decision; requiring a holistic overview of the organisation.

Changing Hiring Managers Perceptions

Getting a commercial accountancy role isn’t without its challenges.  The recruitment landscape for finance professionals is geared towards industry silos that are quite prohibitive in allowing people to migrate transferrable skills and business savvy.  For example, if you have spent your entire career in a financial services company in Edinburgh you will find it almost impossible to get an engineering business to take you seriously.  Why is that?

I recently recruited on behalf of a large multi-national manufacturing business who were looking for a professionally qualified accountant with 5 years post-qualifying experience and experience gained exclusively in manufacturing.

The brief was so prohibitive that I estimate that only 3% of market (maximum) had the skill-set they were asking for.  In effect the company were telling the market that 97% of qualified accountants are incapable of succeeding in their business.

I imagine that would come as a surprise to someone with a first class honours degree and a professional accountancy qualification to learn that their capabilities are limited to specific industries.  My own view is that people should be judged on their attitude, ability and mind-set over and above previous experience.

If a candidate is intelligent enough to attain a degree and a professional accountancy qualification then they are surely intelligent enough to learn about an industry or accounting package for that matter.  Most hiring managers forget that the most important factor in a hiring decision is the mind-set of the individual.  Do they share the same values?  Do they add value and go above and beyond the call of duty?  Do they strive for attainment and top class performance?  If the answer is yes to these questions then surely they are a better bet than someone who is the opposite but happens to have the right industry knowledge?

Get The Commercial Know-How

Commercial accountants are in demand. It doesn’t matter whether you are seeking out an opportunity in management or something more operationally focused; gaining commercial skills will widen the job market for you.

Differentiating and gaining these new commercial skills are best learned on the job. Whether you’re persuading the marketing team to split their advertising budget between online and offline mediums, or consulting with logistics on the most financially efficient method to transport stock; accountants are developing new skills to thrive in a profit orientated business.

To become the business leader of tomorrow, try some of these methods to develop your commercial aptitude:

  • Read the business news, either online or in printed publications. Reading the Financial Times and the Economist are good initial resources for market news.
  • A SWOT analysis is usually reserved for the marketing department; however try putting your own one together. List the internal strengths and weaknesses to the business, and the external opportunities and threats. This is a great way to analyse the overall market.
  • Network with others in your business. Find out who they are and what they do. The quickest way to broaden your commercial ability is to listen and observe from those around you. 
  • Undertake projects. Speak to your head of department and ask to work on a commercial project.
  • Get active on social media. Twitter isn’t just a haven for creative professionals. Start building your personal brand across the likes of Twitter and LinkedIn.

By developing your commercial skills, you will be in a position to really add value, get involved and become intrinsic with business process. As businesses diversify, a commercial and business savvy team will be required to drive the organisation forward.

Remember, if you need advice on getting ahead in your accountancy career, contact the Eden Scott Accountancy team or follow us on Twitter.


Paul Buchan
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