A financial accountant prepares financial documents and accounts for clients or his or her employer.
An accountant’s main role is to prepare business accounts, either to be reviewed externally, or for internal use by the client itself. Accountancy has an important function in all industries, covering both the public and private sectors. Accounts give an overview of an organisation’s financial status, which is essential for forward planning. Accountancy also plays a fundamental role in ensuring that organisations of any size and nature are being run in a transparent way and identifies financial irregularities.
Accountancy is an extremely varied field and the needs of a client or employer can differ vastly. As a result, many accountants specialise in a particular area. Some work for accountancy firms, offering a range of services to clients, which could include external auditing (independent assessment of an organisation’s finances and accounting system), corporate finance, corporate recovery (advising failing businesses), forensic accounting (fraud investigation), taxation and general financial advice. This is often known as ‘private practice’. Others work in-house for a company or public-sector organisation, dealing with the day-to-day financial needs of their employer, including payroll, book-keeping, preparing financial statements and management accounting functions such as budgeting and forward planning. Employers could include local government, solicitor’s practices, property or finance companies.
Most accountants are based in their employer’s office, although those specialising in external auditing spend a large proportion of their time on site with a client. In some cases, this could mean travelling all over the country or even abroad. Typical working hours run from Monday to Friday, 9am to 5.30pm, but these can increase in the run up to the end of the financial year, or when an external auditor has a deadline looming. There are opportunities to work part-time, particularly in smaller businesses with fewer accounting needs. The traditional image of an accountant being a dull man in a suit has diminished as more women are joining this diverse, growing industry which can offer flexibility and a good work/life balance.
Most organisations have fully computerised records, so access to a computer is essential for accountancy work. It is possible to use simple spreadsheet software for basic accounting, but there are a number of ready-made accountancy software packages which can handle more complex accounting needs. Popular accounting software brands include Sage, Access, MYOB, Pegasus, Quicken and Tas.
Salary varies depending on qualification and experience, as well as the type of work involved and the employer. Typically, a trainee earns around £20,000 pa – more at one of the bigger accountancy firms. A newly qualified accountant can expect to earn £35-40,000. Senior accountants, consultants and specialists can earn up to £100,000.
The responsibilities of a financial accountant depend on the specific role they are performing and the needs of their client or employer. They could include:
- Tracking company income and expenditure
- Running payroll
- Calculating tax owed and filing tax returns
- Preparing monthly and year-end accounts
- Conducting audits
- Identifying financial risks or irregularities
- Conducting investigations into losses or suspected fraud
- Giving advice on budgeting and increasing profits
- Helping insolvent businesses
Qualifications and Experience
Most services offered by accountants are not regulated in the UK, so although qualifications are often desirable, they are not strictly necessary. It is possible to pick up accountancy skills on the job, and many small companies or individuals, who are unable to pay the fees of a qualified accountant, are willing to hire someone who is not qualified but has experience. However, if an accountant wants to sign off accounts, he or she will need a recognised qualification in accountancy. If working in the areas of external auditing, insolvency or investment business, he or she will need to gain relevant qualifications in those areas.
There are six professional bodies in the UK that award qualifications in financial accountancy:
- Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA)
- Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales (ICAEW)
- Institute of Chartered Accountants in Scotland (ICAS)
- Institute of Chartered Accountants in Ireland (ICAI)
- Association of International Accountants (AIA)
- Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy (CIPFA)
ACCA, ICAEW, ICAS, ICAI and AIA regulate accountants working in the private sector. Qualification with CIPFA is preferable for those wishing to enter the public sector.
To qualify and become a member of any of these institutions an applicant must pass a number of exams and complete a minimum of three (sometimes more) years’ work experience. To study for membership of ICAEW, ICAS or ICAI, an applicant must be sponsored by a participating employer. Many accountancy firms and public-sector bodies offer training schemes so that an applicant can study for the exams and complete the necessary work experience at the same time. In these cases, the employer will usually pay the exam fees on behalf of the trainee.
The entry requirements for most courses are the same as that for university, for example 2 A-levels and GCSEs in English and Maths. A university degree is not necessary to become a qualified accountant, but many employers prefer graduates, and certain degrees in business or accountancy, can offer exemptions from some of the professional examinations. Candidates who do not meet the entry requirements but have relevant work experience may also be accepted.
Membership of the Chartered Institute of Management Accountants (CIMA) offers another route into accountancy for those who want to work in-house. However, CIMA is not a recognised qualifying body and CIMA qualification on its own is not usually accepted by accountancy firms as it does not allow an accountant to work in external auditing, insolvency or investment business.
The skills and abilities needed to become a good financial accountant include:
- An excellent understanding of accounting principles
- Good analytical skills and an eye for detail
- Good organisational skills
- Commitment and self-motivation
- The ability to work alone or as part of a team
- Financial and business acumen
- High standards of professionalism and ethics
- Good communication and interpersonal skills
There are several organisations that employ qualified financial accountants in large numbers. Within the private sector, the largest employers of accountants are accountancy firms, many of which operate at a global level and offer training schemes for prospective accountants. These include the ‘big four’:
- PricewaterhouseCoopers, which has over 40 offices in the UK.
- Deloitte, which was ranked 2nd in the Times Top 100 Graduate Employers in 2006.
- Ernst & Young, a global accountancy firm with 130,000 employees.
- KPMG, which has over 10,000 partners in the UK alone.
Accountants start off as trainees. It takes a minimum of three years to qualify. Some accountants begin their careers as accounting technicians or accounts assistants before qualifying. Once an accountant is qualified, his or her career can progress in many different ways. Accountants working in private practice start off as a junior team member and can progress to team leadership roles. An in-house accountant with several years experience can, depending on the size of the department they work in, take on roles such as financial controller, finance manager, chief accountant, financial analyst, financial consultant or management accountant. Accountants can also choose to specialise in specific areas, such as taxation, audit or corporate risk.
There are also opportunities to become self-employed, working for clients on a freelance basis, become a partner in an accountancy firm or start up a firm of one’s own.
Also known as…
- Private Practice Accountant
- Chartered Accountant
What’s it really like?
Belinder Kahai is a financial controller for Alexander Samuel, a solicitor’s practice.
She qualified as an Associate Chartered Accountant (ACA) 7 years ago.
“I did a degree in Economics and Geography and was planning to become a geography teacher. However, after I graduated, I spent some time temping in an accountancy firm and that really opened my eyes to the field of accountancy. One of the firm’s graduates dropped out of the training programme at the last minute and they offered it to me. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time.
When I first qualified, I worked as an auditor in a large accountancy firm. I was constantly on the move, visiting clients all over the country. I even spent 3 months in Gibraltar, all expenses paid. After I had my second child, I became an in-house accountant for a law firm. I only have one client now, but my work is much more varied as I am responsible for everything from payroll to VAT returns. A big part of my current role is trouble-shooting. The responsibility is greater, but so is the independence.
The one piece of advice I would give to anyone considering a career in financial accountancy is to be prepared to work hard and never give up. The training (to become an ACA) is very rigorous and you need to be able to juggle work and study. Not that many people pass the exams first time round. However, it is definitely worth doing. As a qualified accountant, the type of work available to you is very diverse. The training gives you a broad base and once you have the experience you can take on wider-ranging roles
I’ve carved out a niche as a solicitor’s accountant and I’m very happy where I am for the time being.”