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Accountancy MONTH Michael J Walls

27 Apr 2021

Michael J Walls is Head of Finance with AndOpen and is in conversation with Jean O’Donovan Director of the Brightwater Group.

JOD: I’m here today with Michael J Walls who is Head of Finance with AndOpen, a Dublin based tech start up. Michael is a chartered accountant with over 10 years’ PQE and is going to talk to us today about his career and life as an accountant in general. So, Michael, thank you very much for joining us today. We appreciate it.

MJW: No problem, thanks for having me. Hopefully I’ll have some useful insights.

JOD: I’m sure you will. Firstly starting off, you trained with KPMG. What prompted you to get into accountancy in the first place?  What first prompted a career in accountancy?  

MJW:  Well, I suppose, going right back to the start. I actually grew up on a farm, Jean and when I was growing up, I either wanted to be an accountant or a vet. I was good at maths and I was good at science. The deciding moment for me was either twelve or thirteen and one of my dad’s cows was giving birth and had to have a Caesarean so I had to watch the vet perform that and decided pretty quickly accountancy was for me, there was less blood involved. So that was pretty much it, I did GCSEs in accounting, I did A Levels in accounting and I went on to University of Ulster where, you guessed it, I studied Accountancy. While I was there, I actually didn’t pass my final year, coming to terms with a lot of stuff, being out on my own for the first time so I had to go off, negotiate with the course director and I got to finish my degree on a part-time basis over two years. I knew I really wanted it and I was working part-time in the finance department of a company in Belfast called Phoenix Gas which was an amazing experience. I was actually going to go down a different professional accountancy route while I was there but happened to be on the KPMG website one night and came across a role in a newly created department called “Business Advisory Services”. So I thought “you know what, I’ll stick in my CV and see what comes out of it” and next thing you know, I was in for an interview, had to do a presentation in front of the partner, and then got the job. So I was over the moon. All I had to do was get my 2:1 which I did and then I went into my training contract where I was one of 26 in the Belfast office that year. It was an amazing experience to get in.

JOD: Absolutely, I can only imagine, especially training with the Big 4 etc, always a good thing.

MJW: Exactly, but even before that, I was always interested in accountancy. I’d do my dad’s VAT returns. He’d actually ship me off to other people to do their VAT returns for them so I was using Excel, had to learn to do that. I also had a part-time job when I was younger in the local livestock market so I was getting to mix both farming and accountancy. I think accountancy was less likely to get my hands dirty. So that’s the story of how I got interested in accounting and while I was in KPMG, because it was a new department, I was kind of a “Jack of all trades”. I wasn’t sure whether everybody wanted me or nobody wanted me. I got to work on economic appraisals, I got to work on audits and I got to work on IT audits. I remember doing a business continuity review for this public sector organisation and I was thinking “what the hell am I going out to do” but it was great because it wasn’t just about numbers.

JOD: The writing, exactly. You got to look at it all.

MJW:  It was about looking at a process, understanding it and it was a great learning curve for me. Then towards the end of my experience and my training contract, the recession had hit, Jean, as you’re probably well aware. There was a lot of restructuring work so I did the final year of my training contract in our restructuring department which was phenomenal experience to get as well.  Hopefully I never have to go back to it.

JOD: So, Michael, you have over 10 years’ experience, post qualified experience, I should say. You’ve had a number of different roles with some really interesting organisations. You’ve also co-founded some companies. How important do you think it is to get exposure to different industries and different systems initially in your career as an accountant?

MJW: I suppose, if I was to give anyone any advice, it’s that you never know it all. Once you get your qualification and you get your ACA designation, it’s only really the start of your learning journey. That’s probably something I didn’t realise until the last 3 or 4 years. Once you have it, the world is your oyster. You can go into any sector and your qualification is relevant to help out. I remember after I qualified, I went to EY in Dublin. I moved to Dublin from Belfast and I was there for 2 ½ years. I really wanted to get back out into industry. I enjoyed my experience in Phoenix Gas in Belfast so it was a “Wanted to do”. I was applying for jobs in a lot of multinationals. I just had the mindset that I needed to go into a multinational, I wanted to go into a big corporation so I could learn from them. The turning point for me was that I met with Karin Lanigan in the Institute who you’re probably aware of, Jean, she runs the careers section in there. I got the best piece of advice from her. She looked at my experience, asked me where I wanted to be and I said that I’d love to be an FC one day or an FD. That’s kind of my goal. She said that I’d be limiting myself going into a multinational because if you do, you’re going to be pigeonholed into fixed assets…….

JOD: One specific area

MJWYes, or FP&A. So if you take a look at a small to medium sized entity, you’re going to get to do a little bit of everything. That was probably the best experience I got because that then led me, it widened my scope first of all.

JOD: Of course.

MJW: Then I found a role in OpenHydro as a Financial Accountant. I got to do a little bit of everything. I was doing R&D tax credits, I was doing system implementations, finance improvements, year ends, consolidations, you name it, what goes on in a large multinational, I was getting a bit of experience along the way.  So after a while, the opportunity came along to go and work in Google on a contract role, I thought “you know what, I’ve had a phenomenal experience in OpenHydro, there’s no more opportunities to grow, I may as well go now and see how this works in a large organisation”. It was a contract role, a 50% backfill off a girl who was working on a systems implementation. So I was going to be working with her on that which meant I got to interact with all of the parts of the finance department in Google. Also a 50% backfill of her role was looking at the US GAAP reporting side of things, and how that reporting process works each month and each quarter end was phenomenal as well. I still, when I’m doing stuff, I refer back to “how did we do it in Google?” because it is, how they report on hundreds of entities around the world every month, quarter end and year end, was highly efficient. There were great processes there.

JOD: You got your multinational exposure which was good.

MJW: I did, yes. When that contract came to an end, I kind of hmmed and hawed about moving to London and getting a role over there. I had an interview lined up with Disney, I would have been a Production Accountant so I would have got a credit on the movies so I was all excited about that. Then an opportunity came to join a start-up in Dublin 8.53. I remember talking to the recruiter at the time and thinking “what are these guys doing?.They’re giving away free lights and charging a fee for it, this just sounds really risky”. So I was going to go to the interview and tell them what they’re doing wrong. But when I met them, I was just blown away by what they were doing. Any kind of risk that I could think of, they had an answer for and I came out of the interview thinking “I really want this role”.

That was the start of UrbanVolt, they didn’t have an accountant at the time. All they had was some investment, was involved. So I thought being the sixth employee at the beginning would be a phenomenal experience. Before I took the role, Jean, I spoke to a number of other colleagues and one of my chartered accountant friends said to me, “Sure you’ve never set up a finance department, how can you go in and do that role?” Really dismissive and I thought “Who has?”  There’s probably very few accountants who have had that opportunity so why not? I have an excellent qualification, I have experience working in a small company and in a large multinational and I have a phenomenal network so I thought “I’m going to do it” and I did! I jumped in, rolled my sleeves up, I was doing debits and credits at the start, happy out, setting up processes. We secured fundraising in the first six months I was there so that got me a promotion to Finance Director, and it meant that I could expand the team. It was just great to get in there, learn from the three co-founders. One of them had a phenomenal corporate finance background, Kevin Maughan, CEO. I just lapped up everything he taught me about corporate finance, it still sticks to me at the moment in my current role. I was there about 2 ½ years and when you work closely with entrepreneurs, you think of this idea for your own little business maybe and you want to go and figure it out. I’m working with cloud technology, not many people are doing it, we all are now!

JOD: yes, absolutely.

MJW: So I thought that maybe there’s the opportunity to do what I did for UrbanVolt for small businesses. I spoke to my CEO and decided that I’d wind down my time there, I had trained up the current FD, Aidan, he’s fantastic and then stepped aside and let them carry on. They’re doing great at the minute. So I decided to set up Dappr which was particularly to set up small businesses, to help them utilise cloud based technology and use automations. While I was there, I knew I still had to work and pay bills so I took a contract role with Cartrawler out in Dundrum, initially just helping out with FP&A but that went a lot further when they saw what I could do. I ended up being there for 2 ½ years so it was a great experience to be there as well. I made a lot of great contacts that I’m still in touch with today.

JOD: It’s a great variety, Michael, with the bandwidth of the companies, a lot on the tech side, you’ve gone from small to medium which just shows what you can do with the qualification.

MJW: Exactly. You can go into any industry. I found my niche and what works for me. I love dealing with energy and start-ups and stuff that I’m passionate about. Other people might be different, that might not be for them. You can sample, you can try. I could go into banking, whatever.

JOD: Exactly, it’s very versatile.

JOD: Bringing me on to my next question. You moved jobs in October 2020 which was obviously at the height of the pandemic. So I’m very interested to hear what prompted that and how you found the whole process, on-boarding remotely, interviewing remotely, etc.  How did you find the whole process of interviewing and on-boarding remotely?

 MJW: Obviously the pandemic hit this time last year. I was still on a self-employed basis obviously with Dappr. It was just like, there’s no opportunity now for me to grow this business. I’d lost the love for it per se, small businesses don’t have the same appetite to learn, to create automations that other large businesses would have. There was a very steep learning curve there and a lot of investment in both my time and money that I just didn’t have. So I decided that now was the time to wind it up and go back into full time employment. I started looking, got my CV to the founders of AndOpen and next thing you know I had an interview and two weeks later I had a job.

MJW: It was pretty intense. It was weird doing interviews at the beginning over Zoom. However I did hire Aidan in UrbanVolt over Zoom, he was still in Canada at the time so I was used to it.  The whole on-boarding process - I received my laptop in the mail, getting set up. Having done that digitally onboarding with UrbanVolt, I was used to it, I was familiar with it so I was fine. It’s still a little alien because I’ve never actually met any of the people I work with it to this day, and it’s six months now.

JOD: No-one at all?

MJW: All I’ve seen of them is Zoom meetings on a screen. It’s definitely weird and I for one will be looking forward to a point where I can return to an office, maybe 2 – 3 days a week.

JOD: I think it’s about getting that mixture but it’s great to hear how it went so smoothly and how easy it is for candidates who are looking to move in a pandemic to do so.

MJW: Yes, the one thing I will say is that I was winding down my time at CarTrawler and being able to just block out an hour on your calendar and not have to go somewhere to do an interview is phenomenal. I remember when I was leaving EY, having to lie and say I had a doctor’s appointment or something like that to get out and go for an interview whereas now you can literally block an hour out of your calendar, be unavailable and go for that interview.

JOD: The process is smoother.

MJW: Obviously as an employer, you don’t want them to be doing that but if the learning capabilities and opportunities are out there for them, then they should be exploring opportunities.

JOD: Absolutely, I do think that it shows how the whole recruitment market flipped and adapted in the last twelve months which is great. It’s been very successful.

­JOD:  Michael, you have been the One Young World ambassador since 2018. Can you tell me what that entails?  What does being a One Young World Ambassador mean?

MJW:  I won a competition called Young Chartered Star in 2018. It’s because of that, Jean, that I got the opportunity to go to the One Young World Conference which was held in The Hague in 2018. So what is One Young World? It is a youth leadership conference that is held every year. It’s attended by over 1900 delegates from over 190 different countries. It’s not just accountants, loads of people from social entrepreneurship to people who have set up their own businesses, to people working in large multinationals, it’s just a phenomenal collective of people to meet. At the conference, it’s all focused around the UN sustainable development goals and how we can work together to achieve those goals. Whilst I was there, we got to hear from the likes of President Mary Robinson, Sir Bob Geldof, Gordon Brown was there speaking. There were loads of top tier phenomenal speakers, you just wouldn’t get the opportunity to hear directly from in any other type of conference.  But not just that, I had the opportunity as I was the representative of Chartered Accountants Ireland with the Chartered Accountants Worldwide Network (I didn’t even know there was such a network until I was selected to go to this). I’m still in contact with the other members that went to that conference in 2018, we had members from New Zealand, from Australia, South Africa, Zambia, I would still be in regular contact. That was a phenomenal experience and once you go to the conference, you’re a delegate and after the conference is over, you become an ambassador for One Young World.  That just means promoting the One Young World brand and working with them on various initiatives.

I’ve taken it one step further with Sinead Fox Hamilton who I’m sure you know. She was the Young Chartered Star in 2017 and I also trained with her in KPMG. We’re really good friends (I can’t shake her, for love nor money) so we have been working with Chartered Accountants Worldwide and One Young World on rolling out an initiative called FinBiz2030. What that stands for, Jean, is Finance in Business 2030. It’s a movement to empower young leaders in the finance and business community to take action on the UND SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals) . Initially it was set up in the UK, then it was rolled out in South Africa. We were planning an event in Dublin but that got put on ice due to the pandemic so last September we decided to take the opportunity to do a webinar as part of the FinBiz2030 Resilience Series in Dublin and Sinead and I hosted that. It was around diversity, equity and inclusion and we had phenomenal speakers and it was attended by 6000 people around the globe.

JOD: That’s amazing.

MJW: And it was live so it was quite nerve-wracking but when are you going to get the experience to do that so we just jumped on board. Following on from that, we set up a taskforce. On the island of Ireland, we have 40 members of the taskforce now across the island in both finance, chartered accountants and business people that have come on board and there are four workstreams that we are working on to target as well. It’s a great network to be involved in, it’s going to be really impactful and that’s something I definitely love to be involved in.

JOD: It sounds incredibly interesting and it sounds like the contacts you make will be phenomenal in society. How do you get the time to do it all?

MJW:  That’s a great question. Just don’t sleep, Jean.

JOD: I know, I was just about to say, I don’t know how you get the time to do it all.

JOD: That brings me onto my next question and this is where we first met. You have been heavily involved, (not so much now but back in the day) in the Young Professionals, heavily involved with the committee where Brightwater was the recruitment partner at the time. Tell me, why did you first get involved with the Young Professionals and would you recommend in general for professionals to get involved with their professional body?

MJW: Well, when I first moved to Dublin, I didn’t really know anybody so I thought I’d go along to this thing and meet a few members. I ended up being on the committee. I remember a girl Ruth who invited me onto the committee and I thought “yep, I’m in”. Next thing you know, two years later, I was chair of it and got to host a lot of phenomenal events. I don’t know if you got to be involved with the Business Leaders Corner.

JOD: Yes, we went to a good few of them, they were really good.

MJW: They’ve a fantastic committee, they’ve kind of expanded on that and they’re doing more exciting events. We had a template that we stuck to and nowadays they’re reshaping that which is great. But from my own perspective, the power of a network is really important.

JOD: Yes, 100%

 MJW: You to the power of one is not as good as you to the power of a network so when you have that network, you can tap into on a regular basis. Maybe not at the start of your career because you have colleagues you can go to and ask questions but when you do get to a position where you’re Head of Finance or you’re a Financial Controller or somewhere on your own, where you don’t have someone to ask a question, you can tap into your network and there’ll be someone who’s really good at tax or who knows a solicitor or has the experience of doing something you’re going through or will know who to connect in with. I would always encourage anyone, no matter what organisation you’re part of, to get involved with your networks because you don’t know when you will need that person or someone within that network to help you out.

JOD: I’d agree. We always found the events so beneficial and to see all the diversity with the qualification from all different backgrounds, you had people from financial services, industry, tech, SMEs, all able to collaborate which was fantastic.

MJW: The other thing I’d add there is the opportunities, job opportunities that come up from going  along. I have a network within a network that works for me as well. It’s not about you working for the network, the network has to work for you as well.

JOD: At this point, what would you say to a graduate considering a career in accounting? What advice would you give and to add on to that, what are the key skills an accountant would need nowadays because the role has evolved? What advice would you give a graduate considering an accountancy career and what are the key skills that accountants need?

MJW: Yes. That’s a great question. As I am looking to grow my own team, it’s something I’m pondering myself. The one thing I would say is that accountants need to be tech savvy. Shying away from systems and processes and cloud systems and new ways of doing things just isn’t going to cut it anymore. You need to jump in and you need to learn how to do it whether that be Excel, Google Sheets, using Gmail as a simple example. I think that’s the one good thing that has come from the pandemic, it’s forced us all to jump into it and embrace it and embrace new ways of working. I remember speaking at a conference for the Institute about a year and a half ago and telling them to embrace working from home. I can remember a lot of them giving me death stares for promoting this and now look at us. Everybody is working away, we’re all embracing these work skills.

That being said, the interpersonal skills are still really important, if not more so now. Being able to chat to someone on Zoom. I can’t wait to get back to the office, that’s probably where I’m at my best. I get more information about what’s going on in the business just by walking around and chatting to people. What else would I say? Being organised, in terms of managing expectations, which is something I had to learn the hard way. Accountants and solicitors; I’ve heard this analogy of comparing us to Labradors, Labradors will keep eating until they’re sick, accountants and solicitors just keep taking work. You need to be able to put your hands up and say “right, I’ve got enough on my plate, what do you want to drop here?”

JOD: Priorities

MJW: That’s something I’ve had to really master over the past few years otherwise you’re never going to get anything done. From a graduate perspective, accountants do need to be analytical so to be able to look at a set of numbers or a set of information and to be able to understand what that’s saying. It’s not always about numbers. Most of my day is dealing with contracts and reviewing commercials and understanding recruitment processes and stuff like that. Whilst the numbers are great to have and it’s a valuable part of our qualification, it is a business qualification so being able to apply that to other areas of the business is vitally important, depending on where people want to go. The one most important thing that I think accountants need to be able to do and that I would expect is to be inquisitive. I don’t want to just give people something to do and say “this is how you do it, off you go”. I want them to go “well, why am I doing it? Is this the best way to do it, what if we do X, Y, Z?” and constantly be challenging it, constantly challenging yourself because that’s the only way you’re going to get better. We’ll only get better as a profession because of it. That’s it.

JOD: Yes, I agree and even to bring you back to the inter-personal skills. We’re seeing that it’s so hugely important. The accountant is such a vital part of any organisation and they have to deal with so many different stakeholders and work with so many different parts of the business that I think that what you said is absolutely spot-on there.

MJW: Absolutely. I deal with so many engineers, solicitors, creative people, marketing. I love it. I go to my network and there’s loads of accountants but being in a business, you’re understanding what other people are doing and how you can help them. It’s really a nice way to work.

JOD: A very versatile qualification anyway. Michael, thank you so much, we really appreciate your time and your insights today.

MJW: No problem at all. Thank you for having me.