Accountancy MONTH Stephen Gahan
29 Apr 2021
Tom Wilkinson, Commercial Director of Brightwater is in conversation with Stephen Gahan of ODG Advisory Limited.
TW: good afternoon Stephen, how are you? How did your interest in accountancy initially start?
SG: I’m good Tom, how are you?
TW: Not bad, not bad at all. We’re here today to talk about careers in tax so I’ll just introduce you, Stephen. You’re the Principal and co-founder of ODG Advisory Services, based obviously in South Mall in Cork, number 52, we know it well. So welcome and thank you for your time. So we’re going to talk about your career, Stephen, from your days at EY through to setting up your own business now and then towards the 2nd half of our conversation, we’ll get your opinion on careers in taxation and anybody who might be thinking about a career in tax right now and to get your views on that. So a little bit of “This is your life” and some questions to go through so we’ll go through them as quickly as we possibly can. So if we can kick off on your career, your finance career kicked off with EY, would I be right in saying that?
SG: Yes, initially I started in a small practice in Waterford and I spent about 18 months to two years there kind of learning the ropes so to speak. I joined EY then and was with EY for about 8 years after that.
TW: Ok, and the decision then to do audit in the beginning, was there anything behind that in particular? Or your career in finance in general, what took you into accounting on day one?
SG: I suppose the area of accountancy first came onto my horizon in secondary school. That’s really where I started to learn about business in general. It was part of the Junior Cert curriculum. I think that one thing that kind of stood about for me that everything about business, everything that we were learning about business all really came back to numbers and profitability. That really pointed me from an interest perspective back to accountancy, how does this actually work, how do people look and view figures and numbers from a business perspective? I think there’s probably an element then as well at that level of learning, let’s say, when you’re doing profit & loss and balance sheets, that there’s a nice conclusion at the end when everything balances out nicely and neatly. But generally speaking, it was really around accountancy having that sort of influence on business generally. Everything in business comes back to numbers which to some extent holds true in real life so to speak.
TW: You joined EY in 2006, I think, would that be correct? What was the main benefit in taking professional accountancy exams?
SG: Yes, there or thereabouts.
TW: So your first exams then were the ACCA exams. You’re qualified in tax as well as we’ll move onto later. How did that go? How did taking exams go for anyone who may be interested in pursuing exams right now?
SG: Exams in general, I suppose, everyone, at the level they’re going to be at, has experienced some degree of what an exam is going to be like. The accountancy exams themselves are possibly no different. I would say the difficultly level is more enhanced, it’s slightly different to what people might have experienced in third level, in the sense that it becomes more specialised, it becomes more condensed on specific topics and there’s much more detail involved. The expectation is that once you pass these exams, with a small bit more further experience, you’re going to be left out into the big bad world so to speak as a qualified accountant and that in a general sense, carries some weight in the business community, that sort of tagline, that badge to say that you’re a qualified accountant be it Chartered, ACCA or CPA, whatever it is. If you’ve got that tag, there’s a general acceptance and understanding that you’re at a certain level in the business world and the business community so it does garner some respect from that perspective. But it also comes with that expectation with what you’re doing and how the accountancy world works. From that perspective, the accountancy exams themselves carry that extra degree of difficulty perhaps than what other people might be used to or have experience before.
TW: Then came your decision to pursue do tax and your tax exams. I think you did about 3 to 4 years in audit with EY and then you moved towards corporate services. How did the tax thing come about? Why did you choose to specialise in taxation?
SG: I suppose one of the things you find, and in particular when you work in the Big 4 for example, is that when you progress up the experience line in terms of audit, you get more exposure to senior management in large companies and you’re looking at the business in a slightly different light. You’re seeing things from their perspective and one of the things that cropped up again and again and again as part of your audit work is why is this happening, why are you doing that this way, why is that done in a particular way or why does this company exist? Invariably all the answers started coming back as “well that’s tax planning” or “it was the tax guys who advised us on this”. That really kind of sparked my interest in that, really tax is much more of a perspective looking tool, it’s very much used as part of business and commercial decision making when business people are looking forward. The audit side of things tends to be more retrospective looking; you’re taking a set of figures from the last year and almost sort of deconstructing them to test materiality. But from a tax advisory point of view, you’re very much at the forefront of decision making as part of the business. I think that’s really what sparked my initial interest in the tax advisory space and the importance with which tax is held in the general business sense and the decision making sense which is very true. I mean, tax touches every facet of people’s lives, whether you’re an employee, whether you’re a business, whether you’re a company, whether you’re a multinational or a small SME, tax has some implication on what you’re doing and how you’re doing it. From that point of view, tax can touch every aspect of business and life in general so that really is an interesting aspect that isn’t quite fully generally understood when people talk about tax.
TW: And I think having the tax qualification as well is really important if you want to be in tax and you want to develop your career in tax. It’s ok to be an accountant and have a knowledge of tax because you work in that environment but I think even reading the Institute of Taxation website here in Ireland, the emphasis on having the qualification opens the doors to moving into taxation on a fulltime basis or developing your career with real life experience.
SG: Absolutely, Tom. It might have been acceptable 25/30 years ago not to have a specific tax qualification but the tax world has evolved so much and is continuing to evolve that a specialist tax qualification in that area is really required now to deliver those tax services. I don’t know too many practitioners out there at the moment specialising in tax that don’t have a tax qualification. Again, it comes back to being able to put the Chartered Tax Advisor badge next to your name as that extra layer of comfort for a client but also from a business perspective from dealing with clients, carrying that badge with you gives you an extra weight in the market place when dealing with clients. It’s a necessary qualification, I would say, if you want to get into a career in tax full-time.
TW: Your decision to leave EY, (I think you were with EY for 8 years) and you had moved into international tax in your last two years there. I think you made a move out on your own for the next couple of years. Why did you decide to branch out on your own in tax advisory services?
SG: I moved to another small firm at that point before setting up ODG. The decision to move, is that the question?
TW: Yes, the decision to move and stick with tax – you’d seen audit, you’d seen corporate services and here you were working in international tax for EY and you continued with tax. You had a choice with your qualification.
SG: Yes, it was genuinely a consideration at that point in my career. I’d done, as you said, the audit side of things, I had done the corporate finance and the corporate services specialisation and worked in that area for a period of time and I’d also specialised in tax as well with the tax qualifications. So I think having that breadth of experience across the professional services advisory space, I couldn’t see myself doing anything other than tax to be quite honest with you. But within tax itself (and this is more prevalent in bigger / larger firms) where things were heading at that point in time is that in order to progress up the ladder, you’re looking at specialising in a particular area of tax. At that particular point in time, transfer pricing, profits shifting was huge on the agenda and was starting to become much more prevalent in a tax space.
You mentioned international tax, there was an awful lot of cross border stuff, very very topical stuff. I suppose there are specialisms in VAT, specialisms in income tax, employment taxes and really, across the board, to that requirement of specialising, “picking a horse” so to speak, prompted me to say “Is this what I want to do? Am I prepared to pick a horse for the rest of my career?” I probably wasn’t ready to do that, Tom, to be honest. I liked the general tax advisory role and being able to touch the various areas of taxation for businesses generally as opposed to specialising in one particular area. So from that perspective, it was probably the main part of the reason for moving to a smaller practice but specialising in tax advisory from that point of view. The decision then to set up ODG in terms of our own business, that was really borne out of that experience of working with that other small practice and specialising as a tax director, I suppose one might say we were essentially delivering the services almost as self employed anyway. In many respects we had our own client portfolio and dealing with and managing them on an ongoing basis. With my business partner Rory O’Doherty who was also working in the same firm with me at the same time, and who also worked with me in EY where that whole relationship developed, we just decided over coffee one day that we could chance doing it for ourselves as opposed to working for other people. It was only a thought at the initial stage but it was something that having had the experience of a Big 4 behind you and also the experience of smaller firms and the understanding of how the real world works, certainly the SME side of things, we felt that we could deliver those services ourselves. That’s really where ODG Advisory was borne out of.
TW: What are the main services that your firm delivers, Stephen? What would you do? Do you specialise in any particular area? What does your company, ODG Advisory do and as a small company, how do you build your client base?
SG: In terms of Irish taxation, there’s nothing in particular we specialise in. We cover the broad breadth of every aspect of Irish taxation. As you’ll appreciate, international tax becomes very difficult for a small firm like ODG Advisory based in Cork. From an Irish perspective, anything that happens domestically or inbound, we can typically deal with. That’s pretty much everything from succession planning to estate planning to employees dealing with share options to large corporates restructuring, buying and selling businesses and everything in between. Because tax touches all of those areas and facets, we can generally deal with those or be involved in those at some level. On the other side of the business then, it’s mainly dealing with corporate finance work such as fund-raising, transactions and management of funding and structuring around that. That’s not my specialism obviously, I’m more on the tax and structuring side of the house.
TW: A question that just came to mind, how does the customer (new customers) then approach you? Are they referred? Do they walk in off the South Mall (Cork)? How does that transaction typically happen with a new client?
SG: I’ll be honest, it’s rare enough that we’d get a walk in. The vast majority of our clients and new clients that we deal with are referred by our existing clients. We’ve done some good work for someone and it’s basically passed on via word of mouth. I should say an awful lot of our clients would be accounting firms and solicitor firms who don’t internally have a tax specialism and they’d refer specific work onto us. We would get an awful lot of clients from that perspective.
TW: How has the business been over the last 12 months? What’s it been like for you guys? How has the pandemic affected a small tax advisory services company?
SG: It’s been interesting and it’s been challenging but we’ve had an extremely busy 12 months. Like an awful lot of people in the professional services space, particularly those who have the capability of working remotely, I think that half the initial shock of the first lock-down, that 3-4 week period where everyone was adjusting and finding their feet to the new world, so to speak or the new normal as it’s being called, once that period had relaxed and calmed down a bit, I think businesses started to flow again. We would certainly have experienced a very busy 12 months as a result of that. What specifically was driving that, you could probably analyse to death but generally speaking, I think businesses have decided to continue and get on with things, not withstanding the restrictions that are there from a Covid perspective. People have found a way to just sort of move on and deal with it which is great.
TW: Yes, I appreciate that. We’re the same in recruitment. We did find a way to move very quickly to the “new way”. We’re very grateful for that especially in the last six months with the market coming back so strong. Other people haven’t been so fortunate.
TW: So then in terms of careers in tax, let’s say I’m 22 / 23, I’m thinking about a career in accounting or tax. I’m torn between the two. Obviously in terms of pitching for a career in tax, what’s the sell for yourselves to that individual about doing tax initially? What advice would you give to someone thinking of specialising in tax vs accounting?
SG: It’s difficult having been in both areas. I’m also a qualified accountant as well as being a qualified tax advisor so it’s difficult to pick one over the other and say which is better. It depends on what that individual is looking for from a career perspective. From a tax perspective and looking at a career in tax, and maybe from a personal perspective on my own career, the variety that a career in tax can provide you with is unparalleled in my view. Tax is stuck in so many areas of business and personal life, that there’s always work there for someone who is looking to provide tax advice or a career in tax. That’s from internal tax compliance to external advisory to general advisory, it really covers so much in the business world and provides so much opportunity long term for people if that’s what they want to do. Many people might start off being tax specialised and tax qualified but end up doing many more things with their career. From that point of view, I would say it’s hard to go wrong specialising in tax as a base from a career standpoint.
TW: Yes, certainly hard to find when you’re recruiting for them, I’m just going to say that now. I wish there were more tax professionals out there but it just seems to be the way of the market.
TW: Your own career path, you can go back to accounting after tax. If you choose tax now, you can complement it with accounting. But what about just pure tax all the way, tax consultant, tax manager, tax director, is that a straightforward path for people? Is a career in pure tax an option for someone looking to develop their career?
SG: There certainly is, Tom. As I said, tax is, and certainly has become much more of a specialised area. What was seen as a very specialised niche area in the past has become much more mainstream and you’ll often find that tax practices within the larger firms, let’s say are now much bigger than the corporate finance or the corporate services part of the business. They haven’t quite taken over audit yet but it’s possible that with advancements in technology, the staffing side of the business, the majority now could be weighted towards tax or certainly heading that direction. In terms of a career path, it’s certainly no different from what you might find from an accounting point of view. There’s very clear progression, through the various levels as you mentioned; senior to manager to director to partner if that’s what one chooses. But that’s looking at it from a practice or advisory perspective. There are also very good careers available in industry and also as self-employed. There are an awful lot of my colleagues and former colleagues that are out as sole practitioners or advisors as well providing tax advice to their own businesses like we have. From that point of view, there is a great degree of variety there as well. Just because you pick a career in tax doesn’t mean that you’re stuck with the one firm or on the one track. There are very good options out there for people if they want to take them.
TW: Thanks very much for that Stephen.
TW: How would people contact you now if they want to find out more about your business? How do people contact your firm ODG Advisory?
SG: Yes, we’re on the usual business platforms. We have our website www.odgadvisory.com We have a LinkedIn page as well if needs be so those would be our main channels. Our contact numbers and emails are all on those so if anyone wants to get in touch, they should be able to find us there.
TW: Very good. You said you’re in the office today, you’re back in a day a week now?
SG: Yes, unfortunately as a business owner, we can’t work just remotely. We have to come in and check post and make sure the office is still in one piece. Between myself and my business partner Rory, we take it in turns to come in and check the office, make sure it’s still okay. Generally a day a week just to keep things moving.
TW: Ok, well it’s been great to chat and hopefully we’ll catch up another time but thanks very much for your time today. I really appreciate it.
SG: Certainly, Tom, thank you very much, good to talk to you.