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Living for the City. By Lucie Benson

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18th May 2007
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Now is a great time for accountants to go and work in the City, where growing opportunities hold the promise of high salaries, global networking and rapid career progression. Lucie Benson explores the ups and downs of City working.

Top jobs in the City were once thought the preserve of accountants from the big four. But the growing interest in commodities means there are now opportunities for a wider group of accounting professionals to try their hand uptown.

Steve Forro, manager of finance with Indigo City, a financial recruitment specialist, says commodities are the new 'sexy' area for accountants. "There is a continuing shift in what is 'sexy', he says. "Until relatively recently, it was credit derivatives, but now it is most definitely commodities."

This is good for accountants. The nature of the commodities market opens the door into the City for a much wider pool of talent, he says. "Whereas derivatives was almost exclusively the province of insiders and chartered accountants from the Big Four firms, commodities is sucking in accounting professionals from a much wider ranges of sources, in particular from the trading arms of major oil companies, such as Shell and BP."

So what are the top jobs for accountants eager to try their hand among the glass spires, what are the requirements, and what are the rewards and disadvantages once you are in?

According to Forro, most accountants prefer corporate finance or front office roles. "They tend to like trading roles, and you need to be at a very high academic level to be able to get them because they are so popular. There are also project roles, where, funnily enough, they are not doing any accounting. [Applicants] need to have a financial knowledge and background, but don’t have to do monthly reporting or audit and so on, that they have to do as an accountant."

Wide spectrum

Steve Leeson, associate director at Morgan McKinley, a financial recruitment consultancy that specialises in placing accountants within the major investment banks in the City, says the spectrum of roles that are on offer in the City are as wide as it has been at any stage in the last four or five years.

"If an accountant wants to develop a career working with the many interesting investment banking products and financial instruments, then they would be suited to a product control role," he remarks. "These individuals can progress to senior management roles, technical pricing positions or more structuring and quantitative biased opportunities.

If an accountant wants a long-term career working more towards a CFO role, then it would be more appropriate to go into financial control or a financial reporting role. There are also various opportunities for accountants who want to move into more project management or business analysis type positions."

According to Forro, the City loves product controllers. "There is a lot of room for product control roles, even though it is not the most exciting job. Accountants coming from the Big Four firms are very much in demand when it comes to product control."

Top Five City Jobs

In no particular order…

  • Product control
  • Audit
  • Financial control
  • Project management
  • Business analysis

One such accountant is Nick Wilson, a commodities product controller at investment bank Goldman Sachs. He left KPMG 18 months ago to join the bank. "If you start in London, you can virtually double your salary overnight just by moving to another job in the City," he remarks. "Invariably that means investment banking or something in that arena and I think there are many accountants who are doing that. What you normally find is that the jobs that are open in investment banks for chartered accountants tend to be things like product control, tax and financial reporting. So it is really geared towards the training that you can have at the big accountancy firms."

Wilson currently works alongside a trading desk and overseas it on a daily basis. He originally worked in equity derivatives, but moved over to commodities a couple of months ago. He now provides risk management for companies in the market place, such as oil refineries, shipping companies and organisations like BP and Shell.

"I prepare the traders' profit and loss reports and balance sheets every day, and analyse those numbers intelligently and question whether it makes sense, and whether the profits they are making and the marking of all of their products is correct, so it is quite an analytical role. It is a more of a management accounting role than a financial reporting one, but the interesting bit is that it's working alongside traders that trade a particular set of products."

Carbon credit trading

He adds that the appealing thing about commodities at present is that people are now trading carbon credits, which has been driven by climate change. "I work on an oil desk, trading crude oil and all the different products that are made from that, such as gasoline and aircraft fuel. You can see now it is becoming much more important, because people are trading bio-fuels and bio-diesel and so on. There are all these new products coming onto the market and that is why it is interesting because it is a rapidly changing area and there are many jobs for people who want to do this kind of thing."

To secure these kinds of roles, Leeson says that the City is looking for bright, numerate and career-minded individuals. "Also, accountants with a particular skill set or a knowledge of technical accounting, such as IFRS, is desirable," he says.

Forro advises accountants to get financial services experience, either in practice or by working their way up in trading companies so as to have exposure to certain products. "Another way to get in is by working in a financial services company and getting the knowledge of a product, such as a commodity product. So it may be that you have worked for Shell, for example; somewhere that is not an investment bank but you are still getting exposure to a particular product."

It is well known that there are big rewards - mainly monetary - to be had for working in the City, but it is equally well known that long working hours come into the equation too.

Forro says there is a "pay off" to be had. "People come into financial services thinking about the big salaries, and you may get paid more, but they then expect more from you," he comments. "But the City is one of the very last meritocracies that there are, so if you put in the work, you will get rewarded for it. For instance, if you do a project which saves the bank huge sums of money, you will get a huge bonus payment. Obviously, if you do well, work hard and stand out, you will get promoted and you will get the interesting roles."

Work hard, get rewarded

Leeson agrees: "Historically, investment banks have a reputation for long hours, and even though most of them have made strides to address that over the last two or three years, there are still spikes in the month where accountants do work longer hours because of the nature of what they are doing. But the rewards, financially and in terms of the opportunity to work in a global network, to experience rapid career progression, and to progress within the business, totally outweigh any negatives."

Wilson obviously has first-hand experience of the heavy workload, and says it can be a disadvantage. "The long hours culture isn’t so apparent here anymore, but invariably there is so much to do, and although the rewards are high, the workload is high to match. The interesting thing about product control and accountants in banks, is you do find that people tend to do it for about two or three years and there are very young teams in the office."

Another disadvantage, says Wilson, is that it is very London-centric, but the breadth of knowledge he has gained across different sectors has been invaluable. "What I do has to be done in the city of London, Hong Kong, New York, and so on. But this job does give you a tool box of accountancy skills that you can take and use somewhere else. It gives accountants a chance to work in a great bank, learn a great deal and earn a lot of money, plus it doesn't shut the door to going back into industry."

So the rewards are high, the salaries are high, and the workload is high. But for the right person, now could be an ideal time to make that move to the City, says Leeson. "For a longer term career, accountants can benefit from the networks that are established in the City and the dynamic nature of working in investment banking," he says. "If an accountant wants to work in investment banking, and is attracted by the salaries and the environment, then right now is a very good time to embark on that career path because of the breadth of opportunity that is available to them."

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