Paralympian sails towards accounting success

Niki Birrell
PKF Francis Clark
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After 15 years as a professional sailor, double Paralympic bronze medallist Niki Birrell decided it was time to "settle down and concentrate on a career". Who'd have thought that the same grit and determination that made him a successful Paralympian would serve him well in pursuing his next "huge challenge" - a career in accountancy. 

The Paralympian applies the same “try and get a little bit better each day” mantra that pushed him to medal success in his new role as a graduate accountancy trainee with PKF Francis Clark.

“It is really important to know that you can always get better at everything, all the time. It's just the same in that respect,” Birrell told AccountingWEB.

While his new work environment is much more placid when compared to sailing the waves, Birrell said accountancy still presents a “big challenge”.

“This is more difficult,” Birrell admitted. But he added: “I think it's because I can't remember how poor I was at sailing when I was nine or 10.”

Despite this “steep learning curve” Birrell learned from his professional sailing career how dedication and training pays off. Born with cerebral palsy, he initially took up sailing as a hobby with his brother but he improved to the point that he won the under-16s title in the able-bodied race.

Paralympian success

From there, Birrell moved up the youth classes. Not long after, he was selected with his brother to represent the British team in the 420 class. Shortly after, he studied business at university but he still couldn’t be tempted away from the sea, as he received an offer to go professional in the Paralympic world 2008.

Birrell’s Paralympic debut in Beijing ended in disappointment when he finished fifth. Driven by this setback, Birrell and his longtime sailing partner Alexandra Rickham trained hard for their next challenge: London 2012.

This resulted in a medal rush: Birrell won all four world titles between the games and he won bronze at London 2012. “We had a decision make: whether to carry on or not; whether we should invest another four years,” Birrel explained.  “We gave it a go. We wanted to win in Rio.” 

Again, Birrell trained for four years, winning another world championship in 2013, and set his sights on Rio. “It all came down to the last race between us, the Canadians and the current world champs, Poland, for silver, bronze or nothing.” 

Feeling the pressure going into the last race, Birrel recalled: It was the first time before a sailing race where I didn't sleep too well.”

“We were in silver medal position for most of the race, dropped to fourth right near the end, and then got back to bronze right at the end. It was quite a different feeling to London.”

From Paralympian to accountancy trainee

It was at this point Birrell decided to change careers.  “A few years ago I decided I needed to work on a career, so I made a plan to make myself look more presentable at interviews by getting my AAT and doing some work experience because I knew getting a job in accountancy would be very difficult and a competitive field,” he explained.

Since joining PKF Francis Clark Birrell has started his ACCA training.  His sporting background has helped him stay focussed on his studies.

“Always have a goal,” he said. “It's a cheesy saying but if you don't have a plan in place it’s a dream; if you have a plan in place it’s a goal.”

Birrell’s sage motivation should be a handy reminder to any accountant, especially those who are looking to sail towards that 31 January finish line.

It’s not every day a Paralympian joins your firm. Of course, the profession has been well represented in the games, with athletes like Mahe Drysdale and Gwen Jorgensen chasing gold instead of clients.

When Birrell first started, having a Paralympian in the ranks was a bit of a novelty for the PKF staff. But six months in, Birrell is more attuned to the accounts and audit team, rather than his sailing success.

That’s not to say he isn’t asked to bring in his medals every now again. When asked if he wears his bronze medals around the office, Birrell said, laughing: “sometimes…” 

About Richard Hattersley

Richard Hattersley

Richard is AccountingWEB's practice correspondent. If you have any comments or suggestions for us get in touch.


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