I chose to study Law and Accounting at Queen’s University, Belfast as the first step in my dream of becoming a lawyer – a dream fuelled by TV legal dramas (LA Law mainly, for anyone else old enough to remember it!).
After three years at Queen’s, I had the opportunity to spend a year studying Business & Management at a university in the United States, opening my eyes to the world of business outside of the debits & credits of accountancy.
Returning to my final year at Queen’s, my focus was on passing the entrance exam for law school. As a back-up plan, I applied for graduate trainee roles with global accounting firms. Something changed as I went through the recruitment process – I realised that tax was the career path I wanted to follow. Tax seemed the perfect combination of using my love of mathematics and logic with the challenge of interpreting the law.
I accepted an offer from Ernst & Young as a graduate trainee in their Corporate Tax department and chose not to sit the law school entrance exam. As I’ve progressed through my career, I’m happy that I made the right decision, although I think it took my mum a good 10 years to forgive me for not becoming a lawyer!
Joining EY Belfast in 1999, I benefitted from the quality of work available within a smaller team in a Big 4 firm combined with the firm’s excellent graduate training programme. I can trace my enthusiasm for tax training to EY’s development courses. They used various methods like lectures, case studies, team exercises and role play to create a fun way to learn about tax – and develop skills like interpreting legislation and case law essential for future exam & career success.
After qualifying as a Chartered Accountant and Chartered Tax Adviser, I was seconded to EY London where I got my first real experience of international tax – assisting the specialist transfer pricing & international team advising inbound & outbound businesses. Keen to expand my tax consulting experience, particularly in International Tax, I returned to Belfast to join BDO as a Corporate Tax Manager, advising UK clients expanding abroad as well as multinationals establishing in the UK. As an added benefit, I got to travel, including to Cyprus as part of a HMRC corporate residency enquiry and South Africa & Zimbabwe for a due diligence exercise.
Although I was dealing with International Tax, I felt that I lacked depth of academic knowledge and therefore wasn’t sure I was always seeing the big picture. This prompted my decision to study for the CIOT’s Advanced Diploma in International Tax (ADIT) qualification. Thankfully, BDO were willing to support me with training courses and study leave. This was 2007, when ADIT was still in its infancy and the exams were only held once a year. I leapt in with both feet and decided to do two papers (on the same day) in the first year – Principles of International Taxation and the UK option.
It was five years since I’d studied for an exam and I’d forgotten the commitment and sacrifices involved. I’d done my other qualifications straight after university when my friends were still studying and my job was less pressured. It was a challenge to balance home and work life with studying, but I enjoy learning and wanted the career advancement that I knew ADIT would bring. I completed my ADIT studies in 2008, passing the EU Direct Tax module – becoming the first person in Ireland to achieve ADIT status.
In 2009, I moved into industry and applied my International Tax knowledge as European Tax Manager for an NYSE-listed multinational. My idea had been to expand my skills by working in commerce for a few years before returning to practice. However, I found that I enjoyed working in businesses and using my tax expertise to help manage risks. I later joined the tax team of a US Fortune 500 group at its European headquarters in Dublin and haven’t returned to practice.
My commercial understanding deepened when I moved to a locally-headquartered multinational in 2012, leading its tax & treasury functions. In addition to enhancing my international tax and transfer pricing skills, I had to find my feet in unfamiliar areas, such as cashflow forecasting, foreign currency management and energy strategies. It was a highly challenging but rewarding role, and I was sad when it came to an end in 2015.
At the same time, it was an opportunity for change and I seized it – joining HM Revenue & Customs’ Large Business division in Belfast, as I’d always wanted to know what it was like on the ‘other side’. Moving from a fast-moving commercial operation to a huge government department was a culture shock, not to mention changing my mindset from “managing the effective tax rate” to “paying the right amount of tax”. What I found on the ‘other side’ was a welcoming team of dedicated professionals and great quality of work.
The highlight of my time in HMRC was a trip to South Korea to represent the UK at the OECD’s ‘Latest Developments in Tax Administration of Large Business’ seminar. Alongside fellow tax inspectors from Spain and Japan, I delivered training to 31 participants from 14 tax authorities across Asia and Africa, which sparked many interesting discussions.
On promotion to International Tax Specialist, I was assigned to high-profile transfer pricing and Diverted Profits Tax enquiries. I had the same kind of thoughts as when I was first working in international tax – my transfer pricing experience was all very practical and did I have enough of an intellectual understanding of it? HMRC was promoting the ADIT qualification within its specialist teams. I was busy saying I was already ADIT qualified when the I learnt it’s possible to sit standalone modules like Transfer Pricing.
Although it had now been 10 years since I last studied for an exam and I had (again) forgotten the sacrifices required, once I made the commitment, I found I enjoyed the learning experience. It certainly met my goal of expanding my transfer pricing knowledge. I passed the Transfer Pricing module in June 2018 and it’s definitely the last exam I’m sitting. From now on, I plan to use the expertise I’ve honed over the years to help others succeed.
I only ever intended to stay in HMRC for the short to medium term, so when my “dream” job – brand new head of tax role in a locally-owned but globally-focused group – came up, I had to go for it. I waved goodbye to my government pension and jumped back into the commercial world. I liked the new role, but something wasn’t quite right – it turned out, my dream had changed again!
I wanted more flexibility, more opportunities for travel, more variety, just more from life – so I did something I’d thought of occasionally but never imagined I’d actually do – took the leap into self-employment. Of course, they stay stick to what you know and love – so Extratax Training was born to educate the world about tax, demystifying its complexities, helping businesses grow and assisting other tax professionals to reach their full potential.