Accounting expertise: Why generalise when you can specialise?

Greg Nielsen, Taxation specialist

Why generalise when you can specialise? Many practitioners are finding their niche. INPRACTICE speaks to three of them.

Greg Nielsen CPA: Taxation specialist

What do companies in industries such as retail, property and logistics have in common? They all have to pay tax. The opportunity to work with clients from such a wide range of businesses is part of the appeal for Greg Nielsen, partner and executive director of tax consulting at Pitcher Partners in Melbourne.

“Each job that comes across your desk has a slightly different dimension to it, so it always keeps you interested,” he says.

Nielsen came to taxation via a law degree. Having been exposed to various areas of legal practice, he identified taxation law as the most challenging prospect.

“This made it more interesting to me than other areas of law. Taxation is a very dynamic and fluid area of practice in that it’s constantly subject to reform and altering interpretation."

Joining Pitcher Partners in 1999, Nielsen is one of eight tax partners in a tax group of close to 60 employees. He says one of the key challenges for tax professionals is helping clients navigate through what can be complex and ambiguous rules and regulations.

“We need to balance the need for compliance with the day-to-day commercial priorities of the clients. Primarily, our clients are business people. While our world as tax professionals is one of legislation and rulings, we can’t lose sight of the fact that for those guys, their number one priority is keeping the doors of their business open and keeping the engine running. Our job is to ensure that they don’t get overwhelmed by the red tape.”

"Any sort of audit and insurance services needs to be truly independent in reality and perception." Reg Williams

Nielsen says a deep understanding of the law and finely tuned people skills are essential qualities for tax specialisation.

“You have to take what are often very sophisticated and complex concepts and translate them for people who don’t deal with taxation every day of the week,” he adds.

Nielsen believes specialisation offers a bright future that allows accountants to play a dual role.

“We’re continually talking about how the future of accounting is moving away from paper handling to more of the advisory and consulting role.

"Taxation is a perfect example. I think there will always be the need for custodians of taxation law who help taxpayers comply and also act as liaisons with the law makers and regulatory bodies to help them understand the challenges that people face.”

The changing regulatory environment creates the challenge that Nielsen has always looked for in a job.

“My advice to anyone thinking of specialising in tax is get ready to do some hard work. It’s an intensive area of practice.”

Reg Williams FCPA: Audit specialist

Reg Williams, Audit specialistWhen the Commonwealth Games kick off in Gold Coast City in 2018, Reg Williams may be more focused on quality control standards than the performance of the athletes.

As founder of Williams Partners Independent Audit Specialists (WPIAS), Williams specialises in audit services, including qualitative audit assignments such as those for the Commonwealth Games.

“We’re not just looking at numbers, we’re also looking at systems and processes, and that’s the icing on the cake for us,” he says.

Williams has been in public practice since 1989. His audit experience began straight out of university when he worked in the auditing division of a second-tier accounting firm in Brisbane.

“I sort of fell into the audit division and, in hindsight, it was a blessing in disguise and a great learning ground for me,” he says.

“Having spoken to our graduates as they come through the firm, they all say that no matter where you end up, the auditing discipline teaches you how to organise yourself, not only in terms of mindset, but also in terms of paperwork. Auditing is a great platform for keeping things in an orderly manner.”

WPIAS was established in 2013 and Williams says his role is to oversee its strategic growth. In addition to its established offices in the Gold Coast, Sydney, Melbourne and Auckland, WPIAS will soon be setting up shop in Perth, Adelaide and Canberra.

In addition to financial and qualitative audits, the company has expanded its offering to include environmental and sustainability audits.

“I enjoy working with clients who recognise and appreciate the role of the audit process,” says Williams.

“I think the most satisfying thing is that you can actually help the client – whether it’s a company or a self-managed super fund – to improve their business processes as well as give them an idea of their historical financial information.”

Williams says independence is one of the greatest advantages of an audit specialisation.

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“Any sort of audit and assurance service needs to be truly independent in reality and perception. You can give a truly independent opinion free from any influences of bias. You’re not influenced by fees that might be paid to other parts of your business.”

Williams identifies outsourcing as a key ongoing challenge to his branch of the profession due to the downward pressure it places on fees.

His response to the issue of outsourcing has been to adopt a cloud audit system called AuditFlow, which has increased efficiency at WPIAS.

“There is always going to be a need for an independent observation process, so auditing is not going to get small in terms of demand,” he says.

“It’s a very rewarding career.”

Suzanne Haddan FCPA: Financial planning specialist

Suzanne Haddan, Financial planning specialistSuzanne Haddan likes to focus on the future. That’s why she chose to specialise in financial advising.

“I’ve always enjoyed the strategic, forward-looking aspect of financial advising,” she says.

“Some may say I just like the sound of my own voice and pontificating to others, but I enjoy that close relationship with clients and helping them solve problems. I enjoy personal finance and tax structuring and investing, so it’s quite a natural fit.”

The managing director of BFG Financial Services in Sydney, Haddan has worked as a financial adviser for 28 years.

“It means you get to focus on the things that really interest you,” she says.

“I have a working knowledge of corporate accounting, management accounting and auditing, so I can cover those areas in a basic sense. I spend 95 per cent of my energy in understanding the law and interpreting it, then putting it into meaningful outcomes for my clients in personal matters such as taxation and superannuation.”

Helping others achieve their financial goals is the key reward of Haddan’s role.

“I still write my own strategies for clients. I get a lot of support from my team, but 40 to 50 per cent of my time is spent in front of clients.”

"I think if you spread yourself too thin as a CPA, it becomes very challenging." Suzanne Haddan

Haddan believes specialisation leads to greater outcomes for clients.

“I think if you spread yourself too thin as a CPA, it becomes very challenging. To me, having a focus and a deep understanding of the area you’re practising in gets the best results for your clients. I think they get a better outcome from someone who deeply understands the law and can make professional judgements for them to help meet their goals.”

Haddan adds that independent advice and a straight fee-for-service structure is another bonus for clients.

Haddan says a key challenge is attracting the right graduates.

“We’re competing with large financial institutions for graduates so we have to say what our point of difference is to attract the best and brightest. We can give them a professional, independent, conflict-free framework to operate in where they’re not selling a product, they’re giving advice.”

As a director of CPA Australia Advice, Haddan is helping to build the structure for qualified CPAs to gain a financial advising licence and offer quality advice through a transparent model.

“From where I’m sitting, the future looks extraordinarily bright,” she says.

“Accountants really are the natural financial advice givers.”

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