Candida’s journey into finance started with a BTEC National Diploma in Business and Finance. She had the option of A-levels at a Sixth-Form College in Guildford, but she sensed that they might have been too narrow for her and she also wanted something with a more vocational edge. The breadth of the BTEC was appealing. There were three core components and a multitude of other modules. She felt that she would learn a lot over the two-year course.
When it ended, she still had the option of a degree thereafter. She thought about it but there were a number of disadvantages. She found herself in the year that was transitioning between the grants system and student loans. She was in the classic Catch-22 situation that her parents did not earn so much that they could support her through higher education, but had sufficient income to ensure that any grant that she was awarded would hardly sustain her financially. She could wait 12 months for the loan scheme to be established fully but her appetite had been whetted for the world of work.
When she started her BTEC it was with an inclination that she would want to go into marketing. A period of work experience firmly put her off that notion! She had also had a spell with an insurance company doing administration which she also found less than inspirational. She realised that the aspect of the BTEC which she enjoyed and had excelled in related to accountancy. That would be her home.
So, she undertook the final stages of the AAT (the BTEC had satisfied some of it already). She knew that she did not want to aim for a big accountancy practice, partly because her mother had done that and did not make audit sound the most exciting of activities. In complete contrast, she found employment with a small company – Eastlords – which owned three garages. She did the accounts for them and learnt a lot from two much more experienced women.
It was never meant to be a job for life but it was a really solid grounding. She moved on to BT Customer Services, which was the IT division of the communications empire, and now started to pursue the ACCA qualification, which the company supported her through. This was rather different to overseeing three garages. It was a large organisation within an extremely large organisation. This “taught me the vital importance of teamwork” as without it “nothing would ever get done”. It showed her what big companies were like and allowed her to ponder whether it was her own optimal fit.
As a result, she left for Ambassador Insurance. This was one of those sub-optimal experiences in life that can have some positive consequences. The role was not what she had expected. Much of her time was spent on pure consolidation work, managing the local network and internal audit. It was useful to discover that all of this bored her rigid. She would resolve not to endure such tedium again.
The escape route was Credit Lyonnais Rous. This was her first time with a fund (derivatives in this instance) which was high-pressure but extremely interesting. She was helped notably by a senior colleague, Mary, who was strong and savvy. She was, Candida suggests, much more of a role model than most of the women who Candida had worked with previously. They had been great mentors but Mary showed her that the key to her getting what she wanted at work was being clear with herself as to her goals. This was very empowering and an observation worth remembering.
Seeking career advancement, she moved next to F & C Ventures (now Graphite Capital). This was her first liaison with private equity, which was not a deliberate choice as such but one that added to her CV. By now, she had settled on the goal that she wanted to be a Finance Director before she was 40. F & C was a good posting but there were too many obstacles to promotion. She would have to leave.
She went to Candover Services Ltd in 2001 as an investment controller. In retrospect, this would be one of the biggest breaks of her lifetime. She sat between the finance team and the investment team and this allowed her to have a completely original perspective of the fund. She was involved with the portfolio companies, played a part in the valuations process and encountered the complex labyrinth that the emerging world of Luxembourg holding companies and tax structuring entailed. It was a big set of responsibilities, more than accountancy alone, in the “juicy part” of private equity. The company expanded rapidly from 30 people to 150 people in her time there. But the openings required for her to realise her ambitions did not appear to be visible. After six years she headed off.
She went to GMT Communications Partners, a media investor, in what she hoped would be the last step before becoming a Head of Finance or an FD. For the first time she was able to shape her own small team and recognised that if you could surround yourself with the right people then “life is so much easier”. She had a younger, excellent deputy who she was delighted to see promoted into her position when the prospect of becoming a Head of Finance elsewhere finally presented itself.
That was with Greater Pacific Capital, a Private Equity fund specialising in China and India. Until then, Candida’s experience was very much UK and European in its orientation. The differences in business practices between China and India were fascinating and Candida was also exposed to off-shore finance for the first time.
Having earned her spurs at this level it was time for a change and a switch out of private equity. She went to the In-Sync Group, which was a trading company rather than a fund. It expanded at a breakneck speed, in part due to a merger which as the Group Finance Director she was intimately involved with. It was a family-owned business, which was interesting and different in itself. She had a team which included great accountants, the best of whom by some margin was her deputy, a woman who had never completed her qualifications but knew the figures backwards. This hardened her own instincts that a career in accountancy really didn’t have to start by being an undergraduate somewhere for three years.
From there she was hired by Hunnewell Partners which turned out to be quite a surprise package. The intention was that it would be an orthodox fund but had mutated into a de facto family office. It invested in Georgia (the country, not the state) where it owned a bank, cement works, a steel works and property. This was intriguing but Candida had reached a point where she wanted to look for a more philanthropic ethos and she was steered towards Funding London. This supports early-stage entrepreneurs in the capital, often those who are unrepresented and may struggle to obtain funding through more orthodox means. This is an organisation with “purpose” and a charismatic CEO with a strong sense of mission. Candida started there as FD last August, 2021. Like her, there will be plenty of people whom Funding London backs who do not possess a degree certificate!
Even now, Candida will still encounter people who say “but you haven’t got a degree” even though she has passed all the necessary accountancy qualifications and has been employed for over thirty years! Of course, the degree path into accountancy has its virtues, but the degree way in can also mean that some key building blocks of book-keeping and reconciling control accounts might not be experienced and potentially missing out on these really could matter. There are elements of her BTEC course which Candida says that she still draws upon today (how many people can state that about the contents of their degree, let alone the components of their A-levels?).
Candida feels very strongly that apprenticeship is valuable (after all, Lord Sugar never went to university!) and you can tap into a pool of people with a natural aptitude for accounting who didn’t have the opportunity to attend university. Her crusade is to ensure that she spreads the word widely so that others do see the importance of diversity in the ways to becoming an accountant or, putting it differently, borrowing from Chairman Mao, letting a thousand flowers bloom.