How accountancy can open doors to alternative careers 

Studying accountancy many would have gritted their teeth at a friend or relative joking about them being a ‘boring bean-counter’, or speculating about a future career as a slave to a spreadsheet, clutching a calculator in a back office somewhere.

There’s one easy comeback – the average salary for an accountant in the UK is £62,042 a year, according to Accountancy Age magazine, and that’s enough to silence most.

But apart from the financial factor, accountancy qualifications can also lead to a huge range of careers – not just the office roles you’d expect.

Almost one in four FTSE 100 CEOs in a huge range of sectors and firms are qualified Chartered Accountants, according to research by recruiter Robert Half. Here, high-profile people who started off in accountancy and now enjoy stellar professional success show how good a grounding the professional training is for a wide range of careers:

Famous accounting students

  • Barry Hearn is the larger-than-life sports promoter who changed the face of British snooker, luring swathes of the nation to tune into Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre – before then moving into transport boxing, and darts, and becoming chair of Leyton Orient FC. But before all that, Hearn qualified as a chartered accountant in 1970, explaining “my mother told me to aim for accountancy when I was 11. She was cleaning houses for a chap who owned a lot of local newspapers and he said to her in passing, “Tell your son to be a chartered accountant; I’ve never seen a poor one.” And it stuck.’”
  • Denise Coates doesn’t seek out fame like many of her fellow CEOs – few outside the gambling world will even have heard of her. But the boss of online bookmaker Bet365 is one of the UK’s most successful self-made businesswomen – and best paid, too, with a £217 million pay day in 2017 alone. And her training? That was accountancy, which Coates studied whilst working in her family’s Midlands betting shops.
  • As co-founder of High Street giant Carphone Warehouse, David Ross is the billionaire who helped put mobile phones in millions of Britons’ pockets. The entrepreneur started at Carphone in 1991 – just months after leaving his role at Arthur Anderson, where he had qualified as a Chartered Accountant.
  • Transport giant Stagecoach is trialling driverless buses to run on the UK’s roads – but the company itself is driven by Scottish businessman Sir Brian Souter, who studied accountancy and economics at university. Souter was almost expelled from school but said “changing my timetable from maths to include economics and accounts was one of the best things I’ve ever done.” He studied chartered accountancy at Glasgow’s Strathclyde University, working at the same time as a bus conductor to pay his way, then kept that job to earn extra cash despite getting a job at Arthur Andersen – despite the firm banning moonlighting. Eventually he quit and bought two coaches for school runs. Souter’s Stagecoach today moves three million passengers on buses, trains and coaches around the world.
  • You don’t associate accountants with great jokes – unless they’re the butt of them. But stand-up comedian Eddie Izzard – who’s now almost as famous for his epic marathons as for his surreal monologues – started out in accountancy. OK, so he didn’t make it very far – Izzard told The Guardian that he was booted off his accountancy course for failing his exams, and when he asked to do resits, his request was rejected. It could have all been so different..
  • Iran-born billionaire Farhad Moshiri came to the UK to study at UCL – and then trained as an accountant and worked at firms including Ernst & Young and Deloitte. He then met Russian billionaire Alisher Usmanov in the early 90s, became his financial advisor and his minority partner in commodity projects and profited from the flotation of Russian telecoms company Megafon. Moshiri is now worth more than $1.7 billion.
  • Realms of unaudited figures might look scary – but not as terrifying as the average John Grisham legal thriller. But the career of the US author of The Firm, A Time to Kill and more than 30 other books could have been so different: he majored in accounting at Mississippi State University before going on to study law.
  • Stephen Lansdown and Peter Hargreaves both worked as accountants before starting a financial services business (put their surnames together and you’ll get which one) in a spare bedroom of Hargreaves’ Bristol cottage in 1981. Hargreaves became an articled clerk at a firm of chartered accountants in Blackburn in 1965, with his pay standing at £3.25 a week. “It was a pittance,” he told the Sunday Times. “I used to hitchhike to and from work. After I qualified I worked for Peat Marwick Mitchell just for a year. They sacked me – I didn’t fit.” He’s since said that was the best thing that could have happened to him; that start-up he co-launched is now Hargreaves Lansdown, the investment platform used by more than one million customers to invest almost £90 billion.

Lucy Tobin is a senior writer at the Evening Standard, author and blogger.

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