Career Advice and Industry Insights from Catherine Empringham, COO of Ella's Kitchen

Holly Bacon 20.03.2017

You're currently studying your ACA qualification and you find yourself at a crossroads in your career: do you stay in practice or do you leave for industry? It’s times like this where hearing from a professional could be useful – and not just a recruitment professional but someone who once had the same conundrum as you.

In partnership with the ICAEW & SECASS,  Catherine Empringham provided a talk about her journey from practice into industry. Firstly, Morgan McKinley would like to thank all of those who attended the evening, the ICAEW and especially Catherine for taking time out of her busy schedule to 

Ellas Kitchen COO Catherine Empringham Talk 1share her experiences with us. We hope that everyone took away some valuable information and had their queries answered. I wanted to highlight some of the key points that were made by Catherine during the evening, as I believe they will be a useful reference guidefor ACA students generally.

How important was your time qualifying in practice, to you now in industry?

Training and ultimately qualifying in practice means that your skills and experience are clear and everyone who follows this route will have similar skill sets, therefore, companies know what they’re getting. Whereas qualifying in an industry setting usually means that experiences can vary depending on the positions held, although if you can present your skills clearly on your CV then this shouldn’t impact your future career. If you can talk about your experience and what you have achieved, where you qualify shouldn’t impact you too much. Catherine also mentioned that she has staff who have qualified in industry performing similar tasks to those who qualified in practice.

How did you know that moving to industry was the right decision?

Catherine knew that she didn’t want to become a partner so she began exploring industry roles. If you don’t want to become a partner the best time to leave practice is shortly after you qualify. Catherine chose her first role outside of practice as she liked the sound of the responsibilities and it was for a large company with clear options for progression. Additionally she had audited clients in a similar sector whilst at EY and had undertaken work experience for them previously.

What would you recommend as a first move from practice?

Ellas Kitchen COO Catherine Empringham Talk 2

Usually the first role will be more technical as moving straight into a commercial role is a big ask, whilst it does happen on occasion, companies normally only place someone into a commercial role after they’ve had some industry experience. Catherine went on to mention that she would only consider truly exceptional candidates for a commercial role as their first move. In terms of the size of a first company to join, larger businesses offer more career progression but you’re usually concentrating on a specific task for the most part. Smaller companies usually have less career trajectory but you’ll gain a broader range of experiences as you’ll often liaise with different areas of that business. 

How would you suggest newly qualified accountants explore industry roles?

It can be a struggle to find out what you want to do within industry, you may find that you interview for jobs you don’t want or miss out on jobs that you do want. It can take some time but it’s important that you find a job that suits you and can offer you the career path that you seek. The best thing to do is to look at job descriptions and start to familiarise yourself with the associated responsibilities and move forward from there. The majority of roles out there will have parts that you’re not so fond of, but at least you will have an idea of what you do like the sound of! Remember jobs vary hugely between companies so don’t think too deeply about job titles, it’s the responsibilities and the skills that come with them that count.

Do you think it matters what size firm you train in? Do Big 4 candidates have the edge over people from smaller firms?

Ellas Kitchen COO Catherine Empringham Talk 3

Some companies do prefer candidates from a Big 4 background and that’s an unfortunate fact. However the majority of businesses don’t mind and do consider candidates from smaller firms as long as they can communicate their experience and what they’ve achieved clearly. Whilst you may not have the big names on your CV, smaller firms usually mean that a candidate has a broader range of skills as they get exposed to more than just auditing and this is known throughout the industry setting. It’s also worth noting that SME’s or smaller businesses may prefer someone from a smaller firm as usually their audit clients have a similar set up to their own.

How would you suggest a small practice studier gets a chance with a big company?

Talk more about how you’ve added value to your clients rather than what you did. Generally speaking, auditing in general is similar whether you’re auditing a big company or a small one – it’s more about how you as a person have gone above and beyond in your role. Talk about extra projects or special responsibilities that you’ve had, and if you haven’t done anything like this, ask to get involved with something! Extra credit goes a very long way in a competitive industry such as accounting, make sure it’s all on your CV. Alternatively you can try and move into a bigger firm for a year or so, this can really increase your options and you will also have additional experience to talk about.

How did you balance your career with being a mother? Did working part time hold you back?

A good career network of friends and family! Plus an exceptional husband. If you’re going to work part time and keep up with your career then you need to work very hard whilst you’re at work. Catherine received a promotion to the Senior team whilst on part time hours because she knew that being part time didn’t mean that it was time to ‘slack off’, it was time to work extra hard and keep up with those who were working full time. Being a working mother is not easy but if you’re prepared to work for it then your career need not suffer.

What do you look for when you’re interviewing?

A spark. Someone who can offer something to the company that’s different from the rest. At Ella’s Kitchen, humour is very important and Catherine wants to find someone that she would be happy working with every day. Any new hire should understand and fit to a company’s values, you spend more time with your colleagues than with your friends or family so it’s very important that they get along as people as well as them being able to do the job.

What is your interview process?

Refreshments during networking

At Ella’s Kitchen the interview process is quite standard and usually consists of three stages. The first meeting is a quick chat and can sometimes be in the form of a phone interview to get an idea of who you are as a person and how you present yourself. The second meeting is normally with other people in the business and will include an activity that relates to the job in question, if all is going well you would often meet some of the team at this stage. The third meeting would be with the managing director and this is all about making sure your personal values compliment the company and to gauge your fit within the team. Obviously the interview process varies per company so always ask about what it will involve so you can prepare accordingly.

What do you do on a daily basis?

“No day is the same! I spend about 80% of my time in meetings about a variety of topics such as product launches, budget reviews and a number of project updates. I don’t spend a lot of time with spreadsheets anymore but I do still have to look at them occasionally!”

Something else that was mentioned on multiple occasions was remembering to be yourself and keep to your morals. Accounting isn’t just about numbers, it’s about the clients that you meet and the people that you work with – be human, keep your sense of humour intact and have a laugh. Keep to your word but don’t over promise anything. Have integrity and admit when you’re wrong, we’re all human and mistakes do happen. Trust is very important in all disciplines but even more in accounting; it’s important that you learn how to build trust with everyone around you and being yourself, keeping to your word and taking accountability is a great place to start.

I hope that these questions and answers are helpful but if you have your own questions that weren’t covered here or have come about because of what you read here then please get in touch. It’s worth remembering that the above answers relate back to Catherine’s own opinions and naturally these will vary between companies and the sectors in which they sit. These events are always a great place to network and gain some valuable information. Keep an eye on the page for updates on upcoming events.

Holly Bacon's picture
Head of Thames Valley and Middlesex Office


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