You can break down the role of a tax advisor into two broad areas. The first is making sure that clients file their tax returns in accordance with legislation, which we call "compliance". It's impossible for an individual with even a relatively simple tax position to fill in their own tax return because there are seven legislation books that are constantly being updated. It really boils down to ensuring that people aren't paying more tax than they need to. Without our help, clients such as charities and pension funds end up paying huge amounts of tax, even though they are in principle meant to be tax exempt.
The second area is consultancy, which is where I'm heavily involved. Consultancy has actually evolved in recent years - 15 years ago, the best tax advisors were the people who knew the legislation best. Now, the tax advisor is a trusted guide to the corporates, spending most of their time working very closely with them. I frequently find myself discussing business strategies with the Chief Financial Officer and the Chief Executive of a company - handling everything from finding the best way to get new money into the company (arranging new finance), to expanding overseas.
How is the department structured?
The tax department is arranged into about ten industry groups such as real estate, financial services, oil and gas and so on. Developing an understanding of your industry group is just as important as being able to apply your tax knowledge to it. This also gives you an incredible amount of flexibility in your career. I started out in the financial services group, working with companies such as Goldman Sachs and Citi. I then moved to private equity, and finally into real estate - which is where I sit now. You can move across different industries, because 80 per cent of the tax is the same - you just need to learn the 20 per cent that is industry-specific.
Can you give us a specific example of how you help your clients?
When I worked in the private equity group, we helped private equity houses buy and sell numerous companies. One of the things we did was improve their tax efficiency, which meant reviewing their commercial arrangements. Part of that was looking at their real estate, and completing transactions that restructured the way they held that real estate. However, it's not a case of "the tax tail wags the commercial dog", so to speak. It's more about making sure that we can arrange their commercial financing and achieve their aims surrounding that, with minimal tax "leakage".
How important is tax in M&A deals?
It's fundamental. In a competitive bid situation, there may be several companies all looking to acquire the same target. If, in one of the structures, a bidder's business model has higher tax numbers than the others, they may end up with a situation in which they are unable to offer sufficient money for the deal to go through. The difference could potentially be hundreds of millions of pounds. We look out for whatever tax efficiencies can be reasonably achieved - because that can hugely impact who will be the successful bidder.
What's been the highlight of your career?
Probably the two secondments that I took. My first one was in 2000 - I spent a year establishing a UK tax specialism in our New York office. Working abroad is an amazing opportunity to develop your understanding of our increasingly global clientele. In 2001 I spent a year working at Goldman Sachs, helping to look after their European offices. This was an invaluable experience to learn about different cultures and about what it's like to be on the client's side of the table. I'd recommend that everybody has a secondment, either to a client or internationally during their career, because not only is it beneficial from a personal development point of view, but it's also great fun!
What other opportunities are there at Deloitte?
Taking a secondment is just one of many exciting opportunities you'll get when you work here. We've currently got hundreds of Deloitte people working on the London 2012 Olympics. There's a massive amount of tax work to be done there, because it's a huge commercial project. At the moment, around half of our office are out climbing Kilimanjaro, raising over £250,000 for charity. These sorts of things are happening all the time, and create a wonderful sense of community among colleagues.
What kind of career progression can graduates expect?
Generally most graduates working in tax will take the Chartered Accountancy exams, although it is possible to take tax-specific exams if you prefer. Your first two years will be split 50/50 between working and doing exams. This gives you a solid grounding for the rest of your career (whether you stay working in tax or not). One of the exciting things about tax is that you can progress very quickly - there are generally promotions every year. I made it as a partner at 31, which is relatively young, but it can be done.
There are so many directions that you can go in after starting out in tax. From my class back when I was a graduate, around half are now in senior tax positions at clients or in professional services. From the other half, two are finance directors at media companies, one is a fund manager, and several now work in banks. It's interesting that the people who have started in tax quite often go and work for their clients in a non-tax role because they've built up such strong personal relationships and have invaluable industry insights.
What qualities are you looking for in graduates?
As long as you've got the skills we're looking for, it doesn't matter what your degree background is, as long as you have a 2:1 or above. Tax is very much about problem solving and dealing with people, so we want you to have strong social skills and the ability to understand what the clients' issues are, and then to be able to effectively apply your practical and commercial knowledge to help them achieve their goals. I particularly look for a "can do" type of person.
The key is having the type of attitude that will allow you to work out the best way for the client to move forward. This means not just finding a technical solution, but also finding a commercial solution that will actually work in practice.
You also need a constant hunger to learn, as tax laws are always changing. If you're on the consulting side (which most people are), the products you sell are constantly evolving, depending on what's happening in the market, and it's your job to keep on top of this.