Allison Devine, who this year became the first ever female senior partner at Scottish accountancy firm Alexander Sloan, which at 151 years old is one of Scotland’s longest established firms of accountants and business advisers, talks to Scottish Financial News about her rapid rise as part of our International Women’s Day special
Brief career overview
I graduated from the University of Strathclyde in 1999 with a degree in Mathematics, Statistics & Accounting. During University I had completed two 6 week work experience summer placements at Alexander Sloan, Chartered Accountants, in Glasgow. At the end of the second summer I was offered an ICAS training contract with the Firm when I completed my degree and accepted that offer without hesitation.
I completed my 3 year training contract with Alexander Sloan and qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 2002. Thereafter I progressed through various roles within the Firm – as Audit Senior, Audit Supervisor, Audit Manager, Associate then was invited to become a Partner in 2013. Most recently I was appointed Senior Partner in December 2017, which is a great honour.
Did you set out intending to make such a rapid rise in your career?
I decided that a career in accountancy was definitely something that I wanted to pursue when I was in 6th year at Secondary School and took a “crash” higher in accountancy and loved every minute of it. But to be honest, although I know I wanted to work in accountancy, I didn’t know where or to what that might lead. I certainly never set out, back in 2002, with a grand plan or mission of becoming the youngest Senior Partner to be appointed by such a reputable Firm!
My ambition in those early days was to find a career which was challenging whilst enjoyable and rewarding. To work for an employer in the small/mid tier where everyone was encouraged and supported in their individual professional development. At Alexander Sloan that’s exactly what I have and is the primary reason why I have continued my career there.
Did you expect to be held back at all because of gender when you set out? How has the reality compared?
I genuinely didn’t expect to be held back at all when I set out on a career in accountancy. I believe life is what you make it, and should obstacles present themselves …. think positively and find a way to overcome them. I have quite a non-defeatist attitude, and if someone told me I could not do something, it would probably make me work even harder to prove them wrong!
That said, I recognise that I am fortunate that my career has been spent with a supportive employer who does not discriminate on any grounds.
Can you highlight any seminal projects or experiences in your career thus far that have aided your professional and/or personal development in a way that has helped you in your rapid rise in the profession?
My CA training contract at Alexander Sloan certainly provided me with an excellent platform on which to build and shape my career. CA Students at Alexander Sloan are encouraged, with appropriate support, to assume responsibility at a very early stage in their career. The range of clients and assignments which I had exposure to – in terms of the size and complexity of the clients, the range of services being provided – be that accountancy, audit, financial governance, business advice, or being a sounding board and confidant for – really shaped the advisor that I am today and I am very thankful for that.
Do you feel there is anyone in particular who has helped you to achieve what you have so far in your career – either directly through personal/professional guidance or indirectly through inspiration – or both..?
Yes, there are so many people who have helped me achieve what I have so far, but some deserve special mention:
The Partners (past and present) of Alexander Sloan who recruited me as a 20 year old student and have been influential in supporting my growth within the Firm, together with colleagues and friends that have shared that journey with me.
My mum and dad who have encouraged me at every step and are immensely proud. They brought my sisters and I up on a motto of “It doesn’t matter if you pass or fail as long as you try your very best”. And that’s what I have tried to do …. Give of my best every day … and hopefully achieve success along the way!
My husband, who I met at 18, and who has therefore been by my side at every stage of my career. He has supported me and encouraged me to embrace every opportunity .
My children who, watching their mum work hard and achieve, I hope to inspire them to do similarly in whatever makes them happy as they grow up.
My brilliant support network. Fulfilling a demanding role, whilst being a busy mum of 2 young children, can be chaotic! (although I like to think of it as “organised chaos”!) It just wouldn’t be possible without my family.
Reflecting on International Women’s Day, what are your thoughts on your sector in terms of the number of females making up the general workforce, and in higher positions today?
By reference to 2017 statistics produced by ACCA, 46 per cent of members globally are female, and 54 per cent of students globally are female, and so looking purely at those statistics, genders are fairly balanced. However, I believe that when you look at more senior roles then proportionately there would be less occupied by women. However the reasons for that will be varied.
Does more need to be done to encourage women within the profession?
I do think that more can be done to encourage women within the accountancy profession, particularly in progressing to more senior roles. I think this could be achieved by increasing the visibility and advancement of women in the profession as well as influencing the culture of Firms to support the advancement of women.
What has your employer and / or previous employers done to facilitate this?
At Alexander Sloan I now lead our Firm in the role of Senior Partner and hope that others will take inspiration from this. Our Firm celebrated our 150thanniversary in 2017, and I am the first female Senior Partner in that long history. Some might say that is breaking moulds. I think that is something to be celebrated, and indeed continued.
In 2017 we also introduced flexible working arrangements for all of our staff. The arrangements are very flexible, with minimal fuss or prescriptive rules, and are based on trust. So long as our team members work their contracted hours over the course of the week and, importantly, all client deadlines are met, we are not prescriptive about where or when those hours are worked. This allows all of our staff a far better work-life balance and has been very well received by everyone, particularly those with family and other commitments.
We are also very flexible in considering the requests of staff members who may be returning to work after a career break. The last thing we want is to lose the talent and skill of women because we are inflexible to their preferred working pattern.
What advice would you give to a young women starting out on a career in finance, or who is still at university thinking about one?
To those just embarking on those first early steps…. research employers carefully and identify those which you believe will be a good “fit” and will offer you a varied training experience as this early platform can shape your career. Work hard, empower yourself by committing to continuing your own professional development, show initiative and embrace opportunities as they arise.
Career hopes / where would you personally like to be in future?
Having just been appointed Senior Partner of the Firm I hope to be influential in this role by securing the continued success and reputation of Alexander Sloan, promoting its growth and by inspiring others. I am fortunate that I look after a lovely portfolio of clients within our Firm and I hope to continue the relationship of trusted advisor to them, and of course new clients in the future.
And are there any particular things you would like to see developed or changed within your profession (not necessarily to do with gender, or necessarily people, but technically, technologically or structurally?
The accountancy profession is changing and developing all the time. The most important thing is to keep abreast of that. Technological advances, automation, and MTD are the greatest we are experiencing at the moment. As a Firm we aim to embrace change. Rather than resist change or see it as a challenge or hardship look at the opportunities they present. That also allows your own team internally to develop professionally and offers them a far more interesting and varied workload.