Philip Holmes - Finance Director


Talk us through your career journey so far?

I started off right at the bottom of the ladder, as an accounting clerk in the civil service. No computers, just big, paper ledger books, the kind of thing you’d see Ebenezer Scrooge using. I’d love to say that it gave me a profound understanding of the fundamentals, but in reality every month was 3 and a half weeks of double-entry scribbling followed by 3 days of muffled swearing when the damned thing didn’t balance.

It did lead to better roles though. I started working my way through various industry companies, and I found that there was a niche for someone who had a broad exposure to the various skills that accountants tend to specialize in. Smaller companies and remote setups especially found that useful, as they didn’t have the wider network of support to lean on.

This led to me moving internationally, and I spent a good third of my career living and working all around the world, getting involved with businesses from north of the Arctic Circle all the way down to tip of Africa and South America. Again, there was a need in these very remote places for people who could turn their hand to many different problems. Those roles are possibly not so common nowadays with modern communications technology, but at the time it was an amazing experience. The highlight was definitely spending several years out in the Sahara Desert which really was a once in a lifetime event.

Eventually my steps took me back home to the UK, and I was fortunate enough to start working with a series of small, fast growing technology companies, supporting some excellent Private Equity owners and helping them develop these companies into something bigger and better than when we started.

And along the way I even got the chance to start a couple of businesses, one on my own and the other with some of my close friends.

Consistently throughout all of these roles the skills that mattered were a breadth of experience, a willingness to try new things, and the ability to communicate effectively with people outside of the accounting sphere.

Looking back, it’s been quite a journey.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

The pace and the variety.

Accountants tend to be a stabilizing force inside most businesses, we’re naturally drawn towards process and continuity. But I’ve always been most attracted to situations where there are large amounts of rapid change. The roles I’ve enjoyed the most are the ones where something new happens every week rather than the ones where everything is fine and they just want you to keep it all nice and tidy. Bring on the chaos!

Other than that, I get a great satisfaction from solving problems. Working in industry (and especially in smaller companies) means you may be the only financial viewpoint in the room, and it’s very satisfying to be the person bringing that perspective to help everyone come to a solution. It makes you feel like you’re contributing something unique.

Did you always want to be an accountant? If not, what did you want to be?

This has always been what I wanted to do.

From the very beginning I loved numbers, and I was fascinated by the way money could move around. I loved the way that it all just fitted together so neatly, it appealed to that sense of organization that most accountants tend to share.

Unusually, I was never drawn to the practice side of our profession. Industry was always where I wanted to be, and the variety of working across different businesses has certainly lived up to my expectations.

Other than that, I’d love to be a writer (if I was smarter) or a comedian (if I was funnier). But given the quality of my jokes accountancy was probably the safer bet.

Do you see the job of an accountant changing over the next decade, and if so, what do you see?

I think we’ll see the continuation of the trends that have developed over the last few decades. It used to be that our job was to get the numbers ‘right’. That’s no longer the big challenge, businesses are more interested in how we put those numbers to use. Our role will continue to be less mathematical and more analytical. Insight, advice and context are what we bring to the table, and that means more emphasis on communication skills along with an awareness of how our work impacts the wider business.

Leave the number crunching to the computers, they do it better than we ever could.

Has the COVID pandemic changed the way you view work?

I think I see home and work as less separate than before.

Changes in work patterns and a realization that we can do things differently has shown me that it’s not a question of ‘work’ and ‘life’. It’s all life, the question is how you get it all to fit together.

It’s also shown me that boundaries are important. The easier it becomes to do anything from anywhere, the more you have to make sure that no part of your life starts to get out of control and start smothering the rest of it.

I think there’s more realization now that people work differently, even in the same roles. The most successful companies will be the ones who put each person in a working pattern that gives the best result for both parties, rather than trying to bash square pegs into round holes.

What advice would you give to an accountant who might be considering changing jobs?

If you find that you keep thinking about moving on, then something about your current role doesn’t feel right to you. Maybe it’s salary. Or location. Or culture. Or maybe the job hasn’t changed, but you have.

There is a world of possibilities out there, and it would be a shame to miss out on the right job because you were sitting in the wrong one, hoping something was going to change. And if change is what’s needed, then who better to make it happen than you?

If you could, what advice would you give your 18 year old self?

Life is incremental. We tend to focus on those big moments and momentous decisions, but, what really makes a difference is what you do every day. Whether it’s friendships, finances, health or career, it’s the small things you keep doing that will add up to big changes.

Set your goals, then keep asking yourself how you can take another step towards them. Consistency is the key. One day you’ll look back and realize how far you’ve come.

Also, if it’s my 18 year old self, could we lose the ponytail? I know you think it looks great now, but speaking as future you, looking back at those photos is not a pretty sight.

What do you still want to achieve?

More. I love what I do, and I’ve been lucky enough to reach a high level in my career. What I want now is to do more of it. I’m fascinated by new technologies and business ideas. The world has changed so much since I was young, I work in an industry that didn’t even exist back then, and every month someone comes up with a new way of putting our technology to work.

I don’t know what they’ll come up with next, but I can’t wait to find out.

Being an accountant can be a demanding job with often long hours. How do you like to relax and what do you enjoy doing outside of work?

Switching off is definitely hard to do sometimes. I’ve always been a voracious reader of anything I can get my hands on. I’ve slowed down a bit these days but I still manage to get through 4 or 5 books a month, and nothing helps me switch my brain off like losing myself in a trashy novel.

For the same reason, I started making bread a few years ago. Specifically because I wanted to pick up a skill that was creative, fun and nothing to do with my work. We accountants are a very practical bunch of people at heart, and there’s a definite benefit in doing something that has no practical use except making you happy. Again, it’s about boundaries, and creating spaces in your life where work does not feature.

I also spend a lot of time playing video games with my son. Not only has it been a great bonding experience for us both, but I know that one day he’ll start beating me so intend to keep practicing and put that day off as long as I can.

Lastly, tell us something interesting that most people don’t know about you?

When I was at school I told my Geography teacher that I would travel the globe and dip my toes into every single ocean in the world.

I’ve only got one more left to go, so if you’re reading this in Antarctica and your books need balanced, give me a call!