Leading edge


As the International Federation of Accountants celebrates its 40th anniversary this year, its new president, Rachel Grimes, talks to Michelle Perry about her goal of getting the profession acknowledged globally as technology-embracing and robustly ethical

Rachel Grimes, president of the International Federation of Accountants, has two passions –accounting and sport. Both, she says, break down barriers and lead to portable, international careers.

“I realized early on that this qualification is truly a global passport, unlike law or medicine. It’s a ticket to the global game. With this qualification I can work anywhere in the world,” says Grimes, who was appointed president in November 2016, after serving as deputy president since 2014 and as an IFAC board member since 2011.

But if she had not become an accountant – which was, in itself, controversial coming from a family of lawyers – she would have loved to have been a sports journalist.

“I love all sports. I get out the sports calendar before I get out the work calendar to know where I want to be.”

And although she has little time these days to partake in sport – apart from a bit of paddle boarding and backyard cricket with her nephews – she indulges her passion in devouring autobiographies of sports stars. Her latest reads include Australia’s surf star Layne Beachley – Grimes was recently appointed to the finance board of Surfing Australia – and Mitchell Johnson, fast bowler for Australia’s cricket team.

The Australian native also has a keen sense of history and politics too. When not reading sporting books in her spare time, she reads politicians’ life stories, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and the Ronald Reagan diaries. In fact for Grimes, one of the highlights of being IFAC president is the opportunity to visit the presidential libraries in the United States. She’s visited nine of the 13 so far.

Digitizing the future

During her two-year tenure as IFAC president, Grimes is prioritizing technology and digitization. She has created a technology group, which will be meeting this spring. The group is partnering with IBM and has invited the chief executives from the top 40 IFAC member bodies to see IBM’s cognitive computing platform Watson in action. The group will consider the impact of technology on accounting and so far Grimes has been impressed with the response from IFAC member bodies around the world.

“I’m so excited about the engagement we have from around the world. People who want to talk to us about this and be involved,” she says.

Given that in her day job Grimes is Chief Financial Officer, group technology finance at Westpac Group, Australia’s oldest bank, she is well-placed to lead accounting bodies on this topic.

“I have a front row seat at the cutting edge,” she says, arguing that although technology is transforming banking and its cost structure, it still amounts to a cost, and accountants have “a role to play in telling everyone that technology isn’t free. There are a different set of costs.”

Another of her priorities is ethics. As Institute of Chartered Accountants in Australia president in 2011 she focused heavily on ethics, so it is an area she wants to continue to concentrate on as IFAC president.

“It’s changed so much. Before it was church and state that decided what ethics were and now it is society, the community. People decide because of the outrage when they see something that’s wrong. Accountants are at the very forefront of standard setting because they see where the money goes. We need to assist people so they know that they’ve got the support when they need it. Ethics is a key one for me,” Grimes says.

A world of upheaval

Grimes is nothing if not upbeat – safeguarding the positive stereotype of Australians the world over – whether it be about the rise of robots or the upheaval in geopolitics. On the fear of robots taking over accountants’ jobs, Grimes sees only the positives.

“I think that there are opportunities for accountants to eliminate the more mundane parts of our jobs so that we can be more at the frontline – expert communicators. I think it’s really exciting,” she says.

While on the United Kingdom’s decision to exit the European Union and Donald Trump’s election in the U.S., she says accountants will become even more relevant thanks to their traditional skills of measurement and accounting.

“With low interest rates globally, people are looking to invest to get a return, and people may think they want to become more insular but they always benefit from capital. When accountants are involved with Brexit, that gives more confidence to the investor. Brexit is a fascinating one for accountants. There’re so many different opportunities whether people deregulate or regulate,” she says.

Heading into IFAC’s 40th anniversary this year, Grimes’ and IFAC’s key focus continues to be on producing robust quality standards that are timely and workable for all. Amid all the celebrations, one thing that has caught Grimes’ attention is the growing role that Asia-Pacific countries and member bodies are playing within the global organization.

With her deputy president In-Ki Joo from Korea, Raphael Ding and Richard Petty (who are both Hong Kong-based and key touchstones for Grimes), Ahmadi Hadibroto of Indonesia, Kumar Raghu of India and Shinji Someha of Japan, Grimes says Asia is not only well represented but a strong contributor.

“Asia has a strong base that we can draw upon. In the last 10 years, but particularly in the last three, the quality of candidates and concept of volunteering out of Asia Pacific is impressive. And we bat well above our average in our contribution from this region.”

Grimes says IFAC is as relevant as it was in 1977 when it was first formed, and praises its founders for their foresight. She says this year should be “a great time of reflection,” but also one of celebration.

“It started in 1977 when there were 63 member bodies from 60 countries – we have grown to 178 member bodies from 133 countries. It’s the ‘wow factor’ of the growth. When you compare the original 12-point plan, the main one that stands out is quality standards and collaboration – it’s still relevant.”

Promoting women

In perhaps typically understated terms, Grimes downplays the fact that she is only the second ever female president in IFAC’s 40 year history. She reveals nonetheless a hint of pride at being the youngest president so far at age 48.

“I have six fantastic women on the IFAC board. We have two male presidents coming up but I bet the one after that will be female. I’m not worried. It’s just a matter of time now that a third of the board are women. And we’ll get stronger as more developing countries put forward more women. I’m full of hope. With anything you stop counting once you have three. It’ll be normality,” Grimes says.

In a time when it is increasingly important to ensure men act as role models to promote and sponsor women in the workplace Grimes got lucky long before it became a conscious effort by employers by finding a progressive senior partner at PwC who took her under his wing. Step forward Rob Ward, who later became president of ICAA and global head of assurance at PwC.

“I was also very fortunate to be employed at PwC by Rob Ward. He used to invite me along to various state engagements and I got to learn about regulators and other things. He always promoted young people. He presented me with lots of opportunities and I’ve been lucky in that everything worked for me. Rob has been a fabulous mentor for me. He’s a terrific guy who I still look to for guidance.”

When she began her accounting career she did not “for a minute” think she’d end up being the president of the global organization for the accounting profession. But it’s clear that she was always heading for the top thanks to her “go-getter” approach to work and life.

“I started as a graduate at PwC and when they asked ‘who wants to be in a committee?’ I put my hand up. So before I had even qualified I was on a committee of my member body,” she says.

Her no-nonsense approach to getting things done is equally mirrored in her extracurricular activities early on. Throughout her university studies Grimes used to coach tennis – her love of sports began early – and when she started her accounting studies in 1990-91 she was asked to chair the local tennis tournament that used to last five days.

“I changed the whole format from five days to one day because it was during recession,” she says. “I got involved in other things through putting my hand up, too.”