Looking to tomorrow

Monday, 01 July 2013

Paul Seal is a busy man. It’s Thursday and his week has involved a meeting at the STEP Suffolk branch, tutoring on the Taxation of Trusts and Estates paper for the STEP Diploma for England and Wales, an interview for the STEP Journal, the STEP Board meeting and the STEP Council meeting – and that’s before the work he will undertake for his day job as a sole practitioner. Understandably, he is about to take some well-deserved time off to go on holiday.

The key is being able to detect when a client is not telling you something, and you need experience to pick up on those sorts of things

Paul trained as a chartered accountant with Lovewell Blake, a local firm in Norfolk, England. He spent six years there and recalls ‘partners and article clerks dinners’, where senior practitioners would pass their wisdom on to the next generation of accountants. These occasions weren’t just an excuse to get dressed up; they had a serious purpose: ‘They talked about all sorts of things – it certainly wasn’t technical, it was about inculcating you with the right approach. You learnt your ethics through them.’

After moving from Lovewell Blake, Paul realised he wasn’t terribly interested in auditing and decided to focus on tax instead. He sat his Chartered Institute of Taxation examinations in 1979 and is now a Fellow by thesis. After 11 years with Kidsons Impey (now Baker Tilly), Paul wanted a new challenge. He moved to Howes Percival, a UK regional law firm, and became their tax manager. Paul recalls it being a bit of a culture shock: ‘For one thing the structure of accountancy firms is pyramidal; legal firms are more horizontal – you don’t have an assistant working with you, you do the work yourself.’

Paul enjoyed his time at Howes Percival, but wanted something different. He was considering becoming self-employed: ‘The theory being that I would work four days a week and have day five off to do what I wanted!’ But it didn’t quite work out that way, mainly due to Toby Harris.

Education

Paul and Toby got to know each other during their Chartered Institute of Taxation days, and it was through Toby that Paul became involved with STEP. When Paul was contemplating self-employment the educational process at STEP was just beginning. Toby asked Paul to work with him on the Diploma for England and Wales. Paul agreed, and hasn’t looked back.

Despite student enrolment falling a bit after 2008, as firms reduced funding for training, the numbers attending the course have remained steady, as has students’ enthusiasm. Paul thought it would be the most enthusiastic students enrolling in the first few years, after which some might attend just because their firms wanted them to. Happily this is not the case, and each wave of students is as keen as the first: ‘The quality of students coming through is very good – it’s remarkable.’

Paul is protective of the students and of STEP’s high educational standards. He and his fellow tutors do all they can to ensure that the standards of the Society and the achievements of students are not diluted. He cautions against embarking on the Diploma prematurely, as it is important to have enough experience of professional work to put the study into context. The Diploma is studied on a part-time basis over two to three years, and the advantage of this is that students continually gain client experience as they study. Technical skills are only half of the story; students need practice in dealing with clients to build successful relationships. ‘The key to client relationships is being able to detect when a client is not telling you something, and you need experience to pick up on those sorts of things’, Paul explains.

Paul believes greater regulation is both inevitable and a good thing. He also says it shouldn’t pose a problem to STEP members

Paul is enthusiastic about STEP’s educational process. Not only does it show that practitioners have achieved a degree of competence, but it also confirms STEP’s status as a professional organisation: ‘You can’t be a professional body in the modern world that has status if it is simply a body where you become a member without demonstrating competence.’

As the industry faces greater regulation and scrutiny, the competence of STEP and its members is vital. Paul recalls that in the past many tax-planning schemes relied on nobody asking the right question. There was a lot of smoke and mirrors to cover up what was going on, and that always struck Paul as being an indicator that practitioners weren’t confident that the schemes worked. But now tax planning needs to be transparent: ‘You have to be able to justify what you have done, why you have done it and why it makes sense. Not just from a technical perspective but also from a commercial perspective.’

Paul believes greater regulation is both inevitable and a good thing. He says it’s also something that shouldn’t pose a problem to STEP members, as the experience they gain through their professional work, together with STEP’s educational system, will instil the right approach.

A virtual community

Increased regulation is just one of the changes the industry is going through. STEP is also faced with another challenge: how to adapt to the changing needs of current and potential members.

Today, the branch network is strong, but Paul is conscious that the Society will look different in ten or 20 years’ time. The next generation have different aspirations and ways of doing things: ‘It’s a generational thing. I come from a generation where STEP membership meant you went along to branches and attended events there – it was all face-to-face.’

In the future, a lot of education will be carried out online: ‘People will log in from all over the country for webinars; tutors and lecturers will need to travel less.’ There will still be face-to-face student lectures, but it is likely the examination process will change: ‘STEP has to be ready for the change. It won’t happen overnight. There will be a gradual process where there is more demand for online resources.’

Over the years, Paul has witnessed a key change in the way people work: ‘When I started, you looked the problem up in a reference book and found your answer. Now you have e-books, Google and word search, and are able to find things more easily. But one consequence is often information overload: we need the skills to decide what’s really important.’ Paul believes online communities, such as the STEP Trust Discussion Forum, are part of the future. It is important to have a global community where practitioners can get together and exchange ideas. The Trust Discussion Forum goes some way to providing this, as members can join the conversation from all over the globe.

The challenge for STEP is to adapt to online networking and education. But of equal importance is finding a way to create a sense of belonging. ‘How do you bind members into the ethics of the Society if they only meet occasionally?’ asks Paul. ‘How do you achieve the sense of belonging that you get by attending a branch meeting? This is a challenge that STEP is going to have to overcome.’

Giving back

It may be unsurprising, given the value he places on attendance at branch meetings and the sense of belonging he feels this instils, that Paul attended the most recent meeting of the STEP Suffolk branch. Although it was not his home branch, many recognised him as a tutor on the Diploma and thanked him for his guidance. ‘Often you don’t get any feedback from students. You see them two or three times and that’s it. But when they thank you for helping get them through – that’s the reward.’

Paul is resolute about the need to give something back to the profession, and that is why he is on STEP’s Board. He has been Treasurer since December 2011 and is all too aware of the hazards of remaining in post for a long time: ‘If you do anything for too long you lose the enthusiasm. There is also a danger you will not consider trying new things, especially if they were tried before and they haven’t worked.’

George Tasker had stepped down as President before Paul came onto Council. He felt that when George stopped being actively involved in STEP he had enough faith in those who came behind him to let go of the reins: ‘George created STEP; it was his baby; without him there wouldn’t be a STEP, but he had confidence in those that followed him that they would do the right thing for the Society.’ The Society does adapt as the world changes: ‘It’s an evolution – none of us do things the way we did when we first qualified.’

The value of a network

When Paul joined Lovewell Blake he did not think he would end up working as a sole practitioner, but that is where his career has taken him. The experience has helped him understand the value of strong networks: ‘If you are a sole practitioner you need some sort of network. It might be an informal network, it may be you know people within STEP who you can ring up and ask a question.’ He adds that if you don’t have a network it will be desperately difficult to operate as a sole practitioner. 

And what of his career highlights? Paul didn’t answer, rightly asserting that  it would be a depressing thought if you believed your career had already peaked. He has a great outlook on life: ‘I am happy to wake up in the knowledge that I am still open for business!’ But then Paul doesn’t look back: he looks forward to tomorrow.

Does he have any advice for STEP members? ‘Approach everything with an open mind and look for the benefits and opportunities. If you get the chance, join a committee and look to put something back. Becoming a TEP has contributed to your career and you should look to help others who are further down the line.’

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Paul Seal, Hannah Downie

Paul Seal is the STEP Board Treasurer.
Hannah Downie is Managing Editor of STEP Journal and its supplements.

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