For a firm with offices in 100 countries, Grant Thornton has an incredibly personal approach to business. Their ethos is about doing the small things right and dealing with people as individuals, after which the big things will all fall into place. Grant Thornton's graduate training programme is designed to ensure that their staff are immersed in this people-centric model from the outset. Unusually for a professional services firm, the format they've chosen for their scheme will see new employees move around the business, working across different practice areas and industry sectors and for clients of various sizes, before they qualify as auditors, tax advisors, or actuaries. New trainees are responsible for driving their own careers, seeking out opportunities for secondment to really broaden their commercial understanding and to gain an insight into client issues at every stage of the business cycle. They're looking to produce a well-qualified, experienced team of business advisors, which they hope will help the firm achieve its aim of doubling its global revenues in three years.
The firm takes on over 200 graduates every year, with plenty of internship opportunities available, too. We spoke to Jake Wombwell-Povey, a 2010 joiner who's already had plenty of great experience at Grant Thornton, and Fiona Baldwin, a director who sees exciting opportunities at the firm for future joiners, to find out more.
How did you end up working at Grant Thornton?
I studied international business, finance and economics at the University of Manchester and, in my penultimate year, did an internship with a financial advisory firm in Dallas, Texas. As I got into my final year, I started looking into a career in professional services and found that it was a sector with lots of opportunities. It offers great experience and exposure to a lot of different people, subject matters and companies. I was offered a job with Grant Thornton in February 2010 and started the following September. Since joining I've worked in lots of different departments and in different cities and haven't looked back!
Why did you choose Grant Thornton over its competitors?
I went to a recruitment event - a pizza night of all things - that helped me decide that Grant Thornton was the right firm for me. It was awesome: I met some great people, had a great time, and came away inspired to apply.
I attended recruitment events for other firms and they were a lot more formal. They wanted us to learn what they did rather than who they were. With Grant Thornton, though, it was more: "This is how we do business," rather than: "This is what our business does", and we were told that the culture you see inside the business is what you take out to clients - it sounded like the kind of thing I wanted to be involved in.
When I joined, I realised that I'd made the right decision almost straightaway. I wouldn't say the atmosphere here is relaxed - everyone's very busy - but there's an appreciation of qualities that I didn't detect when I spoke to other firms in the sector. There's less talk about "chargeable client time" and more about how we can actually help the client.
What training did you receive when you joined?
Every graduate receives external professional training towards their ACA (Association of Chartered Accountants) qualification. Mixed in with that, there was also periodic Grant Thornton-specific training. For each training session, we went down to a big 16th-century country manor in High Wycombe that the firm leases from the National Trust. The training covers everything from inductions to support for our accountancy exams to technical skills like report writing and presentational techniques.
Can you talk us through some the work you've been doing since you joined?
Grant Thornton's ethos, which they convey to graduates very early on, is: "when you're in the boat, it's up to you to row it in whichever direction you want to." I think I've made the most of the opportunities the firm has provided me with over the past couple of years.
When I first joined, I worked in the business risk services team in Birmingham. A lot of our clients were not-for-profit organisations such as universities, councils and charities. Just like a profit-making organisation, each needs to have annual audits to ensure they're being run as efficiently as possible.
My team's job was to look for practices which could have been risky and find ways to eliminate them. It was a mixture of the bigger picture stuff, such as the client's overall strategy, and the nuts and bolts, such as going into a university and doing a health and safety review. Each project was, on average, a week long and I spent a lot of time on client sites getting to know the job as well as the clients themselves. Our aim was to look at the processes they had in place and assess whether or not they were working.
I was able to work relatively independently. I'd go out, speak to staff and make checks on the client site. I'd then get back to the office and review the client documents that were relevant to the audit, meet with other members of the team and write up reports on our findings. My work was always reviewed by senior staff members, who would provide feedback on my style and approach. I loved it because I worked across lots of different clients, in terms of both size and sector.
I then undertook a role in the business risk services team in London. The work itself was quite similar, but the clients, the sectors and the people I worked with changed a lot. I think moving cities but staying in a similar kind of team provided the right balance of change and stability for that stage in my career.
After that, I spent some time working in Grant Thornton's trainee recruitment team. When I joined, all the graduates were asked if they'd like to help plan events at universities and I volunteered to do so with my old university, Manchester. But having a full-time role here was a chance to get involved with the graduate team more directly. I helped run a social media campaign to promote awareness of our brand, including being asked to design and deploy a competition that the team could take out to universities to help boost our brand's appeal. I ran the competition through our YouTube channel and on our Twitter and Facebook accounts. It was a lot of fun and, again, I had a lot of responsibility.
When this project was completed, I moved into the financial services group, where I'm working at the moment. A lot of the work here involves corporate takeovers: we perform due diligence on the company being taken over on behalf of the company hoping to buy it in order to ensure that there are no skeletons in the cupboard, so to speak. So it's very different from everything else I've been involved with to date. I already feel like I've gained a lifetime's experience even though I've only been here for two years.
What was your route to director level at the firm?
I previously worked for a big four accountancy firm, in both the UK and Canada. After taking an extended career break to start a family, I wanted to rejoin the industry, but at a different kind of firm. I wanted to work somewhere where I could eventually influence the firm's strategy and development. Grant Thornton fitted the bill. It's big enough to be able to offer our clients everything they need to grow their business and to provide them with excellent client service, but it's small enough to provide a supportive environment for our people to develop in their careers. I joined as a manager in 2004 and became a director in 2010.
What makes Grant Thornton's graduate programme different?
Rather than having our new joiners specialise in something early on in their career, we feel it's more advantageous for all involved for our graduates to see several different sides to our business. So instead of putting them in only audit or tax, or assigning them to any one client or sector, they work as business advisors and get to spend time in as many areas as possible. In practice this means that, as well as spending time in audit and tax, they have the opportunity to work in other departments, such as lead advisory, personal taxation or recovery & reorganisation. In addition, they may spend time in one of our internal departments, such as research or finance. By the time they get to their final ACA exams, we hope they'll have a full understanding of how Grant Thornton works as a firm. If you understand how we work and the pressures, challenges and opportunities we face, then you can apply this knowledge to our clients, figuring out what makes them tick and understanding how we can help them improve.
What do you think distinguishes Grant Thornton from its competitors?
I think it's the sheer breadth of work we do and the chance everybody has to get involved in all areas of it. Our clients include PLCs, AIM-listed companies, charities, pension schemes, housing associations and sole traders. For instance, I'm the firm's head of pensions, but 30 per cent of my client portfolio is in the social housing sector: two very different areas. The sectors Grant Thornton specialise in often contrast with those of our competitors.
Take the example of social housing: we audit more social housing clients than any other firm in the UK and at the moment it's a very exciting area to be involved in. A lot of housing associations are looking to broaden their activities, so instead of just providing housing services, they're looking at utilising social enterprise to help their tenants further. They're providing services like training, ad hoc care services for more vulnerable adults, drop-in centres, and help for young people with beating addiction. But in order to be able to do all of these things, they need to ensure that they have the right funding structure in place and are efficient both in terms of tax and from an operational point of view. These can be complex areas, which is why they enlist Grant Thornton. With our breadth of experience, we can give them the best advice both from an audit and from a tax perspective.
Another thing that many people find appealing about working at Grant Thornton is the culture we have. It's a very vibrant culture, filled with people who are genuinely interested in what our clients are doing and passionate about helping them achieve their goals. It's a very supportive place to work and that's something I really appreciate and value.
What sorts of people would you encourage to apply for graduate positions?
We want people with a genuine interest in business who are curious and inquisitive about the world in general. We need people who love asking questions and finding things out, because that's how we establish what our clients want: by talking to them; by going on tours of factories and stock rooms; by finding out what's going well, what's worrying them, and what they view their opportunities and challenges to be. Our graduate programme is designed to put our recruits in a position to do so - it's very easy to beat the curiosity out of someone by making them do one thing over and over again, so we don't keep them sitting in the audit room for 12 hours a day - but they must come to us with the kind of inquisitive attitude required to make the most of it.
I do a lot of final interviews here, and one of my underlying criteria is: "How will my clients react if I put you in front of them? Will you be a good representative of the firm?" In a firm with a culture like Grant Thornton's, our people are our number one asset and our main form of advertising. Every single day, they're out at client sites and therefore it's essential that we get intelligent, confident and business-minded people who will feel fulfilled in their roles here. That's the best kind of advertising possible.