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How I Became An Accountant

18th April 2024

The Post: Finance Director, Strategic Investment Board

The Post Holder: Louise Johnston

Louise Johnston’s fascination with accountancy has led to her current roles as Finance Director at the Strategic Investment Board and the Chair of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants Ulster Panel.

Give a brief outline of your career to date:

After graduating from Ulster University, my first role as an Accountant was with Isaac Agnew, Mercedes-Benz, Belfast in 2005. Seven years on in 2012, I moved from the private sector to the public sector working in the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister which was a great introduction to the workings of government. In 2014, I took on the role of Finance Manager within the Strategic Investment Board and in March 2023 I was appointed Finance Director.

What was your favourite subject at school?

Maths was my favourite subject by far, and although it is a subject that is often associated with accountancy it’s certainly not a pre-requisite. PE was my least favourite which surprises me now considering I took up running in my late 20s and have run dozens of half marathons and a couple of marathons.

Did you go on to further / higher education? If so, what did you study and where?

I graduated from Ulster University, Jordanstown, with a 2:1 BA in Business Studies and began my ACCA professional Accountancy exams in 2005, completing them in 2008.

How did you get into your area of work?

My university course covered all aspects of business. During my university placement year at Calor Gas NI I was fortunate to work alongside a number of business units including planning, sales and marketing and IT. This is when my fascination for accountancy really flourished. In the final year of my business degree, I specialised in finance. I choose the ACCA qualification as it is a global qualification recognised in 180 countries around the world. This appealed to me as my father spent the last 20 years of his career in the Middle East and my brother is an out and out globetrotter. Funnily enough, I have my roots firmly planted in Northern Ireland and I have never worked outside of Belfast, although it is great to know the option is there if I ever wanted it.

Is this what you always wanted to do?

When I was a little girl, I loved to play ‘office’. My nickname at home was ‘Miss Administration’ and nothing gave me more joy than pretending to answer the phone and typing away on the family Amstrad. During my teenage years and into my 20s my mother owned a bridal shop. Countless weekends and late nights were spent in the shop attending to soon-to-be brides and hosting bridal shows. Although a lot of happy memories were made during those years, I choose not to continue the family business. Eighteen years on and I can safely say I made the right call!

Were there any essential qualifications or experience needed?

Being a professional accountant is an essential criterion for my role. I would always encourage someone to pursue their passion and professional exams, which have opened many doors for me. ACCA qualifications that can be achieved in your own time, and while working, are a great route into accountancy.

Are there alternative routes into the job?

Finance and accounting experience is a requirement but no more so than those all-important professional exams and letters after your name.

What are the main personal skills your job requires?

As an accountant you have to provide leadership and possess technical knowledge. My professional accountancy body, ACCA, call it the ABCD of skills: Adaptability, Business Sense, Communication and Determination. You need to be able to see the whole picture in a business and have great people skills.

Why is what you do important?

I work for the Strategic Investment Board, a non-departmental public body of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Our organisation helps government plan infrastructure and deliver major projects. Our work, directed by government ministers, is focused on supporting the delivery of the objectives set out within the Programme for Government to get better outcomes for our citizens.

What does a typical day entail?

After an early morning school run and a lengthy commute, my first port of call in the office is usually to the coffee machine. I lead a highly motivated finance team and once we’ve had a catchup I head to my laptop and organise my diary for the day. My day can vary between Internal Committees to External Stakeholder meetings and everything in between. In the world of finance, duties follow a monthly cycle. This keeps everything interesting as no two days (or four weeks) are ever the same.

What is the one piece of advice you would give yourself on your first day?

Watch and listen. You will learn more about your organisation by meeting and speaking to your new colleagues than you will by reading a policy document or staring at a spreadsheet. In today’s hybrid working world there is an even greater need for connection and it is our duty to create and embrace it.

Describe your ideal day off

My day would start with a 10k run along the Antrim Coast followed by lunch with my husband in our local café. I would then pick my little girl and boy up from school and catch a movie before teatime. If it was a summer evening, we would go up to the family farm and count the sheep or try our luck at fishing.

And finally, what’s the key to any successful job search?

Firstly, match your skill set to the job description. Once that box is ticked, look at the organisation and decide if it’s a company you would enjoy working for.

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