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No Monday dread: Why I quit the big four to set up my own practice


From a phobia of selling to now getting a kick out of it, former big four globe-trotting tax expert Kevin San explains why he set up his own practice and how it doesn’t feel like a “real” job.

By Reporter6 minute read

Where did you start your working life and where are you at now?


I was 16 and looking for work over the summer holidays, so I took a job as a telemarketer cold-calling random businesses to try to sell them restaurant discount voucher books… it was the 1980s! I sold a grand total of zero discount books, and in the process, I managed to annoy an unholy number of people on the phone; 30 years later, I still feel like I need to make amends.

But the experience did teach me a couple of things, which was that selling is an art, that some people are really, really good at it and that I wasn’t one of them (I’ll come back to this part later).

After a pause for university, I went into a tax role at a big four firm. And subsequent to that I spent an enjoyable 15 years working for corporates in global controllership roles, looking after countries as diverse as Siberia, Liberia and Sweden; at one point or another, I’ve done taxes for entities in every continent. It’s funny how wherever you go, it’s really all the same. You work on the stat accounts, then you do the tax returns, you deal with the advisers, and from time to time, the tax office, too; different ways to end up at exactly the same spot. Wherever it is, you still have to make sure invoices look right for the tax office, that all the local nuances flow through the accounts in a way that allows you, the customers and the vendors to do tax returns and GST properly.

About four years ago, it seemed like it was time for a change, and I went into public practice on my own. I had good friends in the fintech space, who introduced me to things like Practice Ignition, Xero, KeyPay and Receipt Bank. All things which appeared like downscaled (and frankly, much more slick) versions of accounting software that I was used to in my corporate roles.

What personal wins and struggles have impacted your career?

Having accidentally fallen into an international tax niche was both a blessing and a curse. There was one year where I was overseas for four months, and with young kids at home, this was an especially challenging time. But there were also fun aspects as well, including going to a new country, learning about language and culture barriers, and navigating around the various personalities to figure out something that worked. I didn’t get it right every single time, but it sure felt pretty good when I did.

It did come to a point when I felt like I didn’t want that life anymore, and that drove me to opening up my own shop. I figured that here’s my chance to create my own work environment and bring some balance back to my life. And it really has. My wife and I work together, we cook up a nice lunch for us to have together at the office and I’ve never been so close to the kids.

Were your salary expectations realistic when you started out?

Hell no, my expectations weren’t realistic at all. My working career started during the Wolf of Wall Street era, and even though my big four grad salary wasn’t that great, I did have dreams of progressing to glamorous jobs, with salaries as big as the shoulder pads on my suits at the time.

I never got my Lamborghini, but we did OK and I’ve been lucky enough to have had some senior jobs which were pretty good. The world has changed a lot though, and it’s more challenging now for a young person to navigate their own path to where I was.

What advice would you give your graduate self?

I’d tell myself to not be afraid of leaving your comfort zone. That telemarketing job when I was 16 gave me a lifelong phobia of selling; I was convinced that I was a terrible salesman, better off working a spreadsheet than a sales pitch. All that changed when bringing in new business became a necessity, so I went to see a good buddy of mine, an extremely successful IT salesman who can sell you millions of dollars of anything. He said that selling isn’t about selling. Listen to the customer, ask them what they want and how they’d like things to be better. Be present, be engaged and offer a solution that makes it obvious that you’ve been listening.

Now I enjoy it, and I really get a buzz out of it. So, I would tell the grad version of myself to put down the PlayStation controller and go out there to learn new things. And don’t be afraid of asking people better than you; that’s how you get better.

If you could change one thing about the accounting profession, what would it be?

The entry-level finance jobs in corporates are gone, either automated out of existence or offshored. Corporate accounting teams that used to teem with dozens of people now only have a handful of management here. And accounting firms are taking smaller and smaller grad intakes. 

As a profession, I think we occupy a very privileged place in that we are trusted; when a new client walks through the door, it’s just assumed that we can do a great job. This comes from the wealth of experience that our profession has, experience from coming up the ranks in corporates or firms. But I see fewer opportunities for young people to advance through the profession, and that gives me some concern about where the next generation will come from.

Is your job fun?

The first act of my career is very different to the second one, and I often joke that I really should go out and get a real job. That’s how running my practice feels: it’s definitely real work (and a lot of it), but it never feels like a job, and I don’t dread Mondays. And it’s definitely preferable to telemarketing.

Does your job look like what you expected it to?

Not at all. My grandfather ran his own mid-tier firm in Malaysia, but I always saw myself as a company man. And I never thought that running a public practice would look the way it does today, too. Working with the cloud tools, collaborating remotely, working from overseas, chatting with clients via a messaging app… it’s a completely opposite experience to what I had expected, and I’m extremely excited to discover what will be possible in five years’ time.

What is your favourite part of your work?

The fact that every day is different. The bulk of our income is from fixed fee packages which include meeting time. So, some of each week is spent on the road chatting to clients, some time is spent working with my staff on accounts and bookkeeping processes. I also do the bookkeeping for new clients during the onboarding and discovery process, and then some of the time is spent doing compliance.

No Monday dread: Why I quit the big four to set up my own practice
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