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September 14, 2007

Lights, camera, accountant

Lights, camera, accountant

Incoming CPA Australia president Alex Malley is a passionate accounting advocate who has worked with groups from not-for-profits organisations to high-profile Australian sports stars. He tells Nicholas Moody how accountants can become movie stars and his plans for changing the profession’s traditional image.

If accounting were a religion, Alex Malley would be its evangelist. He was recently appointed president of CPA Australia, the sixth-largest accounting body in the world, and is on a drive to energise his profession. The former university lecturer originally took up accounting thanks to his older sister. “She told me it was a good idea. When I asked her what accounting was, she couldn’t tell me but suggested that everyone she knew that did it was successful so because she was a dominant force in my early life I became an accountant,” he jokes.

The Sydneysider says his experience of growing up in Australia in a family with a strong European flavour (his father was Maltese and his mother Greek) was another dominant force in his life and helped shape his world view. “My philosophy is founded on growing up in Australia and looking at the struggles and challenges of my parents as European immigrants – what they had given up to come to Australia for their children. I always felt subliminally that I had to live my life for more than just myself, for the family and for the dream,” he says.

Malley says from an early age he felt that he had to push down walls to see how far he could take himself, and accounting provided the vehicle to test those limits: “I’ve always stretched boundaries and I’ve always believed that your whole life is limited by your own personality and if you open your mind, then anything is possible. If you add to that the accounting degree and the accounting discipline then you’re literally unstoppable.”

A global reach

Malley, who is currently the chief executive of the Urological Society of Australia and New Zealand and former president of the New South Wales branch of CPA Australia, has more than 20 years of experience consulting to the private and public sectors. Outgoing CPA Australia president Paul Meiklejohn says Malley’s experience in academia, combined with his consulting and management skills, will be a great asset to a profession whose main challenges include globalisation and skills shortage.

Malley says he has several goals during his 18-month stint at the helm, including communicating the global nature of CPA Australia’s membership. The body boasts 112,000 members in 98 countries, of whom 20 percent live overseas. It has offices in London and New Zealand, recently opened offices in Beijing and Shanghai and is about to open two offices in Vietnam.

“We have to increasingly communicate that we are a microcosm of the world to our members. I have two deputy presidents. Richard Petty was born in Sydney and now lives in Hong Kong, and Low Weng Keong was born in Malaysia and lives in Singapore – so it’s almost like we are all around the world. I’d like us to see our profession that way and to start making decisions about our profession on a global stage,” he says.

Malley wants to reorient people’s thinking so they see accounting as a way of getting to where they want to be. That means making the profession more appealing to young people and mid-career workers looking for a change.  “I want young people to see accounting as more than just a sensible and successful career. So rather than tell your parents ‘I want to be a movie star when I finish school’, go to university, study accounting and when you complete your degree go and give advice to movie stars. Before you know it, if you advise them correctly, I’m sure they will give you a cameo role in a movie,” he says.

He also wants to change the job description of an accountant from box ticker to creative strategist. “I respect the pinstripe suit, I respect the uniform that’s been very good for us, but I also think there’s a place for us to be a bit more comfortable with showing our personality and developing our brand. Ultimately, I’d like for accountants to believe that what they do is valuable and to promote the profession as being a broad-minded, open, listening, thinking being,” he says.

There is nothing wrong with conservatism, but he wants the profession to move in a new direction, Malley adds. “We are not the bookkeepers, we’re not the quills and the history of the bookkeeper – that’s where we have come from, but we can’t afford to be that any more. That is an element of what gets produced in financial reports, but ultimately we’re moving to becoming strategists,” he says.

Increasingly, chief executives are being taken from CFO positions rather than other areas, Malley notes. He concluded: “We’ve got a destiny that is very strategic; it’s up to us to live that and to show that is where our destiny lies.”

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