At A+F Recruitment we are constantly inspired by the success stories of all of the incredible Accountants we have met along the way. We really enjoy getting to know people and we thought you may like to too! In the fourth of our A+F Talks series, we talk to Jim Keane, retired Managing Partner of RBK.
Speaking to A+F Recruitment, Jim reflects on his career, the changing landscape of the Accounting profession, on leading a professional service firm for 3 decades and he shares his tips for success!
Jim Keane is a founding partner of RBK ( formerly Russell Brennan Keane). RBK is Ireland’s largest independently branded accountancy firm. With offices in Dublin, Athlone and Roscommon, RBK provide Audit, Accounting, Taxation and Business Advisory services to domestic and overseas companies and individuals.
Jim was a Managing Partner of RBK for over 30 years and was instrumental in driving it’s growth and success to the firm it is today with over 200 staff and 19 partners. Although official retired from “active duty”, Jim maintains an active involvement and participation in a number of family and Joint Venture businesses in UK and Ireland.
Jim is a native Mayo man and a fellow of The Institute Of Chartered Accountants in Ireland.
1. Why did you choose a career in Accounting & Finance?
How long do you have!? The short answer is it was accidental. I survived a tough 5 years in boarding school by immersing myself in sports and particularly Gaelic Football. There was no C.A.O. at that time and while there was an awareness of the importance of the Leaving Certificate, grades were not as important in getting to the next stage in life. There were no Career Guidance Teachers.
I do recall reading a book on Careers and saw Accountancy on it but I had, at that moment, more interest in becoming a Radio Officer on a ship! Most people at that time, including myself, didn’t understand what Accountancy meant.
2. What brought you to the Midlands and how did you come to set up RBK with Paddy Russell and John Brennan?
During the summer of my Leaving Cert I visited my Sister in Scotland and got an interview with a firm of Accountants in Glasgow. The principal, Mr. Gilbert gave me great advice (although I didn’t think so at the time) to go home to Ireland and get a degree first and then take up Articles and Apprenticeship.
In September of that year I rocked up to the Aula Maxima in NUI Galway with a number of other guys and joined the queue with the most girls in it! It was the Commerce Faculty and I learned too late, and to my horror, that it was done through Irish only. So much for preparation, but lesson learned! I wasn’t a native speaker but persevered and enjoyed a wonderful 3 years in NUI Galway. I never gave another thought to Accountancy until, with no other option, I found myself back in NUI shaping up to do a H.Dip leading to teaching. I knew I didn’t want to teach but hadn’t succeeded in getting an apprenticeship for accountancy. Then after a couple weeks I spotted a notice in the Archway put up by the Librarian to contact him if any Graduate was interested in accountancy. He phoned Paddy Russell and arranged a time that day to meet me off the train in Athlone. I missed the first train but got the next one and Paddy guessed what might have happened and met me. He did a “not so thorough interview” and game on at Ir£6. 3 shillings and 4 pence per week starting following Monday.
At this point I was 20 years old and for the first time in my life I started to commit in a serious way to Study. Fortunately I liked the work although it took me some time to grasp and understand the “Debit” and “Credit” of Accounting which is its bedrock.
3. What do you see as being the biggest differences to the accounting profession from when you started out in 1966?
It was more difficult to get an apprenticeship back then and just a few years before that Articled Clerks paid their Principals for the training and learning. There was a limited demand for Accountants. The study courses were done by correspondence through the School Of Accountancy, Glasgow and they recommended books in the various subjects – Zoom online learning through pigeon carrier!!
In my opinion, both these factors contributed to a very high failure rate in the annual Institute examinations. I recall success rates as low 16% with no repeat option for a year.
Thankfully, today there is a much more structured system in place by the Institute /Principals which includes regular lectures and extended time off from work leading up to examinations.
On the work side, while the core requirement of really understanding “Debit” and “Credit” remains, its utilisation has been transformed by technology.
Specialisation within the profession is now the norm whereas in 1966 and for a couple of decades thereafter, a good knowledge of Accountancy, Audit, Taxation, Financial Services, Mergers and Acquisitions, Insolvency etc. would be adequate to service mainly a local/UK market.
Growth in economies worldwide brought significantly more international commerce and with that came more rules and regulation, rapid changes in Corporate Law, Taxation, Audit Reporting, Corporate and Financial Reporting, International Agreements and so on. With all of that came higher risk. In connectivity terms, the world seemed far away in 1966. Now it’s a big village and specialisation helps to better navigate and deliver services to the village.
That brings multitude of opportunities for the very bright Graduates/Post Graduates entering and working in the profession. It is a worldwide skills passport.
4. What advice would you give to young Accountants early in their career?
Do not be in a hurry and always have the enquiring mind.
During apprenticeship, getting the balance right between work, study and sports/social life can be challenging but is very important. I hesitate in being too prescriptive on how to achieve this as it obviously varies from person to person. What worked best for me was allocating my day/week and use of timetables and targets particularly for the study element.
During training it is beneficial, if possible, to get exposure to core services such as Accounts Preparation, Audit, Taxation, Report Writing, Business Computer skills etc.
Develop good communication skills with work colleagues, communities and clients.
After exams are complete, if possible, spend year or two in the workplace you studied in just to get a feel of what’s it like without study.
Take time to travel and see the world, work in a private enterprise for 2/3 years and then decide what sector and what country you would like to work in.
Life is a journey of learning. Stay tuned in to it.
5. You have always been a great advocate of supporting local and giving back to the local community. What do you see as being the key challenges facing businesses as we attempt to reopen the economy?
I’m generally an optimist and remain so in relation to the challenges in reopening the economy. Unfortunately, a very large part of the private economy have and continue to be adversely affected. Overall most will survive and eventually recover. Obviously certain sectors – Hospitality, Leisure, Travel, Retail Clothing, etc. are very badly hit and there will be casualties after the various supports cease. I’d hope that any business which is viable and sustainable in “normal” times is not forced out of business due to lack of cash flow as a consequence of the pandemic. A national fund should be set aside to specifically identify such businesses and provide funding to get them across the valley. We all would benefit from avoiding unnecessary collapses and at worse I’d guess it would be tax neutral, if not positive.
Interestingly the UK give Grants to ratepayers (in addition to Rates Relief) of up to £4K per Business Unit per month as well as a Reopening Grant of up to £19.5K per unit.
6. Do you think Accounting/ Finance professionals will plan differently as a result of this pandemic, more emphasis on strategic planning, forecasting and liquidity for example?
I might be shot for saying this but I think the vast majority of Accountants/Finance Professionals are by their training conservative and much of their work such as Audit, Tax Compliance, etc. involves looking at events that have already occurred.
I don’t see this changing as a result of the pandemic. With or without a pandemic, Accountants in the Professional Services could and should play a more active role in assisting small and medium sized businesses with their Strategic Plans, Forecasting and Cash Flows. Larger Businesses will have their own Accountants doing this.
7. What lessons have you learned personally from the Covid crisis?
Patience. A great reminder also not to worry about the things I can’t control. I appreciate having even more time with my good wife. Also learned the need for good broadband and connectivity in the home.
8. As you look back on a career of over 50 years co-founding and leading the largest professional services firm in the Midlands, what do you think was the driving force behind RBK’s growth and success?
Looking back I think RBK’s Growth over 50 years (most of it organic) was due to a unified partnership of like-minded people and wonderful staff, many of whom worked their whole life with the firm. Naturally we had different personalities in a complimentary way, but were like minded in work ethic and commitment. We also kept close to our Clients and were prepared to help them with their problems and worries. This built a trusted business relationship. Many were small to medium family businesses and in many ways we grew as they grew with an added bonus of a satisfied customer referring us to somebody else. Because we knew practically everything about their businesses and personal financial affairs this led into areas like Succession, Investments, Pension’s etc.
We also reinvested our own capital into the expansion and growth including 5 Office acquisitions/expansions in Athlone alone to finally bring us to purpose built Offices –RBK House, Irishtown, Athlone in 1999. The reinvestment of capital helped us through at least 2 recessions.
Another factor of distinction in the Midlands at the time was the introduction of a specialist Tax department. We also adapted to computers at an early stage, although it was a stand-alone and took up about half the room it was placed in!
9. From a recruitment perspective, how challenging was it recruiting accounting staff in the midlands?
Recruiting staff in the Midlands was a major problem up to the late 90’s. Athlone was not perceived as the go to location for either Graduates or very young professionals. Athlone Institute were not covering the range of Commerce courses as it does today. The not so young Professionals were not as difficult to recruit. Overall it was a challenge and at times bordering on a barrier to growth.
Having said that we had successes and I’m glad to say several of those Graduates are now Senior Partners in the firm and fronting the next phase of growth.
10. What is the proudest moment of your career to date?
A difficult question, but it has to be the RBK legacy.
11. What are your key motivators?
I remember a casual conversation with a philosophical colleague student friend in the Long Bar in Eyre Square, Galway one Saturday evening in the month of October. I didn’t drink then. He was just after returning (late back) from working in London during the Summer to earn money to pay for his “keep” and continue his studies in Science. Referring to a number of Medical Students at the other end of the Bar who we knew had spent several years in UCG but were still only in 1st or 2nd Med he asked me “do you know the difference between us and them down there”? After telling him where to go with his “heavy” conversation he persisted and asked me again with a smile on his face. Then he said seriously and profoundly “We cannot afford to fail”. He didn’t.
That stuck with me.
Ambition to be the best I can be is one of my key motivators.
Using setbacks, such as the serious football injury I had in my early twenties, also motivated me to compensate on other fronts as well as serving to keep commercial setbacks in perspective.
I am fortunate that I am passionate about the work I do so and as they say “going to work” is not really “going to work”. It’s an excitement and a pleasure.
12. Someone you look up to or aspire to – professionally or personally?
Michael O’ Leary. Collison Brothers. John Hume.
13. What is your favourite Mantra?
When an audit team completed their historical work and felt a bit exhausted and perhaps over budget I’d be known to say “You now need to get in to the trenches with that client and discuss their plans for the future and see how we can help”.
14. What is your number one tip for success – professionally and personally?
Good work ethic, lead by example, good communication and business relationships and be firm but fair to colleagues and staff.
15. And finally, you are a proud Mayo man, will 2021 be the year that Sam makes the journey to the West?!
Yes proud red and green Mayo man and sure what’s another year waiting for Sam.
Rumours abound that we will get Sam and Joe in the one year but not sure yet whether it’s this year or next!! Or maybe the year after!!