You would only have needed to watch Newsnight once or twice over the past 12 months to realise that the retail sector is not what it once was. The sector has gone through its share of crises recently, from a general panic at e-commerce and the threat that we would all sit at home and shop in front of a computer screen, to the resurgence of some bricks-and-mortar retailers at the expense of other, well-known names. There is no solid bet in retailing - if Marks & Spencer is vulnerable, then so is everyone else.
A decade ago, retailing was considered one of the sexier options for a chartered accountant looking for an interesting career. New media and technology companies are now the flavour of the month, but retail is still a popular option. 'Some of the best jobs you can get as a newly-qualified are in retailing,' says Mark Freebairn, retail specialist at recruitment consultants Martin Ward Anderson. This is partly because there are many dynamic retail companies out there, but also because the sector as a whole has a long-standing reputation of risk-taking as employers. 'Retail businesses were some of the first to take a risk on newly-qualified accountants coming out of large firms,' says Freebairn. 'Employers in other sectors were looking for post-qualification experience, but retailers were more willing to throw them straight in.'Two sides to the story
Generally, there are two broad options for finance staff in a retail business, which Freebairn sums up as 'the sexy, commercial side and the horrible, number-crunching side'. In the past, retail has been dominated by designers and merchandisers, but more recently the emphasis has been on the exchange and analysis of information. Accountants working in the commercial side tend to take a much more strategic role, and accountants generally, where they may have been seen as a tragic necessity in the past, are now valued for their analytical skills. Most of the larger retail organisations have centralised their data processing functions, which is where most of the 'grunt' work takes place, leaving finance staff in commercial roles to integrate closely with operational functions.
Assuming that you want more from your career than a steady pay cheque and the nine-to-five, let's suppose that you will go for the commercial option. Commercially-focused roles take in sales and marketing, merchandising, branding, consumer behaviour and just about anything else you can think of. 'There is no such thing as a dream job with no routine to it in any sector, but in retail you will really be adding value to the decision-making process,' says Freebairn.
There is a heavy reliance on management accounting skills in the retail sector, which has given CIMA-qualified accountants a head start in the past. But retailers do value the ACA qualification and it will give you an edge if you are aiming for finance director level.Show you're commercial
There is little consensus on whether working with a retail client in audit pre-qualification will help a candidate who is aiming for a career in the sector. Showing an interest in the sector certain-ly won't hurt, but it is important to remember that retailers are looking for a particular 'type'. The qualification is important, yes, but above all, they are looking for commercial potential. 'Retail employers are relatively qualification driven but it's not the be-all and end-all,' says Freebairn. 'They want people who are genuinely interested in the sector and, most of all, they want commercial people with a finance background, rather than finance people with a commercial background. They won't look for commercial experience necessarily, but for evidence that you could be commercial.'
David Hughes of recruitment consultants Executive Connections agrees. 'Retail demand is pretty buoyant at the moment,' he says, 'but as with all progressive businesses, they are looking for people who could add value to the business rather than just fill the job. It's a far more dynamic and imaginative sector now than it has been in the past, and that's reflected in the finance people they're looking for.'
In order to weed out candidates with commercial acumen, an increasing number of employers will ask interviewees to complete a short project as part of the interview process, which is already gaining notoriety. 'I can think of one company we've worked with where one candidate described it to me as “the worst case study you'll ever see”,' says Freebairn. You might be presented with a scenario - a floor plan of a store, say, with merchandising options and an expansion budget - and be asked to detail how you would decide which lines to sell, and where, in the expanded store.
Other candidates have been asked to argue advertising budgets and customer targets with an 'advertising manager' or to present a report to a 'board' on whether a two-for-one promotion would be better than a three-for-two promotion. 'Bloody terrifying' is how one candidate described the process.
The interview process is intended to reflect the eventual job - a 'typical' analysis-based role in retail will involve a lot of reporting to senior management or the board on the performance of individual stores and retail lines, as well as the relative merits of expansion, promotions or new products. Instead of recording financial figures, you will be analysing the implications of the figures and persuading others in the organisation that your conclusions are right.Reward points
For the successful candidates, the rewards can be good. The sector used to pay relatively poorly, mainly because it had the pick of newly-qualified accountants, but competition from new media companies has driven up salary levels recently. The pay structure is still heavily reward-driven, though, with typically 20% of the final salary in commercial finance roles paid as a bonus. Benefits and staff discounts also tend to be good, but you should be prepared to have the results of your work exposed to all and sundry if you work in the sector. 'That's part of the good and bad about retail,' Freebairn says. 'If the profits go up you're rewarded, but if they go down you'll have to hide under the table at the end of the year because it will be your fault.'
There are also usually good prospects for gaining experience and for promotion, but not for international travel - UK retailers tend to stay well within their own boundaries. 'Retailers tend to give very good experience early on in a career - a retail job is amazing for building your CV,' says Freebairn. 'Many companies move their finance staff around to different departments every 15 months or so, so you'll be kept very happy for about six years. After that you'll need to be talented, because it will be time to head a department. The finance director at Debenhams was appointed at the age of 33, which gives you an idea of how far you can go.'It's an experience
There is no doubt that the retail sector has suffered recently, and some of the best-known names have put a freeze on recruitment. But there is now a general consensus that e-commerce will never replace store shopping, which is bringing new stability to the market. 'The last thing retailers want to do is get rid of their stores, but the sector has gone through a mindset change,' says David Hughes. 'We're seeing people introduce the retail and leisure “experience”, rather than encourage people to come into the stores, buy something and get out quickly.'
'A lot of people thought retail would die because of e-commerce, but that's never going to happen,' adds Freebairn. 'There are changes going on as a result of e-commerce, and the job has become much more about change management, but that just makes the whole thing more exciting.'
A career in store
Camilla Martin has outstanding qualifications - excellent 'A' levels, a good Cambridge degree and first-time passes in her ACA exams - but didn't decide until relatively late in the day that retail was for her. She qualified with Robson Rhodes and, keen for a commercial role in business, left the firm two months later. After a short and unhappy stint at an advertising agency, her recruitment consultant suggested retail. 'Retail had always interested me but I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do,' she says. 'I knew I wanted a commercial role, and that retail was very fast moving. The company he suggested, Arcadia, was young, which suited me, so it seemed appealing.'
Although Camilla had no previous retail experience, the interview process itself was 'not particularly tough', she remembers. 'I did some research beforehand, looking at the big retail issues such as internet sales and branding, which was very useful at the first interview, which was very commercially-orientated. It would have been easy to trip up if I hadn't done some research.' She says that a lack of retail experience would not necessarily hold anyone back. 'Arcadia doesn't limit itself to candidates with retail experience, and neither do many others. You just need to be confident and happy to move with the flow.'
Camilla joined the Arcadia Group, which owns Miss Selfridge, Topshop, Warehouse and Burtons, among others, in the central cost-control function as an assistant finance manager, and has since been promoted to senior finance manager.
'The first job was not very sexy, but they did make a promise of a better role fairly quickly and they kept to that - I was moved on after four months.' She now leads one of the larger retail teams, reporting to the commercial director, among others. The team is encouraged to visit at least one store a week, but is mainly office-based, working with managers on specific projects. An important and fulfilling part of the role, Camilla says, is brainstorming to find ways to improve sales and profits, and then persuading others in the organisation that the team's ideas will work.
'The analytical roles in retail, like mine, do involve a lot of flying by the seat of your pants,' she says. 'You have to use your nous rather than just apply the rules you learned as an accountant. And I never know what I'll be doing from one day to the next, which is exactly what I wanted from a job.'