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My ACA Experience: Alina

Discover Alina's journey into Chartered Accountancy, from working in audit, the Natural History Museum to now working at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home.

Alina Cummins

Alina Cummins Head of Finance, Battersea Dogs and Cats Home

ICAEW route: Graduate

Industry: Charity

Location: London, UK

Alina's story...

Tell us about your career journey and what you do day-to-day in your role.

Upon graduating I joined Buzzacott LLP’s Charity and Not for Profit team. Working predominately in audit, our clients were charitable organisations. I worked on some interesting audits and with people who were passionate about what they did and so I knew after qualifying that I wanted to join the charity sector.

I have been really fortunate to have worked with some of London’s greatest institutions. I first joined the Natural History Museum as Financial Accountant. I learnt a lot about managing an audit from the other side as well as working closely with budget holders. We also went through a finance system change which was a big project for the Finance team where I was required to provide training and support for users.

I have since worked as Head of Finance at Moorfields Eye Charity, and as Finance Business Partner Manager at the Zoological Society of London Zoo where I developed my business partnering skills.

I am now Head of Finance at Battersea and I am responsible for the day to day financial management of the charity. This includes procurement, the year end audit process, monthly management accounts, business planning and forecasting. We are currently implementing a new accounting system which is my key priority!

In addition to my Head of Finance role, I also Chair the Senior Leadership Team. We are a group of Department Heads across Battersea who work together on key strategic initiatives to improve Battersea and how we work. It is an honour to be Chair and it has really helped develop my resilience, collaboration, and leadership skills.

Why did you choose the ACA over other accounting qualifications?

For me it was important to complete my qualification alongside practical work experience and I felt the ACA allowed me to do this through Buzzacott’s graduate programme. During my research I felt the ACA offered a more rounded qualification, as well as being widely recognised and respected. Given my limited experience in accountancy at the time, I thought the exposure to various areas within the field will help me identify what I would like to do once qualified and the ACA definitely helped me with this.

Who or what inspired you to become a chartered accountant?

I really enjoyed maths when I was at school and according to my mum that meant becoming an accountant! I didn’t know what that involved but didn’t know what else I could do which used maths, other than a maths teacher (which I would equally have enjoyed, I am sure). So, I studied Accountancy as an A Level subject to understand it better. Turns out I weirdly enjoyed the methodical and logical nature of double entry bookkeeping and decided I would continue down that path.

Our accountants are more than you’d imagine. They challenge the traditional accountancy routes and career paths. They have an innovative approach and skill to their work. How does your career path, attitude and skillset support this?

I remember during my first interview for a graduate role at Buzzacott, I was asked whether I wanted to apply for the Charity and Not for Profit team, or the Corporate Team. At the time I questioned whether the typical corporate world was for me and being asked that question changed everything for me in that moment. I remember thinking how lucky I was to be able to specialise even before my career started!

Working for amazing charities such as the Natural History Museum, Zoological Society of London and Battersea Dogs and Cats Home had meant that I was able to develop not only my charity knowledge, but also my commercial skills. They are run no differently to businesses but also need to consider their charitable impact and comply with wider reporting requirements. It is crucial my skills are kept up to date so I can provide the right support and advice to our teams.

Do you think there is such a thing as a stereotypical accountant? If so, how do you challenge this stereotype?

Yes, and that is totally fine! The role of the accountant has evolved over the last ten years and organisations are discovering what kind of accountant they need. Increasingly there has been more focus on a business partnering style accountant which is crucial for growing organisations who need insight to support that growth. Business partnering is great for those with strong people skills who can understand the organisational need and offer advice accordingly.

However, there is also a need for the ‘stereotypical’ accountant to continue with key day to day responsibilities such as the completion of VAT returns, financial statement reporting, etc, particularly as financial reporting requirements become more and more complex.   

So what if an accountant is introvert, is good at maths and likes tax? The great thing about the accountancy field is that it is inclusive and that there is a role suitable for anyone should they want to develop a career in it.

Why did you decide to go down the route you did?

The thing about doing a degree in Accountancy and Finance is that towards the end of the year, everyone is competing for a graduate role/internship, for the Big Four. I did too and felt lost amongst the application process. I didn’t think the accountancy field was for me if it was going to be quite corporate and so I considered going down the teaching route.  

The summer I graduated I was watching the Apprentice and a candidate – Lucinda Ledgerwood – stood out to me. She was quirky and fun and made me realise that even in a typically corporate environment she was able to be herself.

When applying for graduate roles, I looked into applying for medium sized firms as I wanted a more personal touch to the application process. Being asked during my first interview at Buzzacott if I wanted to join the Charity and Not for Profit or Corporate Team was such a key moment for me. I felt that Charity sector was more aligned to my values of wanting to work with people and make a difference and I haven’t looked back since!

What do you love the most about what you do?

No day is the same which means no worries are the same! It has really helped build my resilience and has helped me get through challenges knowing that eventually things will be resolved.

Being in Finance means you can have an oversight of what is happening across the organisation as this is reflected in the figures. I have been part of some surreal moments – approving a payment of an invoice for a stegosaurus and receiving a cheque donation from Buckingham Palace are just a few examples! Having this oversight has really helped develop my strategic skills which can help me make decisions which impact an organisation as a whole.

At ICAEW, we encourage applicants from all backgrounds. What skills do you bring to your career due to your degree and why did chartered accountancy appeal to you?

I decided to do a degree in Accountancy and Finance as at the time I had already made my mind up about becoming an accountant and I thought a degree in the subject will help. I really enjoyed my degree as it was all encompassing. It covered audit, financial reporting, financial statement analysis, tax and even public sector accounting! Everything (apart from tax!) was logical, methodical, and balanced. It all made sense to me and so there was no question I would want to head into chartered accountancy.

Did I feel it gave me an advantage when doing my qualification? Not really! Whilst it was great to have a base understanding of accountancy, I didn’t have the skills that the ACA qualification provides and this has been the key to my accountancy career.