Accounting for taste

Accounting for taste

Jann Brown, the new president of ICAS, the chartered accountant’s institute, has a full-on diary. However, the outgoing managing director of Cairn Energy and chair of Wood Group’s audit committee, finds time to have a working lunch with BQ’s interviewer Jenny Hjul

Jann Brown has described accounting as ‘an incredibly varied, creative, exciting job’, which might not fit everyone’s idea of the profession but is clearly her heartfelt view. She is finding time for lunch before an ICAS board meeting and I sense – though she is charming and courteous – that she can’t wait to join her colleagues and talk about more important things than her life story to date.

But while I have her attention I resolve to find out how a fellow history graduate managed to steer her career in the direction of high finance, oil exploration, global travel, and £1m-plus pay packets.

Hers is not the typical outcome of an arts degree, even from Edinburgh University, but to say it was all unplanned would not do her justice. Nothing about her appears random, from her elegance to the way she answers questions, carefully choosing her words.

But there is a slight problem. We have met in the Norton House Hotel, which she knows well, thanks to its location close to Edinburgh airport – very convenient for those early flights when your home is in East Lothian.

Jann ExtraThe restaurant is noisy and Jann, a feminine powerhouse in a man’s world, is softly spoken. I ask a waitress to turn down the piped music and she warns me that a party of 60 is about to take over an adjoining room. Would we like to move somewhere quieter?

We end up in a lounge and prepare to eat lunch off a coffee table but Jann seems undeterred and takes up where we left off.

“To be honest, a fair proportion of chartered accountants come from non-relevant backgrounds so when I decided I needed to go out and earn some money, it was a toss-up between law and accounting.”

Accounting won because the route for a post-graduate was straightforward and, after completing a conversion course, she landed a training contract with KPMG. She was in her thirties by then, having married and started a family young, but her stay at home days had come to an abrupt end.

“My husband had cancer so the breadwinner baton passed to me,” she says. Low paid, part-time work was not an option and nor, at that stage, was jumping on and off planes.
“I quickly realised that the default route for progress was audit, and that involves a lot of travelling. That wasn’t going to fit into the domestic circumstances, so I moved sideways into tax, which was one of the best things I could have done.”

The tax exams were ‘the hardest exams I’ve ever done in my life’, she says. It involved lots of studying at the kitchen table alongside her daughter, who had started school, and her son, still in nursery. But it was worth it.

“I really loved it; it combined a bit of law and business, it was really interesting and it automatically exposed me to the corporate finance transaction work, so it was perfect and there was no travel.”

It does seem ironic now that someone with a ‘bus pass to Delhi’ and a suitcase permanently packed once insisted on staying put. Even when she first went to Cairn Energy, after 10 years at KPMG, she didn’t want to be away too much.

“My husband still laughs like a drain about this because when I was talking to them about taking on the job, the biggest point of discussion was about how much travel I’d do.”
By then she was married to her second husband, Tony, whom she met at KPMG. He was in the publishing business and was able to work from home and look after the children.

“Up to 1997 his career was more prestigious than mine and then I was offered a move and we sat down and decided, right, okay we’ll switch... so that was the point I really put my foot on the gas.”

It’s an appropriate metaphor for the next stage in her career, which saw her catapulted from tax manager at Cairn to the boardroom, as finance director, and eventually as chief financial officer and managing director.

This might sound daunting but she talks about her achievements, not just becoming one of the most senior women in finance but also in the oil and gas industry, as if it’s been a
hoot. From Cairn India’s flotation on the Indian Stock Exchange in 2006, raising $2bn in record time (‘amazing’), to criss-crossing the globe (‘fascinating’), to handling meetings of 50 to 60 people (quite fun!), she seems to have relished every challenge thrown at her.

“I think what I liked in particular,” she says, “was seeing how very different the approach to business was in different cultures and the speed that you’re moved through from the social to the business. In New York, it’s five minutes flat, whereas you go to India and the first two hours of any meeting are spent chatting and drinking tea before you finally get down to it.”

Didn’t she find this frustrating? “Oh no,” she laughs, “I really enjoyed it. I actually think it makes for better business relationships in the long term. You build up rapport…and I found out lots about cricket!”

Our food arrives and Jann watches her salmon get cold as she poses for photographs. When she is in East Lothian, she says, her husband ‘drags’ her out of her office for lunch.

“When I started not exactly scaling back but working more from home, I asked him if we should have any reallocation of responsibilities and the first thing he said to me was ‘I still want to do all the cooking’!”

She doesn’t say if this was a reflection of her culinary skills but laughs at her ‘reallocation of responsibilities’ to use managerial speak. She was once advised to adopt a sober, ‘schoolmarmish’ approach in her presentations but she wears her seriousness lightly.

“We have to be very organised and plan in advance, ” says Jann, the eldest of three sisters, who inherited the planning gene from her father. Her husband, she says, is far more spontaneous (‘but then you can’t get into the restaurant you really wanted to go to’).

She describes her marriage as ‘a successful partnership’ and credits Tony for forcing her to take time off when she’s in India. He retired when she was commuting to the subcontinent so he could accompany her on longer trips. She is looking forward to going there as a visitor ‘without thinking business’. India, she says, ‘gets under your skin’.

Her wanderlust may not be indulged in the coming year, though, as she works out her notice at Cairn, trying to resolve an ongoing tax dispute in India, and takes the helm at ICAS for the next 12 months, only the third female president appointed in the institute’s 160-year history.

She has also joined Wood Group as chair of their audit committee but insists there are still more ceilings she’d like to break, including chairing a company. One of the most interesting cultural shocks of her travels, she says, is that ‘you’re more likely to be sitting opposite a senior woman in India than you are here’.

“The heads of the Reserve Bank, lot of heads of corporate finance houses, the head of the Stock Exchange…it was all women,” she says.

It could be the ‘much closer family ties’ that affords their female executives free child care and allows them to pursue their ambitions, she suggests. She thinks British businesses could make more of job sharing opportunities, but confesses it would have been difficult to share her responsibilities at the height of her involvement in India – ‘it would have taken me longer to extract what was in my head and write it down on a piece of paper’.

She thinks she has been fortunate in the past couple of years, being involved in lobby groups such as the Thirty Per Cent Club, set up  by Helena Morrissey, City supremo and mother of nine, and meeting ‘some fantastic female role models’.

More than a role model for her own colleagues, she sounds like their big sister, advising women not to ‘cry in front of the blokes because they can’t handle it’. Instead, she invites them into her office, where she keeps a box of tissues, and closes the blinds.

I can’t imagine you crying in the office, I say, and she laughs. ‘Well, I’ve had my moments!’

She describes herself as ‘definitely an introvert’ and thinks powerful women are ‘maybe a bit more low key’ so you have to go out and look for them. As ICAS president will she be popping up on Newsnight?

“Certainly not!” she says, but quickly defends the recent ICAS concern over pensions if Scotland were to vote Yes on September 18. The public have ‘responded very positively’ to the paper the institute put out in February.

“Our job is not to second guess what the general body of our membership would think – only about half of whom are in Scotland – but to make sure that the facts and figures that are coming out into the public arena are clear and understandable and that there’s enough information. We haven’t got long.”

And nor have we. There is no time for dessert but before Jann heads off she gives a glimpse of life beyond the boardroom. There is a house in the Trossachs, ‘big enough for the entire family’, including her grandchildren, where there is no mobile reception and where she can completely switch off.

Her career has been in two distinct phases and as she enters a third – ‘a watershed’ – she acknowledges she is lucky to be able to choose what components she wants to discard and what she wants to keep.

She adds: “If personal circumstances had been different I might never have gone into accountancy, but you can never predict anything. I always thought I’d go to work when the children were a certain age. I had delusions of grandeur – doing a PhD and then becoming a lecturer.”

Her family, she admits, are slightly stunned by how it’s all turned out…and sometimes she sounds as if she is, too.

Jann Lunch