Date posted: 11/04/2017 3 min read

IFAC President Rachel Grimes on leading with conviction

New president of the International Federation of Accountants, Rachel Grimes FCA, is prepared to roll up her sleeves and help as the accounting profession faces significant changes.

In brief

  • Getting a CA qualification can be your passport around the world. You can work anywhere.
  • Don't always choose the easier option, being challenged enables you to learn more about success and failure.
  • As an accountant, it is critical that you become aware of the threats and opportunities that new and existing technology bring to the workplace.

Photography by Cameron Ramsay.

In 2014, Rachel Grimes FCA stood face-to-face with Pope Francis in the Vatican in Rome. She was introduced to the leader of the Roman Catholic Church as a member of a delegation of accountants. It was an “amazing and overwhelming” experience, Grimes says.

The Pope spoke to the gathering about the importance of the accounting profession to society: “You control the money”, the Pontiff said, as Grimes recalls it, “don’t leave anybody behind in the process, and be aware of fraud and corruption”.

Grimes’s life and career has been defined by that broader contribution to her profession and society, and Pope Francis’s message resonated strongly with her.

“I don’t want to sit on the sidelines,” she says. “I want to get in and help. That’s my standard modus operandi. I’m prepared to roll up my sleeves.”

Grimes is now contributing again. The former Institute of Chartered Accountants Australia (ICAA) president is now the president of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC), the global organisation for the accounting profession.

“I don’t want to sit on the sidelines. I want to get in and help. That’s my standard modus operandi. I’m prepared to roll up my sleeves.”
Rachel Grimes FCA, president of the International Federation of Accountants.

Her elevation comes as the accounting profession faces significant change, including technology disruption, which Grimes wants the industry to better prepare for.

But one of the greatest challenges is the growing global regulatory burden, particularly around standards and frameworks.

But Grimes is a staunch believer the profession is on a strong footing, and is living up to Pope Francis’s lofty vision, and she wants to use her presidency to defend against such regulatory overreach. “We need to draw a line in the sand in terms of standard setting,” she says.

Contributing to society was firmly instilled in Grimes as a child. She grew up in Sydney, her father a lawyer, and her mother a nurse. Both were heavily involved in the community. “My parents were absolutely dedicated to community service,” she says.  “They set a fabulous example in trying to contribute as much as you can.”

On the eve of the annual fete, Grimes’s mother would camp at the school to protect the paintings on sale the next day. One memory of that time stands out, an inkling of her future career as a custodian of money: at the school fetes Grimes would always help her father “count the money”.

Grimes started her career at PwC. She worked in audit, specialising in banking, but also helped with other clients, including global sports talent management company, IMG.

“As a self-confessed sports nut this was heaven,” she says. Grimes plans her year around major sporting events such as the Australian Open Tennis Championships. Her other favourite sports include cricket and golf, and occasionally she can be seen paddle boarding.

CA: Passport to the world

Rob Ward AM FCA, Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand’s (CA ANZ) Head of Leadership & Advocacy, employed Grimes as a graduate.

“Rob has been a big influence on me through my accounting career. I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today without his guidance.”

It was Ward who introduced her to the broader role an accountant could play. When he was the ICAA President, Grimes would sit in on meetings with him.

“I saw a different side of accounting in terms of the influence on outcomes, such as meetings with regulators.”

At PwC Grimes completed her CA qualification, which she describes as a global passport to the world. “If you want to travel, having that qualification allows you to work anywhere,” she says, adding that CA ANZ has members in 122 countries.  Grimes’s initial goal was to become a partner.

“I had my blinkers on.” But she suddenly faced a major juncture when BT Financial Group approached her with an offer. She was bitterly torn, but decided to move.

“The hardest path often works out to be the best as you learn the most,” she says. “You need to challenge yourself in different ways.”

After BT, Grimes became director of mergers and acquisitions at Westpac in 2007, where she spent seven years, working on major transactions including the IPO of BT Investment Manager and the merger of St George and Westpac. In July 2014, she became Chief Financial Officer of Group Technology at Westpac.

“Westpac is an amazing organisation that has supported me in each stage of my volunteering with the accounting bodies and it complements my desire to assist people,” she says.

Learning from another leader

Grimes joined the ICAA in Australia in 1994 and advanced to a Fellowship in 2002, before being appointed as a Director in 2006. In 2011 she was appointed President, only the second female to hold the title, and she laid the foundations for a successful amalgamation between the Australian and New Zealand member bodies by aligning their education and technology platforms.

Another challenge loomed - Grimes joined the IFAC board in 2011. The goal was to provide greater representation of accountants from the business sector.

“The hardest path often works out the best as you learn the most.”
Rachel Grimes, president of the International Federation of Accountants.

She then saw an opportunity to work closely with someone she deeply respected. In 2014, IFAC was about to appoint as its new President, Olivia Kirtley, the first female President, and IFAC’s first President from industry and business and not public accounting.

“I think Olivia is outstanding and was someone I could learn a lot from,” Grimes says. “I wanted to get closer to her, learn from her and observe her.”

Grimes put her hand up to work alongside Kirtley as IFAC’s Deputy President, and succeeded after a rigorous selection process that included mock presentations and press conferences, and an eight-person panel interview. As Deputy President of IFAC she was responsible for setting a three-year strategy for the organisation.

When Kirtley ended her two-year tenure as President in 2016, Grimes was elected as President, becoming the leading voice of the accounting profession globally.

Technology and accounting

Grimes has moved quickly in the position to make an impact. By establishing a technology advisory group, Grimes has positioned the accountancy industry for the threats and opportunities of technology, particularly artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics. The group’s first meeting this year included the CEOs of IFAC’s member bodies as well as computer giant, IBM.

Grimes says accountants need to differentiate themselves when technology can perform many core tasks in areas such as auditing, but analysis and high-level business understanding will still be crucial.

“People will always still want that face-to-face service. What skill sets do we have to build around young people so they can deliver on that?“

We need to make sure we are across things that are changing quickly, like technology,” she adds. “Data, for example, is the most valuable asset of any company. But it’s not on any company’s balance sheet. How do we audit that and place a value on that?”

High standards

Grimes also wants to help attract and retain young talent to accounting, as well as more women. But her major ambition is creating certainty around the setting of accounting standards and frameworks.

The Monitoring Group, a group of regulators and financial institutions, and the Public Interest Oversight Board (PIOB), are currently reviewing the existing standards-setting model in a bid to ensure that the public interest is being met and that the profession has the most appropriate governance structure and qualified people participating in the process.

Grimes says IFAC is always looking for ways to improve the standards-setting process and has allocated key resources to help.

But she says it is the accounting profession that has deep expertise and strong ethics, and she warns against diluting the role of accountants in the standards-setting model.

“Accountants are experts in their respective fields,” she says. “The technical expertise is such that a lay person cannot assume that responsibility. It is absolutely in the public interest that the best possible individuals from diverse geographic regions and backgrounds from the accounting profession are best placed to develop standards.”

Grimes says there is a fine line between creating an “overly independent” standards-setting model, versus having the deep expertise of accountants to draw upon.

“With ethics at the very foundations, accountants operate within the public interest,” she says. “This should never be forgotten.” 

Grimes also warns against constant changes to the process in response to events.

“The model should not be constantly tinkered with to account for extreme scenarios,” she says.

“Rather the focus globally should be the speed to market of standards and the adoption. This will ensure scarce capital is allocated to the most efficient users, and globally the world will benefit.”

Grimes says she firmly believes the accounting profession is on track to live up to the message of Pope Francis and she plans to defend it strongly during her tenure as IFAC President.

“The accounting profession is first class,” she says. “A profession, by definition, is something that’s ethically based. The global accounting profession is strong, it has robust foundations and a solid framework for our members to turn to in difficult times. The [IFAC] member bodies across the globe are always looking at better ways to support their members, ie the three million accountants across the globe.”

This article was first published in the April/May 2017 issue of Acuity magazine, which can be read in full online for free here.