- Ainslie van Onselen takes the reins of CA ANZ at a challenging time for business.
- She is bringing a global mindset to CA ANZ and a focus on climate change.
- While not a CA herself, van Onselen is aware of the pivotal role CAs play in their clients’ lives.
By Hannah Tattersall
When Ainslie van Onselen started as chief executive of Chartered Accountants Australia and New Zealand in mid-May, all 420 employees across 14 office locations were working from home. An all-in Zoom call enabled van Onselen to meet staff and successfully share her vision for the organisation without any major hiccups. Behind the camera, however, things were a little hectic.
“It feels a bit like I’m in a Tom and Jerry cartoon sometimes because at home I have a budgie, a whippet puppy and a Burmese cat,” she says.
“The dog and the bird get on fine but the cat is constantly trying to kill the bird. And then the dog and the cat fight. It’s actually quite funny.”
Van Onselen, who also has two children and is married to political journalist and academic Peter van Onselen, takes the reins of CA ANZ at a challenging time for business. While Australia and New Zealand’s response to the pandemic has been commended as world leading, both countries are bracing for a particularly tough second half of the year as the world slides headfirst into recession.
Add to that the growing pressure to step up the conversation on issues such as diversity and climate change and van Onselen certainly has her work cut out for her.
Picture: Ainslie van Onselen , CA ANZ CEO. Image credit: Christopher Pearce.
Van Onselen’s global mindset
Van Onselen joins CA ANZ after six years at Westpac, where her roles included managing director of RAMS home loans, general manager of deposits and unsecured lending in Westpac’s consumer bank, and director of women’s markets, inclusion and diversity. She has also sat on the boards of legal membership bodies and was chair of the Migration Institute of Australia.
She brings a global mindset to CA ANZ. “What I went to the board and the council with, in terms of my vision for CA ANZ, is really to take it to leadership.
“So that’s leadership on membership services in the digital age. Leadership on performance. Leadership on people and diversity and sustainability,” explains van Onselen. “And leadership on advocacy and brand, which I think is an important area with a great platform for growth. I really want to cement CA ANZ in that context.
“As a membership body, my view is we need to be leading the way, leading by example and doing best practice in that area,” she says. “So, diversity and inclusion policies and strategy need to be well thought out and considered… things like unconscious bias training, our recruitment philosophy.
“It’s a whole range of things that we will consider going forward. I think it would be on every CEO’s agenda,” she adds.
There are plans to better engage with Indigenous businesses in Australia and New Zealand: “It’s one thing to obviously talk the rhetoric, but I think you really need to show a leadership position in supporting these businesses.”
And there’s climate change. In February, CA ANZ signed a call to action in response to climate change, seeing it as an economic, social and business risk and committing to eight actions that accountants and accounting bodies can take. “That’s not an issue that’s going away any time soon,” says van Onselen.
Van Onselen’s move from litigator to leader
While not a chartered accountant herself (she studied law), van Onselen was aware quite early of the pivotal role CAs can play in their clients’ lives. Her parents owned a farm in Donnybrook – an apple-growing region about 200km south of Perth, Western Australia – where they had fruit orchards and beef cattle. They took the advice of their accountant, from nearby Bunbury, “extremely seriously”, she says.
“I remember the day they paid off their farm and that it had taken a lot of hard work. The bank manager came round and the accountant rang on the landline. As a child you’re not too privy to these things, but it was obvious my parents saw them as trusted advisers. To that extent I think I’ve always had a very, very good understanding and relationship with what [accountants] do.”
Van Onselen studied at the University of Western Australia and began her career in litigation at the Perth office of commercial law firm Clayton Utz. She was hired by Australia’s future foreign minister, Julie Bishop. As a litigator, van Onselen was often briefing forensic accountants and soon realised she wasn’t sufficiently financially literate.
“I actually did a one-day Law Society course which was how to read a P&L balance sheet – as basic as that. I loved it.”
She enrolled in a graduate diploma at the Securities Institute of Australia (now the Financial Services Institute of Australasia) before undertaking a Master of Applied Finance through Kaplan Professional.
She has also sat on numerous boards – Beem It, RAMS’ Financial Group, Kambala girls’ school in Sydney – where financial literacy has been critical.
“I love numbers. It’s universality with numbers; it’s global,” she says. “Accounting, as a membership body, is so much more significant on the global stage because of the global accounting standards. The shared learnings and experiences between the global bodies – that’s been an emerging awareness for me.”
Picture: Ainslie van Onselen , CA ANZ CEO. Image credit: Christopher Pearce.
Modernising the profession
Having upskilled herself, van Onselen is very aware how important it is to keep learning. “I also know it’s really important for women because women who either do a master’s or some kind of graduate training have higher wages, on average, than those who don’t.
“From the lens of financial security and increased financial wherewithal, upskilling – doing further courses, doing a master’s, doing your continued professional development – is absolutely essential,” she emphasises.
It’s why she’s most excited about the launch of CA ANZ’s capability model, Capabilities for Accounting: A model for the future, which will be released in the second half of this year.
“Technical competence is really important, but to be an accounting professional of the future you need skills such as being a sense-maker. You need to be a growth accelerator, critical thinker, innovator, digitally savvy,” says van Onselen.
“To be an accounting professional of the future you need to be a growth accelerator, critical thinker, innovator, digitally savvy.”
Based on insights from the member engagement phase of CA ANZ’s 2017-2018 strategy development, which had input from thousands of members, the capability model will coincide with the launch of an online self-assessment diagnostic tool, planned for late August. That tool will enable members to receive a personalised career development plan so they can grow the technical, leadership and soft skills they need “to be the best accounting professional they can be”.
“This Capability plus diagnostic tool is really going to be critical. For the first time, we’ll connect it with the CPD offerings we have available and the CA Library and other related resources that we have. I think that’s a game changer.”
While it’s still early days, it’s clear van Onselen values the CA ANZ membership highly and has a strong vision for the profession.
“Whether it’s people strategies or technology innovation or disrupting ourselves in order to produce a better and more involved organisation, I would certainly hope that we would continue our growth momentum,” she says. “That’s definitely something important.”
The CEO’s top 5 priorities
To deliver exceptional membership value and make CA ANZ relevant across the entire lifecycle of an accountant’s profession.
To digitally transform the business and ensure members are fit for the digital age. This means using data and artificial intelligence to deepen and personalise relationships with members.
To enhance performance and maximise efficiencies with our cost base so we are delivering value for our members.
To build growth, lead brand awareness, advocacy and visible leadership. We must ensure we are continuing to attract and retain members – that’s a really important measure of the health of our organisation.
To encourage workforce engagement and innovation.
CAs as difference makers
One of the areas Ainslie van Onselen is keen to ramp up at CA ANZ is celebrating CAs who are making a difference – whether it’s by leading a top firm or advising a client in a small community.
“Chartered accountants do make a difference in communities and in our economy, whether it’s advice in Treasury about things we’ve flagged or scaled in economic reform packages, or whether it’s in a small town – I think they’re all as critically important.
“Yes, you can look at some of our incredible CAs in our business community who are making a difference, such as Nicholas Moore, ex-CEO of Macquarie Bank, or Alison Watkins, CEO of Coca-Cola Amatil. But I also think on the individual level, making a difference to your community, whether it’s Indigenous Australia, a not-for-profit, or a farming community, it’s just as important.”