A successful career in tax

“The work I’m doing around sales and building the business is very different to anything I’ve done before.”

Drew Wardrope – Head of Tax Insurance at Howden

Public speaking isn’t the first thing that comes to mind when you’re listing a tax professional’s required skills. It certainly wasn’t something Drew Wardrope gave much thought to whilst he was heading up M&A tax at Barclays. A lot has changed for him over the last 18 months – his public speaking responsibilities included. We spoke to Drew about the early days of his career, his impressive rise through Deloitte, RBS and Barclays and how a call from Rory MacSween at SRM Recruitment set him on a new and exciting path to insurance specialists Howden.

What attracted you to a career in tax?

I’d love to say I have this amazing story about how I always wanted a career in tax… but I didn’t. I basically fell into it. I was studying maths at Nottingham university and I got a job mid-way through my third year – I was going to be an actuary. That was great, I was set up, I could relax a bit. I deferred and took a year off to go travelling. I taught football in the States, toured Brazil in a campervan and then went to Asia. I was getting into a bit of debt, but I wasn’t worried as I knew I had a job to go back to in September and I’d be able to pay it off.

I’m sensing something’s about to go wrong…

This was 2003, way before smartphones, and I was checking my emails in an internet café in a railway station in Cambodia. The actuary company in London had emailed, asking me call them urgently. I found a payphone and was told that the company was laying off all its graduates. I remember sitting outside the internet café almost laughing to myself and thinking, ‘What the hell do I do now?’ I needed to find a new job pretty sharpish but when I got back to the UK in August, most decent firms had already hired for the year.

You secured a graduate role with Deloitte – how did you manage that so late in the day?

Deloitte had just gone through a big merger with Arthur Anderson, so they’d put their recruitment on hold for six months. I was living with my mum in Newcastle and I went down to London for a graduate fair expecting to speak to the Deloitte actuary guy. But I was told, ‘Sorry – all the actuary jobs were filled yesterday. But you can speak to the tax guy – he’s still got jobs available.’ So, I did and that’s how I fell into a career in tax.

You clearly settled into tax well because by year four, you were rated in the top five percent of the population at Deloitte. Then you left for a job at RBS. What made you go in-house rather than pursuing the partner track at Deloitte?

I saw moving in-house as a stepping stone to the partner track. Working for a big accountancy firm, you’re advising businesses all the time, telling them what to do and how to do it. I thought, how am I supposed to give this advice when I don’t really know what it’s like to implement it? In the real world, does this stuff actually work? Is it practical? Is it realistic? So my plan was to go in-house, get some commercial business experience and then effectively go back to Deloitte.

How was life in-house?

It was nerve wracking but exhilarating. When you work for an accountancy firm at a junior level, typically in client meetings you just listen in because you’ve got at least two people more senior than you doing the talking. I went from that sheltered environment to being told by my new boss in my first week, ‘You’re going to a meeting on funds. Do you know anything about funds? No? Well, you had better learn fast because you’re our funds expert now.’ I had a morning to read up on everything and then I went to this meeting with the front office and 10 or so other infrastructure groups and was asked, ‘So, what’s your opinion on tax?’ It was very steep learning curve, but I learned quickly.

You joined RBS in 2007, a year before it went into government ownership. How did that play out for you?

I look back now and think I lived through the eye of the storm. Senior management weren’t saying much – we got most of our information from Robert Peston on the BBC. We saw Fred ‘the Shred’ Goodwin in the treasury effectively pleading for money from Gordon Brown to keep the bank afloat. We watched other banks collapsing and people walking out of Lehman Brothers with their possessions in boxes. There were pay cuts and lots of extra work and day to day I’d go into the office not knowing if the bank would still be functioning. But we just got on with it. There was a real sense of camaraderie – we were all in the same boat and none of us had a clue about what was going to happen. You get rich, interesting experiences from something like that.

You stayed with RBS for two more years and moved to Barclays, which in 2012 found itself in its own media spotlight…

Yes, I somehow chose to work at two companies at the centre of some of the biggest corporate scandals in UK history! At Barclays it wasn’t our financial stability that was in question, it was our reputation. I think it changed the bank for good in that pre-financial crisis, banks were participating in tax schemes that were legal but morally questionable. Post financial crisis, people started thinking about the wider effects of aggressive tax planning – it’s legal, but is it the right thing to do?

After seven years at Barclays, what made you decide to move on?

My last three years at Barclays were amazing. I became head of M&A Tax at a time when Barclays was massively downsizing and selling about a third of the bank. I built a tax team to support that and we did loads of interesting transactions in a very short space of time. It was really fun, but it had a shelf life – the role was only so interesting so long as there was stuff to sell or buy. I could see that by the end of 2017, Barclays would have sold all it wanted to sell and my role would be coming to an end. So I started thinking about my next steps.

Was going back to Deloitte an option, as per the plan you’d had ten years earlier? And where do SRM Recruitment and Howden fit in?

I was talking to various firms about roles in M&A tax, including Deloitte. I was working on a deal in Johannesburg when Rory from SRM Recruitment popped up – he reached out to me on LinkedIn and told me he had a role that he thought was perfect for me. Ultimately he was right, because here I am at Howden! What interested me about the role was the opportunity to go out there and try to grow a business, which I’d never done before.

How fast did things move after that first email from Rory?

Unbelievably fast. It was in huge contrast to the bureaucratic, red tape environment I’d come from, where you can have six rounds of interviews and still no final answer. I had an interview with Howden’s MD on the Friday, met his colleague on the Monday morning and by Monday afternoon I had a job offer.

So you’re now Head of Tax Insurance at Howden – congratulations! Tell us about the workplace culture there.

It’s completely different to anywhere I’ve worked before. We’re majority owned by a bigger organisation but minority owned by employees, and there’s 40 of us globally in M&A. The team was created six years ago and it’s grown exponentially year on year. There’s a start-up feel to the place – it’s a really fun, exciting place to work. There are yoga sessions in the morning and everyone walks around in their sports gear. So it’s not your typical corporate world, but that’s not to mistake the fun for lack of professionalism. When we’ve got client meetings we’re all suited and booted and everybody works very hard, if not harder than in places I’ve worked in before.

Can you give us an overview of what you’re doing at Howden?

I sell tax insurance products. Let’s say a buyer puts £500 million on the table for a new business which has a £100 million tax risk. The next day that tax risk crystallises – the business is now worth £400 million and the buyer is out of pocket. I sell the tax insurance products to the buyer to protect them from that risk. Without insurance, the deal might not happen because the buyer and seller can’t agree how to share that risk. If you transfer that risk to the insurance market and both parties are happy to pay the cost of the insurance policy, which is a percentage of the total overall risk, the deal gets done.

What’s it like applying your technical tax skills in such a different environment?

As far as the technical tax skills go, the application isn’t that different from my previous roles. When you work in M&A you have to become a generalist – one day you might be looking at VAT risk in Singapore, the next it’s transfer tax in Italy. That part of my work hasn’t really changed.

So what is different around your current role – and what new skills have you developed as a result?

The work I’m doing around sales and building the business is very different to anything I’ve done before and I find it really interesting. The workload is intense: I’m working on deals, servicing existing clients and all the time trying to grow the business and make new contacts. There are lots plates spinning and you need energy and mental resilience to take all that on and not get too stressed by it. Work trips can be exhausting: we’ll do seven meetings in a day, from sitting around a table having coffee to presentations to 100 people.

And how have you embraced your new public speaking responsibilities?

Turning up at a conference and speaking for an hour to 100 delegates wasn’t something I’d done before. I do get a bit nervous beforehand, but generally I’ve been pleasantly surprised by my public speaking abilities!

What advice would you have for tax accountants in the early stages of their careers – or what would you tell your 22-year-old self starting out at Deloitte?

I’d say that it’s really important to make your own luck. There are so many things you can’t have a hand in – it’s just about being in the right place at the right time. But what you can do is try to make as many opportunities arise as you can. Do this by putting yourself out there and meeting people. The more you’re getting out there, the more opportunities will arise and when they do, you can grab them. The book Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell was eye-opening for me. He writes about Bill Gates and how he happened to have regular access to a computer in the 1960s, way before computers became mainstream. So many moments are about luck, and it’s about recognising those moments and seizing them.

Discover more stories in our ‘Lessons From Leaders’ series in our blog. If you’d like to discuss your next career change, we’d love to hear from you, so please get in touch on + 44 (0) 20 3637 7808. Or submit your CV here.