A Leader’s Journey – An Exclusive Interview with Arif Masud Mirza, Head of ACCA Pakistan
By Ali Ahmad
Arif Masud Mirza, the forty-Nine-Year- old head of ACCA Pakistan, part of World’s fastest growing professional education, is average height , with an expressive, lined face and small gray hairs which he usually parts on right side.
I met with him last month on 8th floor of Marriot Hotel Karachi, for this interview. But it wasn’t my first meeting with him. I met with him last year in November in Accountancy Future Symposium, when he shocked me when he start talking in Punjabi. With his British accent, it was hard for me to guess that he can speak any other language.
After that meeting and after having a long discussion with him – I wonder why not we show the other side of this man to accountancy fraternity, especially more than 50,000 students in Pakistan, who only read about him in not-so-interesting carefully drafted articles in FOCUS Magazine (a quarterly magazine of ACCA Pakistan).
So at the end of April of this year, when ACCA signed an agreement with Higher Education Commission (HEC) in Pakistan to accept ACCA as an equivalent of Masters, we had our reason to meet with him.
The following conversation explains all – except a cup of coffee.
Arif Maud Mirza, Head of ACCA Pakistan
Ali Ahmad: Mr. Arif, you have been running ACCA Pakistan for years. Tell us something about yourown background and educational history?
Arif Masud Mirza: Well first of all, I’m an ACCA member. I have completed my ACCA membership in Pakistan. Before that – I graduated in economics which I enjoyed and it gives me a view of the social justice.
It was my Parental guidance that led me to pursue career in accountancy and I spent 16 years in the UK studying and working. I joined an accounting firm, CIVVALS and I was working there as a trainee chartered accountant. They have small clients like Artists, doctors, engineers and small entrepreneurs. I enjoyed working as an accountant. Later I worked as a tax senior at Haines Watts and as a free lance financial accountant at the Daily Mail Newspaper group, London.
From my experience of starting from a small accounting firm – I believe that Partners at SMPs have a universal quality to work hard for their business success and you have a lot of pressure to work hard and they may be “cruel” sometimes, they do speak their minds which was very abusive at times.
You could say this builds character (well especially in London).You have to work long hours and went through RAGRA (a term we use for hard work here in Pakistan). And it was a difficult three years and during that time I studied at Financial Training Co. and BPP and it was a very competitive environment, competing with big 8 trainees from the best universities in the UK.
Ali Ahmad: And how your Journey in ACCA started? Was it ever part of a Career Plan or is it just something you start loving during your course of work?
Arif Masud Mirza: In 1997 I met with Helen Brand* (head of international development at that time). She was visiting Pakistan with Mark Protherough head of Education. We had a member’s gathering at Avari Hotel in Lahore and there were only 8 members in Lahore at that time.
*Helen Brand is currently serving as the CEO of ACCA and just last week she was awarded with the Queen’s Order of the British Empire OBE in recognition for her services to the accounting profession.
Helen and Mark were here on a fact finding mission and following that meeting they wanted to have a contact in Lahore to actually support their business plans. And they contacted me to do this job and at that time I was working as finance manager at first international investment bank. So I was part time support for ACCA in Pakistan. Interestingly, I had more student’s visiting in bank than the number of bank customers visiting me.
Within six months this part time job becomes full time and in early days the first college offering this course was SKANS. And CAMS and PAC were also the others. The very first Approved Employer was Ford, Rhodes, Robson Morrow which later became E&Y Ford Rhodes Sidat Hyder.
In early days we had only 55 students but we had 400% growth in those times. And I believe the strongest reason was that we were offering an honest qualification and our success lies in the delivery of honesty of education. Some may argue that exemption played an important part but here was a genuine business sort of liking for ACCA and our first employer.
Ali Ahmad: Tell us the difference of the time when you started and now? How huge is the difference and do you see market reputation of ACCA increased over last decade of your leadership?
Arif Masud Mirza: The difference of ten years back and today is that I spent more time in making presentations and recruiting students and convincing the tuition providers and working with learning partners and employers.
I was concentrating more on recruitment and we had a risk of having too many potential members and too few jobs so we very quickly I decided to work more on employers! The best business model is to focus on employers and leaving the recruitment side to tuition providers and I think they did a reasonable job.
And now it’s about re-emphasizing on recruitment and we are keen to attract talented young man and women. They can be fromany academic background or field but they should be the best in their respective field and it those people we see as having potential in finance to bring in new ideas.
Ali Ahmad: So Mr Arif, tell us about the famous HEC Agreement of allowing masters equivalent to ACCA members? It sure puts you in limelight.
We heard that you have been trying for this deal for years. Is it true?
Arif Masud Mirza: Yes you’re right Ali. I started working for HEC agreement back in 2003 when they allowed equivalence of Masters to ICAP and ICMAP members.
I knew that it will take time but one has to understand that patience is rewarded and bureacracy can be very cruel if you try and take short cuts.
During this periodthe leadership at HEC changed many times so this was one of our main hurdle plus there was political interventions with different priorities which made work for HEC people uncertain.
Ali Ahmad: And why were you planning for this HEC ACCA deal? Many people are now arguing that ACCA qualification and reputation could not be matched with M.Com – what were the benefits in your mind when you were trying to get this deal done?
Arif Masud Mirza: This is a targeted move for a targeted segment of ACCA members and it will remove barriers for those members who wish to pursue post graduate studies, work in public sectors and in the Gulf and middle east markets.
I do agree with you here. The majority members are working in private sector but now things will change. And in this private sector there is no such thing as HEC recognized – they value ACCA qualification.
Ali Ahmad: Mr Arif, this is hard for a lot of students to digest the idea that ICAP is not allowing proper exemption to ACCA affiliates. In fact, they reduced it few months ago. And if HEC (also a Pakistani organization) is allowing master equivalence to ACCA then why there is so much difference of quality assessment by these two organizations?
And again, why ICAEW could be in partnership with ICAP but not ACCA?
Arif Masud Mirza: See, HEC is part of national education framework and semi autonomous body while on the other hand ICAP is completely autonomous and a membership driven Institution as are all accounting bodies, they are effectively run like clubs and have their own rules.
Each national body tries and strengthens itself, and there is nothing wrong about it, and even we believe that each local body should strengthen itself and we see ourselves as developing the accountancy industry and work in public interest. Though we are continuously try to convince employers that their first choice qualification should be ACCA.
At the moment there is a little imbalance. The Term CA is a brand in itself despite the fact that a chartered accountant could be from any Chartered institute with varying institutional quality.
Ali Ahmad: Is ACCA Pakistan trying to get signing authority for ACCA members? Currently ACCA members could not sign audit reports in Pakistan so are you guys trying something for it?
Arif Masud Mirza: No – We have no petition for ACCA members to allow them to sign audit reports.
See Ali, in order to achieve this signing authority we had two possible choices. We can either work closely with local body that is ICAP or change the law in parliament; we are not looking at the latter route in today’s world. We’ll go with our first option building our relations towards forging closer ties. The future of ACCA in Pakistan will be same across the platform.
Ali Ahmad: Mr Mirza – you’re speaking with the largest accountancy platform in Pakistan. As working in a leadership role for so many years, would you like to give any Message to ACCA/CA/CIMA students who are in the first phase of their careers?
Arif Masud Mirza: Young people must recognize that ones career is a journey and often ends at a leadership level. How long and to where that journey takes you are different for everyone!
Some may be fast learners, some are good at networking and others are good at transactional levels.Young professional people must understand that this is a journey and there are no short cuts and if there are any, avoid them at all costs. Don’t keep your eyes only focused on your past failures or mistakes or on what is happening around you presently, make sure that you are also looking into the future that’s where you are headed.