It is not a line that is heard often from an accountant, but Sarah McEvedy begins our interview by explaining that she cannot be more specific about her whereabouts other than that she is ‘somewhere in the desert in the United Arab Emirates’.
A stock accountant with Defence Equipment and Support (DE&S), a bespoke trading entity within the Ministry of Defence (MoD), McEvedy is just over halfway through a six-month posting in the Middle East, working on a multinational base alongside a joint service deployment.
DE&S exists to make sure that the UK armed forces ‘have the equipment and support they need to carry out their duties effectively’. That might mean procuring anything from boots and field kitchen equipment to a warship – the DE&S’s budget for the next 10 years is £178bn.
‘One of the high spots was flying home from Iraq on a C17 transport plane, sitting underneath a Merlin helicopter’
The role of DE&S’s finance professionals (who number just under 300 in an organisation of more than 10,500) is to make sure that the department meets its financial and management responsibilities for recording, communicating and driving financial performance. Or as McEvedy puts it, to be ‘the Jiminy Cricket on people’s shoulders, making sure that the financial decisions made are the right ones’.
That means a mixture of financial planning, budgeting, investment management and providing an expert financial perspective on the financing of multibillion-pound projects like the procurement of fighter jets and air transport.
She is normally based in Bristol, but has taken up the option of operations-based work during her career, completing a deployment in Iraq and now leading the civilian team in the UAE. ‘Travel is optional, but there are great opportunities if you want to do operations-based work,’ she says. ‘We do six months at a time with two weeks’ leave in the middle, and you can volunteer every 18 months.’ She currently has colleagues working in the Middle East, Africa and Estonia.
‘In the MoD you work on very large and exciting projects. There are amazing opportunities’
‘I would say my working day here isn’t that different from what I do in the UK, except that I’m on an airbase in the desert and we have lunch at the Australian Defence Force’s canteen,’ she says. ‘The weather is really good, though.’
Whole new world
However, there is no doubt that to anyone who has not experienced it, life as an accountant in the DE&S is anything but ordinary. ‘One of the high points was flying home from Iraq on a C17 transport plane, sitting underneath a Merlin helicopter,’ says McEvedy. ‘And when I was at home in Bath a few years ago I was given a tour of an underground government bunker and hospital that was used during World War II. Not many people get to see something like that.’
Being a government accountant, she adds, opens up a world of options. She joined the Civil Service straight from school, working at what was then called the Official Receiver’s Office and later became the Insolvency Service. ‘ACCA exams were mandatory when I joined because the syllabus included an insolvency paper, although that had been withdrawn by the time I took my exams,’ she says.
Once qualified she moved to the Crown Prosecution Service as a forensic accountant. ‘That was a huge job,’ says McEvedy. ‘I did special casework, focusing on fraud and chasing money, and the office managed some of the most high-profile cases in the country, including the Moors Murders.’
‘We have core skills that are relevant in many departments. Essentially we can go wherever we want to go’
At the end of that role she elected to move to the MoD, where she had earlier completed a short-term software roll-out project, joining the analytical and statistical division. ‘The system in the Civil Service is that you can apply to move between departments, but the onus is on you to form and pursue your own career,’ she says, but adds that the ACCA Qualification is like holding a golden ticket in that finance professionals are highly transportable across many areas of government.
‘We have core skills that are relevant in many departments, so we can move around more than most. Essentially we can go wherever we want to go.’
The excellent training options on offer – from a three-year apprenticeship programme to a two-year finance and accounting graduate scheme – make a career in the DE&S an attractive professional path for anyone interested in finance.
The work has also been consistently interesting. ‘I’ve rarely done what most people would recognise as the stereotypical work of an accountant, like preparing the books,’ says McEvedy. ‘There is a lot of variety and, in the MoD in particular, you work on very large and exciting projects.
‘You can also often self-select where you want to work. I could volunteer to work for NATO, for example, or for the European equipment-buying consortium. There are amazing opportunities at the MoD,’ she says. ‘It’s up to you to decide on your goals and make them happen.’