March 1, 2008
The Newspaper of the NYSSCPA
Vol. 11, No.4

Accountants Working Abroad

By Valerie Lum

As the world moves closer to a single set of accounting standards, accounting firms are recognizing a growing need for foreign relations. Some accountants might find an overseas assignment daunting, but many embrace it as a chance for professional and personal growth.

Accounting Ambassadors

Phil Green, international tax partner for a large Manhattan firm, spent 4 1/2 years in Amsterdam and 3 1/2 in London, primarily selecting and overseeing U.S. candidates working abroad.

“You have to be personable, open to change and accepting of other cultures.” Green said. “Those are the intangibles that come into the equation while selecting candidates. After all, you are representing the U.S.”

Bridging the Cultural Divide

Jeffrey M. Rojek, a partner in a Big Four firm in Manhattan, spent three years at the firm’s Singapore office to help interpret U.S. generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP).

In 2001, Rojek made the 22-hour plane ride with his wife, two kids and their dog. He said they’d do it again if he had the chance.

“It gives you a great perspective your global clients look for,” Rojek said.

The importance of the global perspective is not lost on his firm, which recently set a goal of increasing its global rotations from 2,500 employees on 18- to 36-month rotations to 5,000 in the next three years. Rojek now oversees the international rotations for the firm in New York City.

“For me it’s a commitment in the office making sure that the people on the inbound side have a good experience,” Rojek said.

Robert Fraher, senior manager in audit and financial service in real estate for KPMG, spent nine years overseas—four of them in Russia during the mid-1990s and 2 1/2 years in Latvia. More recently he worked in the firm’s Iraq office between 2003 and 2006.

Fraher, who could not speak any of his host countries’ languages before going, said it’s important to learn a few phrases of the country’s native tongue.

“That really shows you’re making an effort,” he said.

While in Latvia, Fraher said he experienced historical events such as the inclusion of Latvia into the European Union.

“It was a fascinating time,” he said.

Fraher said he decided to work in Iraq because he had been a part of forming overseas KPMG offices and felt that his experience with developing economies would help. Fraher said he mainly worked with the U.S. Embassy in Iraq until KPMG decided to scale back its office there in 2006.

Fraher said that when his time in Iraq is brought up, he tries to steer clear of talking about the conflict.

“I focus not on the security issue, but the quality of services that [the firm was] still able to provide,” Fraher said, “even in such a challenging environment.”

After returning to the U.S., Fraher was concerned his skills would no longer be viable in a U.S. office. He didn’t have to worry. His nine years of working with IFRS have been invaluable since U.S. generally accepted accounting standards and International Financial Reporting Standards are on a path to convergance.

Seth Tovey, a senior manager for international taxes, headed his firm’s U.S. tax desk in Tel Aviv from 2002 to 2006. He said the experience has been invaluable to his career and has changed his personal life considerably.

Tovey, who had family living in Tel Aviv already, said that he had to adjust to the Israeli style of business, which he described as being more direct and aggressive compared to the United States. He also took the opportunity to improve his Hebrew.

At the end of a conference he delivered in English, several people asked him questions in Hebrew. Not even thinking, Tovey answered them—in perfect Hebrew.

“People complimented me about answering in Hebrew,” Tovey said. “I just went, ‘Oh, I answered in Hebrew?’”

Although he claims he is no expert, Tovey said that he couldn’t help but absorb some of Israel’s tax laws—enough for him to recognize that a person was lying to him about a certain Israeli tax law.

It’s All in the Family

Leaving family, friends and a general support system are a few reasons people decide not to travel abroad. Many who do have family or significant others move with them.

Carola Knoll, a tax director at her firm, worked in Frankfurt for two months.

“Since it was only two months my husband didn’t have a problem with it,” Knoll said. “But if it were longer it would be an issue.”

Knoll stayed in Frankfurt by herself in a company-provided apartment, and her husband came to visit toward the end of her stay. They traveled around Europe and visited friends before returning home.

There was no question for Tovey that his family would come with him to Tel Aviv. His two youngest children were even born there. By the end of his term, Tovey decided that his career would best advance if he were living back in the United States. But his family loved Tel Aviv so much they decided to stay. Tovey now spends one week a month with his family in Israel, and tries to make the most of it while he’s there.

“The last time I came home it was earlier than usual and I went to pick up my youngest from day care,” Tovey said. “She saw me from the top of the stairs and started dancing.”

Fraher said a big part of his ability to adjust to a foreign environment was having his significant other with him the entire time he was in Russia and Iraq.

“Having a significant other definitely helps,” Fraher said. “You share common experiences going through very challenging environments. She can relate to what I have to say because she was going through it as well.”

Rojek, whose children went to an American school in Singapore, said the biggest concern he has heard from prospective exchange candidates is the fear of disrupting their children’s lives by taking them out of high school.

While he was overseas, Rojek said he conducted an informal survey of some American high school students and came up with some surprising results.

“There was not one bad story about the experience,” Rojek said.

Valerie Lum, staff writer, can be reached at vlum@nysscpa.org.

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