Michael Barnard is the Head of Indirect Tax at BlackRock, the global investment manager. Michael speaks with Jay Sky, Senior Consultant at Pro-Tax about life at BlackRock, his career defining moments, and the upcoming challenges facing the next generation of tax professionals.
BlackRock’s size and stature is market-leading, and a brand name in the financial services sector, but for anyone new to this industry, what do BlackRock actually do?
BlackRock is a global investment manager and technology provider. We help investors of all types achieve their financial goals.
How would you describe working at BlackRock? BlackRock is a fantastic place to work. There is always something new and challenging to get involved in. There is a powerful culture of collaboration across the entire business with a focus on delivering on our clients’ needs. One thing that has really struck me about working here is the level of intellectual rigour applied to what we do. We question everything and whilst it took me a while to get used to this challenge process to begin with, I realised that once you embrace it, you see just how powerful it can be. BlackRock’s clear and vocal stance on issues such as racial equality, diversity and sustainability makes me proud to work here.
What does your role as Global Head of Indirect Tax entail? My role involves setting indirect policy and strategy across all of our global business lines. This encompasses advising on the indirect tax treatment of our services and products, dealing with tax authorities and audits, ensuring the control environment around indirect tax processes for Accounts Receivable, Accounts Payable etc. are robust and scalable and staying on top of indirect tax developments worldwide. I do a lot of work with industry bodies to engage with governments and tax authorities to try and help shape indirect tax policy. One of my main priorities at the moment is ensuring that BlackRock is prepared to deal with the digitisation of tax compliance - the advent of Making Tax Digital for VAT in the UK and ISI in Spain being two current examples. There will be a lot more of this in the future and we need to be ready.
What type of person does BlackRock keep an eye out for in tax? There’s no particular type, rather we look for people who are smart, obviously, and who can communicate well. So much of what we do involves dealing with internal and external stakeholders and being able to communicate clearly and effectively is vital. Also, we look for someone who thinks beyond the narrow confines of tax technical issues – we need to see what we do in a much wider context and to be able to navigate the tax implications of events like the Covid-19 pandemic, Brexit and the sustainability agenda.
What challenges do you see the asset management industry facing in the near future, and how are BlackRock dealing with these? In a tax sense, a big challenge is preparing for the tech enabled tax authority – being required to provide huge amounts of data in real time in numerous different formats. Also, navigating changes to the VAT regime as it applies to asset management. Both the UK and the European Commission have announced reviews of how VAT works in our sector. It’s vital to stay close to these initiatives and to provide constructive input.
What career-defining realisations have there been for you, and what have you learned at BlackRock?
- I’ve learned that it’s vital to have a good network if you want to have a successful and happy career, and that building your network takes time and effort - but it pays back.
- Your colleagues want to help you – sometimes you just need to ask them rather than waiting for them to offer.
- Understanding that you are never the ‘finished article’ is really important. Always be ready to broaden your skill set.
- Remember that you might not be the smartest person in the room! Listen actively and learn.
- Don’t be afraid to admit that you don’t know something and be open to asking for help in understanding an issue.
- Taking some risks with your career, within reason, can have surprising results – in a good way.
- Learn how to distil complex issues into an understandable format for non-specialists. Senior leaders generally don’t want to go into the tax ‘weeds’ with you. Keep it brief.
Your profile is a little unusual in that you never made the move into practice - you started your career at HMRC and have climbed to a very senior level in-house.
How was the transition from HMRC for you, and what did you take from this experience? This was a long time ago! I enjoyed working for HMRC - it was Customs & Excise back then - and I learned a lot very quickly and worked with some great people. My time at HMRC gave me some useful insight into their organisation and processes which I think has been useful in helping me work effectively with HMRC officers since I left. The one thing I do remember is that the culture was different when I moved into industry, which took a bit of getting used to. However, looking back I realise that the culture shock was quite short-lived and the challenge of adapting to a new environment was something that I actually enjoyed.
As the most senior figure for indirect taxation at BlackRock, how do you maintain your technical skill set? I make time to consume technical output from the accountancy and law firms as well as speaking to other VAT specialists in my network about current industry issues. I also try and stay close to what’s happening in our industry more generally, not just tax related content. I’m currently Chair of the Investment Association (IA) VAT Committee and also a member of the European Fund and Asset Management Association VAT Task Force (EFAMA). My involvement in these groups helps keep me up-to-date on a whole host of technical issues, not just VAT related, and puts me in contact with some of the best Asset Management VAT brains out there.
What advice would you offer someone looking to shape enhance their tax career in asset management?
- Learn about the industry at a wider level – not just through a tax lens. A broader understanding will help shape better VAT decisions.
- Look to get involved in industry-level working groups – this will help build your profile, expose you to a wider range of technical issues and enable you to build your network.
- Be prepared to take some risks in order to develop.