Matthew Rees is the Group Head of Indirect Taxes with the FTSE100 asset manager, Schroders. A bright Oxford graduate, Matthew started his impressive career to date with PwC, where he trained for his CTA and progressed through the ranks in VAT for financial services businesses, all the way up to Head of Investment Management VAT prior to his current role.
We sat with Matt to ask on key areas where someone of his standing may be able to offer career-insight, between experiences in practice and in-house, and what advice he might be able to provide – to himself and the next generation of tax professionals.
How are things at Schroders?
Schroders is a really pleasant place to work, and I don’t use the term ‘pleasant’ lightly. As you know, a significant portion of the shares remain owned by the Schroder family, which I think keeps a family-feel to the office – it’s a very collegiate environment. The culture totally revolves around treating staff well, and this is reflected in the tenures of those employed. Some of my colleagues have been at Schroders for 12, 15 and even 18 years, which speaks volumes.
You made the transition in-house at a fairly senior level. How was the adjustment and what challenges did you face?
I think the transition was both insightful and challenging. The good news is that I had progressed to a fairly senior level within PwC and had worked in a number of different teams. Through these various roles and rotations, I had developed decent soft skills, such as team management, which were largely transferrable to the in-house context. But the key transition is getting your head fully around the responsibility involved in-house, in terms of end-to-end process ownership and stakeholder management. It isn’t the easiest process but if you keep at it, the effort and hard work will definitely pay off.
With these challenges in mind, what practical advice would you give to yourself if you could, when tackling these transition challenges previously?
Great question. Practically, when making the first step from practice to in-house you simply must remain open-minded. You really don’t know what it will be like – closer to the lines of business and responsible for full delivery of projects – until you’re there. At the same time, it’s fundamentally important to keep hold of what you’ve learned in practice. Keeping fresh with the technical matters you’ve faced previously puts you in a good position to have ‘quick wins’ when in-house and this is where you have the opportunity to add value and build a profile.
On a wider note, as I’ve developed in my role at Schroders, I’ve found it very helpful being a member of sector bodies: e.g. the EFAMA and IA VAT committees. I say this on three accounts; firstly, it’s good to give something back; secondly, it’s important to retain a network of peers with which you can share experiences, challenges and opportunities; and finally it requires you to keep your technical skill levels up – I enjoy the learning that comes, for instance, from delivering presentations on key topics to these groups.
You have an impressive career to date and have progressed quickly amid this hyper-competitive climate. What do you do for downtime?
I’d say the first thing that comes to mind is that the work-life balance in-house is significantly better than that you’ll find in the Big 4. And so this transition in itself allowed me to refocus my energy where it was most effective, once I’d got my head around the remit of responsibilities. I’ll never forget a mantra made by an ex-colleague at PwC – “nobody ever died from a lack of tax advice”. Your work needs to be engaging, but not all-consuming.
Beyond this, sports have always been a huge passion and big outlet of mine – cricket, rugby or anything you can watch or play really. Also, my wife and I are big on travelling. I’m not a ‘by the beach’, relaxation type of character – being quite high energy means that even on holiday I’m out exploring and learning or trying to sneak out to watch a local match!
What are your guilty pleasures?
Love Island. Strictly Come Dancing. Made in Chelsea. A few members of the team are always first in the door, and I’ll admit during the peak TV season our early morning conversations could be a little more VAT focused.
How would your team describe you?
I’d like to think they’d describe me as a smart guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously but treats everyone honestly and fairly.
What challenges, personally or professionally, do you think the next generation of VAT professionals face and what advice might you give?
I remain amazed at the hyper-competitive nature of the world right now. I look back at the graduate interviews I used to host at PwC, and I was consistently astounded at the quality of candidates who walked through the door. The range of qualifications, grades, knowledge and abilities acquired at a very junior stage in their career was as humbling as it was impressive.
It’s a bit of an arms race today in career advancement; you just need to keep at it and stay true to what you want to do. On this note, I’d equally suggest not being too narrow with aspirations – I look back to how focused I was at university on getting top grades and playing rugby and there were perhaps a lot more experiences I could have gained if I’d been a little more relaxed.
We’re doing a blog series currently on interview preparation, drawing on the common shortfalls and practical advice. Where do you see candidates falling short in interviews, and what advice would you give here?
As you know, we are lucky enough to have very good applicants at Schroders, which makes the interview process much easier. Beyond this, I note that 75%+ of the candidates I have seen have the skills to do the job, so when it gets to the interview stage, it really comes down to displaying a personality and seeing where you best fit in. There is obviously some basic homework that everyone should undertake in preparation for interview – Google is your friend – but the key message I would have it to be yourself and try to make a personal connection with the interviewer. After all, you are going to be spending a lot of your life with your colleagues!