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Leading by example

Leading by example

Country managing partner at EY Michele Thompson looks to inspire the next generation of Bahamian accountancy professionals

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The Bahamas Investor Magazine
August 21, 2017
August 21, 2017
Catherine Morris

This year, country managing partner at EY Bahamas Michele Thompson celebrates 30 years with the big four accountancy firm. It has been a tenure marked by change–both within the company, and without. Against a backdrop of increasing regulation for the financial services sector, a greater emphasis on compliance and more stringent global oversight, the EY Bahamas office is continuing to find opportunities for growth.

“The only constant is change,” says Thompson. “In recent years, it is the pace of change that has been most remarkable. There is perhaps no sector that is evolving more rapidly than financial services, and our clients are facing a host of competitive and regulatory pressures. It requires us to stay ahead of that wave of change and understand how client needs are evolving.”

For EY Bahamas, which offers assurance, tax, transactions and advisory services, understanding its clients’ needs means close integration with the company’s New York office, as most clients are from the US, as well as maintaining close ties with its partner offices throughout the Caribbean region.

Thompson says The Bahamas’ branch, which has around 60 employees, is very focused on leveraging its links, being deeply integrated within the New York office both in terms of the services it provides and the exchange of personnel and expertise between the two locations.

“You will continue to see a lot of innovation in the kind of services we provide in The Bahamas as that integration continues to expand,” she says. “We do collaborate very closely with EY Caribbean offices on various projects as needed. The beauty of being an integrated practice is that we number hundreds across the region and therefore the resourcing opportunities are phenomenal. We are really on a fast track to growth in The Bahamas, which I find very exciting.”

Challenging times
With The Bahamas moving to adopt the Organisation for Economic Co- operation and Development’s Common Reporting Standard by the end of 2018, there is yet more change on the horizon for the Bahamian financial services sector.

According to Thompson, EY Bahamas has been working closely with the Ministry of Financial Services and other industry stakeholders to ensure a smooth transition and she believes the jurisdiction is more than capable of meeting any future challenges.

“The Ministry of Financial Services has been responsive in terms of developing legislation and collaborating with the private sector. As long as we remain collaborative in that process, we can continue to drive business forward and further position The Bahamas as a jurisdiction of choice,” she says. “Given the strong competition and new innovations emerging on a regular basis, I think the most important thing we can continue to do is demonstrate the unique advantages we offer and our close proximity to, and relationships with, the world’s other great financial centres.”

Thompson says that financial services organizations are facing many challenges, from how to grow and respond to competitive threats, to ways to more effectively serve their clients in a time of heightened regulatory focus. “It’s a challenging time,” she says, “but I’m feeling cautiously optimistic about our future.”

During her three decades with EY, Thompson says that one of the most apparent changes in the professional landscape has been in the types of clients the company now serves, and their expectations. “You find growth happening more around family businesses, with private wealth determining the types of products we offer.” And high on the agenda for these clients, she says, are issues relating to cyber security, use of technology and tax reform. “It is important for us to be able to respond to the challenges those issues pose, help organizations more effectively manage global reporting and respond to other regulatory requirements they face.”

Paving the way
Thompson has enjoyed a long and successful career with one of the most well-established and respected accountancy firms in the world, but things could have been very different. “My first career choice was to be a dentist,” she says, adding that it was her father who pointed her in another direction. “He knew how long it would take for me to get through a whole dentistry programme and he was seeing dollar signs! In the end I decided to take his advice and, luckily for all, it worked out.”

However, it was not always smooth sailing. Thompson completed her bachelors at the University of the West Indies (UWI), only to discover after graduating that the Bahamian accounting firms were not familiar with UWI’s curriculum and were unwilling to take her on without a more established qualification. Fearing that she would need to take additional exams before sitting for her CPA qualification, Thompson turned to a well-respected figure in the industry, Philip Galanis, then the managing partner of Cross & Thomas, Arthur Young, which would later become Ernst & Young. Galanis arranged to send Thompson’s credentials to an evaluation centre which determined that she was indeed eligible to sit the CPA. “I have Phil to thank for starting me down a career path which has brought me here today,” says Thompson. “He was the person who introduced me to the profession and opened the door for me.”

There have been other mentors since. Maria Ferere–a managing partner when Thompson joined EY Bahamas in 1987 –was an important figure for the young accountant, who was just finding her feet in a traditionally male-dominated industry. Ferere, the first female partner of a big four firm in The Bahamas, was an early inspiration for Thompson. “She steered me throughout my career, encouraged, coached and supported me through all the changes the firm has gone through. I am eternally grateful to her.”

Like Ferere, Thompson has also blazed a trail–taking on the role of assurance leader for the region. That position meant she was the only female partner working across three locations, something she says would have been difficult without the support of her male colleagues, in particular regional managing partner Dan Scott and Gil Tucker, senior partner in the Bermuda office. “The reality back then was that most paths to progression were with the support of men. I have been fortunate to work with a leadership team that consisted solely of men but has always been supportive of women filling roles that they are qualified to hold.”

As a woman, having a male mentor or sponsor helped her career progression, says Thompson. “It is sad to say that in today’s world, but I’m proud of the way I have been supported by EY throughout my career. Hopefully my example has paved the way for other women, not only in The Bahamas, but also more broadly across the region, to strive to be whatever they want to be.”

The EY family
Having overcome the obstacles to rise through the ranks, Thompson is now keenly aware of the role others have played in her success and is eager to pay it forward. Part of her remit as partner is to motivate and inspire her team. Mentoring, coaching and sponsoring young people, she says, is critical because public accounting can be very demanding. “Sometimes they just need that mentor to keep them focused, guide them to finding balance and help them realize their full potential and the full range of opportunities available.”

Thompson has a particular affinity for young women entering the sector, having struggled herself as a single mother raising two sons, which she says was one of the biggest challenges of her career. While her sons are now aged 20 and 25, Thompson says that when they were younger it was an effort to not only fulfil her professional obligations, but to also be a role model for other women.

“It was difficult to try to find the right balance,” she says. “It has always been important that other women didn’t look at me and say: ‘This job is killing her; she can’t do it. Why would I want to stay?’

“I understand the challenges that young women face when they are advancing in this profession. You have to be realistic and practical and tell them there are solutions. There are ways you can manage work and family. It’s not going to be easy, but there’s nothing to say you can’t do it. Wanting to have and raise a family shouldn’t be a deal breaker in this profession.”

In addition to her position with EY Bahamas, Thompson has also carved out time to be an engaged and visible member of the financial services community. She recently became treasurer of the Bahamas Financial Services Board, having sat as a board member for several years. She also frequently addresses industry conferences and events. Finding the time has always been a challenge, she says, but it mostly requires doing “some juggling” to be present when needed.

Joining the “EY family” means preparing to work hard, according to Thompson. She is enthusiastic about developing her staff and takes pride in the inclusive and supportive atmosphere in The Bahamas office, which encourages collaboration.

“The culture at EY is very engaging at all levels. You can walk into a partner’s office and have a conversation without feeling intimidated. There’s no closed door policy. We bring people in and we challenge them to think outside the box.”

She says someone coming in should embrace all the opportunities the firm has to offer and come with an open mind. “I’m very proud of all of our people at EY across the region. It gives me pleasure to see young Bahamians coming to our firm and the opportunities we are able to offer them. I’m really proud to see what those who are committed, and have stuck to it, have been able to achieve.”

Leaving a legacy
Now approaching retirement, Thompson acknowledges that her next challenge may simply be slowing down. “I must admit that I take my computer with me everywhere; I never really switch off.” She does however find time for some adventure, riding a Harley Davidson to the Grand Canyon for example or zip-lining in Costa Rica. “When I do retire, the first item on my list is to do absolutely nothing. When I get bored of that, which will probably be in a week, I will travel a bit more.”

When she is not planning her next great adventure, Thompson intends to stay connected with the sector, continuing to inspire young accountants and devoting time to causes close to her heart. “I would like to continue to mentor young Bahamians coming through the system so I can leave behind a legacy of good leadership,” she says.

The other legacy she says she would like to leave is the impact EY has on the local community, the government and more broadly the Bahamian people. “I would like for us to continue to have a well-respected and well-recognized brand in this market. I would like to spend more time giving back to the community by continuing what we currently do to help children’s homes and dedicate my time to whatever is needed.”

But retirement is still several years away, and there is plenty of work to be done in the meantime. Thompson says: “In the short term and long term, we want to continue to strengthen our team and bring new, groundbreaking solutions and services to our clients. We want to continue to grow our talent base in The Bahamas. The Bahamas has a long history as a centre of innovation and entrepreneurial activity in financial services, especially across the areas of asset management and banking. It is critical that we maintain a strong presence here.

“I believe that there is always more that can be done, especially in this constantly changing landscape.”

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