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Accountants on the frontline

Australia’s defence industry is gaining strength fast. The exciting new developments planned under the government’s $200 billion investment are seeing accountants adopt a leadership role in this money-rich industry.

Accountants on the frontline
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  • Maja Garaca Djurdjevic
  • August 02, 2019
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We mostly associate defence with fighter jets, battleships and ammunition, but rarely do our imaginations turn to accountants and the behind the scenes number-crunching tasks they perform. 

Accountants are in fact paramount to ensuring that defence funding is properly managed. And we are talking about billions of dollars in funding each year.  

But apart from taking charge and guaranteeing a company’s financial efficiency, accountants working in defence are also answerable for risk management.  

And this is a crucial task, especially when the stakes are measured in billions.

In revealing its budget in April, the government announced it will allocate defence $38.7 billion in 2019-20 and $175.8 billion to 2022-23.

This funding boost coincides with the government’s 2016 Defence White Paper, the Defence Export Strategy and supporting 2018 Defence Industrial Capability Plan, each of which details the government’s long-term vision to build and develop a robust, resilient and internationally competitive Australian defence industry base. 

The government has forecast that by 2028, Australia will require a larger and more capable defence industry that has the finest skills, expertise and technology. 

But Australia’s defence capability is also exemplified by its industry participation in major global defence projects. It is an integral part of the global US$1 trillion F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program, the Boeing E-7A Wedgetail AEWC, Boxer combat reconnaissance vehicle and the BAE Systems Type 26 Global Combat Ship.

Australia’s immersion in international projects and forecast advances on the local front require number-crunchers and risk mitigators, meaning that the role and value of accountants is sure to follow this upward trajectory.

The momentous task for accountants is to make sure the $200 billion is spent wisely, in a way that not only stimulates innovation, but delivers strong results. 

In order to bring you direct information from the heart of this dynamic environment, we interviewed accountants working with BAE Systems, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. These are their answers, in their entirety.

Lena Johnston

business manager, commercial derivative aircraft,

Boeing Defence Australia

Please describe a day in the life of an accountant in defence?

In my current role I am the business manager for Boeing Defence Australia’s commercial derivative aircraft business, which includes all programs associated with the E-7 Wedgetail Airborne Early Warning & Control and P-8 Poseidon aircraft. The business has a large Australian defence presence and Boeing recently secured a new E-7 contract with the UK Ministry of Defence, which will expand our presence into the UK.

My scope of work covers the financial and contractual oversight for our executing programs, risk management and commercial management of our new business opportunities. A large part of my role involves working closely with our Australian Defence Force partners as well as internal Boeing stakeholders.

I think one of the biggest differences between my role and that of a peer at a smaller accounting practice would be that there is a lot of variety in my daily tasking.  No two days are ever the same. I could be supporting the on-time delivery of our contracts or dealing with program execution one day, and developing the pricing for new business opportunities the next.

How long have you been working in this space? Is it something you wanted to do from an early age or perhaps a chance opportunity? 

I was always fascinated with money and budgets from a young age. One of my favourite childhood tools was actually an old petty cash tin. I loved keeping track of my pocket money and the feeling of achievement when I saved up enough money to buy something. I guess even way back then I knew that I would end up having a career in accounting.

My first job was in a chartered accountant’s office as the office junior. One of my daily jobs was to make coffee and tea for the accountants. This was a defining moment in my life and from that point on, there was never any doubt that I wanted to be a part of the industry.

The transition to the defence industry happened more by chance. I was extremely lucky to get my first role as an assistant accountant with Boeing back in 2004 and it sparked my passion for the Australian defence industry. The Boeing presence in Australia is largely defence-focused, much to the surprise of most people who only know the commercial aircraft manufacturing part of our business.

Once I started working at Boeing, I knew I was where I was meant to be. I developed a deep connection to the brand and to the importance of the work we do in keeping our country and our service men and women safe while they protect our Australian way of life.

How important is an accountant’s role in defence spending and risk management?  

I view any accounting role in the defence industry as being paramount to ensuring that defence funding is properly managed. We are often responsible for hundreds of millions of dollars of defence funding each year and we have an obligation to ensure we appropriately manage those funds. The key to this is ensuring professional transparency and maintaining adherence to best practices at all times.

From a risk management perspective, Boeing’s accountants are the financial risk gatekeepers of each project they support. They generally have first visibility into the performance and trends within our programs, and for that reason they are experts in both finance efficiency and business insight, and are value integrators. They help to manage enterprise risk, deliver insights that drive better results, and protect Boeing’s interests. And they don’t just produce data; they have a seat at every table and provide crucial input to every decision.

I imagine that you have access to a lot of up to date tech which frees you up for more of an advisory role. Would that be correct?  

Boeing Defence Australia is a large project-based organisation, which means we adhere to the Defence earned value management processes.  We have access to some pretty advanced program scheduling and financial performance measurement systems, which allows us to move beyond just generating data to delivering real value by providing our stakeholders with strategic advice and guidance.  

My role has changed over the years, but I would have to say that my role is largely advisory now. I currently spend the majority of my time managing enterprise risk and ensuring the company’s interests are protected.

What is most satisfying about working in this industry?  

For me personally, I would have to say the feeling of being part of the bigger picture. I get a great sense of satisfaction knowing that the work we do here at Boeing helps to provide cutting-edge technology and aircraft to defence that is used to help protect Australia.  

Working within the defence industry also creates opportunities to develop connections with people you may not meet in your everyday life. There is an incredible depth of diversity within the defence industry.

Being able to participate in community involvement activities is another perk. Boeing regularly supports initiatives that benefit many groups, including veterans, who are a crucial part of our team. We were a major supporter of last year’s Invictus Games and we regularly get to give back by volunteering at a range of events and activities.

Paul Berryman

finance director, ASC Shipbuilding,

BAE Systems Australia

Please describe a day in the life of an accountant in defence?

The difference is mostly on the spectrum of focus.

In private practice, especially smaller ones, there is generally a wide customer base across many industry areas with really diverse spread of needs while the defence industry generally has large, multi-year programs for a single customer, the Department of Defence.

My role focuses on the following for the ASC Shipbuilding business:

  • Financial controls and governance;
  • Cost accountability and control;
  • Cash forecasting;
  • Project estimates and whole-of-life cost model; and
  • Team leadership and development.

How long have you been working in this space?

I have worked in the defence industry for 16 years. I left professional services in 2003.

Is it something you wanted to do from an early age or perhaps a chance opportunity? 

A bit of both. As a kid, I loved model building, especially warships!

When I was relocating back to Adelaide from Sydney, I wanted to be with a company that was headquartered in Adelaide, which is a rarity! BAE Systems fitted the bill.

How important is an accountant’s role in defence spending and risk management?  

Very important.

The Department of Defence needs to consider the whole-of-life cost and not just the purchase price of new equipment. With a long-term construction contract, it is important to accurately forecast how much it will take to finish the work and how that compares to the budget.

The projects that deliver these multi-year major programs do have significant risks. It is fundamental to manage risk by quantifying it and costing mitigation options that allow choices and help the programs to succeed.

I imagine that you have access to a lot of up to date tech which frees you up for more of an advisory role. Would that be correct?  

Where I am now, I do, and it is great to be working at the very start of a major program where there is a clear case for an investment in up-to-date systems. This allows me to call on the accounting team’s full range of skills and expertise.

However, it can be quite a different story when you are working on a program that is in its final stages because it’s difficult to justify the investment when you’re winding down.

What is most satisfying about working in this industry?  

I just love it when I have the chance to walk through a ship to see its progress as it’s being built.

I am proud of the importance of the industry to Australia’s defence. Seeing progress on a major program like building the Air Warfare Destroyer, and being able to participate in the launch ceremony, is extremely motivating.

You mention air warfare capability, how excited are you about Australia's future in the defence industry? 

It’s a really exciting and hugely important time for the defence industry, bipartisan support for development of sovereign capability is great for the industry.

We are in a period of recapitalisation and enormous investment is going into new capabilities that will position the Australian Defence Force for the future.

This is not only about protecting our shores and our national interests but also about how we can contribute internationally.

Ritesh Pattni

finance senior manager for Asia-Pacific and India,

Lockheed Martin

Please describe a day in the life of an accountant in defence?

Apart from the fact that accountants in the defence industry work with large numbers, there are certain nuances that you will not find in smaller accounting practices. It comes down to understanding the contract structure and customer requirements. Our customer is the Australian government, while the smaller accounting practices are working for private enterprises.

How long have you been working in this role? Is it something you wanted to do from an early age or perhaps a chance opportunity? 

I have been in this role for seven years now. I have always wanted to be in finance and wanted to start my career in audit/assurance services, which I did. I highly recommend this route as it provides a solid foundation. Defence was not an industry that I thought I would end up working in but has been the industry that has provided the most job satisfaction.

How important is an accountant’s role in defence spending and risk management?   

Very important. At the end of the day, if you peel back the layers, we are all working for the taxpayer. Accurate and timely reporting of costs is crucial. Ensuring compliance with government cost accounting standards is a key part of our role.

Would it be safe to say that automation has enabled accountants to adopt an advisory role? How does it impact your everyday tasks?

Absolutely, if I think about my first day as an accountant to how the same task gets done today, there is a vast difference. We get reports at the touch of a button and can now spend time analysing rather than preparing and collating. We therefore get more time to provide valuable input to the decision maker and act more as a business partner rather than a ‘bean counter’.

What is most satisfying about working in this industry?  

Access to emerging technologies. Large defence primes, such as Lockheed Martin Australia, focus on the latest technologies and continuous process improvements. It’s also a great feeling knowing that “we serve those who serve the nation”.

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