Margaret El Khalidi arrived in England from Poland as a bright-eyed 19-year-old with little money but big dreams. Today, she’s on the board of Harwood Hutton, one of the UK’s most dynamic regional accountancy practices, a true example of a self-made business leader. To mark the occasion of International Women’s Day, Margaret shared some highlights of her inspirational journey in a Q&A session with Jo Phillips, head of Harwood Hutton’s HR team.
Margaret, can you give us a bit of your back story
I’m from a small town in the north-east of Poland called Sokolka. I’ve always loved numbers, and maths was my favourite subject at school, but I had no idea what I wanted to do as a career. After finishing high-school, I wanted to study foreign trade in university in Warsaw but came up one point short on my entry test and didn’t get the place. That was my first real setback and I felt crushed at the time. However, it must have been written in the stars because soon afterwards came an opportunity to go to England to learn English language. That would surely give me a better chance of pursuing my dream degree course the following year. Or so I thought! I paid for a six-week English as a Foreign Language course in London and set off on the 30-hour coach journey, arriving at Victoria Coach Station in the early morning of 12 January 1992. I knew just a handful of words in English and had the grand sum of fifty pounds in my pocket. I picked up jobs in east London cleaning houses, and once my English improved, I worked as a waitress to pay for my language courses.
So how did you enter the world of accountancy?
Once I finished my English courses I was looking for something else I could study to better myself, and it was totally by chance that a colleague in a restaurant I worked in, Jack from Mauritius, suggested I visit Emil Woolf College in Angel, where he was studying Accountancy. I enrolled the first day I went there and fell in love with it. It combined two of my favourite things – numbers and problem-solving. I was studying by day and working in the restaurant at night. It was at college that I met my wonderful husband Andrew, and our first child, Samir, was born midway through my exams. Eventually, I completed each of the 14 ACCA (Association of Chartered Certified Accountants) papers and was on the path.
What happened next?
To fully qualify as an accountant, on top of my exam passes, I needed three years practical experience. I was desperate to get started in practice but it was hard to find a job which didn’t require experience. Then fate played a part once more: I was cleaning a house and before tidying away a two-day-old copy of the Evening Standard, I browsed through the classifieds and found a tiny advert: “ACCA Affiliate required. No previous experience necessary”. It was as if it was meant for me, because the job was still available and I got it. It was a very small firm, with just a handful of staff, so I was thrown in at a deep end and learned to do all kind of jobs, from typing my own letters through to preparing accounts, tax returns and undertaking small audits. I spent 18 months there and got the best well-rounded accountancy experience possible that paved the way for bigger and better things to come. After the birth of my second child, Sara, I moved to another practice, in Ruislip, and spent a further 18 months there, finally achieving an ACCA qualification.
How did you come to join Harwood Hutton?
When it became clear the partners in the firm where I qualified weren’t going to invest in my career, I decided to look elsewhere and went for an interview at Harwood Hutton’s old offices in Chalfont St Peter. To be honest, I didn’t think it was going too well but the director who was interviewing me had to step out to deal with something. Another director picked things up and we seemed to hit it off. Fate again! I started on 24 August 2004 and have loved it ever since. After a few years I was promoted to manager and in January 2012 I became a director. Five years later, I was honoured to be invited to participate in a management buy-in, and I joined the Harwood Hutton board on 2 November 2017 – the first and only (to date) female board member in the firm’s long history.
Who was your biggest influence at Harwood Hutton?
I worked under the wing of our founder partner Richard Hutton and learned a great deal from him. He was a great delegator and I got to know everything that was going on with his clients and understood how accounts, tax and audit all came together. But for all his professionalism and technical skills, it was the personal interest he took in his staff that impressed me most. I’ve always thought the mark of a good business is the way it treats its employees, and Richard was a great leader in that regard. He retired in 2015 and I am proud to say I have not lost a single one of his clients that didn’t sell their business or cease to trade.
What has been your proudest achievement at Harwood Hutton?
It has to be that day I joined the board. I’ve always been happy here, loved my work and enjoyed helping our clients grow and expand their businesses. Harwood Hutton is like my little paradise, and joining the board I saw as a reward for my resilience and my determination to succeed, which are qualities I like to see in the people who work for us.
It’s International Women’s Day on March 8. What does that day mean to you?
Well, we all know women make the world go around, so it’s fitting that we take the time to celebrate our achievements in many different industries and areas of life, across the world. Growing up in Poland, it was always a big thing, and on the 8th of March, boys would bring a flower into school to give to a girl, which was charming and sowed the seeds of respect early on. Naturally, I think it’s important to continue expressing gratitude and support for women each and every day of the year.
Margaret, a bit of fun now: If you could have dinner with three inspirational women, who would they be?
Great question, Jo, and thanks for giving me a heads-up on that one! My first guest would be Jacinda Ardern, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand, who proved you can be a strong leader while also being kind and empathetic. Then I would invite Lizzy Arnold, the gold medal-winning skeleton rider and possibly Britain’s greatest ever Winter Olympian. I love winter sports and used to be a keen speed skater myself, so I would just like to know what possessed her to hurtle at frightening speeds down an icy track, head-first. I’d also invite the comedian Sarah Millican, because we all need a bit more laughter in our lives, and she’s great.
Is there an inspirational quote that comes to mind about being a woman in business?
Yes, and not just in business but in life in general. I loved what Ann Richards, a former Governor of Texas, said about women operating in highly male-dominated sectors: “If you give us a chance, we can perform. After all, Ginger Rogers did everything that Fred Astaire did. She just did it backwards and in high heels.”
What advice would you give to anyone looking at a career in accountancy?
I would tell them not to beat themselves up when they have a setback. I’ve already spoken about how fate showed its hand a number of times in my early years, and I firmly believe things happen for a reason. Before I enrolled into the accountancy college, I paid to take a course in the principles of design, which I loved and was top of the class. But I couldn’t afford to pay for more than one term and returned to being a struggling waitress. Then along came that chance meeting with Jack from Emil Woolf College and my life took a different course. I suppose the message is to never give up. Do something every day that will take you closer to your goal – it might be reading a book or an article or doing some research – and it’s an old saying but it’s true: if you can do something you really love, you will never work a day in your life.
I always get quick, clear and definitive responses from the Harwood Hutton tax team – commercial answers to commercial issues.Robin Berry – Morgan Management
Right from the outset Harwood Hutton gave us direction and great advice – and that advice has evolved over the years as we’ve grown. We’re both medium-sized companies providing a bespoke service – one furniture, one accountancy – and the relationship works.Andy McCarron, McCarron and Co
I’m deeply impressed with Harwood Hutton’s extensive knowledge of tax arrangements for residential and commercial property landlords.Qadeer Ahmed, MD, ABA Finance
They really took their time to understand what was important to us and our business and the expertise we required. Whoever we speak to at HH, we get the same fantastic response and technical input. It’s a real partnership.Edward Finch, group MD, MRIB insurance brokers
I have worked with the directors at Harwood Hutton on a number of mutual client matters over many years. The reassurance of their clear, commercial and focussed advice is one of the main reasons I regard this as one of my most valuable professional relationships.Frank Wessely, Partner, Quantuma LLP
Harwood Hutton never seem to rest on their laurels. They are always seeking out new avenues and ways to improve their offering. A very forward-thinking company with staff who are always well briefed and who approach each task with drive.Karl Austen, MD, Surefoot Communications
We have engaged Harwood Hutton in several areas of structuring, including VAT issues, decoupling an SPV from a group structure and HMRC clearance for a transaction. The team have exceeded all expectations by being proactive, measured and very thorough.Adam Fawsitt, Director, FHT Limited
We moved to Harwood Hutton as they delivered a succinct and professional proposal. If anything, we have been more impressed post-move. They are a fantastic company to work with. They do truly differentiate. They have the skills and capabilities of a mega firm but with a personal service.Edward Finch, group MD, MRIB insurance brokers
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