Tom Wilcox, Director @ Counterculture Partners Limited How I Made It
Tom Wilcox is the Director of Counterculture Partners Limited, a financial services company which specialises in helping cultural, creative and third sector organisations to plan, manage and thrive. Tom has done it all: he joined PwC as a graduate trainee, he worked as a finance officer for Arts Council England, and he was the Managing Director of the Whitechapel Gallery for almost seven years. Here Tom tells us about the twists and turns of his eventful career so far…
Like most students, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do when I was at university. Studying history at Queen Mary, University of London, meant that no discernible career path was set out in front of me, unless I wanted to be a history teacher or work in a museum. I thoroughly enjoyed my subject, I learned a lot, I developed my mind and it helped me to think analytically. However, the inspiration for my career was always going to come from somewhere else.
Student union sabbatical
During my time at university, I took a year off to work as the Vice President of the Queen Mary Students’ Union. This helped me to become more interested in how businesses are run, especially cultural and not-for-profit organisations. In my time as Vice President, I was responsible for finance, student activities and commercial services.
You might think that my decision to take a sabbatical was a logical step towards boosting my employability, but, in actual fact, I didn’t do it for the purposes of gaining work experience. My main reason for taking the Vice President position was that, at the time, the union wasn’t very well run. I wanted to make a difference and provide the students of Queen Mary with a much better service.
The ‘Big Four’ graduate scheme
After graduating, I joined PwC as part of a graduate programme, working as an auditor and consultant in the public sector and charities department. It was intense, but it was a really good learning experience. I learnt more in those three years than I would have done if I’d started working in the arts and charity sector immediately after graduating
My time at PwC gave me great experience, and it was extremely helpful for eventually moving into the arts and charity sector. However, when you work as a junior consultant for an accountancy firm like PwC, you’re very separate from your clients. You’re a small cog in a very big wheel.
It made me realise that working for one of the Big Four was something I definitely didn’t want to do forever. I always felt one step removed from the people who were doing the things that I was actually interested in.
I am pleased I got the chance to work for such a reputable company though, and it definitely helps to enhance your career prospects. I wouldn’t necessarily say that having PwC on your CV gives you the ‘wow’ factor, but it certainly elevates you above other candidates. People certainly look at that experience and take you seriously; it validates your expertise and emphasises your potential.
Making the transition into the third sector
After I left PwC, I worked for Arts Council England as a finance officer. Arts organisations are ‘culturally’ quite different to corporate firms. However, the Arts Council is quite a big organisation, so it wasn’t such a massive change.
A much more challenging transition for me was moving to the Poetry Society; a tiny organisation with a much smaller support infrastructure. There were only eight of us in the organisation, which meant I had to do things I’d never done before. It was a different challenge altogether, and it really allowed me to improve and hone my business skills.
The Whitechapel Gallery
I was at the Whitechapel Gallery for almost seven years and it was a fantastic privilege to work there during a time of great change. I joined the gallery as the Managing Director, which meant I was responsible for finance, HR, operations, facilities and I.T.
In my time, the gallery underwent a £13 million extension. We bought the adjoining library and we developed the gallery significantly. I managed the entire project. This, I would say, is definitely the biggest achievement of my career so far.
I certainly wouldn’t have got the job if it wasn’t for my experience in arts organisations like the Arts Council and the Poetry Society. In fact, I was actually recommended for the position by a former colleague of mine at the Arts Council, which just goes to show that networking is incredibly important.
Starting my own business
My time at the Whitechapel Gallery was tremendous and I’ll never do a job that fun ever again. However, I’d reached the top of the ladder and I couldn’t progress any further; I wanted to push myself and do something new. Having my own business in the arts was a long-standing aspiration, and I took the opportunity when I decided to relocate out of London in 2009.
It was my desire to establish a boutique, arts-focused financial management company, and that’s what I’ve done. I started Counterculture Partners in 2009. We have expanded fairly quickly, but not at the expense of quality. For us, it’s all about sustainable expansion. There is a lot of competition in the arts sector, but no-one else provides the same mix of expert services for the same clients.
The importance of professional qualifications
Whilst I was on the graduate scheme at PwC, I was actually studying for my CIPFA qualification (Chartered Institute of Public Finance Accountancy), but I left before I finished it. This is not a good idea though! If you go to a firm to do your accountancy training, you should finish. I’m incredibly fortunate that it hasn’t impaired my career progression.
Conscious that I wouldn’t be able to progress further without an accountancy qualification, I converted the credits I’d earned from my CIPFA qualification and took the AAT. This allowed me to take a fast-track route through the course. I only completed the last stage of the qualification process, and I only had to do three exams.
I think the AAT qualification is highly underrated; it gives you a really strong grounding in key accounting skills. However, I also wanted to do a chartered qualification. Consequently, when I was at the Poetry Society, I studied for my ICSA (Institute of Chartered Secretaries and Administrators)qualification. The course was really interesting and it gave me the opportunity to develop a useful mix of finance, corporate law, business law and governance skills.
Arts & finance
Arts organisations are businesses like any other, and thus they will always need qualified and committed finance professionals. It’s an incredibly exciting and dynamic sector to work in, which throws up all kinds of complex financial problems. Many large arts organisations are global companies too, so you may even get the opportunity to work all over the world.
The only problem with the arts sector is that there’s an awful amount of good will in the industry, and many people want to work in the sector because they’re passionate about it, but this is not enough. Across the board, there is not enough of a critical mass of people with the hard, financial skills to make these businesses work. That is what the industry needs.
By Tom Wilcox as told to AllAboutCareers
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