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A Conversation with Alison Duncan

Updated: Feb 17, 2023

When we first approached Alison Duncan about being one of our featured role models she didn’t immediately identify herself with the description.

However, once we explained our desire to share the stories of a wide range of individuals who each in their own way are inspirational in their accomplishments Alison, who is the UK Tax Compliance Manager at National Oilwell Varco, felt comfortable about sharing her views and experience. We are glad that she did and hope you find her story as impressive and motivating as we do. Alison has kindly agreed to answer any further questions you would like to put to her. Please email these to or comment below by 16th August. We will publish her answers by 16th September.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I am a very proud mother of two and, more recently, a besotted grandmother of one (well, one so far!). My children/grandchildren are my passion but as a job it doesn’t pay well, so, since I need to eat, I need to work!

I have worked with National Oilwell Varco UK Ltd (NOV) as their UK Tax Compliance Manager since 2012 and I am very, very, lucky to have a job which matches, exactly, the things I enjoy about the wide, ever increasing, subject of tax. It is also only a five minute commute from home - I seriously am blessed!

When I first heard the serenity prayer - ‘God grant me the serenity to, accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference’ - I thought, that’s me! I believe that is why I feel so happy, fulfilled and lucky in my life.

Q: What prompted you to decide to study for your ACCA accounting qualification and starting a new career?

I left school after sitting my O’ levels in 4th year (much to the horror of my parents and my teachers) and went to work at the Clydesdale Bank. I worked there for six years and left to start a family.

When my youngest was 10 years old, I started thinking about jobs that would work in with the school holidays so I enrolled on an admin/secretarial course in College. The intention was to do ‘temping’ work which would fit with term-time school hours and school holidays.

The admin course included a Maths module which I finished in two periods prompting one of the college tutors to say - ‘You are on the wrong course!’. They suggested I enrol on the HND Accounting course with a view to following this with the ACCA qualification. Since I had always loved arithmetic, the Accounting course seemed like the logical next step. It would also fit the school terms perfectly and since I was really enjoying being back at ‘school’, AND I could get a student loan (and thereby an income) it seemed the ideal solution.

Q: You’ve noted that it fitted with your lifestyle at the time, but I imagine it did involve more dedicated work and study than your original plans had. It is also a career change!

The HND in accountancy did mean more work and study but I was one of those weirdos that enjoyed studying and exams. By the time I started the HND the kids were thirteen and eleven therefore there was time to study while they were ‘socialising’ with their friends or tucked up safe in bed. When you enjoy something it is easier to find the time!

Q: What was it about the ACCA qualification and the study of accountancy that appealed to you?

The ACCA course appealed mainly because it was a college course therefore fitted in with the kids. I was also enjoying college life and studying very much.

Q: Did you know at the time that you’d like to pursue a career in tax, or did that come later?

No, I hadn’t considered tax at all. However, I left my very first ‘Business Tax’ class saying ‘I love tax’ and from then on I knew exactly what I wanted to do. True story!

Q: You said earlier that your current role matches exactly the things you enjoy about the wide, ever increasing, subject of tax – for non-tax people, what are those things, and why do you enjoy them?

There are lots of different jobs that involve tax. Firstly, there are lots of different kinds of taxes e.g. Corporation Tax, Income Tax, VAT etc. My favourite is Corporation tax - tick! You can either work for an Accounting/Tax firm looking after the tax needs of clients (in ‘Practice’) or you can work directly for a company (in ‘Industry’). I prefer Industry – tick! You can work in Tax Compliance or Consultancy. Compliance is the paperwork side of tax and includes ensuring the tax returns and payments are correct AND on time! Consultancy is more the problem-solving side of tax. I love numbers and spreadsheets, so Compliance is for me - tick!

Q: Through your career you progressed from trainee to manager at AAB and then onto UK Tax Compliance Manager for NOV. What motivated you to want to pursue progression in your career, and what skills/character traits do you think helped you in achieving that promotion and progression?

That’s a really difficult question. I’m not sure I did pursue it. It was just a natural progression. I’d reached a stage where I had enough knowledge and experience to manage a portfolio of clients and support the junior staff, therefore when I was offered the role as Manager I felt I was ready. I’d been a single parent since I was pregnant with my youngest child but I truly don’t think this motivated me into pursuing progression, or indeed, changing career. I believe the kids were happy as long as I was happy and I’m happy as long as I’m doing something I enjoy!!

Q: In retrospect, would you have preferred to study and start your career earlier?

Not even for a minute! I can honestly say I have never once regretted that I didn’t start my tax career earlier. I feel grateful that I was able to devote all my time to my children as they grew up because this is what I most enjoyed doing. It worked for me and I’m not ashamed to say this ‘full-time’ job fulfilled me.

Q: What advice would you give to people who are contemplating returning to education or to the world of work after a career gap?

If you feel you are ready for the next chapter in your life, grab it by the horns and do it!! Life is too short to be doing something you don’t enjoy.

Q : It seems like you have worked to progress your career while managing to maintain a balance between your work and home life; is this something you’ve been conscious of when making career decisions and, if so, how has this impacted the choices you’ve made?

Ah, the work-life balance! For me it shouldn’t be an equal balance. Although I love my job (or I would do something else!), I do work to live rather than live to work. At one point I did feel that my work life was trying to encroach on the rest of my life and, since I could see that it wouldn’t change, I had no option but to look for another job and amazingly and luckily I found one that ticked all my boxes.

So, I suppose, in answer to the question, yes, I am very conscious of the ‘balance’ and will always make sure it is ‘tipped’ in the right direction!



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