Monday 30 September 2013

The life of a corporate tax professional: Ross Lyons, Rio Tinto

The life of a corporate tax professional: Ross Lyons, Rio Tinto
For Ross Lyons, a career in taxation has helped fulfil intellectual ambitions and dreams of seeing the world. Now the head of global taxation at mining powerhouse Rio Tinto, Lyons holds a Bachelor of Economics from Monash University and an MBA from the University of New South Wales. He also headed up Westpac’s Asian division in Hong Kong and was the global head of tax for Westpac prior to joining Rio Tinto seven years ago.

What does your role at Rio Tinto involve and what does a typical day look like?

Ross Lyons, Rio Tinto
Ross Lyons, Rio Tinto
I’m based in Melbourne, but today I’m attending meetings in Perth – a fairly typical day for me. Given that I’m in a global role, I often address tax issues that come in overnight. At the moment, I’m dealing with email traffic relating to our operations in Mozambique as well as a resourcing problem in Mongolia.

After that, I’m catching up with the CFO of our Argyle Diamonds operation. I’m going to have morning tea with our tax team here in Perth and I’m having lunch with a partner at Ernst & Young, who takes care of our R&D tax credit work for us.

Later this afternoon, I have a phone hook-up with our Paris-based general manager of tax, who looks after our French-speaking countries – she reports directly to me and I help her resolve issues that she’s dealing with. And this evening I have a conference call with the financial leadership team to discuss the most pressing finance issues in the business.

What drew you to a career in tax and how has your career path unfolded?

I started working at a major accounting firm straight out of university and was drawn to tax by the intellectual challenge, the variety of work and the opportunity to learn. I worked with them for seven years before I relocated to the US for a year.

That led me to a corporate tax role with Westpac, where I served as the Asian division tax manager for a period of time, based in Hong Kong, before being promoted to global head of tax. After I spent some time as a chief financial officer in a Westpac bank in Perth, I re-entered the tax sector, with a role at Orica. I then made my way to Rio Tinto, where I’ve been for seven years.

What would you identify as your career highlights?

I think the opportunities to work overseas and the opportunity to travel in the role have been the biggest highlights for me. Tax systems are all basically the same, so the ability to take the knowledge you’ve gained and work in other countries is fantastic.

It was also very exciting to be a part of Australia’s tax reform process in the late 1990s, where we introduced the GST and company tax consolidation. The implementation process was very interesting.

What specific tax-related skills and knowledge does working in the mining industry demand?

The skills you need to work in tax and mining are basically the same skills you need elsewhere. You need to understand the business, you need to understand the profit drivers of the business and you need good communication skills.

What would you identify as a major industry-related challenge?

At the moment, there’s a major transparency issue within the mining sector. Australia has recently introduced transparency legislation and Rio Tinto are leaders in this area. We also publish the global tax report, which discloses how much tax we pay, where we pay it and how we pay it.

Developing relationships with authorities is also a priority and a challenge for us. In Australia, we’ve had quite a lot of success establishing working relationships with the ATO and we’ve signed off in the last 15 months to annual compliance arrangements – one on GST and one on income tax. This encourages mutual transparency and creates real-time certainty around taxation issues.

What advice would you give a taxation graduate looking to succeed in the tax industry?

When you graduate from university you need to spend some time really building a strong foundation in tax law, tax principles and tax policy. Basically, the key to becoming a good tax professional is to take complex issues and be able to explain it simply to others, whether that’s in written or verbal form. Then it’s also a matter of keeping up to date with changing legislation. There’s a real onus on the individual to maintain that knowledge.

Ross Lyons is a member of The Tax Institute.

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