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Kaplan Success Story: from school leaver to finance director

Image of Kelly Atley

We caught up with Kelly Atley to find out how she went from leaving school with poor grades, to becoming a finance director. We’re amazed at her ambition and drive, and hope you’re inspired by her story.

Hi Kelly! Tell us about your education and early career.

I left school at fifteen with poor grades and no intention of continuing my education. I started work as soon as I left school but quickly realised if I was going to land a decent job, I needed to re-sit my exams and enhance my CV. I returned to college and resat my English and Maths exams.

I was working in London for a small financial software company when their Financial Controller left, and I stepped in to assist the owner with the finance functions. The owner of the Company offered to fund my AAT studies and I knew this was an opportunity I’d be silly to reject.

What did you do after studying AAT?

A few years after completing my AAT studies at Kaplan I started a new role as a regional Finance Manager for a PLC. As part of my package, I requested support to continue my accounting studies, and chose to study ACCA. The role was demanding and my ACCA progress was slow. I was working long hours and studying on an evening or weekend.

What was your next career move?

In 2009 I joined a start-up company - again very demanding - but a great opportunity with very good exposure.

The experience I gained from this role was huge. I was working with the most amazing talented individuals and I was dedicated to making this role a success. A year and half later I had my first boy and two years later was blessed with a second son.

From this point I was determined to be a success, both as a mum, partner, and in my career. I was determined to pass my ACCA qualification!! And I had to prove to myself I was capable.

How did you feel after you passed your ACCA exams?

I finally passed all my exams in March 2016 and will never forget the feeling of pure triumph. At times I wanted to give up, leaving two young children to go to work and studying most weekends to complete the ACCA qualification was tough. I recall crying a lot.

I constantly felt torn between my kids and career. I felt guilty for wanting a career (still do). But I was driven to qualify and be a success, as much as I felt guilty for leaving them to study, they were also my drive to succeed.

When did you become a Finance Director?

In March 2018 I was made Finance Director of the company which was a massive accomplishment and made all my hard work and commitment worthwhile. In 2020, I left the company after eleven years to join a manufacturing company where I now oversee the accounting activities for the UK, German, and Romanian Companies.

How did you meet Neil Da Costa, Kaplan’s Senior Tax lecturer?

I met Neil Da Costa while studying Advanced Tax at Kaplan and enjoyed his interactive lectures. Neil became a mentor to me and always helped me feel confident. He would often remind me why I was studying and encouraged me to use my boys as a focus to help pass my exams.

Neil made me believe in my own abilities and also assisted me with my Practical Experience Record after qualifying to obtain my ACCA Membership. I will always be grateful for his support.

What advice do you have for other students?

My key takeaway to other students attempting to become qualified accountants is - never quit. Keep pushing. True character consists of what you do at the second or third attempt. My journey was challenging, but I had worked too hard and sacrificed too much to give up.

Interested in AAT or ACCA?

If Kelly’s story has inspired you, check out our AAT pages if you’re just starting out in accounting, or ACCA pages if you’re looking for your next qualification.

Kaplan Success Stories

Kaplan Success Stories is a social media feature created by Neil Da Costa, a Senior Tax Lecturer within Kaplan. At Kaplan, we build success and here you will hear about an individual’s journey and how they became successful.