Titan of tech: Margaret Wright FCA

Embrace AI

One of the leading pioneers in the accounting and technology fields, Margaret Wright FCA says embracing AI must be high on the profession’s agenda for creating the path forward.


  • In 1987, Margaret Wright FCA made history when she became a partner within KPMG’s audit practice – the first woman practising accountant to make partner in KPMG and its antecedents in Australia.
  • Wright created a powerful standing in the accounting profession through the innovative combination of her extensive accounting and IT experience.
  • Top of her 2024 agenda is exploring all the ways AI can be used to its best advantage in accounting.

By John Burfitt
Photography by Graham Jepson

Accounting and IT pioneer Margaret Wright FCA, the first woman to be made a partner in a major audit practice in Australia, loves stories. More accurately, Wright loves backstories and says delving deep into business systems, processes and people’s motivations have kept her interest in the profession that has continued more than half a century.

Throughout her career, Wright has been at the forefront of exploring stories of evolution in accounting, audit, risk management, project review and information technology.

As Wright explains her passion for deepdive forensic work in a career that’s included tenures with such industry leaders as Macquarie Bank and KPMG, it comes as little surprise when she mentions the jobs she originally wanted to pursue before taking on accounting and IT.

“I always wanted to be an archaeologist or a detective,” she says, while speaking to Acuity in her studio in Sydney’s Millers Point. “And, in a roundabout way, I guess I have ended up doing so as I believe as an accountant, you are the Agatha Christie of the business world.

“In our work, you have to look at a situation, then the processes and consequences, what’s going right and wrong, and analyse how you’re coming up with those findings. That has to be one of the best lessons about accounting work – never stop asking questions.”

A quest for questions

This is what has guided Wright throughout her impressive 54-year career. It is also what she continues to do today as she explores how technology, particularly AI, can be applied to business processes. Wright’s quest is to help individuals and organisations maximise emerging technology and it’s AI that’s her main focus, not just for the business benefits but in terms of risk management, where potential problems lie.

“If you’re in accounting and audit, you understand new processes and opportunities come through all the time to change the way you work and AI is the same,” she says. “Now, if you can work out how to integrate both of those skills – accounting and the understanding of AI – the combination is powerful.”

As well as using AI tools such as ChatGPT to improve productivity in developing reports and reviewing documents, Wright is increasingly seeing AI tools used by accountants to make sense of large volumes of data for better analysis and decisionmaking, the best known being PowerBI.

“Each addresses different requirements, challenges and risks, and accountants can also build their own AI using machine learning to identify patterns,” she says.

Wright adds that teams with the right mix of expertise need to be involved throughout the introduction, testing and ongoing oversight of AI implementations.

“IT doesn’t work without people and people will increasingly rely on IT. It’s dangerous to assume you can cut the people out,” she says. “That’s where some people think AI is headed – and that’s wrong.

“You need to know upfront that when you combine all this, things can go wrong. Accountants have that ability to look deeper and understand what is really going on in a system end-to-end, and they need to be developing these skills as AI becomes more prevalent.”

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Margaret Wright
“Accountants have that ability to look deeper and understand what is really going on in a system end-to-end, and they need to be developing these skills as AI becomes more prevalent.”

The human factor and AI

Wright cites the 2016–2019 Robodebt scheme – the method of automated debt assessment and recovery implemented under Australia’s Coalition government – as an example of the results when systems go disastrously wrong. “AI, if not well managed, is Robodebt on steroids,” she says.

“You still need people in the loop at each stage. A lot of this comes down to being good at asking questions and being able to analyse the results because the fact is, AI can’t do it on its own. It still needs a subject-matter expert’s understanding of the situation to be effective.

“Always remember, the accountant is the expert. All AI is doing is helping pull it together. Embracing AI where it frees you up to add value is not something to be scared of. Rather, it’s all about asking questions – lots of them.”

A pioneering approach

Asking questions is something Wright has never been afraid to do. She commenced her career in her native New Zealand in 1970 as a trainee computer programmer, working in the IT field for several years before deciding on a change of pace and studying accounting at the University of Otago.

Her first role was with KPMG Peat Marwick in Dunedin, New Zealand before transferring to Sydney in 1982, combining her accounting, audit and technology experience in a multitude of industries.

In 1987, she made history when she became a partner within KPMG’s audit practice – the first woman practising accountant to make partner in KPMG and its antecedents in Australia.

Within her role she was also responsible for all IT review work for major KPMG clients, such as Lendlease and the ASX. Later taking charge of the Sydney practice, she oversaw a 200% growth in revenues and profits, and headed up the Australian information risk management practice.

Wright joined Macquarie Bank as an executive director in 1999, staying for four years, before consulting for Westpac, Medibank, MLC and many others. These days, she works as chair of OmniTabz, a startup company that’s the brainchild of her husband, telecommunications guru Eric Hamilton. OmniTabz produces asset-tacking technologies for uses in difficult-to-access locations.

“We’ve done considerable experimental testing with it and it’s now a matter of going for growth,” she explains.

A shift in gears

On top of her work with OmniTabz, Wright also enjoys serving on board committees of UniSuper and Good2Give, a not-for-profit supporting the charity sector. She needed to take time out in 2023 due to health issues, but now she’s back to business.

The time also allowed her to devote attention to her painting. She has shown her works in exhibitions and is planning a new show later this year.

“Painting is a good break from everything,” she says. “Last year got me wanting to be creative again and by using your imagination in a different way, it frees you up. You’ve got to always be going, ‘OK, what’s new and what’s different?’ and then get down to work.”

Preparing for tomorrow and beyond

It’s the application of AI into the business marketplace, however, that remains top of Wright’s 2024 agenda. She is planning to write a book exploring issues she believes need highlighting. Her first book was 2006’s Mistakes Happen, Make the Most of Them.

“I worry we’ve got into this loop of ‘cheaper and faster’ when we should be focused on ‘doing it better’, and I worry we’re heading in the wrong direction,” she explains. “I feel I could explain that in a new book and offer some strategies for addressing it.”

One of the key strategies is to bring back senior talent, combining their years of experience alongside new graduates who are well versed in AI. At this point of her career, Wright believes she has as much to contribute as ever.

“The fact so many companies ask their workers to retire in their 50s makes no sense to me,” she says. “With the impact AI is having, I would like to see a policy that puts senior people, who often understand the practical aspects of business better than anyone, together with new graduates with training in AI, and see what magic arises from that combination.

“That kind of hybrid thinking is the future. There must be a better way to tap into the skills and knowledge available to us right now to keep moving us forward.”

Margaret Wright

Five ways to approach AI

Margaret Wright FCA shares her five top tips for accountants to help deal with the challenges of AI. Importantly, most of them are not directly about tech: they’re about people, skills and risk management.

  1. Technology is not just about numbers, “never forget the power of people”
  2. Focus on relentless alignment, bringing together people and different skills from across the organisation – accountants should “connect, communicate, collaborate”
  3. Identify gaps in on-the-job training and address them early, including mentoring
  4. Understand that mistakes matter. Identify the possibilities of how the errors may have occurred and “encourage people to ask questions”
  5. Keep a library of those mistakes and stories to learn from.

This article was first published by Acuity Magazine at the following URL: https://www.acuitymag.com/technology/titan-of-tech-margaret-wright-fca