Posted on Friday 16 March 2012 by Ulster Business
When people talk about exporting, their image tends to be of manufactured products heading abroad, stacked high on the decks of deeply-laden container ships.
But global professional services firm PwC is challenging that narrow definition of exports by developing an International Solutions Centre at its Waterfront Plaza headquarters in Belfast that reflects the needs of its global network of clients. This consulting hothouse, with 25 years experience in domestic markets, is already exporting the skills of 250 existing PwC consultants, earning new revenues from overseas clients.
The ambitious plan involves expanding and delivering solutions focused on research and insight; data analysis and information management; and the implementation of work and training programmes to support clients’ performance improvement.
That expansion will create 247 new high added-value jobs over the next few years; and with salaries well above the Northern Ireland average, PwC will be spending over £40m a year in the local economy.
Regional Chairman, Paul Terrington, says that becoming one of the region’s leading exporters as well as one of the province’s leading employers won’t dilute their commitment to Northern Ireland.
“We are confident of remaining the biggest player in the Northern Ireland market and will continue to invest and expand our client services here. For us, exporting is as well as – not instead of – expanding in the local market.”
PwC is already the world’s largest professional services firm with over 161,000 staff in 154 countries spanning Europe, North America, Asia, Australia, the Middle East, Africa, and South and Central America.
Here in Northern Ireland, PwC is part of the PwC UK firm, employing over 700 people in Belfast, Dungannon and Omagh.
Five years ago, the firm recognised that emerging global markets and multi-national companies offered significant growth opportunities and built a strategy around expanding its consulting activities towards a series of export-focused overseas solution centres.
Paul Atkinson, the firm’s Belfast-based UK Technology leader, says expansion means that ultimately over 80 per cent of PwC’s Northern Ireland based consulting activities could be delivered in export markets.
“The real growth in the medium-term is with blue-chip companies in international markets,” he explains. “Every day we tell our clients in Northern Ireland to look to exports for growth. So we took our own advice.”
But that decision to export the skills of its consulting practice is paying dividends.
“Since late 2007, many businesses across the UK have been on a downward spiral, or at best have been flat. We’ve been fortunate to have had double digit growth in each of those four years because we’ve continued to invest in the domestic market while looking to exports for accelerated growth,” says Atkinson.
When PwC sold its consulting practice to IBM in 2002 it retained consulting skills in Belfast. That meant that through the 2000s the Northern Ireland business became a hub delivering consulting solutions back in to its UK practice.
So, when the firm shifted to its export model, the connections were already in place for Belfast to supply services to PwC and its larger clients across Europe, the USA and Middle East.
“Those established relationships opened up new opportunities throughout PwC’s global client base to deliver consulting solutions from our teams here in Northern Ireland,” says Atkinson.
Atkinson sees a growing number of PwC partners worldwide actively marketing the expertise, knowledge and experience that its Belfast-based consultants acquired in the UK market.
“We complement skills that already exist elsewhere in the global PwC family, so collectively we are now winning work that might not otherwise come to PwC. That’s a persuasive argument,” says Atkinson.
“And clients love the Northern Ireland culture and work ethic that just gets on and relentlessly delivers. Put that alongside our expertise, experience and insight, and it’s a powerful combination,” he says.
Atkinson himself is a personal embodiment of PwC’s strategy for Northern Ireland.
He joined PwC in 1995, becoming a partner seven years ago. In those 17 years he estimates that he has spent 80 per cent of his time working outside the province and currently is in the office here no more than four to six days a month.
Currently leading a team out of Europe focused on a major programme for one of the world’s largest retail brands, their work is to build a global procurement function connecting 24 countries initially, and then rolling out to another 30 over three years.
The project is utilising expert teams from two of the Belfast solution centres, alongside consultants from PwC’s London office.
“Companies operating in a shrinking global marketplace need technology that links their supply chain, research that informs their strategic decision making and management training and workforce behaviours reflecting global best practice,” he explains.
“It’s the Belfast solution centres,” says Atkinson, “that can deliver all three outcomes, seamlessly and within established PwC protocols, anywhere in the world. That’s a ‘win, win’ for everyone, especially the client.”
Clients already experiencing the trio of Belfast problem solvers include some of the world’s biggest players in sectors including computing, mobile telephony, communications, retailing and financial services. One of the centres, PwC’s Belfast-based International Survey Unit (ISU), also produces the annual Global CEO Survey – one of the world’s most comprehensive business research reports and the keynote contribution at the annual World Economic Forum in Davos.
The ISU is currently delivering real-time global customer satisfaction and performance assessments in 100 countries and in 40 languages, with a team that already boasts more than 100 consultants.
“We have strong sponsorship and support from colleagues elsewhere in the UK firm and our success to date has persuaded the wider PwC family that we can help win work that might otherwise go to competitors in the USA or Asia,” he adds.
The Belfast solution centres look set to create opportunities for both graduates and experienced consultants.
To test their strategy, last year PwC put a group of graduates through an intensive four month training programme which Atkinson says honed the consulting skills needed for the challenging export work.
“We recruited 18 graduates in a June-September cycle last year. We connected our graduate programme in Northern Ireland to our main graduate programme in GB. We called it Foundation for the Future and gave it a solution centre focus,” says Atkinson. “Two weeks after coming out of that programme all 18 were working on live client projects.”
Of that group, some 30 per cent happened to be Northern Irish graduates of universities outside the province, many of whom had worked for a couple of years in England or Scotland and were keen to return to Northern Ireland. But local graduates are in just as much demand.
Whether it’s returners from GB or graduates from the local universities, PwC boss Paul Terrington says the sort of international work the Centre of Excellence is hot housing will help PwC to attract more talent.
“Most want to work outside Northern Ireland but love living here. So our business model offers the opportunity to work worldwide with branded, FTSE 100 and SEC clients, but to enjoy the quality of life in Northern Ireland,” he says.
Terrington also says PwC is building closer relationships with local universities to expand graduate opportunities.
“We’re the largest graduate recruiter in the region and, over the next few years up to 100 new graduates will undertake the equivalent of a PwC post-graduate course. We need to build real collaborative partnerships with the local universities to ensure everyone can capitalise on these opportunities,” Terrington says.
PwC is keen to stress that none of its new graduate and consulting jobs will be in the back office. GVA per capita for the posts already created is in the top 15% of Northern Ireland jobs. The next wave of jobs will be no different, the firm estimates.
“These are high value, transformational jobs,” says Atkinson. “We want to be in the front and mid office of our clients, not the back office. That plays back to our goal of getting as close to the customer and their customer issues as possible.”
There are also ambitions to create a fourth Belfast solution centre under the Centre of Excellence banner, this one focused on forensic data analytics, which would complement the other three centres’ services.
PwC already has a team in Belfast working on a number of forensic solutions and the Northern Ireland management team are in discussions with the global firm about offering this as another unique, global-reach service – where they believe it already fits with the distinct identity being forged by its team here.
That identity is helping position PwC in Northern Ireland as a key part of the global organisation. Its shift towards an export strategy is in line with the Executive’s Programme for Government, and something the firm would love to see other local businesses emulate.
The Technology solutions team, will deliver a range of services into the global PwC network, which includes Europe and the Middle East. Solutions on offer comprise information management, technology services and enterprise applications.
The Capability & Training solutions team combines financial and technical training with management and executive development. These services are already contributing to the delivery of transformational change and organisational development projects across the PwC international network.
The ISU is building on the firm’s existing survey capability to grow sales in the US and Middle East. It provides solutions including policy and evaluation, market research, customer research and employee research using new online methodologies. A secondary benefit is the creation of a new 200-seater research facility and an additional 100 posts in the ISU’s multi-lingual call centre.