Posted on Thursday 17 January 2013 by Ulster Business
The Northern Ireland Regional Leader of PwC and IoD deputy chair believes more locally based companies must start exporting if the province is to stop lagging the rest of the UK.
Having previously relied on local clients in the public and private sectors for the bulk of its business, the firm recognised this strategy would yield only limited growth opportunities.
So, five years ago it began to focus on winning work from emerging global and multinational companies and built a strategy around expanding its consulting activities towards a series of export-focused overseas solution services.
"It is my responsibility to grow this business to be a dominant provider of professional services in the market but not to be constrained by geography," said the firm's Regional Leader, Paul Terrington.
"We have 750 people here and hire about 100 graduates a year. Were we to focus only on Northern Ireland we wouldn't be that size."
PwC is the world's largest professional services firm with over 160,000 staff in more than 150 countries. Terrington says there is no conflict between the consulting and research work that PwC's Belfast solution centres undertake for clients in other regions and the service it offers clients in Northern Ireland.
"We aim to bring the best of PwC to our local clients by connecting them to our global network. The expertise gained by our consultants in other markets is available to clients in Northern Ireland, which enhances the value of what we can do here," he said.
Terrington has been at PwC for 25 years this year and has been in the Regional chair job – essentially the CEO role within the partnership – for 18 months.
He has extensive consulting and corporate finance experience and is the leader of PwC's People and Change practice, as well as sitting on the firm's national Consulting Leadership Team.He continues to be involved in client facing work, particularly large scale organisational change projects.
Terrington believes the ability to instigate change is more relevant than ever in the current economic environment.
"If a business cannot maintain momentum, then it quickly starts going backwards," he said. "Often to jump past the point where growth stalls, businesses have to reinvent themselves and bring in new skills and operating models."
PwC's forecasts see Northern Ireland's economy returning to growth in 2013, but continuing to lag behind all the other UK regions. Terrington has been vocal about the need for government to make large scale infrastructure projects "shovel ready" and says it has a key role to play in developing skills, improving planning and promoting Northern Ireland from a brand perspective.
But he strongly believes that any recovery in the economy has to be driven by an increase in exports by private sector companies.
"There's still a lot of work to be done around exports. More Northern Ireland-based companies need to get themselves organised, and with the belief and mind-set and ambition to export – and by export I mean more than just to GB and the Republic of Ireland," he said.
"You can look around and find brilliant examples of Northern Irish companies that have ambition and belief and confidence. Businesses have to have that ambition. I can't see how the private sector will have an impact on the overall economy without a greater desire to export to growing, attractive markets," he added.
"The propensity to export drives a whole set of ways of thinking into your business, including how innovative you are in different areas... It is not just about having an R&D department."
PwC is a major recruiter in Northern Ireland, and in bringing global PwC projects to Belfast, Terrington says he often finds himself using the same arguments about access to skills used by Invest NI. The firm has announced plans to hire another 150 staff this year, but has also admitted that it is looking further afield to find them.
"It remains challenging. We have not at this point reached the stage where it has been a business impediment to us. We've been able to realise our needs with good calibre people. But you can see pressures on that – the more people you want the harder it gets," he said.
"But again we are not geographically constrained. We are accessing graduates who are from here and want to live here, but perhaps went to university outside of Northern Ireland."
While bolstering the graduate side of the workforce is important, the PwC boss also believes more needs to be done to improve leadership and governance skills in Northern Ireland. In particular he would like to see more importance placed on building up a strong pool of experienced non-executive directors.
"I think there is a real role for non-execs in all sizes of business. People that have experience and can inject the confidence to think about things differently into a business," he said.
"There is still a good array of underexploited talent around. We don't have some of the drivers that bring non-execs to the fore – a strong private equity market or many plcs. But there are a lot of good people around who can make a difference to businesses and have talent to bring if they could get involved."
It is a topic which he expects to pick up on when, subject to election, he succeeds Mervyn McCall as chairman of the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland, later this year.
"People are members of the IoD as individual directors so it is about the talent and development of business leaders," he said. "It is about how businesses are made better through the leadership and governance those leaders bring to bear."