Posted on Friday 23 September 2016 by Ulster Business
Richard Gillan can empathise with his clients like few others. A chartered accountant who forged a successful career outside professional practice, he understands the challenges and rewards of running and selling his own businesses. Almost two years since his return to practice as Managing Partner of Grant Thornton (NI), Ulster Business talks to Richard about his different approach to business advice which has delivered phenomenal growth for the firm in a short period.
There is no doubt Richard Gillan has achieved a lot in his career and is the driving force behind Grant Thornton’s resurgence in Northern Ireland, one which seems to have stirred the pot in the business advisory world here.
To do that in such an established market requires a very different approach and perspective.
Richard may be the Treasurer of the Institute of Chartered Accountants, but to say he’s not your typical business advisor or accountant is something of an understatement.
In 1994, on completion of his accounting studies at Queen’s University, Richard joined an established global practice, not dissimilar to Grant Thornton.
Nothing unusual about that, you might say, but Richard quickly set about broadening his experience.
“I spent time on secondment in places like Luxembourg and London, and worked in Johannesburg on the float of mining company Anglo American. I really enjoyed doing something that was a little bit different. I also got some great experience in areas like transaction support and corporate acquisitions, disposals and finance raising.”
Being involved at a high level in the corporate deal-making environment had, by 2004, stirred the entrepreneur in Richard.
“I thought it would be much more enjoyable selling my own company, rather than someone else’s! So, after 10 years in practice, I re-mortgaged my house, borrowed funds and, together with a partner, bought a company in mid-Ulster which manufactured timber fire surrounds and furniture.
“Maybe I was being a little naïve, but I didn’t really view it as a risk. I had done my homework and was confident that the business would grow – that it would prove to be a good acquisition.”
Richard spent a lot of time travelling around Britain and Ireland over the next few years, selling his products to retailers, and the company began to grow as he’d hoped.
The business had expanded significantly by the time it was sold in May 2007.
“Negotiating the sale of your own business is an experience like no other. You want to realise best value for your considerable efforts but there is also a strong emotional tie to the business and its employees. And, in the meantime, you need to concentrate on running the business.”
Empathy with clients
It is experience such as this which perhaps sets Richard apart in terms of the understanding and empathy he now shares with his clients.
Richard’s next acquisition followed quickly.
“A call centre based in Bangor was in administration. I spoke with management and felt there was a good core business – within two weeks we had acquired it.
“The early days were a battle. Creditors had lost money and we needed to rationalise the business to make the model work. The phone system and network providers were threatening to withdraw their services, and I remember thinking that a call centre without a phone system wouldn’t be great!
“But after six months, and an awful lot of hard work, it was clear the business had turned round and was highly profitable. Sometime later, we were approached to sell the business and eventually agreed to do so.”
As Richard investigated his next move he got involved in Invest Northern Ireland’s Business Growth Programme as a mentor for ambitious local companies.
A Return to Practice
Then, in the summer of 2014 Richard met with Paul McCann, Managing Partner of Grant Thornton, Ireland.
“I was impressed with his approach. The firm had become the fastest-growing large practice in Ireland built around a culture which nurtures individuality and encourages doing things differently. I really empathised with the entrepreneurial ethos of the place and felt that the success of the firm in Dublin could be replicated in Northern Ireland where the brand was arguably under-exploited,” said Richard.
“I also felt the time was right to for me to return to practice. I felt that my own experience in business might be of benefit to those who sometimes complain that advisers don’t understand industry. I have been on their side of the fence”.
Since his arrival, Grant Thornton in Northern Ireland has witnessed remarkable growth with revenues doubling and profits trebling since 2014.
“That comes from the energy and drive of the partners and employees at the practice,” according to Richard.
“Growth has come across the board. The audit and tax departments are performing very strongly - just this month we were appointed advisers to arguably the largest compliance client in Northern Ireland.
“The advisory side of the business has also been involved in a number of landmark deals , including the management buy-out of TBF Thompson, and we were recently appointed liquidators of Xtra-vision, and Administrators of Met Steel Limited and Lisburn Glass Group. Meanwhile, the practice is continuing to build a sizeable Forensics and Cyber-security team, one which is finding favour in the marketplace.”
The practice was recently awarded Large Firm of the Year at the 2016 Irish Accountancy Awards.
But what’s fuelling all this growth?
“We are so hungry for the business. Then the service we deliver appears to be helping us to gain traction.
“As I see it, we are also addressing a gap in the Northern Ireland market. There is huge potential for a global firm to have a Belfast office focused solely on the local market and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
Doing Things Differently
As Richard points out, none of this would be possible without empowering the Grant Thornton team.
“It might sound obvious, but our focus is on bringing in the right people. The only ‘products’ we have to sell are the skills and expertise of our team. We want people who can thrive within the entrepreneurial environment we have created.
“That culture permeates throughout the entire business, with everybody encouraged to look from another perspective and find alternative ways to approach age-old problems. I hate to hear the phrase ‘but we’ve always done it that way’.
There is plenty of evidence to suggest that Grant Thornton does indeed do things differently – like the 5k Runway Run at Belfast City Airport.
They also recently welcomed snooker legend Dennis Taylor to the office to officially launch the pool table for the staff break-out area. “To be fair, he hammered me,” admits Richard candidly.
Richard sums it up. “We don’t want to be stereotypical – and we want people who will challenge the accepted norms.”
All of this comes as part of a global firm which can call on a wealth of resources in other jurisdictions.
Ahead of the Curve
When Richard joined the firm back in November 2014, he set about developing a strategy for 2020.
“We’re already well ahead of those targets. I didn’t think it at the time, but perhaps I wasn’t ambitious enough!” He is already looking at premises options as they outgrow their current city centre facilities.
He ends on a sobering note. “We will continue to challenge, innovate and do things differently to ensure that we give our clients the best possible experience……but there is no substitute for hard work”.
At that, I left him to it.