Posted on Monday 3 December 2018 by Ulster Business

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Ulster Business speaks to EY Northern Ireland’s leadership about growing its headcount to 500 people, its progressive working environment and leading the way in innovation

EY in Northern Ireland is a thriving and burgeoning business which is showing no signs of slowing down.

It’s also celebrating a major milestone in Northern Ireland, having grown its workforce to more than 500 staff.

The professional services firm, which provides assurance (audit), consultancy, tax and transaction advisory services, has reported double digit growth for eight consecutive years in Northern Ireland, having already grown its revenue by 20%, year-on-year, in the past three years.

According to managing partner for EY Northern Ireland, Michael Hall, the strength, expansion and resilience of the firm is down to its people.

“A primary strategic focus for us is not only to retain the people we have, but also to attract the best talent. That means sustaining the unique culture we have, which is built on being open, inclusive, transparent and having a collaborative and teaming approach to everything that we do – irrespective of what grade you are within the firm. If you feel you have a point of view, then you can and should contribute. That is critical to us.”

It’s those core beliefs that Michael believes set the organisation apart from the rest. As a result of its continued expansion, EY Northern Ireland has also just appointed two new partners – Andrew Dolliver, who sits within the firm’s Transaction Advisory services, and Ian Edwards in Tax. Andrew specialises in restructuring, providing strategic advice to corporate clients, lenders and private equity houses across the island of Ireland, while Ian is responsible for providing speciality tax services to a wide range of indigenous, multinational and global companies.

EY works with some of the largest private sector companies, government bodies and equity investors throughout the island of Ireland and beyond – spread across a range of sectors.

“We have now exceeded the 500 employee mark in Northern Ireland, which is a significant milestone for us. This is being driven by very strong performance across all four of our service lines which include tax, transaction advisory services, assurance and advisory.”

Focus on people
“I am proud to say that as a firm, we really embrace diversity. Whether that be gender, age, ability, sexuality or other differences, seen and unseen,” Michael says.

“It’s this diversity of perspectives, experiences and thinking styles that contributes to our culture, and I think that’s where clients really see a difference. We know from experience that when we have diverse teams collaborating on complex problems, we are able to deliver the best outcome for our clients.”

Michael says that EY’s focus on its purpose of ‘building a better working world’, also translates to strong employee engagement and satisfaction.

“We know that our people want to feel that they are a part of something bigger, and are satisfied that they are making a difference when they come into work every day.”

According to EY’s head of recruitment in Belfast, Sarah McKeag, “you are actively encouraged to be yourself” at the firm.

“Like many businesses we are operating in a very competitive market and it is critical we consistently share our story so we can continue to recruit the best people.”

That includes flexible working across teams – from different patterns and hours to being based at home certain days of the week.

“There is huge opportunity for good people to progress in their career here. Our business has grown from strength-to-strength which creates the business case for our people to be promoted. This is evident with more than 100 people promoted or progressed in Belfast this year alone,” Sarah said.

In addition to taking on a number of graduates every year, many of whom go on to become fully qualified chartered accountants, the firm also prides itself on having a very low turnover of staff in an increasingly-competitive market.

Innovation at the forefront
While economic growth in Northern Ireland is set to match the UK in 2018, it will fall below UK rates of growth in 2019 and 2020, if a Brexit agreement is reached which involves a two-year transition period and a free trade agreement thereafter.

Against this backdrop, Northern Irish businesses are investing in their operations, especially when it comes to innovation and technology, according to Tax partner Ian Edwards, with companies “trying to identify what the next disrupter will be in their sector”.

“A great example of this can be seen across the construction sector where traditional companies are investing in research into virtual reality capabilities to bring buildings to life before a spade hits the ground,” he says.

Within EY, Ian says the firm is investing significantly in technology to add greater value to clients. “Within tax, for example, we have rolled out a ground breaking Capital Allowances Automated Review Tool (CAART) which uses Artificial Intelligence to determine the tax treatment of capital additions. By stripping away the manual intensive analysis process, we are able to focus on the aspects of the analysis that will produce greater value to our clients”.

Ian adds, “Our clients are increasingly turning to us for advice and insights on how to manage risk, where to seek growth, and how to integrate data analytics and technologies into their strategy and operations. Like us, they’re focused on driving innovation – not just in products and services, but in business models, too.”

That includes everything from artificial intelligence (AI) – such as using machines to interpret data and deliver outputs much faster than humans – to robotic process >
automation (RPA), which sees repetitive tasks simplified.

In addition, part of EY’s job with its clients is helping them navigate the often complicated world of technology and being able to introduce AI into their business.

Michael said: “While many organisations are tempted to try to retrofit their people around huge technological investments, we believe that people are the first step. Innovation is innately human, and involves an investment in people as well as technology. Ensuring an organisation has the right diversity of skills is vital, and should happen before big investment decisions are made. We are developing new service offerings through our data analytics and AI teams and starting to recruit different people with different skillsets”

Local footprint, global reach
And while the firm is a Northern Ireland business, it’s also part of a huge global network – allowing it to both feel like a local business while also benefiting from the expertise, investment and assets of a large international firm.

Newly appointed Transaction Advisory Services partner, Andrew Dolliver, says: “I like to think we have the best of both worlds. We have a wealth of local experts on the ground here – but we can bring expertise from Dublin, London, or elsewhere in the world. Bringing this global expertise to our local clients is becoming even more valuable as their businesses face increasing disruption and a faster pace of change. With our help, our clients are both evolving their current business models and positioning themselves to capitalise on new opportunities presented by this disruption.”

Challenges ahead for NI but businesses remain confident
While Northern Ireland is still emerging from a tough economic climate, the unemployment rate remains lower than in the Republic of Ireland, and the region is not enduring as pronounced a bubble in rental and housing costs, and Michael says there are positive signs on the horizon.

“While there has been consistent low GDP growth, wage growth in Northern Ireland is forecast to be 2.5% for this year and our latest Economic Eye survey reports strong job growth in the year to Q2 at 1.6%. In the face of a continually changing landscape, our clients know that they can’t stand still, despite uncertainty around Brexit and the implications of future trading arrangements. Our teams have witnessed this new, more practical phase of Brexit preparations first hand, demonstrating a shift in mind-set amongst businesses north and south as they look towards March 2019.”

There’s no slowing down for EY in Northern Ireland. Michael says it’s aiming to double its revenue over the next three years, which will see it continue to grow its headcount and further grow its service offering for clients, which will be enhanced by further innovation and advancements in technology.

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