Posted on Wednesday 6 March 2019 by Ulster Business

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Almost 20 years after it moved 600 staff and 16,000 paper files into Waterfront Plaza, PwC will move again – this time taking around 3,000 people and some very smart technology to Merchant Square in the heart of Belfast

Just 18 months after being appointed to PwC’s national management board as head of UK regions, Paul Terrington, PwC’s NI regional chair, has no plans to reduce his commitment to keep growing the business locally.

“This is an incredibly exciting time to be part of PwC. Since I took on the Northern Ireland role six years ago, we’ve doubled the workforce, become the fastest-growing UK region and are now the biggest office outside London with just over 2,200 people,” he says. “Our strategy was to be the leading provider of professional services in the Northern Ireland market but there’s no way we’d be the size we are now had we only focused on that.”

Instead Paul built on the legacy of his predecessors and accelerated growth in new, technology solutions, while retaining the traditional accounting, tax and consulting services. Today PwC remains the leading provider of advisory services to the region’s family-owned and owner-managed businesses and multinationals, but has also built an impressive portfolio of cutting-edge technologies, opened the door to significant export markets and is tackling some of society’s most challenging issues.

“We’ve grown in many new areas – blockchain, cyber, cloud-based accounting services – but the single biggest impact has come from developing our distinctive ‘Operate’ division,” Paul says. ”Operate is our service delivery business, which supports and delivers technology and people solutions to large, often regulated organisations. So instead of just advising clients how to solve their problems, we now do the heavy lifting for them.”

Run by Ian McConnell, a partner who’s been with the firm for 26 years, Operate is already attracting global attention. “Clients increasingly don’t want a consulting firm just to tell them what to do: they want a problem-solving partnership.” he says. “In its first year of operation, Operate earned over £45m, now has 1,000 people and is still growing.”

Reinforcing Paul’s confidence to invest in Northern Ireland as a strategic location is a 2017 forecast from TheCityUK that it could become the second fastest-growing financial services region outside London by 2025, helping deliver £16bn of additional gross value-added (GVA) to the UK economy. But that depends on the ability to recruit the right talent, and he says the challenge now is finding and retaining the skills.

That’s an issue that particularly concerns Paul as he looks ahead at the economic picture with Brexit and lack of an Assembly to the fore.

“The business community wants clarity and certainty. Ideally we want to see a Brexit withdrawal agreement that then gives the scope for a trade deal that offers Northern Ireland the capacity to trade both with the EU and as part of the UK. The potential competitive advantages and ability to attract investment would be terrific and the kind of economic accelerator which we have sought for years, but never managed to gain.

“However I do worry about the impact of political stalemate on our long term future. Failure to invest, particularly in education and skills, will impair our competitiveness and make this a less attractive place for business.The decreasing effectiveness of health, environment and infrastructure will mean that talented people will opt to make choices to live their lives elsewhere.

“In my national role, I see other parts of the country fusing partnerships in innovative and exciting ways between business,education and government. Compared to that, we are already getting left behind. We should be moving forward.”

Which brings us to Merchant Square, the £75m, 200,000 sq ft office development which PwC takes over in 2020. “We have great people and one reason why we’re moving to the city centre is because that’s where they want to be. By the time we’re ready to relocate towards the end of 2020, we will have at least 3,000 people moving in to the heart of Belfast.

“That makes it important for Belfast too and not just because it’s the city’s biggest-ever private sector office deal. As we were making our decision, the whole Bank Buildings issue was at its height, and we wanted to show our support for the city and its future.”

The Merchant Square relocation project is led by Kieragh Nelson, a director who joined the firm in 2017. “We’ve got serious ambitions for Merchant Square,” she says. ”There’s a sense of ‘OK, we’ve just opened flagship offices in London, and Manchester – what more can we do in Belfast; how can we make it even better?’ And the vast majority of decisions on how it will look, feel and work are made by the team here. Our goal is to create the most technologically-advanced, innovative and collaborative space for ourselves, our clients, and also for the communities around us.”

Doing the right thing is a maxim often repeated in PwC, but it gets backed up. On the morning of our interview, a large group of people from the firm, including Paul, took part in one of their regular ‘Darkness Into Light’ walks to raise awareness of mental health.

The firm’s commitment to social mobility has seen a number of employment programmes launched, notably the UK’s first technology degree apprenticeships, with Queen’s University one of five universities selected to run the programme. And it’s expanding its Hive Academy programme, which delivers free technology education to primary and secondary schools, to the Channel Islands.

This year the firm challenged itself and created a unique charity partnership – the PwC Challenge – to create innovative suicide prevention programmes.

“Our purpose is to build trust in society and solve important problems, and it really does feature in how we look at what we do. We strive to celebrate and share our knowledge widely and unselfishly with our people and communities and not be afraid to take a stand and do the right thing. And we put it at the heart of what we do every day.

“Take the PwC Challenge: more people in Northern Ireland have died by suicide since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement than from the violence in the years before. This is a crisis, and it’s one which affects our people, and our communities. So we asked local charities in north and west Belfast, the worst affected areas in the UK, to collaborate and devise really innovative approaches; programmes to give opportunities to young people and their families through education, technology, sports, and mental health coaching.

“As well as the clubs in PwC which fundraise every year for the challenge, our own people are volunteering every week in various projects – particularly with our Hive Academy. We want to ensure that people, who are high achievers in many different fields, are supported to play their fullest part in society.”

For Paul, it’s all about the people. Last year PwC invested around £6m on staff development here, and this year, a number of people have begun the first Masters in Operation service delivery, run by Ulster University. “It’s important to support people to develop their careers in ways they mightn’t have considered when they joined. That’s a key building block of our purpose – it drives social mobility, equality and diversity.

“It’s true that if someone decides they want to head off and join PwC Australia or New York, they can. That’s the beauty of working for a global firm – those opportunities are there. But what I really want to make sure is that you don’t have to leave: if you want to live and work in Belfast, and have global clients, work with cutting-edge technology and be part of a firm that’s engaged in society, you can do that too.”

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