‘Un­cer­tainty has ex­isted for the past 20 years ...’

KPMG part­ner-in-charge John Hansen tells Mar­garet Can­ning about ex­pan­sion, a brush with David Cameron and be­ing an un­likely pub land­lord

Belfast Telegraph - Business Telegraph - - Front Page - @Mar­garet­can

Top KPMG part­ner john hansen talks about ex­pand­ing the firm, a brush with david cameron and be­ing an un­likely pub land­lord

Show­ing the Prime Min­is­ter around the lux­ury ho­tel you’re in charge of as he de­cides whether or not to host a meet­ing of world lead­ers there — while try­ing not to draw at­ten­tion to a fire which it suf­fered the night be­fore — does not sound like a typ­i­cal day’s work for an ac­coun­tant.

But that was ex­actly the world KPMG Belfast part­ner John Hansen in­hab­ited in 2012 when David Cameron ar­rived by he­li­copter to de­cide if Lough Erne Golf Re­sort and Spa was a suit­able venue for host­ing the 2013 G8.

John, now part­ner-in-charge, and his KPMG col­leagues were the ad­min­is­tra­tors ap­pointed to run the Co Fer­managh re­sort by Bank of Scot­land, when the venue was be­ing lined up to host the G8.

It’s a far cry from the work­ing life of most ac­coun­tants.

And the fa­ther-of-two ad­mits his ca­reer has taken an un­usual path or two. He joined what was then Coop­ers & Ly­brand — now PWC — around 30 years ago af­ter study­ing ac­coun­tancy at Queen’s Univer­sity. He had been ed­u­cated at Belfast Royal Aca­dem­i­cal In­sti­tu­tion (Inst).

“My first job was a trad­ing re­ceiver­ship for a com­pany in Queen Street. I spent a year or year-anda-half in re­struc­tur­ing,” he says.

He en­joyed the stim­u­la­tion of re­struc­tur­ing but needed more ex­pe­ri­ence of the tech­ni­cal side of ac­coun­tancy — which he ac­quired in a small prac­tice af­ter it was taken over by Coop­ers & Ly­brand.

“That was work­ing in the kind of sit­u­a­tion where some­one would come in with a bag of re­ceipts and cheque stubs and say ‘can you make a set of ac­counts from that’.”

John re­turned to re­struc­tur­ing in Coop­ers & Ly­brand and led the depart­ment. And it was there that he was given the chance to head to the cor­po­rate fi­nance depart­ment of the In­dus­trial De­vel­op­ment Board, the pre­cur­sor to In­vest NI.

“That was fan­tas­tic ex­pe­ri­ence as I was get­ting those com­mer­cial con­sul­tancy skills at a rather se­nior level. I was learn­ing a lot about the North­ern Ire­land agri-sec­tor, about man­u­fac­tur­ing plants and their ex­pan­sion plans,” he says.

“My job was to get un­der the skin of plans for ex­pan­sion and re­port back on them. It meant I un­der­stood more about what was go­ing on in North­ern Ire­land and in the com­pany in ques­tion.

“So while it was a lim­ited pe­riod, it was quite a breadth of ex­pe­ri­ence. There was quite a bit of trav­el­ling — I went to Amer­ica, Ger­many, France and Spain and learned how they worked there.”

Af­ter­wards, he joined a smaller firm as a part­ner be­fore start­ing in KPMG 11 years ago. As well as man­ag­ing part­ner of the Belfast of­fice, he’s also head of deal ad­vi­sory. And he’s lead­ing KPMG at a time of ad­just­ment and what he hopes will be sig­nif­i­cant ex­pan­sion for the busi­ness.

It’s moved to swish new of­fices at The Soloist in Belfast city cen­tre close to the Wa­ter­front Hall, where the space they’ve let fac­tors in pos­si­ble fu­ture ex­pan­sion. It has around 240 staff at the mo­ment — though John is hop­ing to grow that to around 320 in the next few years.

He’s also hope­ful that the KPMG Belfast staff can work on de­vel­op­ing ‘cen­tres of ex­cel­lence’ so that they can ful­fil spe­cial­ist roles within the global or­gan­i­sa­tion from Belfast. “That would be the big-pic­ture game plan that we have,” he says.

Its for­ward-look­ing at­ti­tude fol­lows tur­bu­lence for KPMG in Belfast, thrown into the spot­light in 2015 when four part­ners — in­clud­ing its chair­man in Belfast Jon D’arcy — were in­ves­ti­gated by HMRC over their prop­erty firm, JEAP Ltd. It was front page news, with the part­ners’ homes and of­fices searched as part of the HMRC in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

The four re­tired from the firm and are chal­leng­ing HMRC’S con­duct of the in­ves­ti­ga­tion through a ju­di­cial re­view. They have not been charged with any of­fences.

John says: “That in­ci­dent took place two years ago and what hap­pened there was very much a per­sonal is­sue for the guys — and it’s a mat­ter of pub­lic record that they re­tired from the firm.

“In terms of what hap­pened to KPMG, we have the strength and depth through­out the firm both lo­cally and other parts of Dublin, Cork and Gal­way.

“Ev­ery­body just pulled to­gether. We talked to all our clients and we made sure that we de­liv­ered and we got as much busi­ness as usual. Ob­vi­ously it was quite a shock to ev­ery­one and life goes on.

“Our lease was up in the build­ing where we’d been since the 1980s so we’ve now moved.”

He said he searched Belfast’s en­tire of­fice build­ings to let be­fore alight­ing up on The Soloist — with mod­ern of­fices in­clud­ing break­out ar­eas — as a suit­able home for KPMG.

At home, he’s been mar­ried to Linda for around 30 years and they have two grown-up daugh­ters. He grew up in Drum­beg, where he still lives — one of two chil­dren of Mar­garet and Wil­liam.

His fa­ther was head of se­cu­rity at the Ul­ster Mu­seum and his mum worked in the Royal Vic­to­ria Hos­pi­tal. Golf is one of his con­sum­ing pas­sions — and he’s man­aged to play the cham­pi­onship, Nick Faldo-de­signed course at Lough Erne.

“I’m a big golf fan and the course is fan­tas­tic. I’ve played it a few times, but I don’t get to play too of­ten — the weather doesn’t al­low me,” he says.

He en­joys eat­ing out but de­scribes him­self as “too old for pubs”. But he’s cer­tainly had his fair share of pub ex­pe­ri­ences af­ter KPMG de­vel­oped a niche as ad­min­is­tra­tors in the pub trade

I was learn­ing a lot about the NI agri-sec­tor, man­u­fac­tur­ing plants and their ex­pan­sion plans

dur­ing the down­turn — most no­tably in North­ern Ire­land as ad­min­is­tra­tors to the Botanic Inns chain of pubs.

“They used to call me the pub land­lord be­cause I had so many pubs to look af­ter, but we are in dif­fer­ent times now,” he says.

“A lot of the pro­file jobs in pubs were in chal­leng­ing lo­ca­tions and I had built a rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing able to deal with very dif­fi­cult, tech­ni­cal as­sign­ments. Once you have dealt with it peo­ple tend to think of you when­ever there’s some­thing dif­fi­cult to do.”

And be­ing diplo­matic “is a po­lite way to put” the job of be­ing an ad­min­is­tra­tor — run­ning a com­pany on be­half of a lender to se­cure a bet­ter out­come than clos­ing it down.

“You have a very dif­fi­cult job to do and with ev­ery­thing, there’s a hu­man side to ev­ery­thing,” says John. “You need to be cog­nisant of that and try to be as car­ing and diplo­matic as you can be. But I’ve al­ways had the view that you never know when you might meet some­one again.”

And he said that ul­ti­mately, com­pany own­ers are won over by the idea that ad­min­is­tra­tion can save jobs. In one case he won’t name, KPMG saved up to 6,000 jobs in the UK. “I have been in as­sign­ments where we have saved one to two jobs to ones where we have saved 5,000 to 6,000 in course of one trans­ac­tion... that’s more re­ward­ing than go­ing in where there is no one to buy busi­ness as a go­ing con­cern and you have to close it down.”

KPMG traded the Lough Erne re­sort for nearly four years, with com­plex ti­tle is­sues pro­long­ing the process be­fore its sale in 2015 to Vine Av­enue Ad­vi­sors, headed by Michael Sal­iba along with TRU Ho­tels and Re­sorts.

“The stand-out mo­ment from that was the cir­cuitous route of quot­ing for busi­ness and we ac­tu­ally quoted for the G8,” says John.

“David Cameron was fly­ing in by he­li­copter to rub­ber stamp the venue but we had had a fire the night be­fore so when we were show­ing him around we had to avoid show­ing him the burnt bits. I wasn’t there at time but ap­par­ently be­fore he landed it was rain­ing but the sun came out as he landed and as he got back into it it started rain­ing again.”

Now he’s head­ing up the deal ad­vi­sory depart­ment, as well as be­ing part­ner in charge. Its work in­cludes merger and ac­qui­si­tions, fundrais­ing and debt re­struc­tur­ing.

“We are see­ing more pos­i­tive ac­tiv­ity in the mar­ket­place... The banks have largely got a lot of their dis­tressed as­sets away and off their books. They have to lend money to make money,” he says.

“We are back in the busi­ness of fund­ing. Banks are ob­vi­ously still cau­tious. They now have a risk in ap­petite. If they don’t start lend­ing they go out of busi­ness.”

The firm is now de­ter­mined to boost its pro­file, ap­point­ing a new head of busi­ness de­vel­op­ment and a new PR com­pany to get its mes­sage across.

“We have 240 peo­ple now — au­dit, tax and ad­vi­sory — and would like to grow by around 30% over the next two to three to 320. We are cur­rently on look-out for 10 ex­pe­ri­enced peo­ple,” John says.

“If you take the global piece, we’d like to grow to 300 to 320 peo­ple from grow­ing busi­ness on our strat­egy plan, and de­vel­op­ing cen­tres of ex­cel­lence would be on top of that again. I don’t want back of­fice jobs but good qual­ity peo­ple that we can do things not just for KPMG in Ire­land but also KPMG glob­ally.”

He hopes KPMG in Belfast can sell it­self as a lower cost lo­ca­tion, though of­fer­ing high-qual­ity labour.

The firm has 2,800 em­ploy­ees on the is­land of Ire­land. “In North­ern Ire­land, I think we are num­ber one though maybe not in terms of ul­ti­mate num­ber of peo­ple but in terms of what we do. But we have the largest tax depart­ment in North­ern Ire­land, at 90 peo­ple.”

As for the un­cer­tain­ties posed by Brexit and the lack of Ex­ec­u­tive, he says: “Ev­ery­body talks about the un­cer­tain­ties how many years can you re­mem­ber in which there has not been some kind of un­cer­tainty. If you go back 17, 18, 19 or 20 years there have been un­cer­tain­ties.”

The lack of an Ex­ec­u­tive is prob­lem­atic but he’s hope­ful. “We don’t have an op­er­at­ing gov­ern­ment so if you’re talk­ing to over­seas clients one of their ques­tions will be about that and it’s very hard to give an an­swer.

“But in­stead you’re fo­cus­ing on our peo­ple, in­fra­struc­ture and that type of stuff. But I’ve heard ru­mours that some­thing good is go­ing to hap­pen soon.”

Ev­ery­one talks about un­cer­tain­ties but if you go back 17, 18, 19 or 20 years there were un­cer­tain­ties Next week, the Big In­ter­view speaks to out­go­ing Belfast Har­bour chief ex­ec­u­tive Roy Adair

John Hansen at KPMG’S new Belfast of­fices

Mary Nagele (left), chief ex­ec­u­tive of Arts & Busi­ness NI, with John, and Dr Denise Fer­ran, pres­i­dent of the Royal Ul­ster Academy of Arts. KPMG has sup­ported the RUA for 10 years, help­ing raise £1.2m in art sales

John Hansen is hop­ing to grow KPMG’S staff num­bers here from 240 to 320

Lead­ers at the G8 sum­mit at Lough Erne Re­sort. KPMG spent nearly four years trad­ing the re­sort be­fore its sale in 2015

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