Belfast becomes professional services hub

Belfast has become an international hub for professional services. More than 2,000 new jobs in the accountancy and legal sectors have been announced in the last two years. Deloitte, EY and PwC all now have major bases in Northern Ireland’s first city, servicing clients across the world.

“There are two reasons why I was able to persuade the UK firm to expand Belfast,” explains Jackie Henry, senior partner of Deloitte Belfast. “We are a very attractive low cost location that is part of the UK, so it is a near shore location that is part of the jurisdiction. The second reason is talent: the quality of experienced hires, graduates and school leavers. That is the point that has really impressed UK and global Deloitte.”

That flow of talent for Deloitte is evident at several layers. In part it is about attracting qualified accountants. But it also involves recruiting graduates and school leavers, training them up into high level professional qualifications in partnership with Ulster University and others. And the experience of Belfast has influenced Deloitte’s national recruitment approach.

“We are changing how we are hiring school leavers and the rest of the UK is following us,” says Henry. “That is something I am very proud of. To be fair to government and the Department for Employment and Learning here they have been really helpful in supporting us to innovate, including recruiting young graduates who have been stuck in unfulfilling jobs, like shelf stacking.

“With our programme for school leavers, at the end of four years they end up with a degree, a job, no debt and four years’ work experience. It has been well received by the cohort and by their parents.”

Deloitte announced its plans in September 2014 to create 338 jobs within five years at Belfast, taking its total workforce in the city to 700. It has since expanded faster than planned, with 200 people recruited in the first year and another 150 to be recruited in year two.

The firm now employs over 400 people in Belfast, of whom a hundred are focused on clients within Northern Ireland, with the rest engaged on projects relating to UK and global clients. As with other professional firms establishing service centres in Belfast, some of Deloitte’s team are internationally mobile.

“Activities,” says Henry, “include tax compliance, tax administration for the UK – working with Deloitte India – and audit and audit pensions for the whole UK firm. Consulting is a significant area of growth: actuarial consulting; digital, analytic, testing. And there are some specific technological applications. In addition, we are building out our human capital consulting. It is quite a mix.”

Initial experience has been very positive, with Deloitte partners flying into Belfast to consider other investment opportunities. At present, Deloitte has a Belfast Delivery Centre to support the international client base, plus a Belfast Technology Studio, which handles data analytics and other tech applications. Average salaries are more than £30,000 (€42,000), which is above the Northern Ireland average pay rate. (The median average for a full time worker in Northern Ireland is £25,220 – €36,000.) Invest Northern Ireland offered Deloitte NI a financial package worth £2.6m (€3.6m) to support its job creation plans.

EY announced its big Belfast expansion plan in April 2014, creating nearly 500 extra jobs in addition to the 145 people previously employed in the city. A promised total annual pay bill of £19m (€27m) for the new Belfast jobs means average pay of just under £40,000 (€56,000).

Mike McKerr, managing partner of EY Ireland, said at the time: “As a global company with a presence in more than 150 countries, we continually evaluate the best locations for expansion to ensure maximum productivity and growth.”  He indicated that support from government agencies had been “instrumental” in securing the decision. Invest Northern Ireland and the Department for Employment and Learning contributed £3.2m (€4.5m) in financial assistance, plus a training package.

PwC joined the Belfast party in October 2014, announcing the creation of 807 new jobs. This involved an investment of £40m (€56m), with £4.4m (€6.2m) coming from Invest NI, including for training support. Average salaries are £21,000 (€29,400) – much lower than the pay available for the Deloitte and EY jobs. The roles are split between the firm’s My Financepartner project – analysing financial transactions for clients – and its Augment programme, through which PwC supports major client transformation and M&A projects. PwC has recruited a mix of qualified accountants and young graduates.

Significantly, PwC announced in November 2015 that Belfast has become the third PwC/Google joint ‘Innovation Lab’ – the others are at New York and Sydney. The Lab draws on PwC’s pool of a total of 1,300 people in Belfast. It is described as a “key element” of PwC’s large technology facility in the city, in which this so-called ‘Hive’ develops digital solutions for clients globally.

“I’m delighted that the PwC and Google Innovation Lab is a first for PwC Northern Ireland, where we are already driving technology as a business solution to PwC clients worldwide,” says Paul Terrington, PwC regional chairman in Northern Ireland.

In July 2015 Grant Thornton expanded its existing Belfast service centre, agreeing to create a further 71 jobs. The roles include some experienced professionals, plus some school leavers, with average pay of just under £17,000 (€24,000).

Richard Gillan, partner in charge of Grant Thornton in Northern Ireland, says: “These new positions represent the first step of a growth programme for Grant Thornton in Northern Ireland over the coming years. The professionals employed will be based in Northern Ireland, providing specialist tax, audit and advisory services to local businesses.”

KPMG is the only Big Four firm not to establish a major service support centre in Belfast. Eamonn Donaghy, its head of tax practice in Belfast, explains that its business model focuses on centres of excellence, rather than looking for cheap operating bases that provide services globally.

“We did have a think about it, but it was not really what we are trying to do,” reports Donaghy. “I suppose we look at things differently from the other three firms. In Dublin we have our global aircraft leasing facility, which is probably the best in the world. But that is not because they are low cost. They are really, really good. They are not selling themselves as cheaper. If you could provide that in Northern Ireland I would be very supportive of that.”

KPMG’s focus in Northern Ireland is instead on its domestic client base. But Donaghy is careful not to be dismissive of what the other Big Four firms are doing. “Bringing work into Northern Ireland from overseas is a good thing and should be encouraged,” he says.

Ronnie Patton, senior lecturer in professional accounting practice at Ulster University and a member of ACCA’s Public Sector Network Panel, is clear that cost advantages are a major factor in bringing professional firms to Belfast. “I think the firms have been attracted because the costs are lower, particularly the staff costs,” he says.

But, adds Patton, Belfast offers much more than a competitive cost location. “Northern Ireland and Belfast in particular is seen as a good place in which to do business,” he argues. Location decisions by professional firms – accountancy and law (see box) – reflect well, says Patton, on “the quality of our graduates, our universities and, yes, on our cost base.” However, as more jobs are created, so pressures on pay will rise, he suggests.

There has been a long-term strategy involving both Invest NI and the two Northern Ireland universities – Ulster and Queen’s – to ensure there is a pool of talent in the North for professional firms to draw on, says Patton. “Employability is an important matrix with the university,” he explains. “Talent in universities is very strong and I have been trying to make links with businesses.” So, too have the university vice-chancellors, who in some instances have talked directly with firms considering locating in Belfast.

“Invest NI should be given some credit,” adds Patton. “There have been conversations between INI and universities to make sure there are those graduates there. Firms have been attracted by this.”

Consequently, Northern Ireland’s universities have tailored courses to the needs of professional firms and would-be accountants. These include a new Ulster University accounting degree offering students a specialism in either forensic accounting or consulting. “This gives students the opportunity to go deeper into particular strands of employment, where there are opportunities for those types of jobs,” explains Patton.

Karen Bradbury, financial services sector lead at Invest NI, confirms the organisation has taken an active role in promoting Belfast to the accountancy firms. “To help develop the talent, in Northern Ireland the Government, working closely with industry and academia, operates an extremely successful skills development programme called Assured Skills,” she points out. “This programme ensures that new inward investors and existing businesses can be confident that the workforce is successfully equipped with the appropriate skills both at launch and for future expansion.”

But it is not just talent and cost that has made Belfast attractive. Improvements in transport infrastructure in recent years have also been important. The road between Dublin and Belfast is now excellent and there has also been investment in the Enterprise rail service between the two cities – though journeys remain slow.

Belfast’s mobile workers can choose between Dublin and two local airports – Belfast City and Belfast International. Four major hub airports – Newark (New York), Amsterdam, Paris and Brussels – have direct flights from one or other of the Belfast airports.

PwC’s annual Good Growth for Cities Index consistently rates Belfast as one of the best cities in the UK in which to live and work – and the best outside southern England and Scotland. However, Belfast recorded a large fall in index rating in the last five years because of falling incomes and a rise in unemployment – which might be a plus for employers. The main positive factors for Belfast are work-life balance, commuting times and housing affordability.

Historically, political instability has put off many employers from committing to Northern Ireland locations. With stable government now apparently secured, and a rate of Corporation Tax to be cut to the Republic’s level of 12.5% from April 2018, it could be Belfast’s time to shine.




Belfast’s professional services jobs party


April 2014, EY, 486 jobs in expansion, creating new service centre.


July 2014, Alexander Mann human resources firm, 250 jobs in new service centre.


August 2014, Baker & Mackenzie, 256 jobs in new service centre.


September 2014, Deloitte, 338 jobs in expansion, creating new service centre.


October 2014, PwC, 807 jobs in expansion, creating new service centres.


October 2014, Allen & Overy, 100 jobs in expansion of service centre.


April 2015, Axiom legal services, 97 jobs in expansion of service centre.


June 2015, Grant Thornton, 71 jobs in expansion of domestic firm.


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