Belfast becomes UK’s professional support centre of choice

Belfast has developed a niche specialism: it is a support centre for major international professional firms. Two Big Four accountancy firms – Deloitte and EY – two major law firms – Allen and Overy as well as Herbert Smith Freehills – plus recruitment agency Alexander Mann Solutions and financial services firm FinTrU have all recently opened large support centres in the city.


Several factors seem to have been key in attracting the firms – but perhaps more than anything the deciding ingredient has been that Northern Ireland wanted the firms more than our competitor nations did. In part that keenness was demonstrated through attention to the firms, in part it was reflected in grant support from Invest NI and the Department for Employment and Learning.  In addition, Belfast’s proximity to two universities and its air routes have been very important.


In April, EY – which used to be called Ernst & Young and is one of the four mega, global, accountancy firms – announced that it was setting-up in Belfast a new business unit that is offering advisory and assurance services to clients outside of Northern Ireland. This unit will house 486 staff, in addition to the previously existing 145 EY people located in Belfast.  Attracting EY to Belfast was assisted by a grant from Invest NI of £3.2m, plus training support provided by the Department for Employment and Learning.


This financial and practical support from the Northern Ireland Executive was a key factor, confirms Mike McKerr, managing partner of EY Ireland. He explains:  “Belfast has a compelling case for business looking to locate here. In addition to INI’s investment – which played an instrumental role in EY’s decision – they also provided EY with compelling examples of corporate investments already located in Belfast. The investment conference held last October provided us access to many other inward investors who shared their positive experience.”


Several other factors also attracted EY to Belfast, says McKerr. He quotes active policies by the Executive to support inward investment and job creation; a “robust infrastructure”, in particular the city’s high speed and low cost broadband connectivity, two “world class” universities in Greater Belfast; ease of access to senior levels of government; and, at present, low property costs.


Growing confidence in the economy of Ireland – North and South – also played a role. “Client confidence is returning as the all-island economy shows signs of growth generating more employment opportunities, [which is] so vital to recovery,” says McKerr.


He adds: “We are in the process of appointing a chief operating officer to head up the new unit, and we’ve received plenty of applications from graduates and experienced hire professionals for other positions on offer. We will be staying in our offices based at Bedford House, but we do recognise that the success of this project will mean, as we continue to grow, we may have to source additional office space.”


Another of the Big Four accountancy firms, Deloitte, has also chosen Belfast for a major expansion project. It is recruiting 177 staff for a new analytics and digital hub based in the Gasworks that will be a ‘centre of excellence’ to support the firm across its UK practice and also internationally.


Dr Danny McConnell, a Deloitte partner, explains: “What we are doing represents a fantastic investment in Northern Ireland, in Belfast and in the skills developed in our colleges. The work undertaken at Deloitte’s UK digital and analytical hub will have an impact globally. It’s a huge vote of confidence in Northern Ireland. Belfast will represent a true centre of excellence, employing graduates, those without degrees and experienced professionals.”


As with EY, Deloitte refers to the financial support from INI – Deloitte is receiving £1.2m – and training assistance from the Department for Employment and Learning. Deloitte also praises Belfast City Council for its role in creating an excellent working environment at the Gasworks development, which it regenerated (with financial support from the European Union) and continues to manage.


But the role of the local universities must not be underestimated in attracting investment in the services sector. This was a major factor in attracting FinTrU – the Financial Transparency Utility – which offers specialist outsourcing to the financial services sector.   FinTrU announced in July that it is creating 80 jobs at a service centre in Belfast, with support of £600,000 from INI, plus £240,000 for training support from the Department for Employment and Learning.


Darragh McCarthy, chief executive of FinTrU explains: “There were a number of factors combined that made Belfast the most attractive location for FinTrU to establish a centre of excellence. The main driver was the quality and depth of the local talent pool.


“Belfast has a well-established and growing financial services sector, while QUB & Ulster universities produce a steady stream of skilled graduates.  A second factor was the close proximity to our clients – Belfast is a one hour flight from London, which is important for client engagement and service delivery. Being within the UK legal & regulatory environment was also key, as was the competitive cost environment that Belfast offers.


“Overarching was the visible partnership and collaboration between business, government and education that makes it easy to operate in and do business from Belfast.”


Rosaleen Blair, the founding CEO of the recruitment agency Alexander Mann Solutions, makes a similar argument. “There is no doubting why Northern Ireland is the leading UK region for inward investment outside of London,” she says.


“In particular, we were attracted to Belfast’s compelling combination of a highly-educated and multi-lingual workforce, a cost competitive infrastructure and a pro-business operating environment. We are confident that the city is the best strategic destination for the next stage of our global development and we are delighted to be working with Invest NI to generate high value jobs that boost the local economy.”


As with the other recent services announcements, Alexander Mann’s Belfast location was also aided by financial support. Some 250 jobs will be located at the new global client service centre.  This has attracted a £1m grant from INI, with further support of £600,000 being provided for training, part coming from the European Regional Development Fund and £400,000 from the Department for Employment and Learning’s Assured Skills programme.


It is instructive to learn from British investors why they regard Belfast as a location of choice. This should assist people in Northern Ireland to recognise our strengths.  Grant assistance, low cost and skills from the universities seem to be recurring factors drawing in investment.


But perhaps many in Northern Ireland will be surprised at the extent to which government departments and agencies are praised for what outsiders see as pro-business policies, with ministers willing to get stuck in to deliver the deals that create jobs. That, it must be acknowledged, is not the reputation those same ministers always enjoy within Northern Ireland.  Perhaps they deserve a few more congratulations.

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