'Despite my fears about Brexit and a lack of access to industry talent I'm still ambitious for the future'
John Healy, managing director of insurance giant Allstate, reveals how the firm is faring in the aftermath of the EU vote and why IT should be pushed as a career option for young people
Brexit remains a constant talking point between Allstate in Northern Ireland and the company’s bosses in Chicago, according to John Healy. The 46-year-old says while the US-owned insurance giant hasn’t put off any major decisions post-EU vote, he said there “might be” repercussions in future.
The Londonderry man has been managing director of the company here for the last eight months, in charge of 2,200 staff.
But while it’s going from strength to strength, he said there are concerns in the business about what will happen next, and John also says any changes to the rules around EU workers should be expedited.
Allstate in Northern Ireland creates, tests and deploys software which is then used throughout the insurance giant’s global operations, and also acts as a call centre for the parent firm.
John says the company is now actively expanding into different areas here, including legal services.
“We are looking to see what else we can do for the corporation — opportunities in legal services, the finance and accounting side of things,” he said.
He’s had almost 25 years in the IT business and began his career with investment banking giant JP Morgan, joining as a support analyst at the age of 22.
John’s married to wife Krystine and has four children, Niamh (19), Hannah (17), Claire (13) and Tom (11).
When he’s not at the office in Belfast city centre, he’s a keen cook, can be found watching the Ulstermen at the Kingspan, as well as spending time with his family.
But his first job at JP Morgan was quite a jump from Londonderry to London in the space of a few months.
“It was called the interest rate derivatives desk. I remember, before the interview, having to go to the library to look up what an interest rate derivative was,” he said.
“A wee boy from Derry in the big city ... I went for the interview for the first job. They said, ‘that’s great, we like what you are saying, but if you want to get a job here you need to go out and look around, and see what everyone else is wearing’.
“I turned up at the interview in the only suit I owned, which was the suit that I’d got for my brother’s wedding.”
But while he studied civil engineering at Queen’s University, he soon realised he’d never work in the sector, and joined one of the first tranches of early conversion courses for computer science.
“I had really bad career advice. I was good at maths and good at physics at school,” he said.
And he’s keen for schools and colleges across Northern Ireland to ensure IT is pushed as a career option, rather than just the traditional professions such as law and medicine.
As he progressed in JP Morgan, John was flying back and forth from Belfast as often as six times a week.
Following a stint at Ulster Bank, and a year in Australia, then working for Grafton Recruitment, he joined Citi in Belfast, where he stayed for eight years.
The former St Columb’s College pupil is the second youngest of six children — each of whom have taken on careers as varied as acting, television production and teaching.
As with every boardroom across Europe, John says Brexit remains very much on the agenda at Allstate.
“Brexit is undoubtedly a big issue for the business community,” he said.
“As a large foreign exporter, the fall in sterling has been advantageous. From a cost perspective, we are 15% cheaper than we were before the vote.
“The medium to long-term concern is the access to talent.”
John said that includes any impact on fresh staff coming from Northern Ireland’s universities and colleges, as well as concerns over what happens to the company’s workforce — many of whom are from other EU nations.
And workers are also travelling from the Republic to the company’s Londonderry and Strabane offices.
“If anything happened from an investment perspective that damages that, it would have major impact,” he said.
“One of the risks could be (staff reconsidering coming to work here).
“On the flip side, there may be advantages. If there is a relaxing of visa requirements, we get an element of rationality into that and we might do better.
“I think it would be very beneficial to all businesses in this situation for there to be a statement (on what will happen to EU workers).
“There is a huge amount of interest from Chicago in all things Brexit. In what is a global economy, we want to make sure decisions are not made without full knowledge of the facts.”
While he ruled out Brexit having caused any major setbacks so far, he said there “might be” in future.
“Is there anything at the moment which isn’t getting done? No, there’s not. In the future could there be? Maybe there might be,” he said. John admitted it was a “very regular discussion point” which is “talked right through the organisation”.
Asked whether he’s filling big shoes at Allstate, taking over the role from the original firm’s founder, Bro McFerran, he said his challenge is “leaving it better than I found it”.
“Bro started the company, and built it up. It’s a fantastic company in terms of the people who have been hired in, in terms of the reputations,” he said.
“It’s difficult for anyone when you are coming in ... I found everyone here to be very welcoming.”
While there are huge opportunities for young people here to enter the profession in Northern Ireland, with firms such as Kainos and First Derivatives, he said:
“What I would be worried about is making sure that people have a global perspective — that they know there is a world that is beyond the shores of Northern Ireland.”
His career has taken him across the globe, from Australia and Tokyo, and regular US visits with his current top job with Allstate.
Allstate now boasts a workforce of around 2,200 staff, the majority of which are in Belfast, with 400 in Londonderry and 500 in Strabane.
The company was formed out of Northbrook Technology, before being rebranded 10 years later under the Allstate banner.
It is currently spending £30m on new head offices across the road from its current Lanyon Place building.
And the Northern Ireland arm of Allstate turned losses into big pre-tax profits of £5.6m in the space of a year.
“The company is profitable, but we reinvest that back in, in terms of technology training and the premises,” John said.
While the company is looking to grow further, John won’t speculate on how many jobs that could create.
Looking forward 10 years, John says he sees the company “right at the forefront” of the delivery to the clients.
“I’d like us to be moved out of the call centre side, and be a profits centre and revenue generator,” he said.
In next week’s Big Interview, we hear from Hughes Insurance chief executive Brian McDowell