'Having a severely disabled son is a good lesson for life - I’ve never lost a minute’s sleep over business’
The Big Interview: Feargal McCormack
He brims over with positivity — and is even seeing a bright side to Brexit. Co Down businessman Feargal McCormack of accountancy firm PKF-FPM is using the firm’s position as a successful all-island operator to provide expertise on Brexit. When we meet, he has a presentation on the subject which he’s giving to Total Produce, the global fruit and vegetable plc based in Dublin, for proofreading.
Feargal’s business was set up in 1991 and now employs about 120 people, with turnover of around £7m expected for the present year. The firm has offices in Belfast, Newry, Mallusk and Dungannon, as well as two premises in the Republic. It joined global network PKF International in 2014.
Feargal has an exhausting list of business and extra-curricular achievements — borne out by the length of time it takes to print out his nine-page CV, from roles in the GAA to supporting Special Olympics Ireland. He’s also a husband to Anne and father of two sons Seamus and Ruairi.
Seamus (22) is severely autistic and requires care 24 hours a day, while 16-year-old Ruairi is in year 13 at his father’s much-loved former school, the Abbey Grammar in Newry.
“Having someone in your family who is so disabled is a good lesson for life. I have never lost a minute’s sleep over business,” he says. Feargal talks about having a disabled child, and how the family coped with a diagnosis of autism in 1994, a time when awareness of the condition was limited.
But for all those difficulties, or perhaps because of them, his positivity shines through. And he takes nothing for granted, with a tendency to preface any mention of successes or career breakthroughs with the phrase “I was fortunate to”. He grew up in Warrenpoint, where he still lives. His father Terence had a steel business. “My parents weren’t particularly educated but my father and mothers’ attitude was that whatever you do in life, you must be happy and treat people with equal respect.”
He studied economics and accountancy at Queen’s University, Belfast. “I was fortunate enough to win the John McConnell Scholarship for economics and then went on to train in accountancy with Peat Marwick, which became KPMG. He joined the Industrial Development Board, and was promoted to principal officer at 26.
“I think I still hold the distinction of being the youngest principal officer in the Northern Ireland Civil Service,” he says.He’d always harboured a desire to start up his own business. “It didn’t necessarily have to be accountancy but that’s what I did, and I set up FPM. Those were my initials and back then I was the first to use initials in a business name, but now that’s what everyone does. The name also gave the impression that I was bigger than I was. I remember when I set up I would go out as far away as I could to buy my newspaper, hoping to meet potential clients.”
He learned quickly that doing well in business was all about relationships, and attributes much of the firm’s success to his people, including hiring Paddy Harty as an accountant in 1992. Paddy became a partner in 1994.
“Hiring him has probably been the best decision I’ve made in business, along with putting together a group of exciting, passionate people. We’ve been able to have business growth of 16.5% to 17% every year over the past 25 years.”
Early client wins included Belleek Pottery and Braham Electrical in Warrenpoint. “We have been fortunate to grow with our clients so we now have Novosco, MJM, Genesis Bread in Magherafelt.”
Relationships are uppermost in succession planning, his favourite area of practice accounting for 60% of his own workload.
The firm has advised on around 300 succession plans for companies. “The best people to make that decision are the older generation in consultation with the younger generation, but it’s amazing how many people fudge that or put it off. It’s the elephant in the room.”
Speaking of the elephant in the room, will Brexit make things tougher for their business? “I wouldn’t say tougher. Every new day brings a new challenge. Like George Bernard Shaw said, the golden rule is that there’s no golden rule.” And while he is optimistic about Brexit, he is unflinching in recalling even tougher times, during the recession of 2008 to 2011/12. “That was a difficult time because prior to that we were growing at 20 or 21%, then all of a sudden we were working 20% harder and earning 20% less, just to stand still.
“It was very tough for a lot of businesses but we took a decision not to let staff go; we didn’t make redundancies and we didn’t reduce wages because we were confident in the long-term that we were going to grow again.”
The company still has its headquarters in Newry but has made acquisitions in Mallusk, and most recently the Balbriggan, Co Dublin practice of Francis J. Woods & Company.
“Despite the fact that we started in Newry, Newry has been very good to us, now only 19% of our clients would be Greater Newry. This year turnover will be around £7m, which will be up from £5.8m in the year ending March 31, 2016.”
While recognising the impact of Brexit on firms on both sides of the border, he sees a business opportunity in developing the firm as a centre of excellence on Brexit.
But he said he was saddened by the vote and has personal experience of EU workers and their contribution — in healthcare, in particular. “We have had a number of Polish and Lithuanian and Irish carers for our son Seamus and have always found them to be wonderful and very caring.”
Feargal says he and his family are fortunate that they have been able to adapt their home so that Seamus still lives with them — though most autism sufferers with the same level of severity of the condition live in residential care.
“We probably realised something was wrong at the age of 18 months to two years.
“He was one of the youngest to be diagnosed, at the age of four. Usually diagnoses were made closer to the age of six but I stress he was at the very end of the spectrum.”
Seamus was taken to a number of specialists, until eminent Irish psychiatrist Professor Michael Fitzgerald diagnosed him “in 15 minutes”. And the family have done their best. “We flew people over that we thought could help us, every six weeks, from Wisconsin to Ireland for treatment called applied behavioural analysis, which is now quite common.
“You try to do your best, and we do, and we’re still hoping. Anne has been phenomenal. Everyone has their crosses in life but I try to encourage positivity and it surprises me to hear people talking in negative tones about exam success or someone having to wear glasses. I always think people need a good dose of the realities of life.
“If I have a motto it’s always to encourage people to disengage from negativity.”