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Jackie Henry: 'I started working in my dad's shop when I was 15 and it helped me to get where I am today'

Jackie Henry, head of Deloitte in Northern Ireland, tells Margaret Canning about ambition, her career and family life in Belfast

By Margaret Canning

You can't get much further away from the stereotypical accountant than Jackie Henry. Today, the Deloitte senior partner is in Cannes in the south of France to promote Belfast as an investment location. Along with representatives from Belfast City Council and the private sector, she'll be showing off a throne from fantasy TV series Game of Thrones, which is filmed in the city.

In January, she travelled to Buckingham Palace to pick up an MBE for services to the economy in Northern Ireland.

But just months earlier, she was working weekends in her late father Graham's corner shop in north Belfast, a place she credits with teaching her much about business. To put it mildly, that is a world away from her work this week as part of the Belfast delegation at international property conference MIPIM.

Tomorrow, she'll be discussing the opportunities which Belfast and Northern Ireland could gain if Ireland is successful in its bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup.

She said: "The eyes of MIPIM will be on the Belfast stand, and we'll be telling that story and what a great experience Game of Thrones has had".

Her role as head of Deloitte in Northern Ireland makes it the only big four accountancy practice in Northern Ireland with a woman in charge.

The mother-of-three has become one of our most active people in business, acting as an ambassador for the city and helping Deloitte in Belfast become a major international operation with a technology and delivery centre for global clients located in the city.

Jackie, who's just marked her fiftieth birthday, said her father Graham and mother Esther, have been major influences.

Graham, whose corner shop was called Miller's, died last September.

"My parents worked hard and encouraged me and my sister to get the best education we could and my dad was a big influence in my work. He owned a corner shop and worked right up until he died.

"My first job was in daddy's corner shop and I started there when I was about 15 and I kept that on while I was in university. In fact when my dad was ill last summer I was in the shop helping out on Saturdays and Sundays with my eldest son Rory. Working in the shop taught me a huge amount about running a business, managing customers and to not to take myself too seriously.

"All that proved to be a great foundation for working in Deloitte."

Attendees at MIPIM are likely to include Lawrence Kenwright, the Liverpool developer who's set to open a George Best-themed hotel in Belfast - along with a possible four others. Jackie said Deloitte in Liverpool helped introduce Mr Kenwright to Belfast.

"It's all about the ambition Belfast has, focusing on some really tangible projects and further investments across the city."

Her enthusiasm for bringing new hotels to Northern Ireland isn't shaken by suggestions from some that we could soon reach saturation point, with over 20 new venues in the planning system.

"The data for hotel occupancy is clear - we have the highest occupancy rates and that's been sustained over the last year. We have ambitious targets for tourism so that ambition will sustain the additional bed spaces. We have a great business tourism offer, with the extension to the Waterfront Hall. It's been a significant investment for Belfast City Council and I believe there are even more significant global conferences coming to Belfast."

She has worked at Deloitte for nearly 28 years and has helped drive the expansion of its workforce - expected to reach 1,200 staff in Belfast.

"I am an accountant by background and that's the backbone of what I am. I'm a Belfast girl, born and bred just off Fortwilliam Park, where my mum and sister still live.

"In the last few years, coming to lead Deloitte in Northern Ireland and seeing the contribution that business has made to the city has made me realise what a personal passion it's become to contribute and create possibilities and opportunities that weren't there when I was growing up tin the 1970s and 1980s."

When she started in Deloitte at the age of 22, she did not have one eye on a future as a high-profile business ambassador.

"I think it's been step by step and stage by stage, and when I went into accountancy it was a very natural flow. It has been incremental, building out at different stages.

"At that time, I thoroughly enjoyed my different clients and talking through their issues but actually producing their accounts was the less rewarding element at the time.

"But Tony Hopkins, a senior partner at the time - who is still active in the firm - turned me towards consultancy around 1993/94, and that I think was a key moment which opened up a completely different avenue in the business.

"And I have remained in that end of the business, though building out new products and new talent areas."

As to the qualities that the firm recognised in her, she said: "I think they saw that I had engaged well with clients.

"I was probably a bit pushy in terms of some of my frustrations in talking about what I wanted to do and the bits that were less interesting. However, I have to give credit to him for investing in me and making sure I got the experience to find an area in Deloitte that worked for me."

Her success in progressing to the top of her profession has made her passionate about attracting more women into the higher echelons of accountancy.

"We attract really well at entry point to our business and our graduate intake balance is wonderful, and we have a school leaver programme. But the issue is at the more senior grades and making it a career that is attractive to those with children and other family caring responsibilities. That's our biggest challenge.

"We have some good policies and programmes trying to attract women back, with maternity leave and flexibility and agile working. That's starting to have an impact. We don't have enough women who have been able to or found it attractive to progress through into the senior grades.

"So I am an anomaly for the big four in Northern Ireland."

She took maternity leave with her own three children, which started out at the standard 12 weeks when her eldest Rory - now 17 - was born, and was around six months by the time of the arrival of Amy, who's now 11. Her other son Conor is 14.

She's been married to Ronan for 19 years, who is head of the press office at the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

"I think for me there are points of worry and guilt as a parent that you are putting in. I always think my finest achievement is my children and as you get older you are better at prioritising and managing all of that."

She is passionate about improving things for business, and is uncomfortable with the decision of Chancellor Philip Hammond to increase national insurance contributions for the self-employed.

"It brings little comfort to those in business or encouragement to creators and innovators thinking of it," she said.

Jackie also feels that the economy was not prioritised by the parties in their recent Assembly election campaigns.

"Devolution has been good for the Northern Ireland economy. The platform it has provided for peace has increased prosperity and early stage economic growth. The increase in tourism and foreign direct investment in the last years are good examples of what this stability has offered. I want to see a devolved government in place that is functioning and prioritises skills development and the economy. I do think this has slipped down the priority list of the parties in the last months."

She hopes that Northern Ireland will be able to secure a lower rate of corporation tax but stresses that other levers are important.

"The key issue for me in creating and sustaining economic prosperity and growth is investment in skills and education. Our young people offer us an incredible talent pool that will drive future creativity and innovation and that should be our priority. That said, we should also secure other levers to maintain and attract investment and lowering the rate of corporation tax is one that should be pursued. We must encourage a new Executive to stay confident on this and deliver the lower rate in 2018."

Jackie said there was some evidence of clients delaying investment thanks to the uncertainty presented by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. "That said, businesses in Northern Ireland are very resilient and will get on with delivering and focusing on the opportunities that do exist."

As for her hopes for her children, she said: "I want them to be happy and have opportunities here in NI and I am heartened by what has been achieved so far in fintech, cyber-security, the film industry, tourism and possibilities for the future that now exist."

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