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Mentors scheme could make American dream come true

A newly launched mentoring scheme will open the eyes of US corporations about what Northern Ireland has to offer, according to the head of a leading Wall Street firm.

Bob McCann, chief executive of UBS Wealth Management, was in Belfast last week for the unveiling of the NI Mentorship Programme, launched by US economic envoy Declan Kelly’s office in partnership with the American Ireland Fund and the Northern Ireland Science Park.

The mentorship programme is designed to provide 25 young people from across Northern Ireland with the opportunity to spend one year working full-time in a corporate environment with a leading US company.

“This is an opportunity for someone to get an education they would not normally get,” Mr McCann told Business Telegraph. “To me it is very simple.

“We will try to get 25 well deserving, well-qualified young people from Northern Ireland. My definition of well-qualified is that they have both the academic background, the ambition, the people skills, but also they have to have character.

“When they step into an AXA, UBS, GE, Coca-Cola, Sandler O’Neill — any of the companies taking part — they are not just representing themselves and their families, they are representing Northern Ireland. We have to choose 25 winners.”

The New York-based executive will chair the corporate programme in the US, while the Institute of Directors’ Joanne Stuart will chair the selection process in Northern Ireland.

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Mr McCann’s own move to UBS last year was a protracted affair that took up many column inches when his former employer Merrill Lynch claimed his contract prevented him joining a rival institution. McCann spent nine months waiting for the matter to be resolved before taking up his new post.

While he “saw a lot of Yankees games and played a lot of golf” the time off also gave him more time to get personally involved in some of the philanthropic work he was financially supporting — much of which has an educational focus.

“To me education does not stop in the classroom,” he said. “It’s been 30 years since I graduated from college and 28 since I finished graduate school, but I’ve done most of my learning since then. A big part of learning is taking yourself out of your comfort zone.

“Those 25 young people who go to the US and spend a year as part of a global, modern, highly competitive company — they are going to learn a lot.”

Mr McCann has been a member of the American Ireland Fund for 12 years. Like AIF co-founder and current ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney, he hails originally from Pittsburgh and with only distant links to Ireland admits he first got involved in the AIF for business reasons before discovering a passion for the island.

While UBS moving jobs to Northern Ireland is “off the grid for us right now”, Mr McCann is full of praise for what Northern Ireland has to offer. He believes that within 10 years US firms will be basing much more than just back office functions here.

“There are any number of US business leaders who have an affiliation with Ireland and care about it for a number of different reasons,” he said.

“What fascinates me is that many of us are more optimistic and see a brighter future for Ireland than many of the people from here.

“It is easier to get here from New York City than it is to get to Chicago. I feel comfortable here, I speak the language, I see a well-educated population.

“This country has a lot going for it. Sometimes I have conversations and I feel I’m the one talking up Ireland to the Irish.”

Mr McCann believes that schemes such as the Mentoring programme could also be of immense benefit to his own industry.

“We can’t have enough bright people in financial services. It is a time when we as an industry are trying to earn back the trust of employees and our clients. Financial services broadly around the world will change and is already changing,” he said.

“People are going to have to be more responsive and responsible to clients. Regulation will help but it can’t do everything, there will always be gaps no matter how regulation changes. That’s where leadership comes in.”