Belfast Telegraph

Tucking in ahead of the lean years

With Northern Ireland business facing a very depressed decade, entrepreneurs need all the help the government can provide, David Watters tells Joris Minne

‘Northern Ireland has far more entrepreneurs than Owen Paterson thinks and anything which can help them, like a lower corporation tax rate, is welcome.”

The thoughts of mild-mannered finance and management expert David Watters are clear and concise. “Ever since I’ve been in business, Northern Ireland’s private sector has been under siege — it used to be protection rackets, now it’s the banks. I’m not sure which is worse. But one thing’s for sure, lower corporation rates will help.”

Did I say ‘mild-mannered’? Watters gets his message in early, before the menus have even arrived. Behind the smile and the mischievous eyes is a passionate man who believes in Northern Ireland Plc. So he should. He’s made plenty over the years from the private sector as a managing partner in leading business consultancy, the recently rebranded RSM McClure Watters.

I sense he’s used to being in charge so I drag my heels. I want him to look at the menu, which offers a frugal three courses at £16.50. Fair play to him, he adopts the posture of grateful guest and looks through the austerity sheet. The a la carte choices seem more apt, for a man of his stature, however, so I urge him to abandon the Spartan menu. In the presence of greatness, best reach for the Pouilly Fume and lobster.

David is not obviously profligate. He has the work ethic of solid mid-Ulster having grown up in Lurgan, the son of a chartered secretary dad and chemist mother.

Has he always been a high-achiever? “Apart from some very happy years at Methodist College where I boarded and didn’t work quite as hard as I might have, I’ve led a monastic existence dedicated to my family, colleagues and clients,” he says straight faced. Then, some seconds later, he bursts out laughing.

Despite the self-deprecation, he is a disciplined family man and employer but is not opposed to the enjoyments which life can bring.

“When I first started working in Price Waterhouse where I did audit and consulting, I loved it. It was a sociable, productive and fascinating place to work,” he says. “But then in 1988 I went to Coopers where things were much drier and human contact kept to a minimum.”

Within months he struck a deal with Rollo McClure and a business partnership, which would endure the ups and downs of the next 20 years, was born.

What does he make of the change in politics and business over the past 15 years? “A post-ceasefire peace dividend of sorts did eventually arise in the North on the back of the Celtic Tiger.”

But David believes we are entering a very depressed decade. “The wealth created 10 years ago was transactional — it was based largely on property deals. Meanwhile, the 70% reliance on public-sector employment remained in place — nothing shifted it.

“When the transactions stopped, the pace of wealth creation fell away and the pubic sector became even more attractive as an employer. Incentives to go into business were worthless compared to the perceived (justifiably or not) job-for-life stability of the civil service.”

He’s braced for an uncertain future. The next five years will be tougher than the past 15, he warns. We get stuck into our marvellous lunch to console ourselves.

James Street South

Quail: £8.50

Lobster and scallop: £12.00

Halibut: £19.50

Rabbit: £17.50

New potatoes: £3.50

Fries: £3.50

Parfait: £6.75

Cheese: £5.50

Pouilly fume: £29.00

Coffees: £4.90

Total: £110.65

Belfast Telegraph