Belfast Telegraph

‘Issues like Brexit and Stormont will put investment somewhere else other than Northern Ireland’

Richard Gillan, head of Grant Thornton in Northern Ireland, speaks to Margaret Canning about the investment climate and hosting Barack Obama

By Margaret Canning

Richard Gillan is partner in charge of business advisory firm Grant Thornton in Northern Ireland. He's been leading the practice at a time of growth of around 40% per annum.

The father-of-one is fairly unique in business advisory circles as he's spent a long periods running his own businesses - and making a big success of them. He's also vice chairman of the Ulster Chartered Accountants Society.

He also has some sparkling anecdotes on figures from former Prime Minister David Cameron to hosting Barack Obama - of which more later.

Richard is married to Caroline, a senior civil servant and former personal private secretary to the late Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness.

They have one son - sports-mad seven-year-old, Lewis.

He lives in Ballyholme in Bangor where he also grew up with up with mother Beth and father Matt, brother Mark and younger sister Susan.

Matt was Ulster Rugby coach and vice-principal and maths teacher at Belfast Royal Academical Institute (Inst) until his retirement in 2001.

"When I was at school he taught me maths. So I had to do my homeworks. He was a significant influence on me, keeping me working hard.

"Of course, as he was vice-principal there were high expectations so my brother and I always had a bit of friendly rivalry in the household."

His mum worked as a model at Northern Ireland events like the Motor Show and the Ideal Home Exhibition. "I was always very proud of my mum, the model. She then became a fashion agent and had her own fashion label called McBeth. She's always been very into fashion. I remember her picking me up from school with her leather flying suit on."

Susan is now a teacher in Newcastle, while Mark became chief race engineer for Formula 1 companies including McLaren, Williams and others after studying aeronautical engineering. He now has a company called Celeritas Applied Technologies.

"I then went from Inst to Queen's University, where I did accountancy and later worked for two of the Big Four accountancy firms. I worked in places like Luxembourg, Johannesbourg and London. That was always mainly in corporate finance side, advising people on buying and selling companies.

"One of the things when you advise people on selling companies is that a month later, you see them driving around in their Ferraris. So you think to yourself, they're having better fun than I am. So at age 32 I remortgaged the house, together with a partner borrowed a lot of money from the bank and bought a manufacturing company in Co Tyrone. We manufactured timber products like fire surrounds so my partner he basically made the product and I sold it.

"I went from driving a silver BMW convertible to driving a silver Renault Trafic van. We had a great business and I brought it down into the Republic and crossed into Great Britain then sold it in May 2007. Selling it then was probably in hindsight perfect as it was linked with the construction sector and that was just before the crash.

"At that time, if you had to pick a month to sell a business, that was probably it. That was more luck than anything else.

"But then I bought a call centre Anderson Manning Associates out of administration.

"Buying a business out of administration meant I was there as managing director for 15 hours a day just stabilising the business. It was a very challenging first few months. I remember the phone system supplier threatening to cut us off and I remember thinking a call centre operation without phones isn't great.

"But within a few months we were making money. I thoroughly enjoyed it and then sold that to private individuals. I moved on to to the next challenge.

"I did consulting and looked at a number of other opportunities for acquisitions at that time.

"Then in 2014, I met Paul McCann who was managing partner at Grant Thornton Ireland. It had previously acquired or taken responsibility for the Belfast office, which had been part of the UK practice.

"I felt I could do business with him but the brand was kind of under-exploited."

He joined as advisory partner and then became partner in charge in 2015. "It's gone very well. It's been very hard work but very rewarding. Our revenues are now treble what they were back three years ago. But we never talk about our revenues.

"The business has been full-on but we have a lot of momentum behind us. We have a great team, now 100 people.

"You get a great team who bring great clients, and with great clients, you tend to attract more new talent."

A move into custom fit-out offices within the Dankse Bank headquarters in Belfast city centre has added to the attractiveness of the firm. "I would be disappointed this year if we don't have 40% growth. We see no sign of that type of growth ending."

Bigger clients include Ballyvesey Group, owners of transport firm Montgomery Transport. It's also been involved in the deal to buy CastleCourt Shopping Centre for Wirefox.

"We're very much doing well financially but what I'm most pleased about are our staff survey results.

"People seem to enjoy working here and we do our best to create a nice working environment for them. That all comes down to culture. We work hard and we play hard. We're not afraid to enjoy ourselves."

His own experience in industry is helpful. "It's not that long ago since I was a client myself relaying some of the things we hear from clients. There's a lot of empathy.

"But I enjoy this more. I'm very glad I did the working in industry. But I almost got it out of my system and if I had the choice to do it again, I would. But I'm glad I did it when I'm younger."

Brexit is of course a topic of conversation, but Richard's lead-up to the inevitable discussion is slightly unusual. "I was on holiday in Lanzarote and saw David Cameron at the pool. I went up to him and said: "You're doing a great job, Prime Minister." Because then I knew he'd chat to me. I suspect no-one had never said that it to him before so it was quite disarming.

"I think he was so surprised anyone said that to him so he engaged in conversation. He mentioned he had been over in Bushmills. Funny, he concluded by saying: "It's close for comfort, but I think we'll be ok." Famous last words.

"When the result happened, my reaction was shock. But I was thinking, bigger shock for Cameron."

And moving onto Cameron's contemporary... or at least, a namesake. "At the weekend, we're going to have Barack Obama staying with us. Barack Obama is a nine-year-old Ugandan who is a member of a children's choir. We have three of them staying with us this weekend."

And also on the subject of US presidents, he's an honorary citizen of Little Rock, Arkansas - the home town of President Bill Clinton. "Back in 1994 I won a Rotary scholarship to Little Rock for a couple of months. Just before I left, they were kind enough to bestow that honour on me. It does have pride of place in my study."

But back to Brexit... "It's having quite a significant impact on a foreign direct investment perspective.

"We would deal with some US organisations and for them, they're very interested in the environment to do business, the macro-econoic factors like Brexit and Stormont.

"I have to say, when it comes to some of those potential investors, issues like Stormont and Brexit may well put them somewhere else. They look at those macro-factors before they look at the asset itself.

"But acquisitions within the home market are still buoyant and there are ones happening at the minute. "Companies have a lot of money on their balance sheets because they're getting no return from the bank at the moment.

"They're wanting to invest in business rather than anything else."

Outside work, he is a big rugby fan and coaches mini-rugby on Sundays in Bangor, which his son Lewis also plays.

And overall, despite the challenges of Brexit and the natural competitiveness of the business world, he doesn't dwell on the negative for too long.

"It's no secret it's a challenge for business that there's no Executive but I think at the same time, business people in Northern Ireland are very resilient.

"You have to remember that 30 or 40 years ago we had much bigger problems.

"There is a mindset in Northern Ireland of just getting on with it."

Belfast Telegraph

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