Belfast Telegraph

'There is a human side to everything and you have to be as diplomatic and caring as you can be'

KPMG partner-in-charge John Hansen tells Margaret Canning about expansion, a brush with David Cameron and being an unlikely pub landlord

By Margaret Canning

Showing the Prime Minister around the luxury hotel you're in charge of as he decides whether or not to host a meeting of world leaders there - while trying not to draw attention to a fire which it suffered the night before - does not sound like a typical day's work for an accountant.

But that was exactly the world KPMG Belfast partner-in-charge John Hansen inhabited in 2011 when David Cameron arrived by helicopter to decide if Lough Erne Golf Resort and Spa was a suitable venue for hosting the 2012 G8.

John and his KPMG colleagues were the administrators appointed to run the Co Fermanagh resort by Bank of Scotland, when the venue was being lined up to host the G8.

It's a far cry from the working life of most accountants.

And the father-of-two admits his career has taken an unusual path or two. He joined what was then Coopers & Lybrand - now PwC - around 30 years ago after studying accountancy at Queen's University. He was educated at Belfast Royal Academical Institution (Inst).

"My first job was a trading receivership for a company in Queen Street. I spent a year or year-and-a-half in restructuring," he says.

He enjoyed the stimulation of restructuring but needed more experience of the technical side of accountancy - which he acquired in a small practice after it was taken over by Coopers & Lybrand.

"That was working in the kind of situation where someone would come in with a bag of receipts and cheque stubs and say 'can you make a set of accounts from that'."

He returned to restructuring in Coopers & Lybrand and led the department. And it was there that he was given the chance to head to the corporate finance department of the Industrial Development Board, the precursor to Invest NI.

"That was fantastic experience as I was getting those commercial consultancy skills at a rather senior level. I was learning a lot about the Northern Ireland agri-sector, about manufacturing plants and their expansion plans," he says.

"My job was to get under the skin of plans for expansion and report back on them. It meant I understood more about what was going on in Northern Ireland and in the company in question.

"So while it was a limited period, it was quite a breadth of experience. There was quite a bit of travelling - I went to America, Germany, France and Spain and learned how they worked there."

Afterwards, he joined a smaller firm as a partner before starting in KPMG 11 years ago. As well as managing partner of the Belfast office, he's also head of deal advisory. And he's leading KPMG at a time of adjustment and what he hopes will be significant expansion for the business.

It's moved to swish new offices at The Soloist in Belfast city centre close to the Waterfront Hall, where the space they've let factors in possible future expansion. It has around 240 staff at the moment - though John is hoping to grow that to around 320 in the next few years.

He's also hopeful that the KPMG Belfast staff can work on developing 'centres of excellence' so that they can fulfil specialist roles within the global organisation from Belfast. "That would be the big-picture game plan that we have," he says.

Its forward-looking attitude follows turbulence for KPMG in Belfast, thrown into the spotlight in 2015 when four partners - including its chairman in Belfast Jon D'Arcy - were investigated by HMRC over their property firm, JEAP Ltd. It was front page news, with the partners' homes and KPMG offices searched as part of the HMRC investigation.

The four retired from the firm and are challenging HMRC's conduct of the investigation through a judicial review. They have not been charged with any offences.

John said: "That incident took place two years ago and what happened there was very much a personal issue for the guys - and it's a matter of public record that they retired from the firm.

"In terms of what happened to KPMG, we have the strength and depth throughout the firm both locally and other parts of Dublin, Cork and Galway.

"Everybody just pulled together. We talked to all our clients and we made sure that we delivered and we got as much business as usual. Obviously it was quite a shock to everyone and life goes on.

"Our lease was up in the building where we'd been since the 1980s so we've now moved."

He said he searched Belfast's office building to let before alighting up on The Soloist - with modern offices including break-out areas - as a suitable home for KPMG.

At home, he's been married to Linda for around 30 years and they have two grown-up daughters. He grew up in Drumbeg, where he still lives - one of two children of Margaret and William.

His father was head of security at the Ulster Museum and his mum worked in the Royal Victoria Hospital. Golf is one of his consuming passions - and he's managed to play the championship, Nick Faldo-designed course at Lough Erne.

"I'm a big golf fan and the course is fantastic. I've played it a few times, but I don't get to play too often - the weather doesn't allow me," he says.

He enjoys eating out but describes himself as "too old for pubs". But he's certainly had his fair share of pub experiences after KPMG developed a niche as administrators in the pub trade during the downturn - most notably in Northern Ireland as administrators to the Botanic Inns chain of pubs.

"They used to call me the pub landlord because I had so many pubs to look after, but we are in different times now," he says.

"A lot of the profile jobs in pubs were in challenging locations and I had built a reputation of being able to deal with very difficult, technical assignments. Once you have dealt with it people tend to think of you whenever there's something difficult to do."

And being diplomatic "is a polite way to put" the job of being an administrator - running a company on behalf of a lender to secure a better outcome than closing it down.

"You have a very difficult job to do and with everything, there's a human side to everything," says John. "You need to be cognisant of that and try to be as caring and diplomatic as you can be. But I've always had the view that you never know when you might meet someone again."

And he said that ultimately, company owners are won over by the idea that administration can save jobs. In one case he won't name, KPMG saved up to 6,000 jobs in the UK. "I have been in assignments where we have saved one to two jobs to ones where we have saved 5,000 to 6,000 in course of one transaction... that's more rewarding than going in where there is no one to buy business as a going concern and you have to close it down."

KPMG traded the Lough Erne resort for nearly four years, with complex title issues prolonging the process before its sale in 2015 to Vine Avenue Advisors, headed by Michael Saliba along with TRU Hotels and Resorts.

"The stand-out moment from that was the circuitous route of quoting for business and we actually quoted for the G8," says John.

"David Cameron was flying in by helicopter to rubber stamp the venue but we had had a fire the night before so when we were showing him around we had to avoid showing him the burnt bits. I wasn't there at time but apparently before he landed it was raining but the sun came out as he landed and as he got back into it it started raining again."

Now he's heading up the deal advisory department, as well as being partner in charge. Its work includes merger and acquisitions, fundraising and debt restructuring.

"We are seeing more positive activity in the marketplace... The banks have largely got a lot of their distressed assets away and off their books. They have to lend money to make money," he says.

"We are back in the business of funding. Banks are obviously still cautious. They now have a risk in appetite. If they don't start lending they go out of business."

The firm is now determined to sell itself, appointing a new head of business development and a new PR company to get its message across.

"We have 240 now - audit, tax and advisory - and would like to grow by around 30% over the next two to three to 320. We are currently on look-out for 10 experienced people," John says.

"If you take the global piece, we'd like to grow to 300 to 320 people from growing business on our strategy plan, and developing centres of excellence would be on top of that again. I don't want back office jobs but good quality people that we can do things not just for KPMG in Ireland but also KPMG globally."

He hopes KPMG in Belfast can sell itself as a lower cost location, though offering high-quality labour.

The firm has 2,800 employees on the island of Ireland. "In Northern Ireland, I think we are number one though maybe not in terms of ultimate number of people but in terms of what we do. But we have the largest tax department in Northern Ireland, at 90 people."

As for the uncertainties posed by Brexit and the lack of Executive, he says: "Everybody talks about the uncertainties how many years can you remember in which there has not been some kind of uncertainty. If you go back 17, 18, 19 or 20 years there have been uncertainties."

And the lack of an Executive is also problematic. "We don't have an operating government so if you're talking to overseas clients one of their questions will be about that and it's very hard to give an answer.

"But instead you're focusing on our people, infrastructure and that type of stuff. I've heard rumours that something good is going to happen but at end of day it's all about uncertainty."

Belfast Telegraph

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