February cover story: Reflecting on another record year for the leading business advisory firm, Grant Thornton Northern Ireland managing partner Richard Gillan is convinced that it is the firm’s culture which is at the heart of the organisation’s ongoing success
Step onto the floor of the vast open plan office that acts as the headquarters of Grant Thornton in Northern Ireland and it is immediately apparent this is a business advisory firm where things are ‘different’.
The firm’s values adorn the walls of the modern and exceptionally well-appointed space at the landmark Belfast DSW (Donegall Square West) office building. Written in huge, oversized lettering, it’s not a gimmick, rather a reflection of a deeply embedded culture that permeates every level of the organisation.
Managing partner Richard Gillan has witnessed incredible growth across the firm’s Audit, Tax and Advisory service lines since he joined the practice in 2014 – revenues have increased more than fourfold in that time – a fact he attributes to the firm’s unique culture.
“Corporate literature and websites are full of grand statements around culture,” Richard said.
“But it is what happens on the ground that matters. The question is whether staff, from the most senior to the most junior, recognise those grand statements as being played out on a day to day basis.
“A culture isn’t developed overnight; it requires a concerted and conscious effort that must be instilled, cultivated and lived over time.
“It’s about engendering a team spirit, taking pride in our work and focusing on being the very best that we can be. It’s about investing in people; in other words, recruiting and retaining the very best people in the market. It’s about excellence. It’s about energy. It’s about drive. It’s about trust. It’s about exceptional client service. It’s about being passionate about what we do. But, critically, it’s also about having fun while we do it.”
Whatever the secret sauce is, it seems to be working, with staff satisfaction continuing at record levels, despite the pandemic. In the recent annual staff satisfaction survey, more than half the staff rated the firm as a ‘nine or 10 out of 10’ when asked how likely they were to recommend Grant Thornton in Northern Ireland as a place to work.
This translated to an eNPS (Employee Net Promoter Score – a globally recognised measure of staff satisfaction) of +40 for the second consecutive year, an extraordinary achievement.
“Our employee Net Promoter Score is something I am extremely conscious of,” Richard said.
“Of course financial results matter. But the results I focus on more than any others are those from our staff satisfaction surveys. This is, very simply, a people business. By employing the best, and keeping them happy, the rest falls in to place.
“Attracting and retaining the best talent available inevitably leads to securing fantastic new clients and delivering superior financial performance. It is all inextricably linked, but it starts with the staff. To hear that they enjoy working here, and being part of what we are trying to achieve, is incredibly satisfying.
“We work hard to make sure that it’s more than ‘just a job’ for colleagues. That can mean mixing business with pleasure – staff social gatherings are always a highlight. Our annual calendar of events includes dedicated evenings for young professionals, and our Ladies’ Evening is attended by several hundred from organisations across all sectors. Meanwhile, our Runway Run at Belfast City Airport has become one of the most popular social events in the business calendar.
“All that said, we realise that we are far from perfect and the most important aspect of our staff satisfaction survey is understanding how we can improve. A lot of time is spent between surveys looking at areas that staff have identified as requiring attention. It never ends.”
Meanwhile, the firm’s headcount has grown significantly in recent years to 140, while a huge investment in training and development programmes ensures that employees do not stand still, and nor does the advice provided to clients.
“The ethos of continuous development at all levels is critical”, Richard said.“For staff, this translates to progression up the ladder. Crucially, all promotion decisions are made here in Belfast, and we take very seriously our responsibility in nurturing and recognising our talent. Despite the pandemic, we were delighted to announce recently the promotion of over twenty members of staff across all grades.”
It is no surprise to learn that the firm has continued on the same upward trajectory it has maintained for some years.
“Thanks to an incredible team effort, 2020 was another record year despite the obvious challenges brought by the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown,” Richard said.
“Following relentless growth right across our service lines, fee levels are now four times higher than five years ago.
“It is an over-used term, often with little substance, but our growth has been driven by adding genuine value to our clients. That’s what clients want to pay for, and rightly so. I’ve been on the other side of the fence seeking professional services, so I hope that I have some empathy in understanding what clients want. It is no surprise to me that our market leading Tax Relief and Incentives division, for example, which helps clients realise major clawbacks on spending such as R&D activity, goes from strength to strength.”
As a result, Grant Thornton’s client roster, which features organisations as diverse as tech businesses Learning Pool and TextHelp, to construction stalwarts McAleer & Rushe and O’Hare & McGovern, has mushroomed in recent years.
“Significant recent full-service client wins include leading manufacturers such as Bamford Bus, Brett Martin and Bloc Blinds, the Galgorm Collection, Bryson Charitable Group, and leading sports ground contractor Clive Richardson Limited.
“For obvious reasons, we were concerned that the pandemic might hamper our business development activities. But our experience has been quite the opposite. It seems that many businesses have actually taken the opportunity to reflect, and we have been fortunate enough to benefit from that.”
Richard goes on to highlight what might otherwise seem obvious – Grant Thornton is focused on doing business in Northern Ireland.
“We’re not a ‘back-office’ and deliberately so. We could easily have set up a back-office function but chose not to. What we find is our staff get greater job satisfaction in working for leading indigenous firms and seeing real tangible results to their advice. It also keeps us hungry – nobody arrives with a lorry load of files from London or Dublin each Monday morning, so we need to get out in to the market and find the work for ourselves.”
Looking ahead, Richard anticipates continued growth throughout 2021 and beyond, particularly as the economy bounces back following the Covid-19 pandemic.
“There is no doubt that many challenges still lie ahead, including some that we don’t yet know about,” he said. The vaccine programme offers the hope that an air of normality can return and that, for some at least, there is a wave of pent-up consumer demand that will help jumpstart the economy.
“Our job is to be there for our clients, old and new, to help them maximise the opportunities and minimise the downsides. We have the team to do just that.”