Ulster Business speaks to Cara Haffey, PwC partner and Head of Deals in Northern Ireland, about returning to a more economically developed landscape, not standing by the sidelines and using her own experience to help companies reach the next stage
“It’s a great time to be working with local businesses, helping to guide them through the challenges they’re facing and identifying the best opportunities for their future,” Cara tells Ulster Business.
“There is so much going on whether it be finance, or technological advances or new markets. It’s critical that businesses know with confidence they’re making the right choice for them as they move forward.”
Cara is the Head of Deals in Northern Ireland, after returning spending much of her career working across PwC’s UK operations. The landscape has changed, the economy is more mature and has its sights on growing business not just here but across the globe.
And it’s not just on a macro-level that things have changed: PwC NI has rapidly grown its business over the last few years to become the largest office outside London, with building well-progressed on its new headquarters in the city centre, Merchant Square. This is Belfast’s biggest private-sector office letting deal and, in early 2021, will be home to up to 3,000 staff.
With Stormont now up and running after three years without an Executive and Brexit only truly beginning, Cara is looking at how the firm can support its clients and deliver on their ambitions. “I’m really excited by it,” she says.
“A number of things are coming together at a good time – businesses have had to become much more resilient and decisive in the absence of government, the organisations that support them are more confident, the way in which we’re developing areas like our tech sector is something to be incredibly proud of and we’ve got incredibly talented people that are keen to stay, not move away – so long as the opportunities are there.”
Business is in Cara’s blood, having spent her younger days working in the family electronics store in Lisburn. It gave her an understanding of the hard work needed to make a business perform, and perform well.
“My dad returned to Lisburn after he was made redundant and decided to open his own business. That resilient spirit is something I’ve inherited and it’s something I see with business leaders right across Northern Ireland. Going out on your own – starting from scratch – isn’t easy; it takes guts and commitment.”
Cara left Northern Ireland to study management at Lancaster University before starting her career working with British Airways in London. She then began training as a chartered accountant in Glasgow with the professional services firm that she’s made her home. “I moved into the Deals business, and in Scotland that was with the type of good, traditional family business that I’d grown up around. There was also a mixture of larger plcs which gave me a fresh perspective.”
During the economic booms of the early 2000s, Cara developed her career working with more industrial private companies, building relationships and further understanding how they operate and think about business. “I really enjoyed the variety – working closely with people who ran their own family businesses and getting their insight, and then working with listed companies which rounded off my education. It was great to get that breadth and depth of the business spectrum.”
Several years later, having worked across a number of different locations for the firm and becoming a partner, Cara decided to move home to Northern Ireland. “There’s a real sense of positivity here with people expecting change and asking: ‘What more can we do?’ With Stormont back, they’re operating in a more stable environment and that means plans can really take off.”
Of course, Brexit is a challenge and Cara has been working with some clients which are expanding their footprint and making acquisitions in Europe, hoping to future-proof and succeed in a new landscape after the UK’s exit from the EU.
“It feels like the right time to carry out a strategic review in businesses. Looking at plans for the future and working out whether that requires restructuring, finance or acquisitions: it’s about looking at how to grow or reposition in a global market.
“One thing I’ve really been impressed by is the link to the universities – how Queen’s and Ulster University have taken a lot of technology leaps and the quality of the talent that is coming out. There is a real vibrancy in this sector which feeds directly into business. This is a real bonus for outside businesses looking to invest particularly around Belfast. One of our strengths is this sense of community and ambition we possess.”
Cara says she’s working with companies which are growing strongly, and sustainably. Making the right decisions and taking good advice is critical. “As a firm, our skills, wide experience and creativity are real strength. I think putting ideas into a plan and then working with others to make them happen is something we love to do. It’s always great to help a business do what it’s always wanted to and really see the fruits of proper planning and consultation.”
This air of positivity is backed up by PwC’s annual CEO Survey which shows Europe’s biggest company bosses regard the UK as one of the most important territories for their organisation’s growth – more so today than in recent years.
Cara says there are a plethora of options available in the market when it comes to potential investment, from bank funding, private equity and venture capital. “It’s about getting the right partner and making sure it’s right for the business.”
PwC clearly sees itself as being a positive partner. As the largest professional services firm in Northern Ireland, it brings world-class opportunities to its people and clients but its commitment to its purpose – solving important problems and building trust in society – takes it beyond the corporate world and into the communities around it. Over the last 18 months, it has been leading a ground-breaking suicide prevention programme with three charities in north and west Belfast, and it has recently launched its ‘New World, New Skills’ initiative which will see a global investment of $3bn (£2.3bn) to drive upskilling not only for its people but in other areas of society as well.
“One of the big challenges businesses face is having a workforce with the right skills for the future. Automation and robotics will continue to have a huge impact on the economy – things have and will continue to change more than we can imagine. And yes, more automation means people are freed to use our uniquely human skill set which can’t be replicated by AI but supporting people to confidently hold their place in an increasingly digital society will take work. Disruption might only have been the easy part – it’s what comes next that we need to focus on now.”
Cara’s Deals colleagues are also partnering with Footprints in Colinmill. “Footprints commitment to the holistic solution for women getting into work and having childcare available to enable that alongside education is something I am passionate about – by solving the whole problem, not just part you create sustainability,” she says.
Cara is not one to shy from a challenge or watch from the side-lines. It’s something which she carries through her working life and into her spare time which includes her passion for motocross.
“My husband is a motocross fanatic, I found myself watching them and one day thought, ‘this is a bit boring, why don’t I get involved?’ So here I am. I don’t compete but it’s a lot of fun and has inspired my children to do it too.” π