This past weekend a group of 125 Chartered Accountants (and some brave guests!) travelled to Boston for the Chartered Accountants Ireland Annual Conference 2017. After what was by all accounts a successful conference last year in Barcelona, the organising committee had a difficult task in topping the location choice – but there can be no doubt they delivered!
Boston is a fantastic city. Having recently travelled to New York and Washington, I figured another high-rise American city might be somewhat tedious – but I was pleasantly surprised! Walking around the (reasonably compact) city was easy and very enjoyable, and it struck me how clean and open such a major city was. I could have spent a full afternoon relaxing in the Boston Common area; the 28 degree heat might have played a significant role in that!
The Conference – NI Open for Business
The theme for this year’s conference was ‘NI Open for Business’. Given the current political environment both in the US and Northern Ireland (and more broadly, in Europe as well) I can’t think of a more relevant theme – nor can I think of a time where such a message was so vital to share with the wider business community. The speaker line-up certainly reflected the theme.
Conference was opened by the newly-elected Chair of the Ulster Society, Pamela McCreedy. Her message was one of positivity for the Northern Irish economy, and aspiration for the role that both the private and public sectors can play in driving economic growth. Her view, which would have been shared by many, was that a fully functioning economy can only be achieved through collaboration between both sectors.
Our first guest speaker was Gary Hanley, Senior Vice President of Americas with Invest Northern Ireland. Gary shared with us his experiences with securing FDI through Invest NI for a range of Northern Irish companies from the US, and spoke of the strong talent pool in Northern Ireland, as well as the need to get tax structures in place to make NI a continually-attractive investment location for the world’s biggest companies. It will certainly be interesting to see whether the protracted lowering of the Corporation tax rate will prove to be a success in the eyes of Invest NI in the Americas.
Sridhar Natarajan of Nanthealth spoke to us next, sharing their experience of having invested in a site in Northern Ireland. Nanthealth have been in Belfast for a number of years now, continually growing their workforce (including in R&D) through collaboration with Invest NI and the Northern Ireland Science Park (with the company having moved through various offices in the Innovation Centres as they have continued to grow!). It was interesting to hear the point of view of an internationally-recognised company who had invested in Northern Ireland – and the positive messages that they had to share about their experience to date. No doubt the work of Invest NI in the US will continue to promote such success stories.
Third to speak was Jack Dolan of Texthelp. Having worked with some of his colleagues in Texthelp in Antrim a number of years ago, I already knew what a fantastic company they are. Hearing Jack speak about the journey they’ve been on in the United States, and the work that they put in to achieve their success, was fascinating. The fact that Jack had the only true Boston accent of the line up was a fact that wasn’t lost on the audience – mainly because he made sure to point it out! His presentation was one filled with humour, but most importantly told a story of the success that an indigenous NI company has been able to have internationally – organisations such as Invest NI are helping to drive this success. Jack’s presentation also reminded me of the important work that Texthelp do in the education and technology sectors – a truly interesting company.
We next heard from KPMG global COO Shaun Kelly; for some reason, his role in such a large international firm made me assume he was American, so it was a pleasant surprise to hear a Northern Irish accent when he began! Shaun also made sure to point out that his wife was a Derry woman, so his story of her sense of humour didn’t surprise me in the slightest! His remarks about a recent (and not so recent) visit to Catalyst Inc (the NI Science Park) struck me, as he pointed out that there had been such a rapid expansion of the site at NISP due to the demand for space. This is clearly an encouraging sign for the local economy, and Shaun noted that the Northern Ireland of 2017 is markedly different even to the Northern Ireland of 2007. We should be proud of our progress – and we should demand that our politicians get back to work to further this growth, not hinder it. Mr Kelly reflected on the fact that confidence, and perhaps a little fear of failure, only serves to drive growth. One question from the audience elicited a laugh from the Conference delegates – whether Shaun had made use of KPMG’s sponsorship to get a round of golf with Phil Mickelson (which, it turns out, he has!). Another fantastic speech!
After coffee, we listened intently to an hour-long panel discussion led by Attorney Sean P. Moynihan. The panel reflected on the recent political changes in the United States, and the policies of the recently-inaugurated Donald Trump (coinciding nicely with the President’s first 100 days!) – such a discussion was surely not lost on the audience as we reflect on the continuing turbulence at Stormont. We also heard views on a range of topics from the impact of taxation rates on FDI coming from America to reflecting on how a Northern Irish company hoping to break the American market should consider the full picture in order to secure the right mix (and quality) of staff.
All in all, it was a fantastic conference line up – some fascinating speakers, and it was clear that the messages being delivered had been well thought through by the Conference committee – we heard of the success of international companies investing in NI, as well as the success of an NI company expanding into the USA. No doubt all in attendance took away confidence in the future of the Northern Irish economy – NI truly is Open for Business.
Exploring the city – it’s not just a Conference!
As well as the conference itself, the committee had lined up a range of activities for those keen to explore the local area or network with their fellow delegates. Dinner on the night of the conference afforded an opportunity to mix with our colleagues – and after a couple of glasses of wine the conversations were truly flowing! What struck me was the fact that there are many who were in attendance who had been before, and had built a strong network through the relationships they developed at previous conferences. After all, as interesting as the Conference itself was, the true benefit of the trip is getting to know our peers, colleagues, and business partners a little better.
Trips to Harvard (or past Harvard, at least!), the Sam Adams brewery, and the local shopping outlets were well attended – and the outlets certainly saw the benefit in having over 50 accountants being let loose with limited time to spend their money! Likewise, the duck boat tour (yep, a duck boat!) was well attended and feedback was positive. Certainly the favourite amongst those I spoke to, however, was the sunset cruise around Boston Harbour. 56 of us sailed off into the harbour to enjoy the spectacular views of the skyline (both in daylight and at night!), enjoying some food, a few (honestly!) wines, and in particular the company. A unique view of the city, and an unforgettable one!
As we travelled home on Sunday, I looked around me at the airport. The sight of 125 exhausted accountants barely able to speak was a hilarious one – and given some of the characters in attendance, the silence was perhaps the most surprising aspect of all!
Same time next year?
All in all, the 2017 Ulster Society conference was a total success. Great speakers, fun activities, and most of all fantastic craic – I wouldn’t hesistate to recommend it to anyone. Just make sure that if you’re booking next year, you save a spot for me!