Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Emigrants need to travel with confidence

WILD GEESE: Shaun Kelly, vice-chairman of operations KPMG US says once they decide to pursue their careers abroad, Irish graduates can benefit by tapping into university alumni and Irish American networks

Mon, Oct 8, 2012, 09:33



WILD GEESE: Shaun Kelly, vice-chairman of operations KPMG US says once they decide to pursue their careers abroad, Irish graduates can benefit by tapping into university alumni and Irish American networks

Shaun Kelly: "It's not survival of the fittest, it's survival of the most adaptable."

‘WE SHOULD have confidence that we are respected globally for what we bring to the table,” says Belfast native Shaun Kelly of Irish emigrants.

As vice-chairman of KPMG’s US operations and chief operating officer for the company’s business in the Americas, the skills this Lagansider has brought to the table have clearly impressed.

Kelly grew up in Belfast and describes the 1970s there as “an interesting time”.

“The school I went to was right in the middle of Andersonstown and the primary school I went to was right in the heart of west Belfast, so in the 1970s, we were right in the middle of a lot of things,” he says. “My father’s brother was killed in an accidental shooting by the army; that was part of growing up.”

He says coming south to UCD in 1977 was “the first opportunity really to get outside of Belfast and get a different perspective … a hundred miles was a big difference between Dublin and Belfast in those days”.

With a B Comm under his belt, he joined KPMG predecessor Stokes Kennedy Crowley, where he went on to qualify as a chartered accountant.

When, in 1984, the chance came to do a stint at the company’s San Francisco office, he and his Derry-born wife took it, arriving just in time to see home team the 49ers win the Super Bowl.

He describes the city as a cultural melting pot, far removed from the Ireland he had left behind.

“The good thing about San Francisco is, because it is so diverse, everyone is used to folks coming in and knows how to help integrate them and make them feel at home.”

After six years working in KPMG’s audit practice and now with two daughters, the Kellys moved back to Belfast in 1990 to a changing city.

“What I noticed was the powerful impact of economic development and financial prosperity – I think when people have jobs and are doing well they are not as likely to get involved in other stuff,” says Kelly.

“I think the work the American Ireland Fund has done to push economic development really solidified the peace process.

“That struck me very much in the 1990s; you had a lot of European support and cross-Border work from an economic standpoint and I think that really helped bring a foundation for political stability.”

While in Belfast, Kelly also put his shoulder to that wheel, advising government on attracting investment to the region.

Turning 40, however, and with two more children, he says wanderlust struck again and KPMG welcomed him back to San Francisco. They stayed there from 1999 to 2001 before moving to Chicago for five years and then to their current Connecticut base, from which Kelly commutes to his Park Avenue office.

Having lived in the US through the bursting of the tech bubble in 2001, the September 11th attacks and their effect on the economy and the more recent financial crisis, he says: “I’ve come to the conclusion that all these ‘once in a lifetime’ things have become the norm.”

Located in the heart of New York’s financial district, did he immediately feel the reverberations when the financial crisis hit?

“When you look back now, you realise how close to the precipice the whole financial infrastructure came,” he says.

“I live in Connecticut and most of my neighbours work in financial services, so you saw the personal strain in them … there were layoffs and people who lost everything overnight, but there was much more of a focus on how to deal with it.

“I think New York very much called on the learnings after September 11th to rebuild its financial services, to get back on its feet, deal with the issues and move on.”

In a personal capacity, Kelly has continued to do much to support economic growth back home and was part of a working group set up by Declan Kelly, who was appointed US economic envoy to Northern Ireland by Hillary Clinton in 2009.

He continues to work with Invest NI too, “meeting potential investors and giving them a perspective of someone who has grown up in Belfast”.

What’s exciting him right now, however, is Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE), a global programme that encourages students to become socially responsible business leaders.

Kelly brought the programme to Ireland last year Local winners DCU this week competed at the SIFE World Cup in Washington DC, hosted by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton, where they lost out to the US and Egypt.

Kelly encourages graduates following in his emigrant footsteps to tap into university alumni and Irish American networks. He says that while US employers will assume Irish university graduates are smart, they will need to prove their adaptability.

“The more you can show you’ve got the ability to learn new things and take on new challenges the better . . . it’s not survival of the fittest, it’s survival of the most adaptable.”

Wild Geese is a weekly interview in the Business supplement with Irish business leaders abroad. This article appeared in the newspaper on Friday, and in the Business section of the website here.