KPMG’s Seamus Hand: ‘We’ll probably be phasing towards a permanent hybrid model’

Interview: The managing partner on the return to the office and his hopes for the firm's future

Seamus Hand, managing partner of KPMG: ‘I do believe that there’s a DNA in KPMG that we very much try to get an outcome for our clients that they want.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Seamus Hand, managing partner of KPMG: ‘I do believe that there’s a DNA in KPMG that we very much try to get an outcome for our clients that they want.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

KPMG managing partner Seamus Hand offers a warm smile and an elbow bump as a greeting in a meeting room opposite his office in the firm’s St Stephen’s Green campus.

“I’m never quite sure what to do these days,” he says. He’s not the only one, as the country enters what we all hope will be the final phase of reopening the economy as we emerge from the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Hand returned to his office in recent months but 95 per cent of the 1,400 KPMG staff who would have occupied the premises in St Stephen’s Green before the pandemic hit in March 2020 are still working from home.

The Government has decided that people can return to the office on a phased basis from September 20th, with the remaining restrictions set to be removed from October 22nd.

If a two-metre physical distancing rule is enforced, Hand says just 40 per cent of staff will be able to return at any one time. A one-metre rule would allow it to, in theory, have a full house, although KPMG won’t be seeking to have everyone under the one roof at the same time.

At the start of the year KPMG told its staff here that they wouldn’t be required to be in the office until October. “I had hoped that over the course of the summer, things would facilitate us being back quicker and I would have reopened and gently encouraged but not required [people to come back]. That was my plan but clearly things didn’t progress as we all would have liked.”

Last week the firm told staff that the office would formally reopen on October 4th and “between now and then if you want to start dipping your toe in the water by coming back a day or so, here or there, to remind yourself [of being back in the office]... and break the ice a little bit.”

Post that date KPMG will “start” working towards a hybrid working model. “We’ll probably see ourselves phasing towards... what will be our more permanent hybrid model. What we’ve told people is that they’ll be in two to three days a week. There will be particular cohorts like trainees, particularly first-years, where we want to get them in more, to get used to the place and to buy into the culture. They’ll be in more and maybe others will be in less. We need to get people coming in and just figure it out.”

Global board

Will that include Seamus Hand? “I’ll certainly be hybrid but I’d say I’ll probably be in more than two to three days a week. For me it’s slightly different because I spend a decent amount of time outside with clients. I sit on KPMG’s global board and European board and when travel recommences I will do a decent amount of travelling, so there are other reasons why I’ll be out of the office. I would see myself being at home part of the time... it is important that I and other leaders in the business, that we do show people that hybrid working and remote working is a good thing.”

What I didn’t like was the lack of a roadmap. Our people were asking us because they needed to know when to take out rental accommodation and I had to say ‘I don’t know’

Hand admits that pre-pandemic he was not a fan of remote working. “I would have had to be persuaded that we could place trust in all of our people to work remotely all of the time, and I have absolutely been persuaded of that.”

Nonetheless, he remains committed to the office as the “focal point” of KPMG’s activities and believes that collaboration, training and innovation is easier to do in person.

Hand would have liked an earlier roadmap from Government to the reopening of offices. “What I didn’t like was the lack of a roadmap. Our people were asking us because they needed to know when to take out rental accommodation and I had to say ‘I don’t know’, and I didn’t like that uncertainty and not being able to give more transparency to people.”

While many commentators during the pandemic have been predicting the demise of the office, KPMG has been planning to build a new 280,000sq ft headquarters in Dublin to house up to 3,500 staff. The firm went out to tender on the scheme almost a year ago, although it was pared back from an original plan for 320,000sq ft of space, which Hand said reflected a “greater element” of flexibility for hybrid working.

Earlier this year it entered exclusive discussions with Hibernia Reit to occupy its Harcourt Square site from 2026, just a short distance from where we are sitting. “It’s probably one of the most exciting things that will happen in my time in this job and over the next few years for us. It really demonstrates confidence in our business, the importance of the office, and it’s going to be one of the biggest developments in Dublin city centre for the next few years. We’ll have a top-class, state-of-the-art, fully sustainable facility into the future. It’s an important demonstration of our confidence in Dublin city centre.”

A bit more vision

He would like to see a “bit more vision” from the Government on the long-term future for Dublin, to help make it a desirable place to live and to make it attractive to overseas investors. He believes in more high-rise in the city’s core, better public transport, but also room for cars to navigate the city.

As a partnership, KPMG is not required to publish its full accounts. Its transparency report for last year states that it earned €434 million in revenue, down 5 .2 per cent on 2019. Of this, about €300 million was for non-audit services, which was 10 per cent lower year on year.

Hand says its revenue includes certain travel costs relating to audit work, which was “non-existent” in 2020, resulting in a drop in income. “That was the main cause of our decline. Activity-wise we were more or less flat, which we were very, very happy with,” he says, adding that it will probably be the “greatest achievement” that he’ll have in his role as managing partner given the extremely difficult backdrop posed by the pandemic.

Take a few risks, be open to challenging ourselves and innovating in our own business and having an appetite for trying to do new things. That’s why I took on the job

He says 2021 has been a “strong” year and he would be “extremely optimistic” about the future. So optimistic that the firm plans to add 350 “experienced hires” and 450 graduates (up 50 on last year) over the next 12 months, which will bring the headcount to about 4,000, when departures are netted out. It will also open a new high-tech innovation lab in the Dublin docklands later this month.

Hand reports a “strong pipeline” of client activity, as investment by companies resumes post pandemic, and the vast levels of liquidity globally are deployed.

He is “confident” of double-digit growth in revenue for KPMG this year. Could it break the €500 million revenue mark? “I hope so,” he says with a big grin.

Hand says that when he took over, he wasn’t interested in simply navigating a “steady” course for the firm. “I was only interested in the role if we were willing to steer off into some choppier waters on the basis that you might get a good result. Take a few risks, be open to challenging ourselves and innovating in our own business and having an appetite for trying to do new things. That’s why I took on the job.”

Seamus Hand, with a poster of Irish golfer and KPMG ambassador Leona Maguire: ‘We have talked to Leona about potentially attracting a tournament... that is something that we’d love to support.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
Seamus Hand, with a poster of Irish golfer and KPMG ambassador Leona Maguire: ‘We have talked to Leona about potentially attracting a tournament... that is something that we’d love to support.’ Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Last year, the firm acquired Future Analytics, an economic advisory unit; it has a Belfast-based joint venture on cyber security with the KPMG British affiliate, and is looking at investments in the broad area of climate change, and construction management advice. Robotics are as much a part of the future as the traditional audit.

He cites the All Blacks rugby team and how it has constantly evolved and reinvented itself to maintain its position at the head of the sport globally as an inspiration for the firm.

Hand talks passionately about the quality and innovation that percolates around KPMG and believes it is the largest Big Four firm on the island.

“Obviously I’m not objective, right, but I do believe that there’s a DNA in KPMG that we very much try to get an outcome for our clients that they want. You’ll roll up your sleeves, you’ll get in the trenches and you’ll be there with them to get them where they need to get. That commercial and pragmatic partnership approach has enabled us to develop some very strong relationships and that has facilitated our business to be successful. I believe that sets up apart but I realise I’m saying that without having ever worked for other other firms.”

Leona Maguire

KPMG has also been able to bask in the glow of the recent success of Irish golfer Leona Maguire, who helped inspire Europe to victory on American soil in the Solheim Cup last weekend. Maguire is a KPMG ambassador, and Hand would love to attract a women’s tournament to Ireland on the European Tour.

“We have talked to Leona about potentially attracting a tournament... that is something that we’d love to support if we were able to do something.”

His own handicap, under the new system, is 19.4. “Not as good as it should be,” he laments. “I won’t be challenging Leona or anyone like that.”

Hand hails from Donegal town, one of three boys in a household where his mother – from Gweedore – was a primary school teacher and his father – from Meath – worked for the department of forestry (a predecessor to modern-day Coillte). His older brother now lives in the UK and the other in Kildare.

He left Donegal after his Leaving Cert at 17 to study at the then newly established Dublin City University, where he also later studied for a masters in accounting. He qualified as a chartered accountant, training with KPMG before leaving at the end of his contract in 1996 to travel to Australia where he got a job with... KPMG, spending 2½ years down under.

I would expect there’s going to be strong growth in the Irish economy for the next two years. I wouldn’t go further than that because I just don’t know

Hand has spent his entire career with the firm, specialising in tax and in the aviation sector. He made partner in 2002, and surprised many by dethroning the incumbent Shaun Murphy to be chosen as managing partner in December 2018, taking up the role the following May.

Hand believes next month’s budget is hugely important in terms of shaping the country’s post-pandemic future. “One thing I’d definitely like to see in the budget, whether it’s training or reskilling or upskilling for people who might not have a ready-made job, to position them with new skills for the future... to get people back to work as quickly as possible.

“I would expect there’s going to be strong growth in the Irish economy for the next two years. I wouldn’t go further than that because I just don’t know. A lot of that is being fuelled by the liquidity that’s being pumped into economies around the world and that will taper off.”

He’d also like to see moves to incentivise climate change initiatives, and steps taken to position Ireland as a centre for green finance. To help SMEs, he suggests some capital gains tax relief for specific sectors to “encourage those sectors to get back on their feet”.

Hand’s three-year term ends next May and he plans to seek re-election. “Generally, people go for two terms,” he says.

Will he be a two-term man or does he want to be the person cutting the ribbon on the shiny new office in 2026? “That wouldn’t be my ambition. I very much want us to have that state-of-the-art building to move into, but who cuts the ribbon isn’t part of my ambition.”

CV

Name: Seamus Hand
Job: Managing partner, KPMG Ireland
Age: 49
Lives: Foxrock, Dublin
Family: Married to Anna Scally (KPMG partner, head of technology and media) with one son and two daughters
Something we might expect: He’s a big fan of leading Irish golfer and Solheim Cup star Leona Maguire, who is a KPMG ambassador.
Something that might surprise: An avid snowboarder, he switched back to skiing last year. “I’ve come back to skiing because it’s just too hard. The older you get the harder it gets.”
Leadership style: “Collaborative. I like to listen and absorb before I make decisions.”

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