Operate with integrity at all times – your reputation is everything

IoD NI Chair interview with Accountancy Ireland

John Hansen talks us through his career as a Chartered Accountant and new role as Chair of the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland.

John Hansen is the newly appointed Non-Executive Chair of the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland. Formerly Partner in Charge at KPMG in Belfast and KPMG’s international representative to KPMG Greece for two years, Hansen is also currently Non-Executive Chair of Titanic Quarter Limited. He sits on the business funding committee of Invest NI and holds directorships in several other companies.

Tell us a bit about yourself and why you became a Chartered Accountant?

I grew up in Belfast. My father worked at the Ulster Museum and my mother at the Royal Victoria Hospital. I am married to Linda and have two daughters and four grandchildren.
I studied economics with accountancy at Queen’s University but wasn’t really sure at that time what I wanted to do after graduating.

I drifted towards accountancy because people told me it was a versatile qualification that could provide a solid grounding for lots of different business-related careers and would give me options. They were right!

I took part in the graduate recruitment process in my final year at university and opted to join Coopers and Lybrand, which would eventually morph into PwC.

I started out working in insolvency for a year or so, which I really enjoyed. Then I requested a move so I could gain more accounts experience and was sent to Omagh for a year – another great experience.

After that, I returned to insolvency and stuck with it for the rest of my career, eventually moving into forensic work, which became my greatest interest. I went on to head up Coopers and Lybrand’s Insolvency Division before joining the Industrial Development Board for Northern Ireland (now Invest NI) on secondment.

The secondment opportunity gave me fantastic consultancy and commercial experience and became a real turning point for me professionally.

I was able to expand my skill set significantly, learning so much about business and what makes companies ‘tick’. I also met some wonderful people during that time, some I still count as friends today.

Did you have a career plan starting out? Has your career unfolded as you anticipated?

I wouldn’t say I had a career plan as such. I wanted to pass my exams – and I did, apart from one small hiccup, which I put down to too much partying! – and then see where opportunities might take me.

Work life led me down the insolvency and forensics path, and my career sort of developed from there.

I recall when I was approached with an offer to join McClure Watters by the firm’s two partners. The idea of moving from a safe environment to a start-up division was daunting, but I decided to accept and believe it was from there I developed a reputation as a leading insolvency practitioner.

Due to the firm’s relatively small size (compared with the Big Four), the really big jobs didn’t tend to come my way. So, when I was approached to join KPMG in Belfast to head up its restructuring and forensics division, I again opted to make the move.

It wasn’t an easy decision from a personal perspective. I had a wonderful time working with McClure Watters, but my time with KPMG turned out to be equally fulfilling, and I ultimately became Partner in Charge of KPMG in Northern Ireland.

On retirement from that position, I was approached to take on the role of KPMG International’s representative to KPMG Greece for two-and-a-half years during the Covid pandemic.

Some of the biggest challenges for me in my career have been the difficult decisions to leave existing roles and move to new organisations. It wasn’t easy. Every move involved serious soul-searching, but with hindsight, each move propelled my career forward.

What is your proudest achievement during your tenure as Partner in Charge of KPMG in Northern Ireland?

I was Partner in Charge at KPMG in Northern Ireland from 2015 to 2019 and, during that time, we moved the business to fantastic new premises in the Soloist Building at Lanyon Place while also delivering business growth of over 30 percent.

Relocating to the new office really reinvigorated our people and allowed me, in part, to leave a legacy for those who continue to work with KPMG in Northern Ireland now and in the future.

Among the people you have worked with, who has been your biggest inspiration?

I remember my first meeting with John Ross, my boss at Coopers and Lybrand. He asked me a technical question, I answered it and he then enquired as to whether I had checked all relevant legislation, guidance notes and checklists before arriving at my response.

There was just one technical note I had overlooked. John told me to go away and research the subject matter “properly”.

My answer to the issue remained unchanged, but this time around, John accepted it because I had done the research “properly”!

Never again in my time with him did I make the same mistake. Since then, my approach has always been to leave no stone unturned in arriving at any decision.

Is there any career advice you would offer your younger self if you could?

Do whatever you can to surround yourself with good people, whether you are starting out (which can be challenging, as you tend to inherit people at this point in your career) or when building a team.

I have been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with fantastic people and that has only ever benefited me.

It is important to be transparent and open in your work and to operate with integrity at all times. Your reputation is everything.

I have always worked hard to build lasting relationships and have always picked up the phone to answer calls – you just never know who might be calling!

What I’ve learned is that the smallest leads can develop into the biggest assignments.

I have also tended to deal with what I can see in front of me – viewing each ask as a number of small, manageable tasks, even when others may have viewed it as a major challenge.

As a result, throughout the years, I hope I have developed a reputation as someone who can solve difficult problems and who is honest, trustworthy and direct. I consider myself commercially minded and have always had a reasonable amount of common sense (I hope!).

The experience I gained in my career, together with the esteem in which the Chartered Accountant brand is held, are the reasons I believe I’ve been approached to take on non-executive roles in the years since leaving KPMG.

In your experience, how has the role of the accountant evolved since you first joined the profession?

The accountancy profession has become more regulated over the years and accountants today tend to work in silos more than might have been the case when I started my career, driven by considerably more lines of business.

With the emergence of new service lines and increasing public and professional accountability, the role of the accountant – in Northern Ireland, in particular – has become more challenging. I would view the whole area of risk management for accountants in a very different light today than I did when I started out.

What prompted you to become involved in non-executive directorships?

My first directorship was with Wilsanco Plastics in Dungannon, Co. Tyrone. I had worked with the owner previously and he got in touch.

I remember the conversation well. I said, “You want me to help you and you will pay me for something I have never done before?” and he said, ‘I trust you,’ – end of conversation!”

I have been Non-Executive Chair of Titanic Quarter Limited for close to three years, working with two great executive directors pioneering sustainable development at Belfast’s Maritime Mile. We have an ambition to increase investment to over £2 billion.

I am now also taking on the role of Chair of the Institute of Directors (IoD) in Northern Ireland. I have been on the committee of the IoD in Northern Ireland for four years and I am looking forward to my new role.

I find non-executive work very enjoyable. I don’t need to be ‘full time’, and I enjoy the interaction with executive teams.

I can focus on strategy, relationships and the bigger picture – knowing the detail, but without having to get into the execution of that detail.

Being able to advise and challenge based on the experiences I have gained over the years really allows me to add value.

Tell us about the work of the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland?

The Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland has a small team of great people delivering big things, led by Kirsty McManus and Heather White who are fantastic.

We represent our members’ views on policy, economic and business activity in Northern Ireland.

We offer great networking opportunities covering topics like governance, legislative and governmental developments, which are essential to ensuring that those who hold directorships do the best job possible.

We take ‘the pulse’ of our membership and represent their views, needs and priorities in the political arena.

We also offer professional development opportunities and a pathway to achieving Chartered Director status.

Gordon Milligan, the outgoing Chair of the Institute of Directors in Northern Ireland, carried out fantastic work in developing the organisation during his tenure.

I want to continue to grow our membership and continue to develop the fantastic training and certification opportunities we offer our members. Ultimately, we are all about connecting, influencing and developing.

Better directors for a better world

The IoD supports directors and business leaders across the UK and beyond to learn, network and build successful, responsible businesses.
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