Business Interview: Mark Hatton, EY, in Newcastle

Mark Hatton makes a mockery of the stuffy accountant stereotype, as Tom Keighley finds out in unusual surroundings

Mark Hatton, from Ernst and Young
Mark Hatton, from Ernst and Young

“Let’s walk and talk,” Mark Hatton says as he leads me out of EY’s Newcastle City Gate offices and into a crisp, sun-bathed Leazes Park.

It’s where EY North East’s amiable senior partner spends a great deal of his working day. In fact he boasts of having done a few laps of the pond already today – chewing the fat with clients and even interviewing new potential new recruits there.

Perhaps unusually for a successful accountant, Mark’s natural habitat is not under the artificial glow of boardroom strip lighting but the great outdoors. A purposeful and upbeat talker, he strides towards a sun-bathed park bench which is the setting for the bulk of our talk. It barely features the word “accountancy” at all.

In fact Mark paints himself as the “confessor, priest and doctor” to many of his clients — a group that spans top corporates as well as smaller firms.

Mark was afforded a window on the business world from a young age. His father founded and ran Hatton Traffic Management, which is still in operation, while his mother’s family ran print firm John B Bowes Ltd. The Fenham lad earned himself a free place at Newcastle’s Royal Grammar School before going on to study at York University in the early 1980s, where he discovered a calling in voluntary work. A year into university life his mother died, but he found comfort in helping others.

“I was far more interested in doing voluntary work than I was in the studying,” admits Mark. “I found the night shelter utterly compelling. The people I met and the situations I had to deal with were a very important classroom for me. I don’t think I had a particularly sheltered upbringing, but it was really the first time I’d met alcoholics, drug addicts and others who had such a different life to my own.”

It led the fervently active Mark into a six-month stint working in a night shelter in Coventry following university. He followed it up with an ambitious navigation of the length of Africa, together with a set of friends. The party travelled in a specially converted bus, but Mark never made it. Tragically his father died as he was part way through the trip. It was several weeks before the news reached him and he quickly diverted to Timbuktu in order to get home to Tyneside.

Back in Newcastle he joined EY, then as its incarnation Arthur Young & Co, and set about rising through the ranks. The corporate environment of a big auditor might seem incongruous with Mark’s altruistic ambitions in his student days, but he insists the organisation was, and still is, aligned with his passion.

He speaks with palpable admiration for former Ernst & Young senior partner Roger Spoor, a wheelchair user, who helped to set up the Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland, where Mark is a member of the development committee, and the Calvert Trust — which aims to improve accessibility of National Parks to disabled people.

“EY allowed me to do an awful lot more of that stuff. We created the EY Foundation last year, which helps young people into work, and we encourage all our staff to get involved. The company’s mission statement is to create better working world, and that’s not just a throw-away line, I really believe that.”

Mark sees himself as “relentlessly curious” — a fitting characteristic for someone who spends most of his time with his nose in somebody else’s business.

“I see my job as like loving kids that you don’t have to take home with you,” he jokes. “I can work with my clients in their business and enjoy the variety that affords me. I’ve always said I’ll stop work when I stop learning — but I don’t feel anywhere close to the top of that curve.”

Significant growth plans are afoot at EY’s Newcastle operation. In late 2014 the office revealed an expansion in 11,143 sq ft of floorspace in the existing City Gate offices which overlook the city’s historic town wall. The space will make way for another 200 staff over the next two years.

Last year’s performance was boosted by the key audit contract win of Sage Group — which Mark played a significant role in attracting. Recent changes to the regulation of the audit market — described as the “shake-up of generation” — force the rotation of clients around the big four. For EY, Mark sees it as a “fantastic opportunity”, which affords the firm a look-in on potential new clients who had been cosy with their existing auditor for years.

Plenty of outside job offers have floated Mark’s way over his 30 years at EY – as is common in the industry. Many clients have made themselves extremely wealthy, but none have been successful in tempting him away from EY.

He explains: “There’s sometimes a suggestion that it’s boring to stick with the same role. However I’ve been afforded such variety in my job, and even in the familiar, I’m still learning new things.”

Those outside of the profession may presume the typical trappings of senior partner life at a firm like EY would involve a lack of free time. Mark simply makes it. His works conscientiously throughout the week to afford a Friday evening exit — bound for his holiday home in Ambleside in the Lake District with his wife and 14 year-old daughter and their dogs.

“Certainly in the past, a lot of people would have said I was a workaholic. But I work to live, absolutely. I can probably count on one hand the number of weekends I’ve worked in my career so far. It’s absolutely critical that I have weekends to do my own thing. It’s a law of diminishing returns,” he explains.

Mark says he sometimes worries about colleagues who use weekends to catch up on work. He encourages others in the organisation to follow his lead. Few however will follow him in his real weekend passion — that is clambering through disused slate, copper and lead mines across the Lakes. Colleagues grimace at tales of being miles underground in half-collapsed mine shafts with little but a head torch for company. These “living museums” play to Mark’s sense of wonder. On such trips he can often stumble upon artefacts such as lunchboxes and clothing from miners who left the tunnels hundreds of years ago.

It’s no surprise that Mark’s disarming but learned style as an orator has led him to assume something of a mentorship role for EY’s graduate intake across the country. As the partner in charge of EY’s student recruitment activity he speaks with genuine excitement about the next crop of the firm’s talent — which increasingly includes school leavers as well as graduates.

“There’s only one difference between a world in boom and a world in recession, and that’s confidence. There’s always the same productive capacity and consumption capacity, but the only thing that is missing is confidence. We’re in the confidence business, or ‘assurance’ as it’s sometimes referred to.”

He qualifies such statements, wary that such a move could be seen a trotting out corporate platitudes. He need not worry, because his enthusiasm for progression and learning his undisputedly genuine. It’s stark when talking proudly of his teenage daughter’s ambitions to become an animator at the likes of Disney.

He says: “I love the fact that she knew from a very early age that’s what she wants to do, and she just shows no sign of diverging from that path. Her passion for it is so stark. We can watch something like Frozen and she’ll explain how each character is put together. I totally admire that.”

The influx of graduates to the world of finance shows no signs of subsiding, despite uncomfortable headlines surrounding the industry in recent times. Tax avoidance, crisis in supermarket profit accounts and other misdemeanors have brought the sector into sharp focus with the public.

“If you look through today’s moral lense at yesterday’s behaviour, you often find a very uncomfortable situation. That’s not just in the world of finance — you only need to look at the world of pop stars for evidence of that. It’s sickening to think about the number of people that tolerated or turned a blind eye to that kind of thing,” suggests Mark.

“In finance it used to be the norm to take clients into areas which today would make you feel uncomfortable. Values have moved and now everybody should feel obligated to be a good corporate citizen. You have to be careful in using hindsight as big examples can be used to infer norms of behaviour. In reality such stories are much more opaque, and probably more boring.”

Not all hindsight is bad, mind you. Mark was recently given a ribbing after one of his colleagues pulled out an old interview with The Journal back in the ‘90s. More than 20 years on, most of what the youthful accountant said still rings true.

“It’s interesting to see how little has changed. You have different tools to use but so many of the issues are fundamentally the same. Sometimes we confuse tools for issues too,” he says. “The ambition I expressed for the office and for myself remains true, which I’m really proud of.”

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