The Monday Interview: Bill MacLeod, senior partner at PwC

A new era is beginning for the Newcastle office of PwC, as new senior partner Bill MacLeod tells Coreena Ford

Bill Macleod, Senior Partner of PWC, Newcastle Upon Tyne
Bill Macleod, Senior Partner of PWC, Newcastle Upon Tyne

After 102 years in Newcastle, accountancy giant PwC is entering a new era, with a new senior partner leading the team from new state-of-the-art offices. Billl MacLeod tells COREENA FORD how he plans to take the firm forward in a time of increasing optimism for the region

“I’ve been here 31 years. Scary isn’t it? Yet the firm is always changing and I’ve done different things – that’s what’s kept me here so long.”

After spending you entire working career working for the same company anyone could be forgiven for having itchy feet, but moving on from PwC LLP has never occurred to Bill MacLeod.

As of March, Bill took over from Paul Woolston as senior partner at the 300-strong firm, having worked his way to the top on a particularly varied, and far from straightforward journey, taking in time in Glasgow, America and the Middle East before setting down roots in Newcastle.

Now well ensconced in his new role, Bill is taking the firm forward at a significant time, both for the region and the company itself.

As last year’s green shoots of recession recovery have converted into growth across all sectors of North East business economy, PwC has also seen revenues rise by 12% in the last 12 months on the back of transaction work and audit based work and, keen to capitalise on what is hoped to be sustained growth, the firm has moved.

Having spent 25 years in Sandyford Road offices, building up a strong client base including Sage, Grainger Plc, Fenwick, Nigel Wright and SAFC to name a few, the accountancy firm has invested several million pounds in the top two floors at Newcastle’s Central Square South – 24,000 sq ft of prime city centre space overlooking the River Tyne and the rapidly rising Stephenson Quarter development.

Stuffy stereotypes of accountant’s offices filled with hulking filing cabinets, dark, antiquated cubicles and corridors and desks piled with paperwork and manila folders are shattered as soon as you step out of the lift and into a clean, light and bright open plan office.

Workers sit at cream-coloured desks, lightly tapping on laptops in a calm atmosphere akin to a Scandinavian internet cafe, complete with a high-spec kitchen and top of the range drinks machines.

“We had no filing cabinets to move – we don’t use them. We have some offsite storage for some but virtually everything is scanned in electronic form, which actually makes it so much easier to move as well, said Bill.

Close by, what appears to be a first class airport lounge, with comfortable seating with views down onto the Quayside, Baltic and Sage makes for flexible, relaxed meeting areas.

This place should be twinned with Baltic.

Bill believes the building asserts the global firm’s commitment to the region.

“Like any big organisation, people sometimes question ‘are they committed to the region?’ No one has particularly asked that question of PwC but we don’t take up a 15-year lease and spend as much as we have unless we are completely committed to being here.

“This is a very exciting market place that we’ve been in a long time with some great opportunities.

“The thing I feel is unique about us compared to the competition is that every service PwC has, we can offer from this office. That’s audit, tax, corporate finance, business recovery, transactions, consulting.

“We feel that’s a unique proposition.

“We think the next few years is going to be great. This whole area is going to completely regenerate itself over the next five to ten years – and it’s great for us to be here to support that regeneration of the city.”

Now in the top job you might expect Bill’s office to be the biggest corner plot – but it’s PwC policy that no partners take plum positions, instead earmarking these spaces for other users and meeting rooms.

A lot can be deduced about a person from his or her desk and office, and that’s certainly true here.

Sure, the view from Bill’s office has to be one of the best in the region, but there’s nothing boastful about it - it’s tidy and functional, with a clean, sharp design, the only objects beside stationery and laptop a whiteboard, phone and a calendar turned to what appears to be a Northumbrian beach scene.

It’s not a space that boasts his status – it’s the workspace of a respected figure who’s worked his way to the top but would never want to distance himself from his workforce, the door always open.

“The views we’ve got here are probably the best of any PwC office,” he said.

“I want this to be a fun, family-friendly place for people to work so we had a family fun day the weekend before we started work here, with 200 people including 90 children. We had a steel band, face paints, magician, soft play area ,and my 13-year-old son was particularly impressed by the size of the TV in the boardroom.

“Some brought their parents as well as their children, to show them what a great place this is to work. I think it’s a fantastic building and that we should show it off.

“People work very hard at PwC, there’s no getting away from that, so I want the partners and spouses to appreciate where they are working and to perhaps get a bit of an insight into the office too. So we’ve done quite a few things like that to boost morale and to make people feel proud about working here.”

The expansion means the firm can increase the workforce to 400 in time, but, having already invested heavily in modern technology for modern times, Bill believes further technological expansion will play just as large a role in the firm’s growth.

“We’ll probably see a lot of expansion coming from better use of technology. The way that we do our work, and the way we use data, in particular, has revolutionised over the last two or three years.

“From the days of doing an audit by using lots of junior staff check invoices, we now take a complete download of a client’s data from a system, analyse it and probably do far better quality work than we ever did and much more efficiently. So I think we will increase our headcount but I also think you will see us growing by using technology better.

“We have eliminated a lot of the work people assume trainee accountants do and try to use their brain power a little bit more.

The firm’s current use of technology is a world away from the PwC – or Pricewaterhouse Coopers as was – he joined in 1983, fresh out of Glasgow University after studying accountancy.

“Boring isn’t it? I went through the classic ‘what do I do at university?’ I looked at law, medicine and accounting, but was too squeamish to do medicine. I was always very numerate at school and the business world seemed quite appealing, so I went down that road.

“I enjoyed university, don’t get me wrong – but I enjoyed working much more. I was very studious to be honest. “My parents were both teachers from the Isle of Skye and that’s where it all tends to come from, your childhood.”

After finishing his three years of training in the firm’s Glasgow office, Bill was sent on a secondment with Guinness for a few weeks with Guinness. That turned into an eye-opening period when the firm was going through the newsworthy, controversial takeover of Edinburgh-based United Distillers plc.

Ernest Saunders, Guinness’s chief executive, had his eye on Distillers, which owned whisky brands such as Dewars and Johnnie Walker but in 1986 Distillers became the subject of a hostile bid from retail group Argyl.

Eventually it was Guinness’s $4 billion cash-and-shares counter-offer which won out.

Bill recalled: “A few weeks turned into nine months and I principally worked on the takeover of Johnnie Walker whisky – that was a real insight into what it would be like to work in industry, and they offered me a job at the end of it.”

Having rarely travelled outside of Scotland and always interested in working abroad, Bill was 26 when he snapped up the chance of a two-year placement with PwC in New York, from 1989 to 1991.

Living in Stamford and working in the New York Metropolitan office, he carried out mainly audit work for public companied, finding client reasons to travel right across the States, visiting everywhere from Mexico to Canada and everywhere in between including California, Las Vegas, Grand Canyon and Boston.

However, while the locations were exotic the work wasn’t, so back to the UK he flew.

“It was a great experience to work in a different culture, seeing a much bigger scale of business.

“But I felt the profession gave a narrower remit in America so I came back to Glasgow.”

Over the next few years Bill worked on a raft of significant projects, topped by a lengthy period of time spent working on the privatisation of British Rail, one of the more controversial motions of the 1993 Conservative government.

“I spent more than a year on it. Hundreds of people were involved in that, and I did all of the privatisation of Scotrail and some of the engineering business, and freight business that went into Scotland too.

“To this day, that was the biggest report I’ve ever written. There were 13 volumes and I remember if you piled them high they got to almost 3ft high. It was a huge piece of work.”

Bill has long been involved in transport and to this day looks after Arriva, so it’s no surprise that he has been following developments of the HS2 scheme and the mooted HS3 plan with interest.

Despite not coming to the region, the high speed line will, he feels sure, bring benefits to the region.

“I think HS2 is misnamed. It should be called “high capacity” because it’s not just about high speed – it’s about increasing capacity.

“The principal benefit for this region, I think, is that it will relieve a lot of the capacity issues on the East Coast Main Line. Directly we might not benefit – but it will allow a lot more freight to run along it which will drive the economy and hopefully give us better journey time,

“People might be concerned because it’s not going to come here but serve Birmingham and Manchester – but because of the freed-up capacity on the East Coast Mainline it will benefit us as a consequence, aiding the amount of freight that currently has to slowly move bulky loads. It will benefit industrial areas of the North East.”

In the early 1990s Bill was hoping to be made a partner in the business but before he could achieve that ambition he was sent on another journey.

“I’d had interviews to be made a partner and got good feedback, and then David Franks the senior partner called me in,” Bill recalled.

“He said ‘everything’s looking quite good Bill, but have you ever considered working in the Middle East?

“I think someone had gone out there but it hadn’t worked out, and they knew that I had the experience, so I spent three years there, in Dubai, at a time when it was starting to take off.

“There were three partners and 100 staff covering five countries. I worked in Qatar, Oman, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia and I really enjoyed it because it was just starting out and a very exciting time to be there.

“I worked with household names like Disney and Prudential who were just establishing a Middle Eastern presence, and I’ve got lots of memories.

“In Bahrain, I was working with a bank signing off their accounts when they were observing Ramadan.

“I went to the chairman’s house and he was also the chairman of the Chamber of Commerce for Riyadh.

“We had the board meeting at his house and it was the size of a hotel. They had it at about 4pm when they were fasting and it had to finish at 5pm because that’s when the fast broke.

“It’s the only board meeting I’ve been to that absolutely had to finish at that time because they all had to pray and have something to eat.

“We had the meeting, the Imam called to prayer and we had snacks and sweet pastries. The Muslims went to pray and a few of us Westerners stayed behind …and a fabulous meal was served to mark the end of fasting.

“It was a really unique, fascinating insight into the culture and the chairman couldn’t have been more hospitable and welcoming.”

He also worked on one of the very first projects in Qatar to extract natural gas, which of course is what made them their fortune.

He recalled: “They raised a Bond in the States for $1bn to start their first exploration for gas – and I worked on that. It’s fantastic to think I was there at the start.”

Having experienced the excitement of working in foreign PwC offices Bill is a strong advocate of travelling around the globe within the firm.

The Newcastle office currently has 12 people working on various secondments worldwide, but attracting overseas PwC staff North has been, however, a struggle. The new offices may yet reverse that trend.

Bill said: “One of the unique things about PwC is that it’s an easy profession to move around in, thanks to the same methodology and practices.

“I always say to young people in the company that they should take advantage of the opportunity to work abroad because it will give you a different perspective on life.

“But we do have trouble getting people to come to Newcastle. Everyone who comes from outside the UK wants to work in London.

“I always think it’s good for the office to have someone from abroad working here, but we’ve struggled to do that of late. That’s one of the challenges the region in general has – people don’t know where it is.

“As a region we need to develop a story to successfully attract talent from overseas to work here.

“It’s like Scotland or Ireland, it’s an exporting area of talent, and trying to bring it back is a challenge.

“They achieve elsewhere.

“I think anyone who comes into the new office is wowed by it – and if we talk about culture you can see Sage and Baltic, and we’re a stones throw away from the O2 Academy, Metro Radio Arena…it’s an easier story to tell from here. There’s no doubt that having an office like this, we can use it to attract people.”

Before becoming senior partner this year Bill led the assurance team and was also People Partner, a position he still holds and enjoys.

The role sees him take on a more pastoral role, looking after all people issues – including talent development – promotions, annual pay reviews, disciplinary issues – that arise among the 700 staff in the Manchester, Leeds, Liverpool, Hull, Sheffield and Newcastle offices.

He is also liaison partner for the Flying Start degree Programme at Newcastle University carried out in conjunction with PwC and the Institute of Chartered Accountants for England and Wales (ICE&W). Since its launch 10 years ago 700 people have graduated through it to take up permanent positions within their local PwC offices.

“It’s a great programme and I’ve worked closely with all of the university people on it. My enjoyment probably comes from my parents both being teachers – I do think that if I can get people developed and the right talent through, the client side of things looks after itself to an extent.

“Everything comes down to having the right people and if you have the best quality people then you have happy clients so you’ve got to get that side of things correct.”

From its new home in the city centre PwC is seeing strong growth locally across all businesses, which are all much more active and much more confident in investing, in other companies and capital expenditure.

With the future looking bright, Bill is keen to play a vital part in the firm and region’s growth.

“There’s definitely more dynamism and confidence around than we’ve seen for the last three to four years, which is very encouraging,” he said.

“And this a fantastic job to have.

“The great thing about this job is I’ve got lots of big clients a big office and so on, but it’s not so big you can’t get your arms around it, so I feel like I can actually make a difference.

“An office of this size you can know all of the staff and know all of you clients, and make a real personal difference, so it has a hands-on feel about it.

“That’s typical of Newcastle, you can get around and get known quite quickly.”

While the coming years may look rosy for the region there are challenges ahead, which Bill and the team are preparing for.

He said: “I think there’s a lot of challenges facing companies with a lot of new European rules that require people to change auditors, which will bring change to a lot of companies.

“So it’s a period of considerable change, but with change comes opportunities. And we want to capitalise on that.

“If you can’t provide audit services for those firms any longer, how else can we work with them? We will have to be nimble and fleet of foot to navigate through all of these European legislative changes.

“I think we’ve got a strong market position but there’s still a lot we can do focussing more on middle market, private loan business. We’re also looking to develop innovative services for clients.

“I want this firm to be number one in the region, be bigger than it is now and for it to be fully engaged and have a workforce who love being here and are happy to be here working in the local community.

“We are really committed to being here and it’s a great market.

“I would like the region to believe in itself a little more – Scots are terrible for having a chip on their shoulder and the North East is similar. It should just believe in itself.

“If you do that it increases prosperity and gives us better job opportunities for people. I like to think that we, and I myself, can play a part in trying to do that.”

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