In recent years the growth of Northern Ireland’s financial services sector has been fuelled by an unbeatable combination of world-class talent, highly competitive operating costs and research excellence in a low-risk, pro-business environment.
Of course, like many economies across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on Northern Ireland’s communities and many of its businesses. But, thanks to this quality combination, the sector has demonstrated remarkable resilience and continued to thrive, leading to sustained job creation and high-profile customer wins from some of its leading players, including Allstate, Citi and Aflac.
To examine the patterns behind this continued growth in the face of adversity, we recently hosted a ‘virtual roundtable’ with senior figures from established businesses across Northern Ireland’s financial services sector alongside the nation’s fintech envoy, Andrew Jenkins and Invest Northern Ireland’s Steve Harper.
Here, our panel explored the market qualities investing financial services companies look for and discussed the elements they believe a business should invest in to build resilience and as an in-market team during challenging times.
Meet the panel
John Healy – Vice President & Managing Director, Allstate Northern Ireland: John leads Allstate NI’s team of 2,200 experts. He has 25 years’ experience in technology, predominantly in the financial services domain. He has extensive experience at leading global teams, developing strategy and delivering solutions to address business and technology issues.
Keith Farley – Managing Director, Aflac Northern Ireland Ltd: Keith is responsible for setting up Aflac’s European Centre of Excellence. He has relocated to Belfast, UK and is creating a new organization that will offer both software development and cyber security solutions. With a goal of growing from 0 to 150 professionals in a few years, this team will be a critical part of Aflac’s global digital strategy.
Leigh Meyer – Head of Global FX/MM & EMEA Markets Operations Belfast Site Head Citibank: Leigh has worked for Citi for 22 years, covering a number of products from derivatives to FX. He is also the Northern Ireland Chair for TheCityUK, a private-sector membership body and industry advocacy group promoting the financial and related professional services industry of the United Kingdom.
Darragh McCarthy –Founder and CEO, FinTrU. In 2013, after many years in the banking industry in London, New York and Frankfurt, Darragh founded FinTrU in Belfast having recognised the increased demand from global investment banks for high-quality resources to navigate the ever-increasing regulatory landscape. The company employs over 600 people in Belfast and Derry-Londonderry.
Steve Harper, Executive Director International Invest Northern Ireland Steve’s role at Invest NI, the region’s main development organisation, is to promote trade and inward investment into the area.
What has been your experience as a financial services business operating in Northern Ireland during COVID-19?
Leigh Meyer, Citi NI: As a global company we have been fortunate to have the technology infrastructure to move almost our entire workforce to work from home successfully with little change to our day to day operations. In Northern Ireland, this means we continue to hire, and have successfully on boarded 172 new employees to Citi Belfast virtually over the last four months. The result has been that our client support was largely uninterrupted and continued to give our fullest care and attention in very tough times.
Keith Farley, Aflac NI: As a technology company, we have been very fortunate to have 100% of staff work remotely with minimal disruption. We were also able to continue hiring during the pandemic – more than doubling the size of our team from 19 employees in March to 50 in August.
Darragh McCarthy FinTrU: Likewise. We made the decision in early March to facilitate 100% of our employees to begin working from home. The infrastructure in Northern Ireland has allowed us to manage this transition smoothly and maintain our productivity with client delivery.
What initially attracted you to Northern Ireland as a destination for your business?
Keith Farley, Aflac NI: We were attracted to Northern Ireland for many reasons, but it really boiled down to three words we have painted on our wall: Resilient, Reinventive and Adaptable. While these words reference the long history Belfast and the nation have in agility, they were proven once again proven during this pandemic.
John Healy OBE, Allstate NI: The availability of skilled technologists was the main reason for setting up an off-shore location in Northern Ireland over 20 years ago. The original plan was to create a workforce of 200 but the quality of the people and skills available has meant that we have grown to a multi-site operation with 2,400 employees in Belfast and the North West.
Leigh Meyer, Citi NI: Put simply, its value proposition. Northern Ireland offers skilled people, competitive costs, great infrastructure and high standard of living, all with close proximity to London, the European, Middle East and Africa region. The nation also benefits from a central time zone ideal for supporting Asia, North and South America.
Darragh McCarthy, FinTrU: In Northern Ireland, there is an incredible opportunity to partner with leading academic institutions including Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University, Belfast Metropolitan College and North West Regional College.
FinTrU has undoubtedly benefited from these mutual partnerships with our Financial Services and Legal Academies providing local graduates with the opportunity to work on the global stage with the largest Investment Banks in the world.
How can regions support businesses to be more resilient during crises like the pandemic?
Leigh Meyer, Citi NI: Regions can help ensure that the infrastructure is robust, scalable and fit for purpose – this applies to both physical and technical infrastructure. It is also essential that policy makers give clear guidance on what health and safety measures they require, to boost the confidence of people travelling to and from work and in their everyday lives.
Keith Farley, Aflac NI: We believe that investments in infrastructure continue to be critical, especially urban and rural internet connectivity as we shift to more flexible work environments.
Darragh McCarthy, FinTrU: In terms of the Financial Services industry, I feel crisis management and leadership is crucial. Having a clear strategy in place from the top can help alleviate the anxieties that others will face during a period of crisis. Regions can help businesses to be further resilient through investment in appropriate infrastructure to allow for the transition from office to homeworking in all areas across Northern Ireland.
What have external organisations (like Invest NI) been able to offer in terms of support?
Keith Farley, Aflac NI: Invest NI has been a great partner in introducing us to the region and the opportunities that exist here to hire world-class technology talent in a business-friendly environment.
Leigh Meyer, Citi NI: We have been in touch with our Client Manager throughout the pandemic. Invest NI has supported Citi from 2005, starting with the initial inward investment feasibility study and financial assistance to help expand the workforce in Belfast and training and development costs. We are also engaged with the NI Chamber of Commerce, CBI NI, Belfast City Council and universities and schools for exchange of ideas, support, driving the business agenda for the country.
Steve Harper, Invest Northern Ireland: We have worked hard to ensure that all businesses benefit from being part of Northern Ireland’s diverse economy, embedded resilience and agility. Even during the height of the pandemic, we were able to work closely with the Department of Finance and the Business Services Organisation to help match NI companies with government calls for much needed medical equipment and PPE. We received over 300 offers from businesses who expressed interest in supporting the fight against COVID-19 by developing prototypes and products for testing to ensure they comply with regulations. Many then went on to receive orders for PPE, ventilators, testing and sanitiser.
Darragh McCarthy, FinTrU: We made the decision to not avail of any COVID-19 Governmental sponsored support initiatives or furlough any employees due to our ongoing growth. However, the resources provided by Invest NI such as the ‘Recover’ support which include ‘HR advice to build skills’, ‘Build resilience through leadership capability’, ‘Invest in ICT solutions and technologies’ and ‘Operation excellence to adapt to COVID-19’ demonstrates its commitment to the companies that have invested in Northern Ireland.
Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, what do you think are the challenges and opportunities facing the financial services sector?
Keith Farley, Aflac NI: We are going to need to work together with employees to ensure they feel safe traveling to work, knowing that their safety is a priority, but also that people want to return to a city that is open for business. We also need to learn from the pandemic to make our work environment safer, more inclusive and flexible. As a community, we recognised the impact we have on each other, as well as the importance of human interaction. We should not take that for granted again.
Steve Harper, Invest Northern Ireland: The resilience and agility demonstrated by businesses in the local financial services sector – and beyond – throughout the crisis really sets our region apart as a positive force and a lucrative location for business. This couldn’t have been achieved without its diverse business landscape, supportive environment, and of course, its excellent calibre of people. As we move forward, I strongly believe that this experience has unleashed a renewed sense of purpose and a collaborative and enterprising spirit that will serve us well as we recover and look forward – and these are qualities that this new world absolutely needs.
Darragh McCarthy, FinTrU: Social distancing and remote working from home can leave people feeling isolated, especially those who are away from their families. At FinTrU, we invest heavily in our company culture and pay careful attention to ensure that it is not lost whilst we are working away from the office. It is important for businesses to consider the challenges faced by their people and to have empathy towards situations that may be experienced by others.
What do you think financial services organisations will look for going forward, when it comes to investing in new markets?
John Healy, Allstate NI: The financial services industry has seen dramatic technology-led changes over the past few years. Many have looked to improve efficiency and implement game-changing innovation, while seeking ways to lower costs. Meanwhile, Fintech start-ups are disrupting established markets, leading with customer-centric solutions developed from the ground up. To best serve our industry, markets will need highly skilled technologists in a range of areas: Blockchain, Robotics, AI, Cloud and Cyber Security, to name but a few. There must be collaboration between government, education and industry to prepare and sustain the skills that are required now and in the future.
Steve Harper, Invest Northern Ireland: Quality digital connectivity has proven essential during the crisis, and, as our lives move increasingly online, for these organisations it will become as critical to economic sustainability and growth as water and electricity are to our everyday lives today. Wherever you go around the world, those places that have invested in solid digital foundations have, in most cases, proven to be the most resilient. This is because digital services and solutions underpin innovation and productivity, as well as businesses’ ability to scale.
Leigh Meyer, Citi NI: Finance businesses value the ability to relocate staff effectively, source new talent and offer rewarding careers. We look closely at the broader legal, regulatory and tax regime. The UK’s operating environment needs to remain competitive, not least as the Brexit transition phase comes to an end. A robust infrastructure is also important, particularity digital/tech infrastructure in this current climate as we evolve our methods of training our employees to virtual.
Darragh McCarthy, FinTrU: Without the correct infrastructure, it would not have been possible for businesses such as FinTrU to adapt to a situation like COVID-19. This robust connectivity and investment in technology will be a very important consideration for any company when investing in a new market. However, risk and cybersecurity represent an important area for Financial Services organisations to consider. This industry is more reliant than ever on technology, and a lack of risk management or compliance can cost an organisation greatly.
Finally, I feel the most important consideration for a company when it comes to investing in a new market is the people. The talented workforce will make up your organisation in terms of the client delivery as well as shaping the company culture.