The globetrotter

Sep 30, 2018
Shaun Kelly, Global COO at KPMG International, recounts a career that took him from West Belfast at the height of The Troubles to the US and beyond.

Shaun Kelly, Global Chief Operating Officer (COO) at KPMG International, has moved house 14 times. It is often described as one of life’s most stressful events, but Shaun wouldn’t strike you as the ‘stressed out’ type. Speaking by phone from his office in Manhattan, the Belfast native credits much of his family’s ability to transition from country to country and city to city to his wife of 34 years, Mary, with whom he has four children. Without Mary’s supportive influence, it’s difficult to see how Shaun could have enjoyed such a stellar and varied career, which began in what was then Stokes Kennedy Crowley & Co. (SKC).

Shaun had just completed the B.Comm degree in University College Dublin (UCD), lured by the strength of the university’s Gaelic football team (he had played minor football for Antrim). He then went on to qualify as a Chartered Accountant in 1983, taking joint first place in the final exams with another SKC colleague, before an opportunity arose for a short stint in the firm’s office in San Francisco. “That was 1984, the same year Mary and I were  married. We married in August, and in September we were in San Francisco,” he said. “It was a tremendous opportunity, going from Ireland in the early eighties to the San Francisco Bay area in the mid-eighties with all the advancements in technology and cultural diversity.”

Shaun returned to Dublin after two years but soon after, the US firm lured him back with a full-time role in audit. Following the birth of their first two children in California, however, Shaun and Mary decided that they would raise their children in Ireland. This led to a 10-year break from KPMG, during which time Shaun worked on advisory, corporate finance and insolvency assignments in Belfast, but in 1999 the US firm came calling once again.

“I re-joined the firm and spent a couple of years in San Francisco. I was then asked to move to the Chicago office to run the mid-west region of what was our Transaction Services practice at the time, which was essentially the due diligence mergers and acquisitions (M&A) practice,” he said. “While I was there, I was asked to head the US Transaction services practice and soon after, I also became global head of Transaction Services for KPMG. And then, in 2005, I was asked to lead KPMG’s US Tax Practice which involved a move to New York. I did that for five years and in 2010, became the head of operations for the US firm. I did that for five years and in 2015, took on my current role as COO of KPMG International.”

The road ahead

Although Shaun’s role is global in nature, his travel gives him ample opportunity to visit the family’s home in Donegal. Between his board roles at UCD Michael Smurfit School of Business and the American Ireland Fund, and his advisory role with KPMG’s Belfast office he spends a lot of time in Ireland – and he’s happy to be able to contribute to the island’s success. “One of our core values at KPMG is giving back to our communities so we’re encouraged, particularly at partner level, to get involved,” he said. “One of the things I learned in the 1990s when I was back in Belfast was the impact of a successful economy on a region’s social and political landscape. I also saw the problems and increased violence following the financial downturns in the 1990s, so facilitating investment and creating jobs will help foster a much more stable and prosperous environment in Northern Ireland.”

In that context, Brexit and the potential implications of a no-deal outcome for Northern Ireland weighs heavily on his mind. “It’s a concern. Businesses are most successful when we have open markets and they are able to plan investments with a strong degree of confidence,” he said. “Businesses will deal with the scenarios they are presented with. Uncertainty obviously makes that much more complicated because you’re unsure as to what the environment will be. Chartered Accountants have a key role to play in explaining the impact of various outcomes on investment and job creation. Open markets mean more certainty, which in turn means more investment and more jobs created – it’s that simple.”

Although Brexit is a challenge, it’s just one of many that global businesses are facing according to Shaun. From tariff threats to the unsettled global trade agreements, there are a number of challenges ahead. However, Shaun sees opportunities also – particularly in the area of technology. “Despite all the disruption coming from technology, a recent KPMG survey of global CEOs found that while the world’s largest and most complex businesses are investing heavily in artificial intelligence and robotics, they see themselves as net hirers over the coming years,” he said. “Back in the eighties, one of the pre-runners to Excel was called VisiCalc. I remember learning to use VisiCalc on floppy disc and we were discussing what was going to happen to all the accountants when these spreadsheets take over. But we learn that technological advances create more opportunity to add value, to grow, to create economic prosperity– and I think that’s what we’ll see in the future.”

The drive for inclusion

When it comes to dealing with the evolution, Shaun believes that businesses have a choice: you either allow yourself to be disrupted, or you become the disruptor. But becoming the disruptor requires an explicit focus on culture and integrity. “We spend a lot of time in KPMG reinforcing our culture,” he said. “Integrity is the bedrock of everything we do and for every Chartered Accountant, it’s our reputation for independence and ethical standards that makes us who we are and underpins the value we bring to society.

“That focus on core values, purpose and integrity is being demanded by the millennial population,” he added. “We deal with a lot of millennials as clients, but more than 65% of our people in KPMG are millennials or younger. They’re looking for purpose-driven organisations where they can pursue their personal goals and objectives so if we are to attract top talent, and in turn serve the top companies, we need to be attractive to this demographic.”

Having a dominant cohort that demands inclusivity has given many organisations the impetus to drive their diversity and inclusion agendas, and Shaun has played a central role in KPMG in this regard. He is a member of the KPMG US Inclusion and Diversity Executive Council and co-chairs the firm’s Disabilities Network, which supports KPMG people who either have a disability or care for someone with a disability. Indeed, Shaun falls into the latter category as a carer for his daughter, who has Down Syndrome.

“KPMG has had a disability network for 10 years now. Over that decade, it has become acknowledged that having an inclusive organisation isn’t just a nice thing to do – it’s actually a business imperative for a couple of reasons. Our clients are demanding it because they want to be inclusive organisations themselves and they want to work with organisations that are inclusive. But it actually makes you a better business too; you’re getting better decisions, you’re getting much better perspective.”

The task at hand

In one sense, Shaun’s passion for inclusion stemmed from his teenage years growing up in West Belfast in the 1970s. Having lived through the height of The Troubles, his years in Dublin and the US helped him “realise the benefits and pluses of an inclusive society versus one that was very much divided at the time”.

“Looking at the violence, maybe your priorities change and you get a better sense of what’s important and what’s not,” he added.

Shaun also credits much of his success to the willingness to embrace opportunities as they arise, and he strongly encourages younger Chartered Accountants to do the same. “I remember discussing with Mary the opportunity to move to San Francisco so quickly after we got married, and she really encouraged that we go. In many ways, she’s much more adaptable than I am,” he said.

“And when I took over the leadership of the US tax practice in 2005, I had never worked in tax before… it wasn’t as if I had a grand five-year plan that, by 2005, I’d be running the US tax practice. I qualified as a Chartered Accountant, got a couple of years’ experience in the US, was promoted to manager and was fortunate to have other great opportunities along the way that I was able to seize. Young accountants should focus on excelling in their current roles while making it known that they are open to new opportunities. Really focus on what you’re doing now because if you take your eye off the ball and you don’t deliver, that can have a negative impact whereas if you really shine, that will create opportunities. Do well at what you’re doing and stay open to opportunities that arise.”

Looking back

While Shaun continues to work across the globe in his role as COO, he still finds time to reflect on the things that make him proud over the course of his life and career to date. “On a personal level, we have four great kids. Seeing them become successful – and Mary probably has more to do with that than me – despite the 14 moves is deeply satisfying,” he said. “In one sense, I think it helped them in their careers to be much more open and inclusive. They’re still very much attached to Ireland, but they have a global perspective.

“In professional terms, I’ve worked in every part of our business. I was able to move across functions, countries and cities. I’m really pleased I was able to do that and I hopefully have the respect of the partners and staff in all those different practices,” he added. “It is said that one of the best skills to have is a good self-awareness. We don’t do it alone and I think that’s one of the strengths of KPMG – and indeed of Chartered Accountants. We’re trained to be team players. If I go back to my days playing Gaelic football, I think that sport – being part of a team, that collective responsibility and not wanting to let your teammates down – played a huge role in helping my career.

“And funnily enough, it also tended to be the prima donnas who, when the going got tough, you wondered: ‘where are they?’”
Shaun will speak at Chartered Accountants Ireland’s upcoming Leadership Symposium in Belfast on 3 April 2019. For more information, visit