Meet Grant Thornton’s new Practice Leader for Bristol & South West

Business Leader recently spoke to Jonathan Riley – Partner and Practice Leader Bristol & South West at Grant Thornton UK LLP to discuss his new role, how the firm has dealt with the coronavirus pandemic and what the future holds for the UK’s economy.

Can you tell us about your background?

Prior to taking on the role as Partner and Practice Leader for Bristol and the South West for Grant Thornton, I sat on Grant Thornton’s National Executive Board, as a member of the Strategic Leadership Team. I was responsible for quality and reputation including media relations.

Before that role,  l was the firm’s National Head of Tax for five years – and before that, I worked in a similar role, but in Yorkshire and the North East as Practice Leader there. In total, I have been with Grant Thornton for 25 years – I am a Tax Partner by skill and training but have always taken leadership positions within the firm.

I’ve spent the last 2 years or so looking at how we approach quality from a national perspective,  repairing some issues caused by historical matters and making sure my firm is future-fit from a quality perspective. I really enjoyed the challenges with that role but my preference has always been a more outward, market-facing role. When the opportunity to lead our firm in the South West arose the timing could not have been better – Covid-19 apart!  My focus will be on pushing Grant Thornton’s presence in the region and marketplace even harder, so we can achieve even greater things.

To complete the story, I started my career as a civil servant and tax inspector – but I am all better now!

Can you tell us more about your new role at Grant Thornton?

I have been in the role from July 1st 2020 going through the challenges of moving from Yorkshire, where we had our family home to taking on this role in Bristol and finding somewhere to rent in the region. It has been great to start making new connections in the South West and continuing with the ambitious goals we have as a firm.

I am now looking forward to meeting more people in person as lockdown restrictions are further lifted and we are now easing back into our modern 2 Glass Wharf office, in the heart of the Bristol financial district. I am looking forward to a steady and phased return to some semblance of normality.

How have you found the last few months?

We have 12 Partners and Directors, with 300 Grant Thornton team members across Bristol and Cardiff – and we look at that as one group on both sides of the River Severn – both the South West and South Wales are hugely important to Grant Thornton.

Everyone here has been incredibly welcoming – even though it is different to what normally happens when you take on a new role and get to meet everyone in a more relaxed, in-person setting. Doing that via Microsoft Teams has been interesting. I am a very straight-talking and passionate person and I am excited to get started and make a great impression on our marketplace – and advance our employees’ careers as well.

How do you feel Grant Thornton has coped with the impact of COVID-19?

On the whole, I think we’ve coped very well under the circumstances and continued to deliver for our clients whilst protecting our people. We decided very early on about protecting our people, closing our offices down, and embracing virtual working. Our technology and IS  have really succeeded and the transition to working via Teams/Zoom has been seamless. As a firm, we have been conscious of the mental strains working from home can create – which create their own challenges. We have made our people our priority when it came to reopening our physical locations because we know just how hard it has been for some to work from home.

We are in a financial position where we didn’t have to furlough people. We reduced a few employees working hours but did not take any furlough money from the government. We have been sufficiently robust to react to the challenges presented by COVID-19.

There will be lessons to be learnt, but all things considered, I would take where we are today, considering what has happened since March.

What lessons have yourself and the company learned in this period?

For me, the personal lesson I have taken away is that during the initial stages of lockdown people were working very intensely and in some instances, there was almost a sense of presenteeism. When you work from home, you sometimes feel you need to prove yourself more so than in an office environment. In the normal working environment, you will have a walk around and chat to fellow employees, for example. The initial intensity might have been due to the uncertainty we were all feeling, but now I feel we have learnt that you don’t have to login at 7.30am at home and work constantly through to the evening – you need to step away and take break. I have seen this more trusting approach particularly in Grant Thornton. This has been the greatest positive to come out of this situation.

What have your customers been telling you about their time during COVID-19?

It is a very mixed picture. It has been a tough time especially for people in retail, food, leisure, tourism – all those with elements of hospitality, as that sector has been badly impacted. Those who have furloughed staff – as furlough comes to an end, they will be considering headcount numbers. It is likely that many businesses will have to restructure their activities off the back of COVID-19. As we come out the other side, economically, it could be several years before businesses recover. However, the ones with an online presence, who have been more adaptable and flexible, and do not have the property challenges some may have could be in a really good place.

However, in tech, where the region performs strongly – where we see the nation’s innovators – they have continued to perform strongly through this.

We have got to be conscious that it isn’t just COVID-19 that businesses have to deal with – some clients who are exporting will have to be dealing with the issues surrounding Brexit and what trade will look like going forward and we can help clients with this as we have specific Brexit specialists who are currently advising clients on their strategic plans.

The factor we did see with our clients was that before COVID-19, businesses were looking into contingency plans because of Brexit – that got a lot of them wondering about the potential scenarios. This meant that a lot of them were better prepared than they would have been.

However, for both COVID-19 and Brexit – the strongest will survive. The ones who seek professional advice – often an external perspective – tend to perform better in times like these.

In regard to the economic recovery – how do you see this being shaped?

An economic recovery is going to need help from the state. We have already seen a lot of government support for business across the economy. Any recovery will have to be investment-led – both in terms of technology and a way in which people can work and still innovate. And obviously through access to finance as well.

Across the country, there are also a lot of transport and infrastructure projects that will need to be completed and improved, if we are to continue as a trading nation going forward. If you look at the last financial crisis, local and national infrastructure projects were key to the recovery. If we are to start paying back the inevitable deficit because of government investment over the last few months, we need to get these projects moving.

What sectors will be the winners and losers?

If you look at the surveys and studies, fast growing businesses tend to be tech-based, IP centric business.  We will still need to produce graduates and school leavers who will be fit for the economy for today and the future.

Businesses that are exporters, particularly those with innovation and IP at their heart, will also bounce back; Brexit will produce opportunities despite current uncertainty. Employment numbers will return to the leisure, hospitality, and tourism sectors over time. We have already seen a slight upturn in these industries as people are seeking a respite from their homes – the ‘staycation’ might be here to stay!

To boost our GDP, I would always focus on well trained and educated school leavers and graduates. People who are going to be adding to the businesses that we have across this region, and the businesses that invest in their people and technologies to allow innovation to happen.