Though a more pertinent challenge than ever before, the ongoing skills shortages in many key UK sectors serve as a reminder that building an internal pipeline of ‘home-grown’ talent can be a powerful asset.
KPMG’s new senior partner for Scotland, James Kergon, is a living bastion of this principle. Self-proclaimed as a “KPMG man and boy”, his service for the firm virtually dates back to adolescence, having entered as a university graduate and now assuming one of its loftiest positions nearly a quarter-century later.
As the firm attempts to navigate what remains of the pandemic and the months to follow, incorporating this very same philosophy will be a crucial part of Kergon’s approach.
Speaking to Accountancy Age, Kergon explores his career to-date, the things he’s accomplished along the way, and how he plans to translate this into his new role going forward.
What has your career looked like prior to taking on this new role?
Well, I’m KPMG man and boy. I actually did engineering at university and then decided that I wanted to get a business qualification alongside that, so I joined the KPMG audit team in Glasgow and did my charted accountant training there. And then post-qualifying I moved into our transaction services team in order to implement a bit of variety and take the opportunity to see what other things the firm did.
I didn’t necessarily have long-term plans though. I certainly didn’t view that I would still be here 20-odd years later. Naturally, I thought that with an engineering degree and an accountancy qualification, I’d then go off and work in industry. But I enjoyed the variety that the role gave me, so I moved again, this time into transactions, which gave me the opportunity to work with early-stage entrepreneurial businesses right through to large corporates.
I also did a couple of years in San Francisco on secondment with KPMG, which again was an opportunity that working for a Big Four firm often gives you, and that was a fantastic experience. And then on returning to transaction services I became a director and eventually a partner, and I’ve been a partner now for coming up to five years.
My role has evolved a lot over that five years as well, having begun as a transaction services partner leading our deals business in Scotland, to spending the last 18 months being the office senior partner for Glasgow, and now senior partner for Scotland.
Can you pinpoint some of your biggest or proudest achievements during that period?
From my perspective, my biggest achievements are the opportunities I’ve had to grow, develop and take on new experiences over the years at KPMG. Going to the US is a great example of that – it was a fantastic opportunity, and one of the most memorable experiences in my career. And then for obvious reasons, each point at which I’ve taken on a subsequent role and promotion within the firm have been big landmarks for me.
But aside from that, it really comes down to the day-to-day things that I take great pleasure from, such as winning and working with new clients, and seeing people within the team develop and grow. So for example I’ve now got directors that I remember joining as graduates that have risen through the ranks and ended up having a great influence on the business.
Equally, I recognise that at a firm like ours, part and parcel of it is that it’s a training ground for people to go onto other experiences. So seeing people that I’ve worked with go off into industry and do great things is always very personally satisfying.
What do you think you are bringing to this role?
I think one of the beauties of working in the Scottish market is its variety. I get to work with businesses across all sizes and scales – privately owned family businesses, early-stage entrepreneurial start-ups, large global listed corporates. And equally, I’m not defined by any particular sector and have experience working in a deals environment in which you get to see all shapes and sizes of business, so I think that has given me quite a varied background.
And obviously, having spent 20-plus years at KPMG, my networks both internally and externally are a huge advantage in delivering to our clients. But equally, I recognise that while some of the great talent in our Scotland team are like me and have joined the firm from an early age, a lot have come from other walks of life as well. That gives us great diversity of thought and ensures that it’s not all just a KPMG-man-and-boy view.
But aside from the experience side of things, a big part of this role is about being a visible face out in the market. To me, this is not an internal management role. And actually, there is a big synergy there with the role that I do in transactions and deals – to be successful in deals, you need to be out there speaking to a lot of clients and businesses. So I think that’s a strength.
How has the firm dealt with the pandemic, and how will you carry that forward?
Looking back a little bit, through the nature of what we do as professional services advisers and also through the investments that we’ve made in technology, we were able to switch everyone to remote working pretty much overnight, and in the main continue to deliver our services relatively uninterrupted. We have had to adapt in some areas, and technology was a big driver in enabling us to do that.
But that’s more been around the lockdown and homeworking period – now, we’re moving into a hybrid plan which will offer our people greater flexibility and choice going forward. We’ve obviously seen a mixture of benefits and challenges when it comes to flexible working, and so we’ve spoken at great length with our people about what works and what the future looks like.
I also think we’ve shown a lot of trust in our people over the last 18 months and demonstrated that it’s not about where you work but how you work. And going forward, everyone will be empowered to decide what will be best for them.
But for now, we’re still in that phase of testing and learning as we go, and at the moment, staying safe is our number one priority.
What are your other key goals going forward?
First and foremost, my goal is managing that transition to hybrid working. The events of the last 18 months have put a great deal of strain on our people and their safety and wellbeing remains our number one priority. And fundamentally, that move to hybrid working will be one of the most significant changes that many of our people face in their working lives.
And staying on that people theme, we’re in a very competitive job market, and so continuing to recruit and retain talent is a key priority for our business. And a lot of the skills that we’re looking for as we look to grow and expand our business might be slightly beyond some of the more traditional roles, which are the ones in the highest demand right now. So continuing to recruit and retain talent is key.
But we’ve made some really key hires in our business of late, even during the pandemic. We’ve got fantastic talent in the business, so for me a big goal is really about supporting them out in the market as our clients face a whole catalogue of challenges.
We have a very blended model of recruitment covering graduate hires, apprentices, initiatives around people returning to work after career breaks or maternity leaves, or simply experienced hires. We need to continue that blend because that’s what brings us diversity in the truest sense, which is in thought and opinion.