Michael McAteer, the 50-year-old managing partner of Grant Thornton Ireland, the world’s seventh-largest professional consultancy firm, is here to talk about his firm’s expansion in Cork, but there is little he won’t offer a thoughtful opinion on.
His bottom line appears to be the word “commercial”. Does something make commercial sense? For Mr McAteer and his firm, Cork makes a lot of sense.
“We do see the city and the million square feet under construction in the wider Cork region as the home for new businesses and foreign direct investment (FDI), and all of that activity will lead to a demand for ever more professional services,” he tells the Irish Examiner.
He says that Grant Thornton sees Cork as a “great opportunity, and the market itself in the region is extremely buoyant”.
An accountant and insolvency expert by trade, Mr McAteer has been with Grant Thornton since 1999. Having made partner in 2008, he has been heading up the firm in this country since January 2018.
For him, the Cork expansion, which will see the company taking up a penthouse floor at Penrose Quay with the capacity to double its workforce, is a sign of the times.
“Cork has been identified by Government as the second city, and that has clearly put it in the frame when FDI and multinationals are looking at Ireland as a location. Where Dublin has the pressures of housing, Cork has no commercial space pressure, and the development plans in place for the port and housing, together with its own educational ecosystem in UCC — it’s not a second choice but a choice in its own right at this stage for companies looking to establish a hub here,” he says.
Grant Thornton has been in Cork since 2013, starting off with a staff of three. The new office is set to see its workforce more than double from the 105 it currently has on the books.
A lot of focus will be distinct from the firm’s offerings elsewhere in Ireland, with an emphasis to be placed on financial, auditing, and accounting services for multinationals.
Will the scrapping of transatlantic flights from and to the city’s airport have any bearing on how the city fares going forward?
“It’s the chicken and the egg scenario, what came first, the corporations or the demand — maybe that will lead to the reopening of those routes. But at the end of the day, Dublin is two hours by train, Limerick is an hour by car. I don’t see it as the difference between choosing or not choosing the city,” he adds.
As with most aspects of Irish life at present, Brexit has a hand to play.
“Ten years ago major multinationals would probably have chosen Ireland for tax purposes,” Mr McAteer says.
“These days access to a talented English-speaking workforce is probably more important. And I think one of the things that Brexit has done is that US corporations need to be in Europe, if they’re expanding, and where maybe previously they would have looked at the UK as a natural place to go from an operational viewpoint, with Brexit and the uncertainty that comes with it, these companies need to act now.
“They don’t have the luxury of waiting for Brexit to basically unravel or have some structure, which is to Ireland’s advantage,” he says.
Far from being fatigued by the “B” word, Mr McAteer professes himself “absolutely intrigued by it” and likens it to a game of chess being played out. He thinks that the UK will face an election sooner or later.
“The only way the Conservatives don’t win that is if some manner of deal is struck between Labour and the Liberal Democrats for an electoral strategy. That would lead to a de facto rerunning of the referendum,” he says.
The Irish Government has handled Brexit well, he says, in what was a “tough negotiating situation”.
“Over a longer period of time, say three to five years, Brexit could actually be a better thing,” Mr McAteer suggests, by “going from a market of 50m to one of 400m, with no exposure to currency moves”.
“Ireland was always able to see the benefit of the EU, and we were huge beneficiaries, much more clearly. Say in terms of roads funded from a European regional fund. And that helped us to change our mindset,” he says.
“Even looking into our own organisation, about a quarter of our employees are from outside Ireland, mostly European. Look back 15 years, I’d hazard a guess that figure would have been in the low single digits,” he says.