New boss of finance giant in Scotland relishing life as one company man

JAMES Kergon admits he did not intend to hang around for too long when he first joined KPMG in Scotland. Twenty-three years later, he has just been appointed overall head of the accountancy giant north of the Border, leading a team of more than 1,300 people.

While he did not anticipate becoming a one-company man, Mr Kergon is delighted with the way things have turned out. Never once has he felt life at KPMG has not offered him the opportunity to learn and grow.

Mr Kergon qualified with KPMG after joining with an engineering degree in 2001, reasoning that a grounding in business with the “big four” accountant would provide a platform for a career in industry.

However, he found opportunities for progression lay in front of him at KPMG. After qualifying, he moved into audit and then transaction services in 2003. He rose to become partner in 2016 before being appointed senior partner in the Glasgow office in June of last year.

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Mr Kergon was confirmed as head of Scotland, succeeding Catherine Burnet, now the firm’s UK head of audit, two weeks ago.

“[I’ve had] fantastic opportunities and the chance to develop and grow my career within the firm here in Scotland,” he said. “Twenty-three years later I am still here and loving it.”

Not that everything has been plain sailing in his time with the firm. Although the transition to home working after the first lockdown was announced in March of last year was smooth, the pandemic has had a varied impact on KPMG’s staff in Scotland.

Some employees have enjoyed the opportunity to have spent more time in the company of their families during the last 17 months, including Mr Kergon himself, who has two children, aged nine and five. However, others have missed the company of colleagues, he said, notably younger staff such as trainees who have been denied the opportunity of “learning by osmosis” from more senior colleagues.

In the coming weeks, the firm will eventually move to a hybrid model which will involve people being expected to be in the office for four days every fortnight.

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Noting that staff had shown very quickly that they could be trusted to perform well while working from home, Mr Kergon noted: “It is all about getting a balance.”

Mulling the impact of the pandemic from a client perspective, Mr Kergon observed that there has been a “variety of experiences” across different sectors. He pinpoints ongoing staff shortages and supply chain difficulties, including concerns that emerged last week over beer supplies running short, as hurdles on the journey to economic recovery, and expects there to be some impact on insolvencies as government support such as furlough is removed.

“The challenges for some sectors and businesses remain,” Mr Kergon said.

“Our recent economic report, that we publish in the UK, talked about… the end of government support schemes potentially coinciding with an uptick in insolvencies.

“I think businesses have been partially shielded from insolvency by that direct financial support on offer, and by some of the temporary measures relaxing insolvency procedures. Once you get to the end of the temporary regime, which is approaching… there could a significant uptick.

“The numbers that we published recently in our report talked about a peak of around 8,000 (in the UK), around the turn of the year, maybe falling back more to 4,000 a quarter next year. So undoubtedly there are some headwinds ahead.”

Asked for his thoughts on what issues need to be addressed to drive Scotland’s recovery from the pandemic, Mr Kergon said: “The first area that comes to mind, and one of the things we are hearing most about, is that skills shortage and the challenges around availability.

“Any schemes or plans that can support finding as many routes into employment for as wide a group of people as possible is key to creating that capacity growth.”

KPMG is not presently active in the insolvency sector, having recently sold off its specialist division that now trades as Interpath, and Mr Kergon declined to comment on speculation that the firm may be about to build its presence in the market again.

Auditing, however, remains a “large part” of the firm’s practice in Scotland and across the UK.

KPMG has faced some criticism in recent times over the quality of its audit work. The latest Audit Quality Inspection results, published by the Financial Reporting Council, found that KPMG’s results had not improved. The report also noted that improvements were required to be made to the firm’s auditing of banks and similar entities.

Mr Kergon said: “Cath (Burnet) has been in the press recently talking about the recent results and said that audit quality remains our number one priority, and until our AQR scores reflect that commitment to audit quality, we are not going to be happy.”

Turning specifically to Scotland, Mr Kergon said a pressing priority is supporting colleagues into that hybrid working model, noting that their well-being is at the “forefront of my mind”.

He said: “Fundamentally, that’s what brings about the great support and service of our clients, if our people are safe and well and functioning.

“Slightly beyond that, I love working in the Scottish market. Clearly, I’ve been here for this long and I think it is because I get the opportunity to work with everything from early-stage, scaling-up entrepreneurial companies through established, privately owned businesses to large global corporates, and you can touch, pretty much, every sector.

“It’s that variety through my career that has given me my passion for working here.

“I’m motivated and energised by being with those clients – meeting new businesses, listening and learning about their challenges and opportunities, and looking to bring the best of what KPMG can offer into those conversations.”

Mr Kergon added: “We have some fabulous talent in our business in Scotland, and over the last 18 months… we have promoted and recruited a number of senior people across the team, particularly within our tax and deals businesses. For me it’s about empowering and supporting them in the market.”

Six Questions

What countries have you most enjoyed travelling to, for business or leisure, and why?
Working on transactions I’ve been fortunate over the years to have travelled to some great places – I’ve really enjoyed the opportunity to see new countries – Australia, India, US and Canada probably are the first that come to mind.

When you were a child, what was your ideal job? Why did it appeal? 
At various points I think I fancied myself as a top sportsman in various disciplines – number 9 for Newcastle United! But I always enjoyed building and creating things so I for a while I wanted to be an architect or an engineer.
What was your biggest break in business?
The opportunity as a fairly newly promoted senior manager to go to San Francisco for a couple of years on a secondment as part of a UK/U.S. initiative in our Transaction Services business – some great experience that helped me progress to Director when I returned.

What was your worst moment in business?
Any competitive pitch I’ve lost – but there are probably one or two that hurt a bit more than the rest!

Who do you most admire and why?
I think a number of people in different areas of life but generally anyone that I feel takes the platform or voice that they have through their success in business or other walks of life to try and make a difference for others. Whether that’s Bill Gates with his foundation or Jamie Oliver and Marcus Rashford with their campaigns supporting school children.

What book are you reading and what music are you listening to?  
The Art of Resilience by Ross Edgely – the adventurer that swam around the British mainland.  My music roots are in my university years in Manchester with the likes of Oasis and the Stone Roses but more often now it’s some playlist suitable to motivate me through a run or a workout!  The last film I saw was Peter Rabbit 2!

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992