Profile: Ian Powell, chairman of PwC

Iconic. That’s what Ian Powell, the new chairman of
PricewaterhouseCoopers, wants
the firm to be. Iconic. That’s where you go when you are already the biggest,
considered number one and looking for a purpose.

But when Powell speaks about this, he does so in terms we might not be used
to from an accountant. ‘We are already number one in our market place and what
do you aspire to above and beyond?’ he says. ‘It is not enough to just say we
want to stay as number one or we want to continue to develop our business.

‘You need some emotion and some passion. The position of number one gives you
a unique opportunity to do something really different. One of our aspirations is
that we really want to build PwC up to an iconic business, a business that
stands apart from its competitors.’

Emotion, passion and aspirations to iconic status. It’s only when I read the
notes back of our interview do these phrases leap out of my notebook. Who would
have guessed that the head of the country’s biggest most successful accountancy
firm would refer to building the future of the firm with language like that.
Most go for management speak like restructuring, strategic shifts, more
integration, developing new service lines. For Powell, however, there’s clearly
something else going on.

But how on earth do you measure your success as a business icon? How do you
know when you’ve become the finance world’s answer to Coca Cola?

‘It is by being top of mind in any situation whether it is with government,
with clients, with people that we recruit. And that, if I said to you in a few
years time, name the top professional services organisation in the world it
would be without even thinking. We would be so over par from the rest of the
marketplace, we would be completely the logical and iconic choice for any

So it’s world domination? ‘It’s not domination,’ says Powell. ‘Its not
domination because we all recognise that there is intense competition in
everything that we do.

But I think you have to have an emotional aspiration when you are already a
market leader that takes you away from the pack.’

Emotion again. It’s no surprise though. Powell is speaking in his Embankment
Place office with its view over the Hungerford Bridge, the Thames, the South
Bank, the London Eye, up to Westminster and down river to the City. It must be
one of the best views in London and, at the risk of over-egging this
description, not short on inspiration.

It’s a good place to contemplate world domination. Though, of course, it’s
not about domination, as we’ve heard.

Powell has been in the job for just a few weeks when he gives this interview,
after winning the support in a poll of the firm’s 800 odd partners overseen by
the Electoral Reform Society. He speaks with obvious enthusiasm in a faint
Lancashire accent and frankly looks pretty fit. The talk of ‘emotion’, the
accent and a history of working in the regions probably makes Powell the least
establishment-like figure the firm could
have picked.

On the history front Powell has run business recovery and advisory, and
worked in Birmingham, Manchester and London. ‘I thought that gave me a really
good perspective of the way that the whole firm worked, rather than purely just
coming from a London background,’ he says.

Powell revealed his aim for PwC to reach iconic status when asked what he
thought swung the chairman’s election for him. It must have gone down well.

‘The reason for being iconic is to make sure your clients feel that they have
got a depth in a relationship with you that goes beyond the normal business
relationship, that there is a much deeper attachment and that is the same with
our people.’

Ironically, Powell goes on to say he ‘hates’ mission statements, because they
are so broad. But he does believe PwC needs a ‘vision’.

And you get the feeling that he needs that because the one way he doesn’t
want to run PwC is looking over his shoulder to see who’s coming up on the
rails. You can’t run a big organisation by looking backwards.

It is deeply intriguing, because he takes over at a time when Deloitte is now
a serious challenger for the title of Britain’s biggest firm and the economy is
not looking exactly benevolent. No matter. Powell seems neither phased by the
economic risk to the business, or the risk of being overtaken by Deloitte.

‘You can’t worry about the economy, the exchange rate, interest rates or
inflation ­ you are not going to be able to impact them. What you should do is
put your business in such fantastic shape that, regardless, you take advantage
of the opportunities that come your way. And I think we are in really good shape
as a business to meet those challenges.’

And Deloitte? The firm’s chairman John Connolly recently said the firm may
have already overtaken its competitors, at least in terms of reputation.

Powell, as you might expect, is unconvinced. ‘There are a lot of comments
that are pretty easy to say and pretty difficult to prove. If you look at the
relationships that we have with our clients, the competitive nature of the
marketplace and the wins that we have in that marketplace, it would be wrong of
anybody to say anybody had overhauled anybody else in terms of reputation.

‘What we want to do is we want to keep focused on providing a brilliant
client service and a brilliant experience.

‘We would never accept that we would be overhauled, to be honest. Again it is
in our own hands and it is up to us to keep our focus on our clients and not
worry about what people say in the competition.’

The credit crunch, Powell believes, will offer opportunities in financial
services, but mostly it is a time to ‘get really close to your clients and work
really closely with your clients to help them through difficult times.’

There is, he says, no risk of complacency. ‘Someone said the art of real
leadership is, instead of cajoling and pushing an organisation, you feel like
you have got the reins and it is dragging you along. And that is what you feel
inside PwC. There are so many things and ideas coming up all over the place and
our people are so well motivated to try those ideas out. The real danger is that
you go off on all fronts, you really need to keep focused.’

A resurrected consulting business, plus investment in advisory and advice on
sustainability, are the strategic areas Powell believes will see PwC through the

PwC grew 6% last year to take the firm to £2.1bn turnover. The very pertinent
question of whether the firm will match that or do better is not one Powell will
engage with right now. But is he confident?

‘Yes, I am actually,’ he says, sounding like he has surprised himself. Things
are difficult to call, and some parts of the firm are definitely suffering. He
adds: ‘When you look right the way across our business, there are parts of our
business that we would have expected to probably go a bit quieter, like
corporate finance, which have actually stood up pretty well.’

He adds a dash of reality. ‘It’s really quite difficult to call right the way
across the piece but generally, the feeling is that things are going to get
pretty tough going forward.’

Equal opportunities

Ian Powell reveals that he is acutely aware of the firm’s lack of diversity
at the top. His new board lacks any women.

‘When I was elected I spent about a month really getting to know some of the
people from different parts of the organisation. There were around 40 partners
regarded as leaders of the future and high flyers and I was vexed if you like,
about diversity on the board.

‘But I decided the right thing to do was put the best person for the job, so
that’s what I’ve done. What I want to do is also make sure that we put in a
succession plan and develop that plan to make sure diversity is represented
right the way through the organisation so that in future, when you look again at
the executive board, you have a much more diverse population to choose from.’

How long before a woman heads PwC? ‘That’s a great question,’ he says. ‘It is
the job of the existing heads of organisations like ours to make sure all
candidates get the best opportunity for the future and it would be a great
statement to make sure that, maybe not the next head, but at some point in the
not too distant future that these organisations are headed by people from a
diverse background. And I don’t mean diverse based purely on gender.’

And he stresses PwC does have talent from minority groups that could well
lead the firm in the future.

Does leadership change you?

‘I did wonder, once the initial euphoria of winning the election was over, do
you suddenly have that sort of wake-up moment? But I don’t feel that at all. I
feel equipped to do the job and I’ve really enjoyed it. The other great thing
that helps is the level of goodwill from the partners and team as a whole. Over
the first weekend I got something like 600 emails wishing me well and
congratulations and I replied to every single one of them.

‘I think in leadership it’s this idea of being authentic. You can’t say one
thing and do another. So if you say you are going to be visible and accessible
and communicative you have to be. Though I must admit at number 150, I started
to think, is this the smartest thing I’ve ever done?’

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