Profile: Alan Buckle – Blending youth and enthusiasm at KPMG

Alan Buckle, KPMG Consulting UK’s chief operating officer, has a right to celebrate. Partly because the Canadian practice is still in the Americas fold, partly because plans for globalisation are progressing nicely, but mainly because he turns 40 this month.

Whether Buckle will have time to mark his personal milestone is questionable for he has just taken on extra duties. “My role for the coming months, for as long as it takes, is to manage the integration of the four main national practices in Europe – the UK, Germany, France and the Netherlands – and to work with the smaller countries in Europe to prepare them for integration, while keeping hold of the reins in the UK,” he says. “So I am focused 50 percent on the UK now and 50 percent on Europe. I am trying to do two jobs. That’s just part of life if you want to move forward very fast.

People have got to be able to combine roles and be very flexible and take a lot of strain on the way through.”

Moving forward fast is something Buckle has done throughout his 17-year career with KPMG. He joined the firm’s audit side back in 1981, moved on to corporate finance, and then back to audit to head up a property and asset finance department in 1989. By 1991 he had taken over responsibility for training in the UK firm, in 1992 headed up audit research and development, became a partner in 1993 and head of financial management consulting in 1996. He put on the COO hat last year.

Clearly his youth has not held him back. “In many ways we are a very young organisation,” he says. “In our senior team there are a good spread of ages. You need some wisdom and experience in the place. You also need some younger people to balance that off. We have a good range. This is not a time-served culture. You can come up as fast as you like. The organisation is very comfortable with that. We have got people on our board in their mid-30s. In most of these types of organisations they would (generally) be in their 50s.”

Buckle is impressively relaxed for a man with so much on his plate. Perhaps this has something to do with the happy ending that followed the drama of March and April when, for a short while, it seemed that Arthur Andersen had poached KPMG’s whole Canadian practice. “It came as a bit of a shock,” says Buckle. “But I guess the sense in which it was unsurprising was that we are moving extremely quickly; we are changing the shape of the organisation very fast and therefore that’s going to be threatening to some people who don’t want to move quickly, who don’t want to be right up in the first tier.” Happily for Buckle and his colleagues, the Andersen deal came unstuck when the KPMG Canadian partners would not support it, their resolve no doubt stiffened by KPMG’s promise of a substantial injection of funds into their pension fund.

Nevertheless, the initial scare was unpleasant. Buckle claims he was particularly surprised because the firm had been on the brink of announcing the merger of the Americas practice, alongside the integration in Europe, to create two regions within the global firm. “We had been working on plans to integrate globally for about the last 12 months,” he says. “We have made huge progress already, particularly in remodelling the national practices. You shouldn’t underestimate how global we are. We have a single vision and direction and a single practice model; we have leadership in place for Europe which mirrors the leadership in the US; we have very strong working relations, very strong cross referrals; all the fee-sharing financial arrangements and shared methodologies. This (new move) is about removing internal structural barriers and strengthening internal processes to make what is already a strong networked organisation fully integrated. What we are doing here is getting rid of any remaining financial, structural or reporting barriers, so we can work very effectively every time.”

Buckle is passionate about the firm’s potential. “When you get the best of this organisation in front of a client it is unbelievably powerful,” he says. “We are trying to get (to the point that) when an opportunity surfaces we can very quickly get the best people in front of the client. Our ability to mobilise 12 months ago was nothing like how it should be. Today I feel we are doing that probably as well as anybody.” This ability will be vital in the developing marketplace, Buckle says, explaining that the impact of technology on industry is only now really starting to hit home. “Until now technology has been something that enabled you to do things,” he says. “It’s now becoming something that will kill you if you don’t change. There are a number of businesses which won’t be here (in future), if they don’t address what technology is going to do to them.” He points to retail financial services, and in fact, anything involving retail. “You need the ability to step back and understand how technology is going to drive and destroy businesses, change them and the whole shape of commerce,” he says. Successful organisations will be those that respond and adapt to these changes, that almost reinvent themselves. “To build the underlying processes that enable you to do that, to take your people with you, effectively to build new organisations – that’s a massive challenge,” says Buckle.

But technology isn’t the only driver for change: “You also have the European dimension – consolidation in Europe. There is a huge piece of work to do, integrating Europe.” Retail financial services in Europe, for example, are highly fragmented. “That’s clearly going to disappear as price transparency comes in. Again, bringing organisations together while managing the business, taking people with you and building a business where you can manage diverse groups with different backgrounds, different national cultures, is a huge challenge.”

As clients face these challenges, so must the advisers. “It means you have to have the ability to be able to bring together different solutions, different parts of the organisation, people who can work through those issues with the clients,” says Buckle. “That’s why scale is going to be important, why global integration is going to be important and also why the right values and culture within the organisation are going to be important. Tackling those types of problems with the client means bringing together very quickly people from different countries, with different types of expertise but who work in consistent ways, bringing together some real leading edge technicians, some really inspirational thinking strategists with some real process-driven operational people in the middle. We believe you can only do that if you have the right processes, sure. But the key is getting the right atmosphere, the right environment, the right values in the organisation.”

Buckle says KPMG spends a lot of time on creating and maintaining the right values, those that enable the firm to achieve its goals, that create an environment where “people do want to work together, they do want to learn new things, they do want to develop themselves, and they are comfortable letting go of things from the past”. The cultural emphasis isn’t just “fluffy”, but is driven, Buckle emphasises, by business issues. “It’s about the whole organisation being passionate about adding value to clients rather than being internally preoccupied,” he says. “It’s about the whole organisation really meaning that they care about people and about the way they relate to those people, the way they support them, the way they praise what they do, whether they encourage them. It’s about the whole organisation being very open about their own personal knowledge and trusting the organisation. If they commit all of their knowledge to the organisation they will get far more back in return. If you do those things, then frankly you make a hell of a lot more money than you do if you don’t.” KPMG is using its performance measurement system to encourage such mutually beneficial, profit-generating behaviour. “In their annual appraisal people will be rewarded specifically for doing the right behavioural things, as well as for delivering the hard performance measures,” says Buckle.

KPMG’s man is confident that by improving integration, removing internal barriers and rewarding the right behaviours the firm can continue to grow. “We grew about 51 percent in the UK last year, and about the same the year before. We are growing probably between 45-50 percent this year. There is a bit of uncertainty towards the end of this year and the start of next, until people get through the year 2000, but I don’t really see us slowing down at the moment.”

Hence KPMG’s massive recruitment drive, with a target to bring in around 700 people this year alone. The firm’s campaign uses a black and white photo of an athlete crossing a finishing line, arms outstretched, with that indefinable look of joy and fulfilment. The words “know how it feels” suggest that this is a sensation KPMG consultants can also experience. During the interview Buckle sits with the photo on the wall behind him. Outside a larger version was cruising up and down the Thames on a boat, no doubt annoying the firm’s riverside rivals. Given the stormy weather, Buckle was hoping it wouldn’t sink.

His ability to see the humorous side of a situation is a quality successful candidates should also have. One thing KPMG learnt from its failed merger talks with Ernst & Young was that its people like to make their work enjoyable. “I think E&Y was a more serious organisation at a personal level,” says Buckle. “We got the impression it was just much more fun being in KPMG.” He doesn’t like the thought that outsiders have an image of the firm as somewhat dull and staid. “People here who take themselves too seriously quickly get pulled back,” he says. “We do like to really enjoy what we do. Having serious business meetings here tends to be a hell of a lot of fun. We tend to spend a lot of time doing what we do, so if it’s not fun, we wouldn’t do it.”

This doesn’t mean, of course, that Buckle means to undersell the serious value of the KPMG badge. “One of my current irritations with the organisation is its modesty,” he says. “It’s good we have people who don’t take themselves too seriously. But the danger is that you go from that to not taking the organisation as seriously as you should and appreciating how strong it is.” He appreciates the firm’s strengths, and how they can be maximised through successful integration in Europe and the Americas. He says: “If we can keep our flexibility, our diversity, our entrepreneurship, our feel for national culture and what works where in the world while being very up front and forceful in the marketplace, and very well-ordered internally – then we have a magic combination.”

Achieving that well-ordered internal structure in Europe will be a major part of Buckle’s life in the coming months as the integration drive proceeds. But after that, what next for him? “Who knows?,” he says. “I think it is a big mistake to plan your career because life never turns out the way you think it’s going to. I have been here for 17 years. Everything I have done has been great. The KPMG now isn’t the KPMG we had then. The KPMG we will have in 17 months’ time won’t be the one we have now.”

Sarah Perrin is a freelance journalist.

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