Attrus’s Joanne Stuart: Don’t wait for permission to get involved…

Joanne Stuart of Attrus

Gary: So, Joanne, your career so far?

Joanne: Well…I started off in accountancy. After school, I’d no idea what I wanted to do, but I knew I loved maths, so…I decided that accounts might be a good start! I started working for an accountancy firm in Belfast and then I joined Gamble-Simms-Steel. Then I moved on to Prentice, The Motor People in Portadown, and became the Group Accountant for the Mercedes dealerships run by Albert Prentice.

While I was there, part of my role was to implement a computer system for finance and stock management. I really enjoyed doing that and so I decided to go and work in the IT industry and was fortunate to get a role working for the company that had provided the application we’d implemented in Prentices. So I moved over to work for Nixdorf – which became Siemens-Nixdorf – in Manchester.

After a number of years there, I could see that IT was definitely for me and I didn’t want to go back to accounts. I moved on to McKeown Software, based in Stevenage, which took me into sales and pre-sales and was very much about working with the customer to understand their requirements, designing and demonstrating the solutions, , and then, once the contract was signed, working with the implementation team.

I then really wanted to work for a more global company and the opportunity arose to work for The Oracle Corporation. So I started off based in Reading and managed the pre-sales function. I spent the next ten years at Oracle, working in different areas. I eventually moved into the company’s partner operations.

At that stage we didn’t have a very good reputation with partners throughout the UK, because we had no defined strategy, no real terms of engagement, so…I took over this role for the public sector in the UK. This was in the late 90s. I put in place our strategy for partnering for the public sector in the UK, Defining our plan for the various types of partners and how we would engage and support partners through the sales process.

I was fortunate to be on Oracle’s fast track programme and there were a lot of personal development programmes – which was great. And through that I studied for an executive MBA, I had coaching…and then I got the opportunity to go to Dublin and run the tele-sales organization, Oracle Direct for UK, Ireland and South Africa.

Gary: So, did you ever get to meet Larry Ellison?

Joanne: I got to meet him once! At that stage there were over 50,000 people working for Oracle! We had a big presence in Dublin,and Oracle Direct in Dublin covered the whole of Europe. That really opened my eyes to how you use technology to sell. But the challenge for me was taking over in 2001, just as the dot com bubble burst! I took over an organization that was used to the phones ringing all the time to suddenly no demand for technology. So the challenge was – how do we generate demand? We had to find and create the demand. We had to add value to the sales process. One of the things I was responsible for was using e-tools to sell – webinars and so on. And then having to think about how you sell application software online. A really interesting and exciting time.

But moving to Dublin, having been away from home for about 16 years, really made me think about home again. Suddenly I’m a couple of hours from home, but not quite home. But fortunately Oracle was thinking about opening an office in Belfast, so I was able to work with the team to open the office, which we did in 2005.

When I got home, I joined the Institute of Directors. I really had to re-establish myself in Northern Ireland. The place had completely changed – with everything that was happening at Stormont…the whole scene had changed. So I started working with the IOD and Momentum. And at the end of 2006 I decided to leave Oracle and start up my own company Attrus Limited. I wanted some more flexibility to do different things. When I came back to Northern Ireland, I saw all the great things that were happening here and I wanted to be part of that.

Gary: At this stage in your career, you’ve done just about everything you can in the IT industry, you been involved in the technical side of things, on the management side, HR – you’ve got this fantastic CV – and now you want to do something different. What was behind that?

Joanne: When I came back, it struck me that the skills that I had developed would have been difficult to develop in Northern Ireland. For example, I’d spent a long time working on partnering within Oracle and when I came back I didn’t think at that point we’d developed the skills of partnering and collaboration. And also, the access I’d had to professional development, which is difficult to access unless you’re working for a large multi-national organization. So I felt there were skills I’d developed that would be adaptable across different sectors, not just technology. Also, in setting up the Oracle office here, I had learnt to navigate Northern Ireland so when I initially went out on my own, I was able to help some other companies which wanted to establish a presence here.

I suppose I had worked in technology for quite a long time, and I wanted to challenge myself in different ways.

Gary: So tell us a bit about the last three years that you’ve been chair of the IOD.

Joanne: Yes, I took over this in 2008, which was a complete surprise when I was asked to do it. But a huge honour. And it’s been an amazing experience and it gave me a much better understanding of the great work that is going on here. But business here needs to be smarter about how it lobbies. The challenge is that we’re busy running our businesses and, especially in a time of recession, there isn’t time for anything else. And therefore we can lose out sometimes on the lobbying front. And so to be able to provide a voice for business was an important role. And part of what I wanted to do was try and engage better with the media. Fortunately for me, this was something I enjoyed and I think being a woman was a real advantage – because most people commenting on business were male and the media always likes a different voice. So hopefully I’ve been able to utilize that to make sure business is heard.

And then, being able to work with the likes of Declan Kelly, the US economic Envoy – I was part of that working group and I’ve been chairing the US-NI Mentorship Programme, and also being involved, controversially, with the review of student fees, which was  something completely different for me. It was as a result of my IOD chairmanship that I was asked to do that. So it’s enabled me to get involved in areas that I wouldn’t even have known about.

Gary: You mention, Joanne, the advantage of a woman’s voice in PR – how has being a woman in business in Northern Ireland been? The IT industry here is very male dominated, and business in general too – so how has it been, coming back here and being a successful woman?

Joanne: At the time when I left, I had the impression that I should be happy with my lot and not keep striving for better opportunities. When I was working, e.g. as group accountant, if the receptionist was off or a letter was needed, it came to me, it didn’t go to any of the other managers. And I was the only director who drove a Peugeot rather than a Mercedes! It was little things like that…but I remember going to England and it was completely different. There I was working in a male environment, and you were seen for what you contribute…but also, I suppose, I’m not backwards about coming forward, as they say.

Oracle were very good with regards to giving opportunities to women, about promoting women equally with men based on ability. And when I was on the UK Senior Management board, there were four of us who were women…so coming back here, I was used to having my voice heard, and I haven’t found any issues…but I do know, that for some women, it can be quite a hostile environment. And I think that successful business women have a responsibility to help women into those environments. I remember the first few events I went to when I came back – you know, it was predominantly male, and you have to have a certain confidence, just to be able to go in and hold your own. In the IoD we have an annual  Women’s Leadership conference, we’ve worked with Women in Business, all helping women to have more confidence going into those environments. And, if you look at the IOD dinner, the first dinner I went to, there weren’t that many women, whereas the last dinner – nearly half were women.

So things are changing, and women are starting to take their professional development much more seriously.

Gary: What’s the situation in schools and colleges – do fewer girls and young women study STEM subjects than boys and young men?

Joanne: the difficulty comes as you go up the STEM artery for education. I’m a director of Sentinus, and they deliver programmes on STEM into schools. And when you look at their statistics, it’s 50-50. There are just as many girls as boys who take part in the programmes. Where the difficulty comes is when you get to 14 – that’s when you start to see a drop off of girls. And then a further drop off at A level and a further drop off when they go into degrees. So we need to keep that motivation around STEM and this is about identifying role models within all STEM-related industries. To show that there are women who are successful in these areas. And we have really good examples. But I don’t think we’re getting that message out enough. And it’s not just with the girls, it’s with the parents as well. We have to ensure there is much more understanding and excitement around those companies which require the STEM skills. Because that’s the growing sector in our economy, so if we want to grow towards a much more knowledge based economy, then it’s these skills that are important.

Women in Technology and Science is a group that is very active in the South and  is now looking to establish itself in the North, and…we also need to look at women returners. But the issue is very much around A levels and degrees – how do we encourage more women to take those routes and show them there are the opportunities there.

I don’t think there’s any issue for women being selected for these roles…I was talking to large employers this morning and for every 20 places, there are 1 or 2 women applying, so the problem is, getting more women to the point where they are applying. And that comes back, again, to A level and degree choices. And that’s where business has to engage. And that’s why the STEM initiatives are so important.

Gary: Let me move on to something else that I know is important to you, and that’s the whole issue of corporation tax reduction in Northern Ireland. You’re very much in favour of a big reduction – tell us why we should be doing this.

Joanne: The objective is, we’ve got to re-balance our economy. The arguments are well accepted on this. But this means growing the private sector. So the question is – how do we do that? You’re going to do that through increasing exports, indigenous companies finding new markets and exporting, but also through foreign direct investment. All of this together will create a balanced economy.

At the  moment we’re very much grant focussed and part of the problem is that to get the grant to fuel your growth you’ve got to do it in certain ways – you’ve got to be able to tick certain boxes. But that may not necessarily be the best way to run your business. So when you look at corporation tax, what it does is provide more profit for investment, rather than grants. Businesses can do the things that are right for them to grow . Therefore corporation tax is a way of businesses having more profits that they can invest in the way they need to invest in, not the ways dictated by government defined criteria, in order to get grants.

Also, we’ve got to be more competitive. We’re competing on a global stage. And being competitive from a cost perspective is not a sustainable model. There will always be some region in the world that will pop up with lower labour costs, office costs, energy costs…so for us to sustain a low cost base, is very difficult.  We have to  look to something more sustainable. And here you’re looking at a competitive tax package and corporation tax is one of the key elements.

Also we have a land border with the South, which has a lower rate of corporation tax. So, although, I agree, it’s not the number one decision maker for FDI companies – they’ll be looking at skills, location, transportation routes – and although we have some advantages over the South, companies do include corporation tax in their decision making. And it can be a difficult one for us to overcome. There is the question of being able to win those investments that are based on profit and not around cost.

And if you look at the South, corporation tax has certainly been a key enabler for FDI. They’re the only region that is growing its economy – take away the fiscal issues – but their underlying exports are growing year on year and through the recession they’ve continued to grow. And 75% of their exports are through FDI owned companies. So if we’re going to do anything, we have to improve our Foreign Direct Investment, because those companies need a local supply chain, and so your local companies can be part of that. Also you start to see more start-ups. Once you get companies in, you start to see spin-outs. So there’s a lot of benefits.

And also FDI can  help you to drive forward your technology base, because they have access to more technology and you can start to develop your skills base. So there’s a transfer of skills as well. There are great benefits to FDI, although it is mobile, and if you get companies like Citigroup, Allstate, Bombardier, then they get to a position with the skills that they have here, where it’s difficult for them to move on. And that’s what we want – for them to get ingrained. But even for those companies that may come in for 5-10 years, there is still the ability to gain a lot from that.

We’ve been tweaking around the edges of our economy, we’ve had multiple strategies, and we really haven’t made any significant change…so we’ve got to do something different. And corporation tax…it helps us change the culture. We’ve got to be more prepared to talk about profit as something good rather than bad. This is not about money going to fat cats, this is about companies being able to invest their money in a way that will enable their business to grow. So this whole argument around fat cats is just a distraction.

There are, or course some implementation issues – how is it going to be managed. I don’t think displacement from the UK is a major issue. I don’t think there’s anything insurmountable. But, yes, there are still some details to be worked out.

Gary: So is the argument being won, do you think?

Joanne: I think so. There are still some dissenting voices, but we do have the Treasury consultation at the moment which closes on 24th June [now extended to 1st July], and it’s important that business tell the Chancellor that they think this is going to be of benefit to them. And even small business which will get indirect benefit and jobs through larger companies growing and needing more from their local supply chain. And also – the larger the private sector we have, the better the opportunities for sponsoring the arts, sports and supporting our communities. I think that there are more people outside of business who are starting to see the advantages.

But  there still are some concerns. But that’s the next stage of the process. Once the Treasury sees from the consultation that there is the appetite for this, then we have to decide how it’s going to be implemented. And then Europe – we believe that there are no issues with us meeting the Azores ruling – but Europe will have to do a full review and we need that so there are no legal challenges from any other regions across Europe.

On balance I think the argument is being won. Yes, there are concerns – costs, obviously, are an issue but our perspective is that you’ve got to see this as an investment. We’re saying that this investment will create more jobs which, of course, will help society as a whole. Yes, there is an element of risk, but we do need to grow our private sector and there is no Plan B.

But it isn’t in isolation, It’s not the only thing – once we get corporation tax, then you’ve got to make sure we’ve got the right skills, that we’ve got the right infrastructure, transportation routes… so we’ve got to have the business framework in place. Just by cutting corporation tax and doing nothing else, is not going to achieve the goal of growing the private sector. So it has to be seen as one element of a whole strategy.

Gary: As you’ve come back to Northern Ireland and you’ve got a good view across the whole business landscape, do you see business leadership, and where do you see that?

Joanne: I think there is a lot of business leadership – but I don’t think it’s necessarily recognized. I’m a director of the Science Park and when I look at their Connect programme, driven by Steve Orr – who’s an amazing person – what we’re developing there is a community led model. It’s about getting business people involved. And there are a lot of people putting in a lot of time to mentor, give support, to start-up companies, whether it’s speaking at events or the angel investments network…so a lot of business people are doing a lot of good things. And then there’s the work in helping to define policy and strategy. The main business organizations are putting in huge amounts of time…it’s all volunteers, who feel so strongly that we’ve got to get things right in Northern Ireland and are prepared to put that time in. And then the voluntary organizations, charity organizations, government groups, where businesses are contributing because they do believe it’s their responsibility to get involved. Look at the Green New Deal – that’s a coalition of business and voluntary and environmental groups.

So I think there’s a lot of leadership in Northern Ireland. The challenge we’ve got is opening up some of those networks to the wider business community, to give more great people the opportunity to get involved. Part of our issue in NI is that we have the tendency to wait for permission to get involved…we don’t need that. We have to help people to get over that. We need everybody to help us move forward.

And the other thing we’re not great at is recognizing success in business. A lot of our success stories are outside Northern Ireland. So we have to get better at managing our diaspora. And also shouting about it – often we focus on what we’re not doing, rather than talking about what we are doing and doing well. There are some really good stories out there which can give the rest of the business community confidence. There are examples, actually, across every single industry.

Financing growth is another area we need to get better at – upwards of 80% of financing business is through the banks. That’s not sustainable as we move forward. But there are lots of good examples of companies who are financing their growth through private investment or in the case of  First Derivatives and Andor, who’ve gone public. How do we take their learning and encourage other businesses to consider alternative sources of finance?

Gary: So what are the characteristics of someone who is showing business leadership?

Joanne: The ability to think outside your own business. Being prepared to share your learning with others. To be more collaborative. Also someone who understands that driving forward the NI economy will benefit all businesses and the whole of society. And that’s why you find a lot of people involved in skills development – although I think we need to get a lot more SMEs involved. We have a lot of work to do to improve how weshare best practice.

Communication is such a big thing – we’re so small, and yet at times it can be difficult to make sure everyone has access to the right information and making the right connections.

Gary: Fantastic – thanks, Joanne.


About Gary Burnett

Fabrio's Gary Burnett has many years experience in the ICT industry, working in Ireland, the UK, Europe, India and the US. He helps technology companies change and grow.
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