Shaun Kelly won’t stop smiling. Photographer Kit DeFever asks him to put on a serious face for our cover shot but Kelly, a COO of KPMG, just can’t hold it and soon the corners of his mouth are curling up again and his eyes are sparkling behind his glasses – ever the Catholic school boy failing to repress some devilish, clever thought.
Even in the most lighthearted moment, you can see the intellect at work. Anyone who knows Kelly can tell you how the kid from West Belfast grew up to be Chief Operating Officer of the Americas for one of the Big 4 accounting firms.
“Rarely have I met a man of such great intelligence and accomplishment who is still able to maintain his wonderful sense of humor,” said Tom Moran, Chairman of Mutual of America, who has served on several boards with Kelly. “His wonderful smile instantly tells you that this is someone you want as a friend!”
From the minute you enter his office in the towering skyscraper on Park Avenue, the COO projects the natural warmth and generous spirit that puts those around him at immediate ease. Add to that a quiet confidence and lyrical laugh, and you understand why he’s not just respected, but a beloved figure in the firm. “Life is too short to be taken seriously,” Kelly says, his boyhood accent undiminished by 30-plus years of travel around the globe, the most recent being a business trip to Colombia where his Spanish was only más o menos. “Every time I start a presentation I have to apologize that I don’t speak Spanish and that my English isn’t very good either,” he laughs. “But I’m determined to learn!” The good news? “Everyone smiles in the same language.”
Born in 1959, Shaun was a teenager in the 70s, a heightened time of segregation, bombings and street warfare in Belfast. Guts and a sense of humor were essential survival tools. “We were just kids trying to have fun,” he says, “but looking back it was when the Shankill Butchers [a brutal gang] roamed the streets. Our parents must have been so worried when we went out at night.”
The Troubles affected everyone. Some more than others. Shaun’s Uncle John, his father’s brother, was shot and killed by the British Army. “They said it was a mistake; they thought he was holding a gun.”
A mistake that should never have happened. But Shaun holds no rancor. In fact, his experiences growing up during the Troubles have turned him into a champion of diversity with a vision for the future of Northern Ireland as a place where everyone feels comfortable regardless of background.
The 70s was also a time of joblessness. “Eighty to ninety percent of Catholic males in certain parts of Northern Ireland were unemployed,” said Shaun, whose father worked for a big construction company. On the weekends, he would do “homers,” installing windows and doors. As the only son (Shaun had two sisters, one of whom has passed away), Shaun would accompany his father on these part time jobs.
“He was very skilled with his hands and I was a total klutz. I couldn’t do anything! I think that was part of why he brought me with him. It was his way of saying, ‘Look, this is not what you are going to be doing. You are going to get a degree and get your qualifications. You are going to do that.’ He always wanted me to be an architect because he left school when he was 16. I am sure if he had the opportunities, he would have been an engineer or an architect. But coming from the Falls Road and a family of nine, he just didn’t have the opportunity.”
Shaun’s mother was English. “They met when my father was working in England. That’s why I am S-h-a-u-n. So that was the compromise.”
Architecture didn’t tempt Shaun, who couldn’t draw, but he was interested in business. “I always loved math, history and economics. I really got into accounting – the numbers appealed to me.”
He went south to University College Dublin (UCD), rather than Belfast’s Queen’s University, because he wanted to play Gaelic football.
Sports, in particular football, offered an escape from everything that was going on during the Troubles. “It gave you a sense of camaraderie and something to look forward to,” says Shaun. He was a good enough athlete to play for the County Antrim minor team – a big deal even by today’s standards. And he is “a great believer in sports and the importance of teamwork.”
Shaun joined KPMG International’s Irish member firm in Dublin soon after graduating with a first class honors degree in commerce, and in 1983, he sat for the accountancy exam, coming first in Ireland. Within a year, he had gotten married and transferred to the KPMG San Francisco office.
He has spent most of his career at KPMG. Taking a break in the early 1990s, he returned to Belfast and was part of the team that established a new audit, tax and consulting firm in the city. But by the end of the decade he was back with the firm. Now, as COO of the Americas, he spends about 60 percent of his time traveling to meet with company leaders in Latin and South America.
A student of history, the travel allows Kelly to explore other cultures, and with 162,000 partners and professionals in 152 countries, the firm is a perfect fit for someone with a global approach to life and appreciation for how others live their lives. He’s quick to point out that the firm is more than just about finance. “We are not just a bunch of accountants,” he says of KPMG’s involvement in major world events.
“Our firm verified the first multi-racial elections in South Africa in 1994 that brought an end to apartheid. And during the Iranian hostage crisis in Tehran in 1979, Peat Marwick (precursor to KPMG) was called in to sort through an intricate web of conflicting claims and counter-claims, before the 54 U.S. hostages could be released. In New York, we were on-site at Ground Zero on the morning after 9/11 to help oversee the clean-up and monitor the costs. Working around the clock, our team quickly built a cost data capturing system to track expenses. And beyond that, the capital markets wouldn’t function without the auditor, and audited financial statements. And the stock market and the financial markets in general would not function the way they do.”
For all the financial transactions that KPMG enacts, Shaun emphasizes that it is also a big-hearted firm with tremendous public outreach across a range of programs. Through KPMG’s Family for Literacy (KFFL) program, which works to eradicate childhood illiteracy, over 2.5 million books have been given to children fromlow income communities since its inception in 2008. He himself is co-chair of KPMG’s Disabilities Network, and a member of KPMG’s Diversity Advisory Board. He is also the treasurer of Enactus, a community of student, academic and business leaders that has the backing of KPMG in transforming lives and shaping a more sustainable world.
The Irish-American community also benefits from Shaun’s largesse. Wall Street 50 honoree Tara McCabe who is a board director of the American Ireland Fund, and is involved in the Irish Arts Center – two of the several organizations that Shaun is involved with – says, “I am so impressed by Shaun – not just for his success but even more so for his character, generosity and compassion and support of meaningful causes.”
For his part, Shaun says that the arts were an essential part of his early life in Belfast. “I see beyond the arts, to how important they are in the social community context,” he says. “Growing up, I remember going to see Planxty, Christy Moore, the Undertones and other acts at the Ulster Hall and they were a welcome distraction from what was going on. And that is why I am such an avid supporter of the Irish Arts Center in New York and their capital campaign to build a new center.”
In all that he does, Belfast is never far from Shaun’s thoughts. He expresses gratitude for Bill and Hillary Clinton’s part in the peace process and their ongoing commitment to Northern Ireland. And he greatly admires former SDLP leader John Hume for his part in the undertaking. His own deep knowledge and commitment to his hometown is one of the reasons Declan Kelly, who served as Hillary Clinton’s economic envoy to Northern Ireland from 2009-11, sought his help.
“For many reasons, Shaun was one of the first guys I went to when I was putting the advisory group together,” said Kelly.
“He understands the dynamic of Northern Ireland exceptionally well given his background, and his professional expertise was incredibly helpful because the focus of my work was bringing inward investment into the region.”
Kelly went on to compliment Shaun as “someone who does the work and doesn’t ask for any of the recognition. He is interested in the outcome of the process and not just the process itself. In other words, he knows how to get the job done.”
For all his charm and talent for closing a deal, there is one notable holdout who turned Kelly down three times before finally agreeing to his offer. His wife Mary only accepted his proposal on the fourth try – when he had qualified as a Chartered Accountant and “I could afford her.” It’s clear that she’s the love of his life.
And he’s obviously the love of hers. How else could you explain the willingness to uproot and move seven times around the globe as Kelly followed his career path with KPMG? He beams too when he talks about his children. His two eldest, Rachel and Natalie, now in their 20s, were born in San Francisco. Rachel is pursuing her Ph.D. in micro and molecular biology, and Natalie works in private equity. His two youngest, Lauren and Timothy, were born in Belfast. Timothy, who is now at George Washington University, is interested in politics. He interned for the British Embassy this past summer, and is involved with the American Ireland Fund Young Leaders in Washington, D.C.
Lauren, now 24, has Down syndrome. “It gives you another perspective, and it made us closer as a family,” says Kelly, who talks about his daughter’s fierce determination. When she was young she was an avid swimmer and has always loved music. She’s one of the reasons why he’s a co-chair of KPMG’s Disabilities Network, and a supporter of Special Olympics. At the World Games in New Jersey in 2014, KPMG sponsored the Golf Tournament with hundreds of its employees volunteering to drive golf carts and help in other ways.
It’s no surprise that “inclusion” is a favorite word of Kelly’s – it comes up when he speaks of family, of work, and his worldview. The very definition of inclusion may well be the key to his personal and professional success. After all, he’d be the first to tell you he didn’t do it alone.
Who were your early influences at KPMG?
I have worked with great leaders in KPMG, including Eugene O’Kelly, Tim Flynn and John Veihmeyer, all of whom set some really great values for the firm.
Gene was the first partner I worked for when I arrived in San Francisco in 1984. I learned a lot from him about the importance of building relationships and recognizing what your own person- al unique selling point is. He helped me understand that my Irish background was a way to help distinguish myself and build relationships. He was also a great believer in investing in people. In the late 1980s when Mary and I were thinking about returning to Ireland to raise our two daughters, I was flying to Belfast from San Francisco to speak to a few people about what opportunities there might be. I had told only a few close friends that I was thinking of going home. Gene got wind of it and as I was sitting at the gate in SFO my name was paged that there was an urgent call for me. I thought it was Mary looking for me but it was Gene. He said he understood that I was considering going back home and if that was my decision he would respect it but he urged me to at least speak to him before making a final decision. He said I really needed to fully understand all of my options in the U.S. before deciding. In the end Mary and I did decide to go back, but Gene taking time to reach out was the mark of a great leader. Just before he passed away in 2005, he sent me a personal note thanking me for all that I had done when I had worked for him and to wish me well in the future. He sent similar notes to many others.
One of the things I learned from Tim Flynn was the importance of recognizing the leadership potential of your team and to have the courage to give them the opportunity to lead even when it seemed like a strange move or a stretch for them. In 2005 I was leading our Transaction Services (M&A) practice. When Tim became KPMG Chairman and CEO, succeeding Gene, he reached out to me to ask me to become the leader of our U.S. Tax practice. I had never worked in our tax practice and it was a much bigger business than the one I had been running. When I raised this with him, he outlined his rationale. He told me that I would be working with a strong tax leadership team that had great tax skills and that what I was bringing to the table was strong communication and relationship building skills and the ability to grow businesses. I was very nervous at the start, but in the end it worked and I look back with pride on what we achieved in the tax practice for the five years I had the privilege of leading it.
What I have learned from John Veihmeyer, who just finished his term as U.S. Chairman and CEO and is now Global Chairman, and who despite his name is an Irish American and a Notre Dame alum, is that the key to an organization’s success is culture. In a purpose-driven culture where the people feel inspired by their work and the opportunities ahead of them, and valued for their contributions to their team, the organization and the community at large. Last year, we invited our people to share their own stories of higher purpose in the work that they do and we received more than 40,000 stories. John always says that KPMG’s success comes from our people putting our values and purpose into action, and these stories were a true testament to his belief.”
What are some of your own personal leadership maxims?
In our business of public accounting, I think trust and integrity and being honest and telling the truth at all times, are paramount. It sounds very simple, but to always say please and thank you is important. That’s something we Irish learned at an early age from our parents and grandparents, and another was to treat people with respect and dignity.
Seeing a lot of things I saw in the 70s, you certainly understood that everybody is important no matter their background and you should treat them all equally and with respect and dignity. And in business, if in difficult times you sometimes have to let people go you have to remember they are important and they have a family and people who depend on them, so treat them with respect, and help them move on.
The other thing that is important is to take responsibility, particularly in leadership. It is good to celebrate success and take the credit for success on behalf of the team, but also take responsibility when things don’t go right, by saying, “I was in charge, that was on my watch, that was my responsibility.” So hold yourself accountable and do the same for others.
I’ve seen young leaders make the mistake of not holding others accountable. If someone is working for you and they aren‘t delivering, you have to call them out. Don’t try to brush it under the carpet or not take it head on because you don’t want to have a difficult conversation. Having those honest and difficult conversations in the right way, in the right manner, is the way to go.
What comes first, strategy or team?
I remember at UCD Business School the message was, “Set your strategy and then hire people who fit your strategy.” I’ve learned that yes, you need to have a strategy, but things change so much. Look at what I have seen in the past 15 years – the dot com bubble burst, 9/11, the financial crisis. These events happen more regularly now, but if you‘ve got the right people, smart people, they’ll figure out the right strategy. They will know when to change and how to change the course. In other words, hire the right people and the strategy will follow.
Also, I am a big believer in building strong trusting relationships both in business, internal to your own organization, and personal. No matter what we say about technology advances, having the right relationships is really important.
I still keep in touch with the people I went to UCD with. Now they are CEOs and in other important positions, and that network and those relationships are important to me. And on the personal side, I remember moving to San Francisco in 1984, having just married Mary. We knew very few people. We were learning the new environment but during that time we built strong relationships, friends that we have today over thirty years later. So, I would tell the young millennials to remember to build strong and trusting relationships; internal and external.
What are some other qualities of a good leader?
Don’t panic when things are getting tough. You have to have a sense of urgency, but don’t panic. Your team is relying on you to say, “Let’s take stock of the situation. What do we need to get done? Here are the ten things we need to address.” And you know, people do amazing things in tough situations. I saw it – especially after 9/11. The last thing the team needs [in a tough situation] is a leader running around with their hair on fire.
And then finally – as Oscar Wilde said, “Life is too important to be taken seriously.” Have fun. I think you have got to have fun with what you do. Particularly with millennials we are seeing that work is more than just getting a paycheck. It’s, “Am I enjoying what I am doing and am I working with people I enjoy? Do I feel I have value? Do I have a sense of purpose?”
You left KPMG and moved back to Belfast for a time. How did that work out?
I moved back to Belfast in the 1990s, when I joined a small firm with other KPMG guys. We actually built it up into one of the largest firms in Northern Ireland. My sister works with Belfast City Council. And when I was there, I did a lot of work with the city on economic development. I worked in corporate recovery and one of the jobs we had was that we were the receivers to the Europa Hotel in Belfast. It was bombed twice when we were the receivers.
The first time it was bombed, the head of security called me late one night and said, “Mr. Kelly, I have good news and I have bad news.” And I said, “Well, give me the good news first.” He said, “We won’t need the window cleaners for a while.”
The Europa was the most bombed hotel in the world. The government did provide some funds to help with the rebuilding, but as the hotel was in receivership, we did not know if we could access enough funding to keep it up and running. I remember that we had a meeting with the staff. There was this one guy from West Belfast. He said, “Mr. Kelly, I know you are all very smart men, but I’m telling you that this hotel was never closed and it’s not going to close now.” We did keep it open and were able to find a buyer, and the hotel is a very successful business today.
I remember having some similar discussions with people after 9/11. You can’t let [a disaster] stop you getting on with your life. Instead you say, “You bomb it – we will build it again. You keep bombing, we‘ll build it back up again.” And that resilience is what got us through the Troubles and it’s still there today.
The other thing I learned in the 1990s was that if people have an opportunity to make a living, to have education, to have homes, they tend not to be shooting at each other. So we worked closely with government and the private sector to attract investment. We worked on the Laganside Project to develop and regenerate the center of Belfast and build the Waterfront Hall and the Belfast Hilton. We worked on financing for that and helped get it established with the support of the International Fund for Ireland. And that is why the work of International Fund, and the American Ireland Fund (AIF) is so important.
When did you join the AIF?
I joined when I came to New York. I saw what the AIF were doing and I said, “Look, I have the ability now to help, because I did a lot of work with the government on investment coming into Belfast.”
I actually helped the AIF, which was really pleasing, to bring Enactus to Ireland to set it up. KPMG has been a big supporter of Enactus [the non-profit that works with students and business leaders to transform lives through entrepreneurship], for many years and I am the secretary treasurer. UCD won the Irish competition last year, which was great. And there is an Enactus team at Queen’s [university] in Belfast.
Also, KPMG has been a strong participant in the U.S.– Northern Ireland Mentorship Program that Declan Kelly started with the American Ireland Fund. We are in the process of hiring our fifth mentee in the U.S. And one of our mentees just joined KPMG in Dublin. The other thing we have done with Queen’s, through the City Scholars Program, is take students at the end of their first year and give them three weeks experience with our firm. Part of the reason why I am very supportive of that is because I think Queen’s has a big role to play [in the future of Northern Ireland]. Back in the 70s, Queen’s was non-sectarian and encouraged enrollment from Catholics and Protestants. And I think what they are doing today, and what [University President] Paddy Johnson is doing with the cancer research and his vision for Queen’s is very important for Northern Ireland. We are great supporters of the university, and the caliber of the students who come over is just outstanding.
You recently were in Belfast to receive an honorary degree from Queen’s. How was it to be honored on your home turf?
It was amazing. I spoke at the graduation of three distinct groups: The School of Education, The School of Modern Languages, and St. Mary’s University College in the Falls Road, and a lot of those students actually graduated in Irish [language]. Many of their parents there were contemporaries of mine, and it was great seeing them all again.
The experience also reinforced where Northern Ireland is at now. It still has a way to go but we are moving forward. We are starting to see the vision of what the new Northern Ireland is going to be like, and that vision is of a more open society. My younger nieces and nephews get a little bit tired when we start saying, “Oh, remember how it was like in the 70s? It was terrible!” But I think to move forward, you have to remember the past because you don’t want to make the same mistakes.
Seamus Heaney is someone you admire – are you moved by his poetry or is it his life story and NI connection?
It is his poetry but probably also because of his life story and NI connection. How he reflected NI life both rural and urban and the impact of the Troubles. Having a Nobel Prize winner from NI is a great inspiration to us all that we should have the confidence that we can achieve great things even being from such a small place. I had the honor of meeting him several times and what impressed me was how humble and open he was. We had great conversations on many topics including Gaelic football and the financial markets. I was also impressed that he was not only highly admired by critics and academics but also by the broader public. My wife is big fan of his too!
John Hume (former Social Democratic Labor Party leader) is one of your heroes. Why?
First of all, he was part of the first generation in Northern Ireland to have access to free public education, and coming from the Bogside and achieving all that he did, he was always focused on giving back to the community. He helped establish the first credit union in Northern Ireland. He also was such an influential figure in the peace process from the early days of civil rights marches to the Good Friday Agreement. Inspired by Martin Luther King, Jr. he was a strong proponent of nonviolent protest. His courage in initiating private talks with Gerry Adams was a pivotal marker on the road to peace. And again, he’s another Nobel Peace Prize winner.
In addition to its other good works, KPMG is also shining a spotlight on women.
Yes. This year KPMG developed a one-of-kind multifaceted program called the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship. As the first partnership between the LPGA Tour, PGA of America, and KPMG, we wanted to further demonstrate KPMG’s commitment to the development, advancement, and empowerment of women. The Championship is not only a world-class women’s golf tournament, but a women’s leadership summit held on site during the week of the tournament and an ongoing community initiative focused on developing the next generation of female leaders. The Summit provides content, tools and networking to encourage women’s advancement to an advisory council comprised of exemplary leaders from across business, sports, and the media help guide it. Our goal is to help more women move into the C-suite.
What do you love about golf?
Many things! I was introduced to it by my father- in-law who was a longtime member of North West Golf Club outside Buncrana in Donegal. I find it such a great stress reliever – most of the time! I like the challenge, it is not a game of perfect shots, it’s a great test of your character and patience. It is also a great way to build relationships and friendships. I have a group of friends and we have been going to play in the British Isles for a week every year for almost 20 years. I particularly love playing the great links courses of Ireland. My favorite is Ballyliffin in Donegal where I am a member, but there are many other great courses particularly in the North, Royal Portrush Royal County Down, Portstewart, and many more. It has also given me the opportunity to spend time with my son Timothy. He likes to play and it’s a great way to spend 4-5 hours together. It is getting harder now as he is away at college. Like most fathers and sons who play golf together, we do not say a lot on the course but it is great quality time.
A last word about Belfast.
There’s a lot of pride. Belfast played a key role in the post-industrial revolution. John Dunlop developed his pneumatic tire there. The first air-conditioned public building in the world was the Royal Victoria Hospital. The Titanic was the largest man-made object ever to take to the seas – and in addition to shipbuilding you had the linen industry. Belfast was like the Silicon Valley of its day. Its [success] was based on entrepreneurship, and I see that coming back. When I attended the American Ireland Fund conference last year in Belfast, I met some of these young entrepreneurs. You’ve got young guys and gals in Belfast going, “I am a founder and CEO of such and such. I want to build my headquarters here.” And that sounds so “can do.” You have great U.S. companies such as Citi, Allstate, Liberty Mutual and NYSE Technologies. It is really exciting seeing that. I think sometimes we undersell entrepreneurship in Ireland. It is a bit like we undersell ourselves. That entrepreneurial spirit – and it goes way back into the industrial revolution – is still very much alive. ♦