It’s long been said that auditors are people who found accountancy too exciting, so it’s refreshing to spend time in the effervescent presence of Pauline Biddle.
As she enthuses with passion about every conceivable topic on the corporate landscape, you immediately sense why she’s made such an impact on the Big Four firm she joined barely a dozen years ago.
Pauline first became involved in audit work for aerospace companies in the late-90s, and her expertise with FT-SE 100 and 250 clients later helped propel her to the head of Deloitte’s aerospace and defence industry group.
It was serendipity rather than strategy, but her interest in the sector was also to suit her perfectly for her present leadership role in the Midlands, given that the region is home to one of the world’s largest aerospace clusters.
“I led our team from 2009 to 2013, often in close collaboration with our colleagues in the US,” recalls Pauline. “Aerospace is a very sophisticated and complex sector, which makes it interesting at so many levels.
“You’ve got the global OEMs, such as Rolls-Royce and BAE Systems, then their huge supply chains, and also the heritage aspect, which we saw highlighted recently with the 70th anniversary of VE-Day.
“The scale and importance of aerospace means there’s always a political backdrop, whether it’s in the commercial or military sectors, so it’ll be interesting to see if there’s another Strategic Defence Review now Michael Fallon is back at the MoD.”
It’s a little unfair to ask Pauline to select just one highlight from her time in aerospace, but she cites helping to advise VT Group before it accepted Babcock International’s £1.3 billion offer in 2010.
“It’s been intriguing to see many UK-based clients adopting ‘buy and build’ strategies in the US, so it’ll be interesting to see how they progress. I suspect we’ll also see the trend for diversification continue, as companies from an aerospace background look to different sectors, such as cyber-security,” she says.
“I still enjoy going to Farnborough, just to look at the scale and capabilities of our aerospace industry. I don’t think we always appreciate the wealth and employment it generates for our economy, or that it really is a world leader in advanced engineering.”
Pauline may have stepped down from aerospace and defence industry work, but she remains embroiled in M&A activity.
Over the last year, she’s led the Deloitte team on more than 20 high-profile deals, including Mercia Technologies’ move to AIM, the acquisition of Norwich Airport by Sir Peter Rigby’s corporate vehicle, and Lloyds Development Capital’s (LDC) £30m purchase of Prism Medical.
Her most recent involvement in such activity was the complex deal which saw LDC pay a shade over £300m to acquire NEC Group from Birmingham City Council.
Her expertise has spanned three of Deloitte’s four core activities, audit, consulting and corporate finance, but the NEC deal also embraced the firm’s tax, business modelling and real estate teams.
“It was a flagship deal for the region, and very enjoyable to assist LDC on such a major acquisition,” says Pauline. “Many of the private equity players have become more London-centric in recent years, but LDC has never diluted its regional focus.
“It was also good to see Deloitte Real Estate playing a major role, looking at the different property assets of the NEC Group, such as the NIA and the Genting Arena.
“When Deloitte bought Drivers Jonas just over four years ago, the timing did seem unusual given the strength of the market, but we are now seeing the logic for that deal, and at an operational level, the synergies are evident.”
Given Pauline’s experience in the international M&A arena, it’s intriguing to hear her take on how such activity might look for UK corporates in the months ahead, now the political landscape has changed so unexpectedly.
“We’ll certainly see companies still looking to invest overseas, although given the current economic and political challenges of such countries as China, Russia and Brazil, you’d expect to see deals taking place in stronger environments,” she says.
“The political risk for business has been reduced by the election outcome, but not eliminated, even though it is positive to see a pro-business government returned to power.
“We carry out a quarterly survey of chief financial officers, and in Q1 2014, their major concern was the independence referendum in Scotland. This year, it was how the EU referendum will play out, and both those issues remain unresolved.”
Of course, as throughout the professional services sector, there are ever-present challenges concerning both the recruitment and retention of talent, and the presence and promotion of female employees.
Pauline isn’t the first female senior figure in a Big Four practice in Birmingham, with Jane Lodge as one of her recent predecessors, and Sara Fowler holding a similar position at EY, but she’s still in the minority.
“I don’t like quotas, and you should always be the right person regardless of your sex, but equally, I do think it’s important for us, and our clients, that we have a leadership team which is relevant to the markets we serve,” she says.
“Some countries, particularly the US, have a higher representation of females at CEO level, and different countries also have different perceptions about diversity.
“Even in the 22 years since I graduated, the pace of change has been slower than I thought likely. I’d expected to see more females in the boardrooms of FT-SE 100 companies.
“But I’ve been gratified and proud at the number of female colleagues who have sought me out to discuss how they might realise their full potential. It’s a powerful feeling when people look to you as a role model, and an honour for me to be in such a position.”
Her career within Deloitte saw Pauline spend time in London, Bristol and Reading, before heading to Melbourne and California, so as a newcomer to the Midlands, has she found perceptions matching reality?
“I knew about aerospace and other corporate brands, so I was aware of the presence of JLR, Rolls-Royce, Experian, GKN, IMI and the other blue-chips, but hadn’t realised Birmingham had such vibrancy,” she admits.
“I used to come here shopping with my parents, when I was growing up in South Wales, but the city is absolutely unrecognisable now. I’ve seen how successful Deutsche Bank’s move here has been, and HSBC’s relocation underlines how positively Birmingham is regarded by those outside the region.”
Just as the city has been transformed in recent years, how does Pauline expect the future Deloitte to evolve its presence?
“In terms of location, I’m sure our major footprint will continue to be in the centre of cities where we choose to be, because we’re focused on team-working and people from different disciplines need to come together,” she says.
“As to our structure at a national level, I think we’ll see more people coming out of London and working from the regions. It has to be about recruiting and keeping the best talent, so if people would rather live in Birmingham or elsewhere, we will endeavour to make that possible. Flexibility and agility will remain key elements of the firm’s talent agenda.
“In terms of how we operate, then data analytics and the most efficient use of ‘big data’ will definitely play an increasingly critical role, and technology will have a major impact on how we work day-to-day, and I anticipate that this will be much more transformational in the future than it has been to date.”