Shaun Kelly, the Former KPMG International Global Chief Operating Officer, has had a truly remarkable and inspiring career that ultimately resulted in the position with a $28billion organisation with operations in 153 countries worldwide.

The UCD Alumnus, who was last year awarded the UCD Alumni Award for Business, retired from his role at KPMG in September 2019.

The Belfast native is currently a member of the UCD Smurfit Graduate Business School North American Advisory Board. His unmistakeable Belfast brogue has been undiminished by decades of globe-trotting as he recently spoke to the College Tribune.

In 1977, Kelly decided to head south to UCD to study the BComm, in what he describes as, “one of the most transformative elements; a great experience”.

“I think probably getting over that initial inertia of getting out and doing something different.

“I had a fabulous time at UCD; I learned a lot, made new friends and it was formative from an educational, academic and personal standpoint,” Kelly said.

He graduated with a first-class honours degree. Kelly continued on to graduate education in UCD, studying a Diploma in Accounting (now Master of Accounting) at the Smurfit Graduate School of Business before joining Peat Marwick (now KPMG) on a training contract. He qualified as a Chartered Accountant in 1983, coming joint first in the national accountancy exams.

Kelly’s ascent to the summit of KPMG is staggering. Shortly after joining the company, he was offered a rotation to San Francisco from Dublin, which he accepted. He spent much of the next five years working there before he decided to return home in 1989 with his wife Mary to raise their children.

The family spent ten years in Belfast before the allure of a return to KPMG in the United States proved too strong to resist, returning to San Francisco in 1999.

Credit: UCD Alumni

In 2001, he ran the KPMG Transaction Services in the Mid-West region before being promoted to run US Transaction Services. In 2005, he became the leader of the US Tax Practice based in New York, in 2010 he was appointed KPMG COO of the Americas and in 2015, ascended to the highest office in the organisation, Global COO of KPMG.

With his wealth of experience operating in the upper echelons of business, Kelly is ideally placed to offer advice to present UCD students. Firstly, he was co-chair of KPMG’s Disabilities Network, a member of KPMG’s Diversity Advisory Board and treasurer of Enactus, reflecting his strong and passionate commitment to diversity and inclusion. “The more diverse your organisation is, I think the more successful you are,” Kelly said. “You’re bringing in different perspectives.”

Unsurprisingly for a business person who succeeded on the world stage, Kelly espouses the importance of a global mindset, despite the pandemic.

“I think we will stay connected, once we work through vaccines and that global management will be so important because business will be global and we need diverse workforces,” Kelly said.

The themes of globalisation and diversity are interwoven, and he succinctly defines a global mindset as, “being open to listening to others.”

Kelly offers simple, yet powerful, advice to aspiring business people and in particular, accountants. “Really good business advisors fundamentally have a good business knowledge, which accounting really helps with,”Kelly said “Understanding client needs and then understanding how to provide solutions using your skill sets to meet those needs.”

The hum of excitement was evident in his voice as he spoke about technology. “[It is] enabling you to bring other skills to the table,” Kelly said. “The skill going forward is understanding what the right question is.”

This highlights the growing importance of judgement and innovative thinking in business

However, the advent of modern technology and the endless information we are creating has only heightened the need for ethical practices in business. “The importance of culture and purpose in an organisation when you’re dealing with changes and the ethical challenges around the use of big data, data analytics and all of that,” Kelly said. “Everything you do as you face dilemmas in your career, just go back to your core values.”

Ethics and culture bleed into the issue of integrity, so paramount in the accounting industry. “I think it is around trust and integrity and confidence. We have more information created in the last five years than in the previous one hundred years,” Kelly said. “I think the key is that people want to have the confidence and assurance that the numbers are right. Making sure the systems work and in many instances communicating in real-time what is happening.”

Kelly has witnessed the growing significance of softer skills in the workplace and emphasises the “shift from basic technical skills to collaboration, innovation, adaptability, those types of things”.

He is the epitome of adaptability, having moved to a new house fourteen times and worked all around the world in his illustrious career. In 2005, he was asked to lead KPMG’s US Tax Practice without ever working in the tax department.

Clearly, Kelly’s sporting background hasn’t left him as he uses the sporting analogy, “never look at your next game because you’ll lose the game you’re playing”.

He encourages people to stay in the present and focus on their current role. “If you’d have told me when I started my career in Dublin that I’d be running operations of a $28billion organisation in 150 countries, I wouldn’t have believed it, but you do it step-by-step by being willing take on challenges and work hard,” Kelly said.

The beaming Belfast native is known for his warm personality and light-hearted sense of humour. Indeed, he credits his sense of humour as being central to the personal connections he has made all over the world.

“It really does help to build relationships and I think relationships are still extremely important, particularly in a global context,” Kelly said. “You need to be able to build personal relationships across multi-cultures. Being that little bit open with people.”

In the words of Oscar Wilde, “life is too short to be taken seriously”.

Ruairi McCormack – Business Writer