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Talking SME Podcast: Thinking Local, Being Human

Our guest on Ten2Two’s Talking SME podcast is Caroline Bevan, Senior Partner at PwC Watford. In this episode, Thinking Local, Being Human, we discuss the importance of having a local presence for your business.

A bit about Caroline

Caroline is an experienced private business tax partner, working with local businesses and their owners to drive growth and create value.

Caroline uses her commercial experience and international personal/private business tax skills to help her clients understand and prepare for all kinds of short and longer term commercial developments.

These include international expansion, exit, succession planning, cash extraction and accessing tax incentives.

She has advised entrepreneurs and privately owned businesses throughout her 25 year career with PwC. Caroline loves the pace, innovation and people that she continues to find in this sector just as much now as when she first started out.

Click here to find out how Ten2Two can help your business survive and thrive.

‘Thinking Local, Being Human’ is just one in our series of podcasts where we talk about a wide range of topics. We talk with business experts, and also offer broad insights to help SMEs become more successful.

Don’t forget to check out our other Talking SME Podcasts here.


[00:00:01.910] – Jane O’Gorman
Hello and welcome to Talking SME, our quickfire chat with business leaders, I’m Jane O’Gorman and I’m very pleased today to welcome Caroline Bevan, Senior Partner, PwC in Watford. Caroline, welcome.

[00:00:17.840] – Caroline Bevan
Hello, Jane, lovely to be here with you today.

[00:00:20.330] – Jane O’Gorman
Great to have you here.  Caroline, last time you and I met, it was a muddy meet, it would be fair to say. But last time we met, there was there was a lot of excitement around the move into the new office building in Watford.  So, many congrats on the move. How important do you feel it is for for PwC to have this local presence? And what for you was the drive and purpose behind the Watford location?

[00:00:53.270] – Caroline Bevan
So so you’re right, Jane, it has been a very exciting time for us because, as you know, we’ve been trying to launch our new PwC at Watford office during a time of the pandemic. So there couldn’t be a more challenging time, if you like, to try and open a new office.

[00:01:10.550] – Caroline Bevan
We did we did manage to open the doors on the 7th of December, albeit only for about three weeks. But it was three weeks. That was really exciting. And I think for all people who had been working at home a lot in the course of that year, even just to be able to come in and see the new office briefly, before Christmas as well, it was it was a really special time for us.

I mean, that question around local is a really interesting one now, isn’t it?, Because, you know, one of the things that I think most businesses will have learnt during the last 12 months is how much can be done on a bigger scale using technology, which for us as a national business, means that we’ve been able to experiment with doing things on a national basis rather than on a local basis. And I’m talking about events and convening people and sharing insights, et cetera.

But what has been really interesting is that even though that’s been brilliant and it’s enabled us to reach more people and to bring our people together differently, I think the importance of local is still an equal priority, if you like.

[00:02:20.920] – Caroline Bevan
So certainly from PwC’s perspective, in terms of our real estate strategy, if you like, we absolutely want to be maintaining our local presence across the country. And that’s really because that’s that’s how you have real connections and you have real relationships. Although virtual has been a massive enabler during this period of lockdown, I think certainly everybody that I talk to is just looking forward to getting back to some sense of human relationships and direct contact as well, which is where the local presence comes in.

[00:02:57.830] – Caroline Bevan
And that’s relevant for us. I suppose both in terms of our own team and making sure that we’ve got those those human connections and that sense of local community internally. But it’s also about our relationship with the external community. So the local business community and more widely so. So I think it’s hugely important for PwC to have a local presence, because that’s really the way in which we have a real relationship with our wider community, and it’s how we make the kind of broad contribution that we want to to the local community.

[00:03:33.290] – Caroline Bevan
And then you asked the second question, which was about the drive and purpose behind the Watford location. I mean, as you know, we we’ve arrived in Watford bringing together our teams that were previously based in St Albans and Uxbridge, which were both fantastic locations for us actually.  The reason why we brought the teams together and is to create scale.

And we’ve chosen Watford as a location that sits between St Albans and Uxbridge and just has really fantastic links, really fantastic transport links, really fantastic links into London and also is at the centre of a business community, which is itself really exciting for us.

[00:04:14.480] – Caroline Bevan
So hopefully combining the best of lots of worlds at a very interesting time.

[00:04:22.130] – Jane O’Gorman
That’s really interesting and thinking about that, because obviously, if we look at the upside of these past few months, I guess digitally, we have been able to reach a wider community because of the nature and the way we’ve been working. But but that recognition that the tangible side of being local is still such an important factor, you know, and having that presence and for you would you say that some of the greatest advantages of being local and being able to have that physical element rather than the remote aspect that we’re having to deal with at the moment is all about the people.

[00:05:04.070] – Caroline Bevan
I think that’s right. I mean, there’s a place for both, isn’t there, and that’s what’s going to be interesting over the next 12 months, five years, it gets you into a number of interesting debates, not least the future of work and how all of that’s going to look. So we’ve definitely learned some really important lessons about the art of the possible, if you like, during lockdown. We have also learned about the importance of human contact and community and relationships.

[00:05:31.610] – Caroline Bevan
And I suppose for us as a firm, there’s something about ensuring that we stay relevant. And as I said, that we make that broad contribution to our local communities and our local presence will inevitably be at the heart of that. That is our connection point.

[00:05:50.330] – Jane O’Gorman
Amazing. And obviously, you kind of touched on that there. Clearly, at the moment, we are still trying to make plans to return to some sense of of a normal working environment. So so from your employee perspective, having that base out of London and a beautiful new office, what do you think it means for them? And what do you think New Normal looks like, bearing in mind that the digital you know, the remote aspect versus office and versus physical contact, what do you feel it means for them?

[00:06:25.400] – Caroline Bevan
Gosh, you’re asking me some really big questions. I mean, I think that might there might be a bit of a brutally honest answer to your what does the beautiful new office mean to our people right now, which is that it probably feels a bit irrelevant to them right now in this moment because it’s not appropriate for people to come into the office. But the relevance is going to come back rapidly, I think. I think that’s what people want as well.

[00:06:53.640] – Caroline Bevan
And if I reflect back on what I’ve heard from the team over the last 12 months, I think we’ve probably had the same sort of pendulum swing that I’ve heard from some of my clients, which is that if you go back 12 months, there was a lot of excitement about the benefits of home working and people talking about time that they could spend with their families that they didn’t have before, energy that was saved on commutes that didn’t have to happen, et cetera.

[00:07:20.450] – Caroline Bevan
So the pendulum sort of swung very heavily one way and then it swung back again to some extent, I think.  So what I hear is that people still very much value those things. And I think that sort of agile, flexible, working for some people probably has become a bit of a non-negotiable, actually, in terms of what they want out of life and what they want out of work. But a lot of people want to have that balanced off against an office that provides a place where they can learn, where they can innovate, where they can collaborate and where they can have that human contact.

[00:07:58.190] – Caroline Bevan
You know, it comes back to your previous question really about local it’s about having somewhere where people can come together and convene and how will it affect how all of that does come together. So I think it will be really interesting to see where we’re at in five years’ time when the dust is settled. My own expectation is that it will be some form of hybrid model and probably balance within that for people. Between the virtual, the remote and the in-person office will depend on their own personal preferences and life and also the requirements of that job.  And it’s yeah, it’s going to be it could be really fascinating to see how all of that evolves.

[00:08:41.550] – Jane O’Gorman
Yeah, I think it’s hopefully, if anything has come out of it, is having that openness. And clearly, from what you’re doing and how PwC have embraced this before and now is having that adaptability to have a mix, if you like, talking about the hybrid or thinking about how roles can be managed and how one manages one’s work.

But certainly going forward on a bigger perspective for businesses, hopefully this will mean that there will be some added benefit for well-being of employees around how they work because, you know, having a local presence, not having long commutes, having some work life balance, I think we’ve seen the value of that, will be hopefully a benefit for many and perhaps also help attract new talent into the business.  Do you think that will be something that will be an added benefit, having this local presence for you?

[00:09:42.080] – Caroline Bevan
I think I agree with you completely. And one of the things that we have been doing over the last 12 months is surveying our people quite regularly to find out how they are so really wanting to to make sure that we are doing everything we can as a firm to support during this quite challenging time. But that is an integral part of the level of priority that we do attach to well-being more generally, but also engaging our people on what they want from the office and what the deal looks like for them.

[00:10:12.360] – Caroline Bevan
So as a firm for a long time, we’ve thought about the deal for our people and with our people, which is that balance between what we need from them within our business and in order to provide a great level of service to our clients, set off against what we offer them, the opportunity, the flexibility, the different elements of reward that comes with that. And without a doubt, as we move forward, that deal is going to have to evolve.

[00:10:38.850] – Caroline Bevan
And it makes perfect sense to me that our people should be involved in shaping that because we can make sure that we continue to offer the best that we possibly can in terms of a working experience and opportunity and work life balance. And we can make sure that we involve all of our people in shaping the role of the office within that. So really exciting engagement opportunity that is pulling us all together as a team here at PwC as well.

[00:11:07.500] – Jane O’Gorman
Yeah, I think that’s really great. And that’s a very valuable insight for any business, really, because, you know, you touched earlier on the fact that in terms of what the workplace is going to be looking like, the workplace of the future and flexibility probably being a given, you know, so to take all of those factors into consideration, involve employees in what they think the shape of the future looks like must be a great way to add value not only to the business, but in retention and attracting.

[00:11:40.050] – Jane O’Gorman
So I think that that’s a really helpful piece of advice in terms of how other businesses could think about how they manage the future and how they think about the workplace.  In addition, I’m obviously thinking about the Watford location, Caroline, Watford, as you know, and its surroundings, is home to such a range of growing and start up SMEs.

So from the business perspective, thinking about that as a business community, how will PwC having the local commitment add value for these businesses, do you think, in terms of having that local presence?  Do you think it will support and encourage economic growth outside of London?

[00:12:30.980] – Caroline Bevan
Well, I certainly hope so, and that’s the question that we have been giving a great deal of thought to over the last year or so as we’ve sort of started getting to know our new local community, our new local location better. And so there are a number of ways in which we would love to contribute to the local business community. I mean, I think it’s partly through joining local forums, local business groups and actively participating in the debate around local issues that matter and contribute our insight, our expertise.

[00:13:12.530] – Caroline Bevan
And actually, when the world opens up, my intention is to offer our space as well. So we’ve got a wonderful collaboration area which we really hope we can offer out to our local community as a place where and influencers, interested parties can come together and discuss the things that matter locally. So there is a very real local contribution that we would like to make and have made a start on delivering against.

[00:13:38.150] – Caroline Bevan
And just as a member of the local business community, really, one of the earliest sort of conversations that I started with some new contacts that we’ve made in the local business community was OK, but that’s sort of the minimum standard,  that’s a given, of course we’re going to do that. What else can we do that that feels a little bit more like going the extra mile for our local community and that very quickly took me into a conversation around the local diversity agenda, which is obviously something that’s quite rightly at the front of most people’s minds now in lots of different ways. And we were given some great advice actually as we arrived, which is that there are so many ways that a big firm could seek to contribute.

But what we should really do is look hard at what that special, unique thing is that we might have that others don’t look to contribute in that way. And actually, when we looked inside ourselves,  it made us think of the levelling up agenda. It made us think of diversity and inclusion and in particular how we could help to lift employment skills in the area. And so what we have done over the last six months in particular, and I’m so pleased that we’ve managed to progress this despite lockdown in the virtual environment, is investing in the two universities that are local to us and also one of the local colleges, the time of our people around support for CV’s, we’ve done some mentoring, there’s a virtual event that we ran over the summer, which was almost like a Dragons Den style event.

And I’m really hoping that we can do more of that as the world starts to open up, as well as looking a little bit more at entrepreneurship. So as a private business advisor I do feel really passionately about encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship across the patch, and my thinking is less advanced but I would love us to be making a really active contribution to entrepreneurship in the area which hopefully will feel like a really useful contribution more generally.  But to your point, Jane, it should also contribute to driving economic growth outside of London.

[00:15:46.160] – Jane O’Gorman
Which I think, gosh, honestly, I was absorbing so much there and I can see so many benefits from all of all of the efforts that you’re already contributing to in terms of kind of the local learning, the advancement educationally, but also from growing businesses and startups in terms of mentoring, I guess organically. That’s you know, that’s got to be advantageous in terms of encouraging economic growth, not only from the employees of the future, but in helping local businesses learn and grow.

[00:16:16.700] – Jane O’Gorman
So, you know, I think some fantastic advantages in having experts in the field like yourselves to be able to give some of that local presence and local advice. So that’s really great to hear. Yeah, I can imagine you must be looking forward to a time in the in the future, in the very near future, I hope, when the doors will open and you can welcome people on site. Do you have a vision for that and what plans may be coming up for PwC, is there any hopeful events that you might be thinking of? How do the next few months look?

[00:16:54.740] – Caroline Bevan
Look, it’s difficult to plan, isn’t it? In terms of how much I’m looking forward to it, there really aren’t words. I mean, it would just be so lovely both in my working life with the office and personally actually to to be able to see more of people again, that will be that would be lovely. And I think that’s that’s something that most people feel. It’s quite hard to make plans, though, because although we’re really eager for that to happen, we absolutely must do the right thing.

[00:17:26.090] – Caroline Bevan
We all have our part to play in terms of making sure of that. To the extent that’s possible, this is a one way street out of lockdown and out of the pandemic. So while we’re eager to open the doors and get people in, we will be cautious about how we do that. And we will make sure that we we are responsible and we play our part with the government’s plans and how we do it. And so because of that, we don’t we don’t have any events planned.

[00:17:56.310] – Caroline Bevan
We will wait with interest as we reach each of the milestones that have been set out by the government. And certainly for the sake of our people,  we will make as much of those milestones as it’s appropriate to. And we’ve kept our offices open and as we’ve been able to throughout the last few months, for those who really have had a really serious personal need to come in. But I unfortunately, I think it’s too early to get really excited about opening the doors in any significant way, because it’s just that bit too early at the moment.

[00:18:30.810] – Jane O’Gorman
Yeah, no, I understand completely. Completely. And, you know, this is this is what we have now. But, you know, it’s fantastic that you have this incredible location and it’s there and it’s rooted locally in the community and it’s here for some time to come. So I am sure there will be many other occasions in the future when we can all look forward to hopefully sharing, perhaps making use of the incredible space you’ve mentioned, Caroline, which I think for, you know, local businesses,  to be able to take advantage of that or indeed for some of the events that may be coming up in the future.

[00:19:09.510] So, you know, thank you, obviously, for sharing some of your insights with us today. We are looking optimistically forward and may not be immediate, but I know there will be some hopefully enjoyable times ahead. And I look forward to a time when you and I can catch up face to face, perhaps not in a muddy field like last time. Thank you so much for joining us.

[00:19:41.460] And to our listeners, I hope you enjoyed our Talking SME. Look for future episodes coming soon.

19 min read