Ian Powell is one of the University of Wolverhampton’s most successful alumni. He tells us about his remarkable career, Black Country roots and dedication to providing opportunities for other graduates today.
As head of the UK arm of the world’s biggest accountancy firm, it’s hard to believe Ian Powell never had a career plan. But the PricewaterhouseCoopers Chairman insists his success is down to seizing every opportunity that has been presented to him.
In 1977, Mr Powell joined Pricewaterhouse, before it merged with Coopers, as a trainee after graduating from what was then Wolverhampton Polytechnic.
He stayed with the firm and has worked his way up to the helm. Last year, the other 850 UK partners of the firm voted him in as Chairman. With £2.5 billion revenue in the UK alone and 15,000 staff, PwC, as it is known, is number one among the accountants by revenue and people. And Mr Powell is relishing his role as Britain’s top accountant.
The firm is also the number one graduate employer and continues to create opportunities, despite the economic downturn.
“I thought it was a good opportunity for us to continue to invest during the recession.,” says Mr Powell. “I took a decision to continue recruiting and will do so again next year. The economy is in a difficult position but we are a successful business that is still recruiting and investing in the future. We give people brilliant opportunities including the chance to work overseas.”
This summer saw 1,000 graduates join PwC, with more than 100 new recruits from the Midlands. The process is tough; usually there are up to 14,000 applications but this year saw around 20,000 applicants compete for 1,000 places.
So how can a graduate stand out against so many others?
“I would say work hard and get a good degree first of all,” says Mr Powell. “Graduates need to make sure they understand the process of what they’re going into. It’s also important to build on the personal element – anything that shows outstanding team work or leadership.”
He admits that the competition is very tough:
“Some of the people who apply have done more by the time they’re 21 than I had when I was 30.”
Sedgley-born Mr Powell, a father-of-four, enjoys coming back to the region, where his mother and sister still live, and taking his boys to watch his team West Bromwich Albion. He has fond memories of his upbringing and is proud of his Black Country roots.
“I look back on my childhood like so many people do – always sunny, playing football. These are the things you remember.”
He also values the time he spent in Wolverhampton as a student. “I had a really good time. Although I was local we lived in a flat in Tettenhall. There was such an interesting mix of people from everywhere – Zimbabwe, Brunei, Greece.
“I really enjoyed my economics course. It was very academic and gave me a good background and understanding. I can remember my lectures with David Hafide and Professor John Trudgill.”
He also credits the region with sparking his interest in manufacturing when he worked for PwC in Birmingham and saw how companies such as Goodyear worked. Mr Powell is positive about the recovery of the economy but believes it will be a slow process.
“To come through it there has to be a focus on value added. The UK can’t beat Eastern labour rates so has to focus on adding value through technology and creativity.
“I’m confident because as a country we’ve been incredibly creative over the years and that will come through again.”
He firmly believes that partnerships between academia and business are crucial to a successful future.
“To be competitive, you need to have a well-educated workforce and that’s where universities come in. It’s probably number one in terms of importance.”
These are challenging times but Mr Powell sees things differently: “You never really see challenges at the time because you’re just doing what you do. I think there are times when you work incredibly hard but that’s fun if you enjoy your job. I would approach what can be seen as challenges as opportunities.”
In terms of his own career and plans for PwC he says: “I still don’t have a plan. I just want to do this job really well. We’re already number one, but I want to build the firm into something iconic, something really special.”