Limerick.ie's Q&A with Ken Johnson, Managing Partner, PwC MidWest, following his recent appointment as President of Limerick Chamber.
Tell us about yourself from a professional and personal capacity?
I did a B Comm in NUI Galway (UCG back then) followed by a Higher Diploma in Professional Accounting in UCD and then joined Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC) in Dublin in 1987. I worked in a number of roles in PwC in Dublin before moving to our Limerick office in 1999.
I was admitted as a partner in 2000 and took over as the Partner in Charge of the Mid West PwC Practice (Limerick & Galway ) in 2003. I am married to Sinead and have two sons, Edward (9) and Andrew (7), and live in my old family home at Reens in West Limerick.
When did you first get involved in Limerick Chamber?
I joined the board of the Chamber in March 2013. At the time the country as whole, but the Mid-West Region in particular, was going through a very difficult time economically. Limerick City and County Councils were amalgamating, Shannon Airport was separating from the DAA and there was a sense that the key stakeholders in the region were beginning to work more closely and collaboratively together.
I felt there was both a momentum and an opportunity to contribute to the development of the city and region by becoming involved in the Chamber, as one of these key stakeholders. As an employer in the region, it was important also that we play a role in contributing to the development of a vibrant city as a catalyst to future growth in the region for all our benefit.
What do you see as the strength of Limerick Chamber and what attracted you to the role of President?
In the first instance it is its membership; it’s the third largest Chamber in the country. Then there’s the strength of the people from across a range of sectors from city centre commercial business owners, SME’s, multi-nationals and the educational institutions who are willing to give their time to serving on the board Chamber.
When you serve on a board with a diverse group of great people, with a shared vision, it is easy to become attracted to the role of President. It’s a great opportunity to give your time and effort to support the wider community in a positive and constructive way, and to be part of the transition that we have started to see in Limerick.
Do you think Limerick’s progress over the past three years has been satisfactory?
I think we have made a lot of progress over the three years. We are now beginning to see the benefits of a stronger and independent Shannon Airport, a fully integrated City & County Council, Shannon Foynes Port Company is going from strength to strength. There’s a renewed focus on the region from IDA and Enterprise Ireland as well as strong support at a political level. Five years ago we had one of the highest unemployment rates in the country, in the late teens. Today our unemployment rate is circa 6.7%, below the national average and we are now the fastest growing region outside of Dublin. But to use the old election slogan – ‘A lot done, more to do’
What do you believe this was down to?
First and foremost I think the achievements to date are down to the strong collaboration between the key stakeholders in the city & region, together with strong political support from the last two governments. The quality of our third level education institutions and the investments made in research and collaboration with industry together with success of IDA in attracting over 3,000 new jobs to the region over the last 18 months, and the launch of Limerick 2030 which sets out a clear vision for the city, are part of the drivers of that success.
Are you confident about the next three/five years?
We are moving in the right direction but I think it’s key that we do not become complacent. We need to build on our collaborative success and all key stakeholders need to continue to work together. The revitalisation of the city centre is vital to our growth and development. We need to see investment in the city centre (Hanging Gardens, Opera, Arthur’s Quay, etc.), we need to see high street retail brands back in the city centre and a vibrant night life. A strong city will drive the wider regional economy.
Infrastructure investment is crucial, particularly the M20 and the Northern Distributor Road. The Northern Distributor Road is critical. It can now take between 20 and 40 minutes to get out of UL/Plassey Technology Park. If you look at Galway, it can take up to 2 hours to get out of Parkmore Industrial Estate (one of its largest industrial parks), because the necessary infrastructure investment wasn’t made. It will become very hard to attract people and investment in to the region if we do not have the appropriate infrastructure.
Where do you see opportunity for Limerick going forward?
Balanced regional economic development will benefit the country as a whole. I would like to think that Limerick could be at the centre of the regional counter balance to Dublin which would involve working collaboratively with Cork and Galway. Limerick is a different place to where it was at the start of the recession and the foundation has been laid for significant growth opportunities going forward.
How worried are you about Brexit and where are the pitfalls and the opportunities?
I think everyone is concerned about Brexit and no one really knows what the outcome will be as we are in totally unchartered waters. A recent InterTrade Ireland survey revealed that in excess of 90% of business have no plan in place to deal with the consequences of Brexit, and that is concerning. Whilst there are a number of possible outcomes, based on the information currently available a ‘Hard’ Brexit which would see no deal and WTO rules applying is a real risk. In this context I think it is important that businesses start the scenario planning now. This will help focus on planning for the consequences for their business but will also highlight potential opportunities that might arise.
What are your key objectives for your term as Limerick Chamber President?
As a member organisation I would like to see further improvement in the quality of the service that we provide to our members, which we are actively working on. I think it is important that the Chamber continues to play an active role in working and collaborating with the key stakeholders in the region. In terms of infrastructure I would like to see clear progress on the implementation of Limerick 2030 in terms of the development of the city centre, clear progress on both the Northern Distributor Road and the M20.
In terms of regional economic development I think there is an opportunity for the Chambers in the region to collaborate and work together. I hope that over the next 12 months Limerick, Shannon, Ennis and Galway Chambers can work more closely, and have a common voice, where we share a common vision, for the benefit of our members and balanced regional economic development.