AI, Welly boots and job creation - all in focus for Heron

EY managing partner Rob Heron talks about how firm is on track to hire 1,000 staff and open north west hub

Rob Heron EY Managing Partner speaks to The Irish News.
Rob Heron, managing partner at EY Northern Ireland. Picture: Colm Lenaghan

First impressions might suggest that farming and artificial intelligence (AI) aren’t natural business bedfellows.

Actually, there appears untold potential to use AI in a range of ways within the agri sector, with opportunities to avail of the technology to allow the more efficient development of farm businesses, from animal identification to managing staff more effectively.

Rob Heron mightn’t necessarily have known that when he was studying agricultural economics at Queen’s University in the early noughties. But he does now.

As managing partner for EY Northern Ireland since February 2022, much of Heron’s profile has been built on his lead role for the renowned EY Entrepreneur of the Year programme in the north.

But when me meet, he is relaxed explaining how EY is making its mark in other areas, including AI - and also how he’s equally at home in Welly boots as in a business suit.

“I grew up on a family farm in Killinchy, and I’m currently back living there, where I walk across our fields pretty much every morning and every night,” he said.

“It was historically a dairy farm but is now focussed on beef. And yes, occasionally I do put the wellies on at the weekend and get my hands dirty!”

After graduating Heron started his career in England specialising in agricultural accountancy, and has always had a passion for agriculture.

“Today, we act for many of the Northern Ireland agri-food sector’s largest players, and I’ve also sat as independent chair of Agri Food Quest at Queen’s and continue to sit on various panels.

“It’s a real personal passion of mine, and such an important and far-reaching industry here.

“Indeed a report by EY for NIFDA in 2021 showed that show the sector was worth almost £5 billion and supports close to 115,000 jobs across different skills and pay bands.”

Rob Heron EY Managing Partner speaks to The Irish News.
Rob Heron says: "Agriculture is a real personal passion of mine, and such an important and far-reaching industry here." Picture: Colm Lenaghan

But the conversation quickly turns to AI, where EY has invested something like $1 billion globally to seize on the opportunities the technology is currently presenting.

“We’ve a data and AI team of 100 people in Belfast led by Gareth Kelly and Tim Cush, and it’s fast growing,” Heron says.

“AI can ultimately transform how business is done and can help transform society. Yes, as the technology advances at speed there are risks that need to be managed, but we know that companies which not only understand and embrace the technology, but wield it responsibly, can get an edge on their peers.”

EY espouses the belief that it’s now time to think bigger about how the intelligence of AI can help businesses identify opportunities for value creation and augment people potential.

Away from AI (and his farming roots), Heron is relishing the prospect of a period of phenomenal growth for EY.

Last September, during the US Investment Conference in Belfast, EY announced the creation of 1,000 new jobs in Northern Ireland over the next five years, more than doubling its payroll from the current 950 and reflecting its commitment to accelerate the growth of the practice that will bolster the regional economy.

“To date 130 people have been recruited, so we’re well on track,” he says.

“An exciting part of this particular project is also the creation of a new hub in the north west, and we’re really encouraged by the welcome we’ve had from the whole ecosystem up there, whether that be the business community, the academic institutions, the local council, or the politicians.

“We are working through our current locations for that office, and possibly will make an announcement later this calendar year or very early 2025.

Rob Heron EY Managing Partner speaks to The Irish News.
Rob Heron in conversation with Irish News business editor Gary McDonald. Picture: Colm Lenaghan

“We’ve looked at some outstanding sites in the north west, and we’re thrilled about the quality of the talent and what it all means for us. It gives us the ability to attract talent from a much wider pool.”

In his near two-decades tenure at EY, Heron has been the firm’s Brexit lead in Northern Ireland, playing a crucial role in advising clients on the implications of the UK leaving the EU.

He has also helped oversee continued growth in long-standing parts of the business such as audit, tax and transactions (indeed EY is now the largest audit practice in Northern Ireland by quite some distance with 250 people and eight partners).

But when the conversation turns to his Entrepreneur of the Year role, you sense Heron’s passion levels rise a notch or two.

This year’s 24 finalists have just been revealed, with four coming from Northern Ireland.

“Each year we enter in to the nomination process hopeful and excited about the incredible people and businesses we are about to meet, and this year we were honoured to receive the most nominations ever in the history of the programme.

“This year’s finalists hail from a diverse mix of backgrounds and are at the helm of some of the most inspiring and innovative businesses in their industries.

“They are all true trailblazers - leaders with the courage and capacity to plot and follow their own path, pushing conventional boundaries and limits.”

He adds: “We always wonder if we’ve get the wow factor - and we always do.”

Much work will now go into the EoY programme, including an upcoming finalists’ alumni trip to South Africa.

But rest assured the date of the gala awards night is Dublin is already ringed off in his diary - just as it is every year!