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Johan Groothaert, CEO, Fiduciam

Months into lockdown, it’s clear that Fiduciam’s CEO Johan Groothaert has mastered the art of Zoom. Although seated, he’s able to convey big ideas, high energy and his passion about Belfast and Northern Ireland.

What prompted Fiduciam to start doing business in NI?

“We were already in the UK, we were already in Ireland and we said well, then logically it has to be Northern Ireland next. Since we moved into Northern Ireland, we have found a very vibrant economic environment. We provide secured lending to SMEs and have been warmly welcomed by the local business community.

“Maybe it’s easier for an outsider to spot, but internationally there’s an increased recognition of Belfast, and also as a part of the global financial markets ecosystem. We obviously know that Dublin is a part of that already, because if you are going to structure a securitisation from London, you will probably run to Dublin because it has a very favorable tax regime. But the cost of living, standards of education, available workforce and ease of doing business have meant that some major banks and law firms, including Allen and Overy for example, moved middle office and service centre functions to Belfast. At the same time Belfast is increasingly proving itself as a vibrant tech hub.

“Taking the Allen & Overy example, what’s interesting is that as a consequence of these developments, actually, the Belfast office grew into a hub of expertise for machine learning. Because as you do more frequent, more high-volume documentation, machine learning becomes very relevant. And so, what you see is that some business functions which moved to Belfast because of cost considerations, develop fast and end up taking on a different dynamic and becoming incredible value creators.

How well positioned for the future is Belfast?

“My sense is that it will basically have the best of two worlds. Being both in the UK and also being in the EU Customs Union, I believe that is going to give a huge boost to the local NI economy.

I believe it has all the conditions it needs to succeed, and the brain power and work ethic to do so too. I’m excited for NI and what it can achieve over coming years.”

Did major banks make a mistake by moving away from regions and rural areas?

“What Northern Ireland has experienced is not unique to Northern Ireland, but the further you get away from the big financial centers, the worse it becomes. All the large commercial banks have massively retrenched and have basically left an enormous void. And, you know, effectively, we (Fiduciam) and other parties like ourselves have been able to fill that void in Northern Ireland, very successfully, thanks to the local network that exists of accountants, financial advisors, and brokers.

“People also know each other. So therefore, if you treat your clients well, you’ll get word of mouth referrals. That works quite well in Northern Ireland. When someone has got a good deal, they want to talk about it.

“One thing that attracts clients is that we are willing to go the extra mile also when a business has had some difficult times. We saved a manufacturing business a while back that had over expanded and made a mistake or two in some dealings overseas. The banks approached it like it was a checkbox write-off and they couldn’t spot a way out of it. We did and I’m happy to say that they’re flourishing again.”

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