Taking a calculated risk to do something different

Jason Laity was until recently, the chairman of KPMG in the Channel Islands. Based in Jersey, he is a well-known business figure, a former chairman of the Insitute of Directors in the Island and he is, what he terms, 'a closet geek', heavily involved in the digital industry and a passionate supporter of it. As of October 1st, 2019, Jason has 'retired' at the tender age of 50. Gwyn Garfield-Bennett went to meet him to find out why and what's next.

Jason Laity, former head of KPMG in the Channel Islands, at the Digital Jersey Hub

Picture:DAVID FERGUSON (25891025)
Jason Laity, former head of KPMG in the Channel Islands, at the Digital Jersey Hub Picture:DAVID FERGUSON (25891025)

THE first thing you realise about Jason Laity is that he might be retiring from KPMG, but he’s not retiring from work. With 50 being the new 40, statistics telling us we’ll live longer and the government saying we need to work longer, he is the epitome of a new breed of people who have achieved success in one career, but now want to use that experience and knowledge in a new challenge.

Despite the perception of a grey suited accountant, anyone who knows Jason, knows that he is a man who has always been a little unconventional. This is the Channel Island chairman of one of the big four accountancy firms, who did not even stay on to get his A-levels, but instead worked his way to the top.

On the personal side

So why is Jason ‘retiring’ from KPMG now? ‘I’ve been doing what I’m doing for a long time – approaching 30 years, all told – and I just thought it’s time for change, and a lot of unconnected events connected,’ he said. ‘I decided, with the support of family and friends, that it was the right time to try something else. It’s been a long period of thinking about it, about what I’ve done. But now, I’m thinking about what I might do in the future and I’m excited about that.

‘I’ve had lots of advice from people on what to do and the central theme is to take some time to reflect and really do something that you’re passionate and committed about.

‘I need to think about what value I can add and what use I can be. I’ve learned a huge amount about leadership, about what makes an organisation work, what makes an organisation stumble along the way; and the challenges that the senior people within organisations feel. And let’s be clear, the more senior you get in an organisation, particularly in the Channel Islands, I think the more isolated it becomes. So I’ve learned quite a lot and I would hope that would be of use, somehow.’

After so many years at the top, Jason admits that there is also an element of heading towards ‘burn out’.

‘I don’t think I’ve reached that yet, but I certainly could feel it coming. But, you know, right here, right now, I’d like to invest my passion and energy into something new and see where that gets me. The digital community talks about learning from failure, and learning from success and not being afraid to take a risk. This does feel to me like a little bit of a calculated risk.

‘There’s been surprise that I’m leaving the firm a little bit earlier than anticipated, but I’ve still got an awful lot to offer to perhaps a different market.

‘It’s a shame. I have to use the word retirement because that’s what I’m doing. I am retiring from KPMG. But I’m not retiring from working, this is just the next stage in my career.

‘We’ve all read the hundred-year working life, all that type of stuff, and I think younger people recognise that and they themselves want more of a portfolio career than when I started out. It was – you’ll work until you get to the top and then we’ll see what happens then.

‘Although this part of my career is coming to an end, I hope that there’s more to come. And my strong suspicion is that there’s many more people out there, feeling the same way.’

Being at the top of an organisation like KPMG must have its stresses. The firm has had its well-documented issues and as regulatory controls have got tougher, and with the recent move to start targeting individuals and not just companies, Jason admits that the role has its pressures.

‘If I’ve got a personal hallmark, it’s probably authenticity and honesty,’ he said. ‘I couldn’t sit here and say to you that that isn’t a factor in all of this. The firm has had challenges, which are in the public domain, as have the other big four firms. I’m confident that we’re doing the right things to address those going forward. That’s not the primary reason, by any account.

‘Certainly, all the leadership at KPMG, when they open the FT each morning, when they see a story and perhaps we’re not mentioned in the most favourable light, your heart does sink a little and that’s part of being committed to a firm for a long period of your career. Honestly, I probably will always feel that way. I’ll always be part of the alumni to some extent. On a personal level, it is difficult being in the spotlight all the time, and having that risk, and it will be a relief.’

On Jersey and Guernsey

Jason has spent all of his career in the Channel Islands and been head of his firm across both Jersey and Guernsey. He is very upbeat about our islands.

‘It seems that every few years, for Jersey and Guernsey there’s a new major challenge and a big, sharp intake of breath, whether or not it’s a change of government, or change of law, or something that perhaps, hasn’t gone according to plan. And there’s a huge amount of activity and a huge amount of media focus around that.

‘If you’re in the middle of that, it’s an awful place to be, but Jersey and Guernsey they survive, they evolve, they adapt. There’s now too wide and varied a base of activity here, I think, to be vulnerable to any one particular threat.

‘I can remember, before the last potential Labour government, how much concern there was then, but things seemed to work out OK. Yes, there was change, and yes there were losers and winners, but it’s about adapting, it’s about agility.

‘If I’ve seen one real challenge, which has run through the past ten years or so it’s the pace of everything now. The pace of change and technology is incredible – and to continue to be able to adapt and survive we need to continue to quicken our pace, because as soon as we rest on our laurels, and say the pace of change is right, then it’s too slow.

‘Jersey and Guernsey are both thriving economies, they’re both great places to work, great places to live and they’ve got a huge amount to offer but they need to carry on this reinvention process and they need to carry on investing in things like Digital Jersey, or diversifying their existing offering to continue to be able to offer careers to my children, and your children.’

There are some things which have niggled Jason over the years and while he has at times been outspoken, his position meant he has often been unable to comment. There is still much he won’t say publicly, but digital runs through much of his thoughts.

‘I wish Jersey had been quicker and had gone further in e-government. I will watch with interest what’s happening in Guernsey, who seem to be perhaps moving ahead quicker than we did. I wish that the Island could have got behind digital quicker.

‘We made the bet to invest in fibre and I think that will prove to be a really pivotal, positive moment in the Island’s development. To see Jersey as one of the fastest places in the world for internet speed, it’s quite something really for an island of nine-by-five in the English Channel. I wish they would maybe have got on that a bit quicker.’

On the workplace

Diversity and wellness – both physical and mental – are two themes Jason talks about extensively. ‘I think the whole psychological contract between employees and organisations has changed, certainly over my career, but especially in the last five years or so.

‘In this age of transparency, people really do care about things beyond their nine-to-five job. You shouldn’t be talking about flexible working as being something you can offer – it should just be something that you do.

‘I don’t think there’s enough companies doing it the right way. Successful businesses are everywhere. I wonder how much more successful they could be if they really took a look at the relationship between themselves and their employees.

‘People in our office are committed to what’s going on in their communities, so that’s really changed, but it makes my job easier if I can harness that energy. I was at the FT weekend summit recently, and they were talking about climate change, and so on and so forth; and how committed the young people are to try and do something about that. That sort of disruptive element, the age of protest that we’re in, I don’t think businesses should turn away from that. I think that energy and that passion to want to be involved in something and to want to change something, I think leadership should be looking to harness that and ride that wave.’

On the next steps

Jason is modest about his next move, it is clearly a huge step for somebody to step down from the heights of his career into an unknown and he readily says that he does need to work, to keep earning; but there’s no doubting the excitement that’s also there. ‘I’m not expecting job offers left, right, and centre. 1 October is a blank sheet of paper, and I’ll think about what to do going forward. But it is that calculated risk. I do think I have something to give, and I think there are other people like me who do too.

‘If I was to bring it back to anything, having read so much about what makes cultures like the west coast of America thrive, it’s that desire to take a personal risk, that desire to have a go, and then you know, if it doesn’t work out to try something else. And that certainly has been one of the factors in making me think well, you know, I’ll give that a go.

‘I would like to do a portfolio of different things. I don’t necessarily want to do the predictable things – I’d like to do something which I am really passionate about, which really fires me up and, that may well be some board positions on organisations that I really believe in. I just don’t know, but what I guess is exciting me at the moment is the fact that I don’t know, and it’s all right not to know.’

On his legacy

As he closes the door on one successful career path, what does he hope he has left behind?

‘I hope I’ve opened the culture of the firm. I hope I’ve made people realise the value of inclusivity. I hope I’ve made people realise the value of technology. And I hope that I’ve made people realise the value of themselves.

‘When I leaft the firm and walked out the door and handed my pass in, all I walked out the door with was the calculator my mum gave me when I walked in the door all those years ago; and the friendships and network that I’ve built over that period of time. And, you know, it’s what I do with those, it’s how responsive I am to friends’ needs and the support they need. And that’s really what I’ve learned. I hope that if I’ve changed anything, it’s to make a few people realise that what’s important is investing in the people that they’re working with.’

Top Stories

More From The Jersey Evening Post

UK & International News