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Brexit means business as companies turn to consultants for help

Wednesday, July 20, 2016 - 14:46
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New UK Prime Minister Theresa May says "Brexit means Brexit," but many companies are struggling to figure out what the country's departure from the European Union will bring for them. Outside advisers are eager to lend a hand.

[LONDON] New UK Prime Minister Theresa May says "Brexit means Brexit," but many companies are struggling to figure out what the country's departure from the European Union will bring for them. Outside advisers are eager to lend a hand.

Banks like Citigroup Inc and Nomura Holdings Inc have set up internal Brexit teams and Goldman Sachs Group Inc has hired Jose Manuel Barroso, former president of the European Commission, to guide it through the thickets in Brussels.

Outside the financial services industry, responses have ranged more widely. International telecoms giant Vodafone Group Plc has not set up a Brexit squad despite warning that it might have to move its headquarters away from London, while UK-focused discount retailer Poundland Group Plc - confronted with a rise in prices of imported goods it sells because of a plunging pound - has created such a panel, executives said.

Instead of tackling weighty strategic questions like these on their own at a time when the conditions of Brexit remain unclear, many companies are turning to accountants, consultants and lawyers, who are lining up spreadsheets, PowerPoints and conference calls to gear up for a boom in demand.

"It was such a shock to so many companies in so many industries that there is going to be an exit that they didn't have any contingency plans in place," said Karen Briggs, a senior partner at KPMG who was appointed head of Brexit at the accountancy firm, leading a team of 10 to 15 specialists who are advising clients.

Ms Briggs said inquiries have focused on immigration, legal issues and tax matters related to Brexit. She said she expects to hire additional staff in coming months but could not quantify the possible financial impact on the firm.

While the vote to leave the EU caught many companies and politicians by surprise, the Big Four accounting firms responded quickly. Deloitte had a dedicated Brexit Centre led by partner Rick Cudworth up and running the day after the vote. It has set up a special website and email address to field client requests.

A Deloitte webinar on Brexit on Monday attracted 2,000 clients. The firm has opened a hotline for clients worried about immigration restrictions and devised a "Brexit lab" as a way for companies to assess the impact on their businesses.

"Clients are quite unclear about what steps they should take and they're adopting a wait-and-see approach," Mr Cudworth said. "In a time of uncertainty it is better to be prepared. It's about taking a very pragmatic approach."

Ernst & Young has had a team since last year to prepare for the referendum and has put together a group of 60 partners to advise clients on how to respond.

Steve Varley, UK chairman of the firm, attended two business leaders' meetings with the government in the week after the referendum to press the case that UK companies want to be able to continue hiring skilled workers from the EU while maintaining access to the single market.

After the fall in the pound and in advance of possible restrictions on immigration, one of the biggest concerns among companies is the impact of Brexit on pay and hiring.  Consulting firm Mercer has put together a working group to answer client questions about talent, pensions and employee health and benefits issues. 

"Whenever there's change, there's a lot to be done," said Kate Fitzpatrick, senior global mobility consultant at Mercer.

"It will have an impact on overall talent strategy and where companies will find the skilled resources. We're getting queries daily."

While many companies are waiting to see what happens, financial services firms can't afford to stand by until the Brexit conditions are clear. At Citigroup's London base, a group of top executives meet every week to mull over the Brexit fallout and plot strategy, according to people familiar with the matter, who requested anonymity as the details aren't public.

Colin Church, chief risk officer for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and Conor Davis, head of credit sales for the region, are among the members.

Zdenek Turek, head of the lender's Dublin-based Citibank Europe Plc unit, and UK country head James Bardrick, help chair the meetings, the people said.

"If you're a financial institution, there's nothing you can really do about how the geopolitical situation pans out," said Pri de Silva, an analyst at CreditSights Inc in New York.

"You're going to have to wait and see how the chips fall and then act accordingly. It's like trying to play a game without knowing the rules of the game."

Nomura has appointed a steering committee, headed by Europe chief Jonathan Lewis, to examine the impact of the vote, people with knowledge of the matter said.

In the wake of the referendum, Goldman Sachs hired Mr Barroso as non-executive chairman of its international unit - for which Brexit looms as a key issue, even though the firm did not cite it as a reason for the appointment.

Along with consultants and accountants, lawyers say they're already seeing benefits as companies turn to them for advice.

"We think we are pretty suited for the questions which come, and they have been coming quite a lot," Stephan Eilers, managing partner at law firm Freshfields, said in an interview. "Brexit has not been the fall over the cliff."

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