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PwC’s growth fuelled by social mobility

Author: ICAEW Insights

Published: 05 Feb 2024

Awarded a CBE in the New Year Honours for services to economic growth and social mobility, PwC’s Kevin Ellis is a strong advocate for the strategic benefits of a diverse workforce.

When Kevin Ellis, Chair and Senior Partner of PwC UK and Middle East, joined the firm in 1984, he thought that he would gain his chartered accountancy qualification over three years and then probably leave. 

He was right about the qualification part at least: “I came for the certificate and stayed for the people,” ICAEW member Ellis says.

It’s been a long and distinguished career with the Big Four firm, which saw him awarded a CBE in the King’s New Year Honours list this year for services to economic growth and social mobility. As he eyes his retirement – Ellis steps down on 30 June – he says his most important legacy is the strength of the business he leaves behind. “The real achievement is that the business is stronger now than when I joined.” 

In 2023, PwC UK generated a revenue of around £5.8bn, up 16% on the previous year with increases across all business lines, despite a backdrop of political and economic upheaval. 

Under Ellis’s eight-year tenure, the business has almost doubled in size. He attributes this impressive growth to the firm’s ability to adapt and hone its skills to the major transformation that the world is undergoing, a challenge that the wider profession is also rising to, he says.

Indeed, with developments such as the growth of Artificial Intelligence and the need to tackle climate change coming to the fore, forward-looking accountants have adapted their core skills of scrutiny, governance and oversight to account for corporate non-financial data as well as financial data. Last year alone, PwC hired 4,850 technologists and invested an additional £100m in emerging technologies. The firm also offers generative AI skills training for all its people.

It’s an evolution that is paying dividends for the firm. Last year PwC increased its UK headcount, including partners, to more than 26,000 people, and revisited its entry criteria for new recruits. The firm dropped its 2:1 university grade requirement for its graduate training programme and extended its school outreach programme to attract people from a wider range of socio-economic backgrounds.

“Our profession is probably creating more jobs, more opportunities and paying more tax than most other sectors and also effectively retraining people for the skills needed for sectors, too,” Ellis says.

Diversity gains

Ellis says nurturing a more diverse workforce is one of his proudest achievements – one recognised in his New Year Honours CBE award. He doesn’t covet that recognition for PwC alone, however. He acknowledges that over the past five years, the top 10 accountancy firms have regularly featured in the top 20 companies with the greatest social mobility, as defined by the Social Mobility Foundation. Last year, PwC gained pole position in the annual index.

“The accountancy profession is often an escalator to other opportunities that feed other workforces and wider society. Having an escalator that starts in places where people have less opportunity and need more of a voice really shows the value of the profession. It reflects the wider message that often isn’t told – that our profession is a meritocracy, steeped in opportunity for all,” Ellis says.

With the UK boasting more accountants per capita than any other countries in the world, Ellis says this provides the country with a “skills advantage in a faster changing world”.

“You couldn't make the social mobility contribution if you didn’t have the growth story. There’s got to be the economic reason behind it. Social mobility is an economic necessity for the business,” he continues.

With 30,000 clients ranging from start-ups and scale-ups to family businesses and entrepreneurs, Ellis is adamant the reason they choose PwC – beyond the brand and the firm’s capability – is because the people in front of them look like them, sound like them and have the same values. “If you’re not diverse, you’re irrelevant,” he says. 

PwC’s goal is to have 28% of its workforce come from lower socio-economic backgrounds and last year the firm announced further support measures for such new joiners and prospective recruits. School leavers and graduates can advance up to a £1,000 of their first month’s salary, as well as have increased mentoring.

Ellis acknowledges that PwC’s efforts to build a more diverse workforce is a journey rather than an end point, characterised by “small interventions” rather than a single large gesture. But he is happy with progress: job applicants have jumped from around 100,000 to 340,000 last year.

In the year that PwC turns 175 years old and as Ellis looks to his imminent retirement, his hope is that the pool of potential candidates hoping to succeed him will be suitably diverse and capable to continue that legacy.

New Years Honors 2024

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