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From the advent of AI in accounting to the need for more diversity, Grant Thornton UAE CEO Hisham Farouk discusses the brave new world of financial accounting.

Hisham Farouk may have been working with Grant Thornton UAE for 24 years now, serving as CEO since 2012; however, as he tells The CEO Magazine, that doesn’t mean he’s feeling any less inspired. Far from it, in fact.

“Look, it is a long time, but what keeps me going is that every day feels like a brand-new day,” he says with a smile.

“Every day has its own challenges and every day has its own satisfactions. I’ve been working for I don’t know how many thousands of days over those years, but that’s always been a great pleasure.”

Farouk adds that one of the most gratifying parts of his job has been nurturing the next generation and seeing them, like himself, climb the ranks at Grant Thornton, which is one of the world’s largest tax, audit and consulting firms.

“That’s one of the greatest feelings. It gives me such a sense of satisfaction for what I do and keeps me going,” he says. “I relish the opportunity to work with progressive entrepreneurs and support them in materializing their dreams. That’s an underlying joy that we have in our profession.”

Personal touch

By the same token, when it comes to how Farouk defines success, he believes nurturing happy and fulfilled employees is of central significance.

“The wellbeing of our people is extremely important,” he says. “We are in a highly stressful profession – there are a lot of laws and regulations we need to understand and be very selective about, plus a significant amount of deadlines for listed entities and financial institutions.

“It’s a very large level of responsibility, so naturally builds a lot of stress.”

He believes it’s essential to ensure that Grant Thornton’s people have the right space and mental state to be able to deliver the quality of work required while actually enjoying their lives as much as possible.

Farouk emphasizes that the other most significant indicator that a business is doing well is related to how clients feel about the work being delivered.

“It’s about a personalized approach and the sense that we have the expertise and caliber to support our clients to fulfill their own strategies and expectations,” he explains.

Internally, KPIs are driven by the second win, not the first win.

“We believe the first win can always happen, but it’s actually when the client renews with you that you get the reaffirmation that you’ve done a good job,” he says.

A diverse perspective

While Grant Thornton has always prioritized diversity and inclusion as part of its global culture, Farouk is proud to report that part of a new strategy following the COVID-19 pandemic saw its numbers on this front improve even further.

“We focused very heavily on increasing our diversity and inclusion, not just in terms of gender, but also cultural backgrounds,” he reveals. “So today, for example, we have people from more than 50 nationalities in the office. And we almost have a 50–50 split between men and women.”

But he hasn’t stopped there.

“We also said that we needed to ensure that we are representative of our economy. So we started doing a lot of work around our Emiratization program ‘Izdehar’, which is aimed at recruiting, training and developing Emirati nationals. And I’m very proud today to say we have over 40 United Arab Emirates nationals that we are supporting, who are completing their professional qualifications while they work with us.”

“We focused very heavily on increasing our diversity and inclusion, not just on gender, but also on cultural backgrounds.”
In 2022, Grant Thornton celebrated 55 years of operations in the United Arab Emirates, and hitting such a significant milestone was a proud moment for Farouk for a multitude of reasons. The one standout, however, was recognizing just how many clients and suppliers have been there since the very start of the company’s journey in the country.

“So many of our relationships span decades,” he enthuses. “In our profession, suppliers are critical to us – and it’s very important that our growth is aligned with their growth.

“At the end of the day, because we have these very strong relationships in the marketplace, it ensures that our operations and systems are running very effectively.”

One such example has been Grant Thornton’s partnership with Spencer Interiors and Contracting, which brought to life a refurbishment of the company’s offices.

“We explained to them that our priority was to create an office that provides positive feelings to our people. And they were able to put it together for us, not only once, but replicated in a number of other offices too,” Farouk confirms.

“They did each one with the same heart and commitment and quality – and that shows what an important relationship it is, because ultimately it directly impacted our employees, as well as our clients.”

The point of differentation 

Partnerships are ever-evolving, especially as new technologies and tools enter the market. Right now, there’s nothing more important than AI, a tool Farouk believes can be positively harnessed, rather than one that makes jobs obsolete.

“We’ve invested historically in robotics software, and now more recently in AI, where we’ve adopted a number of technologies that will be online in the coming months,” he says.

“It’s not radically going to change what we do, but AI will ensure that the quality of delivery will be even higher and more consistent, and that our people can invest their time in what really matters.”

“AI will ensure that the quality of delivery will be even higher and more consistent.”
Farouk adds that while it’s likely over the next 10–20 years that the financial accounting elements will increasingly be done through AI software such as Xero, he predicts it will mark a gradual yet sure step toward more ethical accounting.

“What it means is we could ensure that the algorithms that are put in place to generate revenue for a company are actually ethical and aligned with the values and statutes of that company,” he explains.

However, Farouk also emphasizes that no amount of tech solutions are able to successfully imitate what a company like Grant Thornton does. This is because ultimately, its culture and people are the point of difference.

“We have a great belief in the quality and the intellect of our people,” he says. “We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve been on a path of accelerated growth for the past decade, so change is normal for us, and we want to pursue change for the better.

“There’s never a moment where we are at a standstill.”

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