To the island and back

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PwC Canada sat down with Edmonton partner Brendan Hobal to learn why coming back to PwC was the best move he ever made

Brendan Hobal

Brendan Hobal    

PwC: How did you begin your career with PwC?

Brendan Hobal: I joined PwC’s Edmonton office in 1998. I did my articling there. It was still legacy Price Waterhouse and one month later it merged to become the PwC brand that we know today. In 2001, I earned my CA designation. That same year, I left for the Cayman Islands.

PwC: What prompted that decision?

Brendan: I was at a point in my life where I thought, “I’ve got my CA designation; I’m still young; I just got married; no kids—I’d like a different kind of experience. The kind of experience that includes sitting on a beach!”

PwC: So you went to work at the PwC office in Grand Cayman?

Brendan: Exactly. And I stayed there for 2 great years. The people I worked with in Cayman were absolutely amazing but I got itchy feet and wanted to try something different.

PwC: Why only two years?

Brendan: I’ll admit my timing was a bit off; I was hoping to make manager in Cayman but even in my last year there, none of the 25 senior associates had made manager. So I thought, okay – either I can do another year as a senior associate at PwC, or I can look elsewhere.

PwC: So you chose Door No. 2—where did you end up going?

Brendan: I joined UBS in its hedge fund administration group at the end of 2003. Myself and another CA (originally from Saskatchewan) looked after 10 funds worth about $3-4 billion in assets. It was a great opportunity for a good work/life balance. But that did not last long as the hedge fund industry exploded in 2004 and we were pushed to our limits from then on.

PwC: Why hedge funds?

Brendan: Around that same time, hedge funds really hit the map in the financial world. In the past, they were considered too risky and unwanted. But the returns were becoming so good that investment managers and pension funds started increasing their mandates to allow more alternative investments, like hedge funds, into their portfolios.

The group I was in quickly grew from 2 to 10 people. The growth was crazy; within 2 years we saw a significant increase in funds and assets. It was an eventful time with some unexpected occurrences. First, we went through a full system conversion and then on September 11, 2004, Hurricane Ivan hit the island. It was a direct hit; the worst storm in Cayman’s history. A disaster recovery plan was put in place; UBS chartered a plane in for us and evacuated the staff. We stayed the night in Bermuda and then it was off to Chicago to work in a vacant office in the UBS Tower. We were there for three months, in which time they were able to get the Cayman building cleaned and the computers systems restored.

We returned to Cayman and stayed for another year-and-a-half. And then wouldn’t you know it—Hurricane Katrina hit. We were still on high alert from Ivan! After that scare and the arrival of our first child (Brynn) we knew it was time to go home. I went back to Canada to work in the UBS Toronto office as Group Head. I committed to one year and there were a lot of challenges. We started from scratch but by the time I left, we had about 25 staff and an impressive rise in assets. By that time, my wife and I had our second child (Talan) and we wanted to move back to Edmonton to be closer to our families.

PwC: What was the final “aha” moment that caused you to move back to Edmonton and back to PwC?

Brendan: Close to the end of my time at UBS, I was ready for a change. It was 2007 and the economy was red-hot. So I started interviewing for jobs. As a CA, I could have taken any job I wanted because there was high demand. But I was afraid of getting into a role where I wasn’t developing and would become stagnant.

UBS and PwC were a similar size but the cultures were different. Upon reflection I realized that when I went to Cayman, I didn’t have a proper career focus yet was leading an entire group! During those three years I went through a whole system conversion, trained the staff, managed growth and then implemented a disaster recovery plan. And the reason I was able to figure out how to do things at UBS was because of the training I had with PwC. At PwC it’s all about you; it’s all about the training. I realized that’s where I learned how to deal with and eventually overcome my biggest career challenges.

I decided to rejoin PwC Edmonton in 2007. I knew it would be an ideal place for me to develop professionally. It was the best move I could have made. The economy was booming in Alberta and I made it clear that I wanted to be a partner in three to four years. The firm recognizes people who are ambitious and want to take that step. I worked hard for four years and was admitted into partnership on July 1, 2011.

PwC: Can you speak to us about the culture and mindset at PwC?

Brendan: I see two aspects that are unique to PwC: One is our coaching. We are very focused on our staff and their development. Every new hire is assigned a coach. Even when they’re writing the UFE they’re assigned a coaching buddy. We are mandated to integrate Enhanced Working Practices (EWP) in all of our offices to make our people better. As a result, PwC firm-wide is doing better.

Another thing I’ve always admired about PwC is that our leadership team is always looking for ways to improve the work environment. I respect the drive to do what’s right for both our people and the firm.

PwC: What is it about the PwC Edmonton office that makes it a great place to work?

Brendan: I think because the Edmonton office is a smaller size compared to our other offices, it’s a little easier to get to know everyone. This helps with work efficiency fairly quickly right from the start (knowing who to resource for what job functions and expertise).

PwC: What are your responsibilities here as a partner? How does it differ from being a senior manager?

Brendan: In terms of transition, I don’t feel a huge change because as a senior manager I was taking on roles and responsibilities to prove to myself that I could operate as a partner. That mindset made the transition to the role of partner, quite smooth.

PwC: Does the role of being a PwC partner feel like a natural fit?

Brendan: It’s a natural fit, however there’s a level of higher accountability that I am always conscious of. But I put that on myself—even as a senior manager I did that. What I’ve found interesting is that as a senior manager, when a firm issue came up, you’d be inclined to say: ‘Well, somebody will figure it out and take care of it.’ But now, as a partner and owner of the firm, I sit in our meetings with the other partners and say, ‘Okay guys—how do we fix this?’

PwC: So what’s in store for your future now that you’ve done the whole “adventure” thing and have achieved your goal to be a PwC partner?

Brendan: I think for now it’s really about growing my practice and learning and excelling as a partner. I see that as being my primary focus over the next three years. Maybe after that I’ll want to take on a different leadership role with the firm. That’s the great thing about PwC – I can relocate to any office and there will be numerous opportunities for me.

PwC: We appreciate your time and your insight - thank you Brendan.