Q&A with Keith Farley

  • Aflac’s Senior Vice President looks back at his time in Belfast as he returns to the states after four years.

    Having made Northern Ireland your home over the last four years, how does it feel to be back living in the US?

    It's mixed feelings to be honest, we absolutely loved our time in Northern Ireland. It was our home for four years and as resident tourists, we travelled almost every weekend and got to see so much of the country. We enjoyed a whirlwind lifestyle yet workwise we were of course also starting a new company from scratch – everything was new and everything about our life was different for four years. Now we're going back to somewhere that we know and, naturally, there's comfort in that. One thing that surprised us was how much a place can change in just four years and how much America had changed while we were gone, but also how much we had changed.

    It's been a bigger adjustment than I would have thought because we had adjusted so well to the lifestyle in Northern Ireland. Everything – from the people, the ease of transport and the fact that we could walk everywhere – was amazing. It’s a full car lifestyle now that we’re back and we have to drive everywhere.

    You made an enormous impact on the NI tech scene, becoming an instantly recognisable personality wherever you went. Was there anyone in the local tech sector that has left a lasting impression on you?

    There were so many individuals that really left a huge impression. However, if I start with those I met outside of work and with people I’ve become friends with then I must mention Gary, Stephen and John from Bogart Menswear and the way that they treated us. I also have to mention John from The Belfast Clipper barber and of course my wonderful neighbours from Holywood who left me with so many good memories.

    From the tech sector, it’s worth mentioning that when Aflac first arrived, several of our major US competitors were already established here and yet I was surprised with just how welcoming and supportive they were. I would have thought that given these guys were my competitors, they weren’t going to like me or that I’m not going to like them.  Nothing could be further from the truth. Such is the Northern Irish spirit that everybody wants to work together, making sure that we're all doing what's right for the community.

    It was an incredible achievement that during lockdown, you were able to establish Aflac in Belfast and build a team of over 140/150 people. What's the secret to the success and what lessons did you learn?

    I think the secret to the success of what we did was giving our employees a voice in almost every decision that we made. We wanted this to be a company that they were starting and creating and not something that they were joining that had been predetermined in the US. We wanted the first 30 to 50 employees to be the authors of the company, the next 50 to 100 to be editors of the company and we never wanted to get to the point where someone would be just a ‘reader’. We've since been editing and re-editing everything at Aflac Northern Ireland, ensuring all our valuable employees have a decision in everything we do, whether that’s where our office would be, it’s layout and furniture, to the type of work we do and to the charities we support. For me, the secret sauce was about our employees really directing the company and deciding themselves what kind of company we would be.

    Northern Ireland has established itself as a technology and innovation hub for numerous US companies. What's the attraction and how did reality compare with your expectations?

    Northern Ireland was a place that truly wanted our company here. We felt that there was a genuine desire for us to be here from the government, the universities and even from the other companies in the city and region, which again was a welcome surprise. The main attraction, I think, was that Northern Ireland wanted us and that really helped us want Northern Ireland. We looked at 15 different cities before landing in Belfast and some places would have been ‘okay’ with having us, but we really felt that there was a genuine and passionate desire from Northern Ireland in wanting us to come. We also knew that if we did make the decision to locate in Belfast, everyone from the government, local business organisations and through to the universities would do everything in their power to ensure we were welcome and successful.

    What surprised me the most was the talent. We had heard that there was really good talent available but it’s not until you see it in action that you say, “Wow, this is something that I can put my hands on and say this is different, this is better than what I've seen". Probably the biggest surprise was when we started producing results and just how strong those results were compared to other parts of the world we had looked at.

    Living in Northern Ireland, I also started to see why the talent was so strong. My kids were in the school local system, and I saw how challenging the school system is and how selective the school system can be. It really drives kids to want to work hard to succeed.

    Aflac in Belfast is in great shape and is now led by a very experienced and popular Mark McCormack. Are you able to share what if any advice you gave to mark before handing over the baton?

    Mark was the first employee and a co-founder of Aflac in Northern Ireland and during those four years, Mark was part of every decision that was made so we knew there would be good continuity. During the early part of our journey, or what Mark jokingly refers to as the ‘Farley years’, I said to him ‘’as you move into the McCormack years, you need to make it your own place, it needs to have your fingerprint on it and your style’’. Until recently, the company had both of our fingerprints on it but now I'm back in the US. The main advice I gave Mark was to not just run the company that we built but to relaunch it. It should feel that there is some continuity of course but it should also feel different too, with a new style that people will know and feel.

    What would you personally like to take from Belfast and introduce to Columbus, Georgia? And conversely, what would you like to introduce from Columbus into Belfast?

    As well as certain food things, there are some cultural nuances that I really liked and will miss. Obviously, there are small things like Cheese & Onion Tayto crisps and Cadbury chocolate which we don’t have in the US, and of course, there’s the famous Ulster Fry…but that said, I still prefer streaky American bacon!

    I also love how people in Northern Ireland often let someone into traffic and are ‘thanked’ for the gesture by a flash of the hazard lights. It's such a nice thing and I just think that it's a great, warm nonverbal cue of how we communicate with strangers around us that are in our lives because of the proximity they have to us.

    That spirit of generosity that people have in Northern Ireland is something I would love to bring back to the US and to Columbus. People really do want to take care of each other, and I've seen it and felt it firsthand.

    I would say, though, that some of the exciting sports culture in America is something that I missed most when I was away from home. I love US sports, especially the large stadiums filled with over 100,000 people which are loud, but they really bring communities and people together. You have that in Northern Ireland too, although there's also maybe a bit of a division in some sporting circles. However, hockey and the Belfast Giants seem to do something that everybody can rally around.

    In terms of food, there's a couple of American restaurants such as Waffle House and Chick-fil-A that we missed and would love for the folks in Northern Ireland to get to experience them, but honestly, there's not a whole lot I would swap in either country. I like the personality that each of them has on their own – it’s nice that they’re known for what they’re known for.

    What's the next chapter for you and what would you like to see in the future for Aflac Northern Ireland?

    Moving from the IT and cybersecurity side onto the business side, I am now the consumer of all the work that's being undertaken in Northern Ireland which is wonderful for the local team and for me. It's particularly great for me because I personally know every member of the team that's working on the technology in my business, and I trust them. There’s a lot of comfort there. For the local teams, hopefully, there's greater comfort in knowing that that their direct customer is someone who confidently believes in their abilities and skill. After all, I’ve been working with them for years!

    What's next for Northern Ireland? What I'd like to see for Aflac Northern Ireland is that it continues to expand and increase its influence within the wider company while being core to the company and the strategic decisions taken globally.

    What will you miss most about Northern Ireland?

    That’s an easy question! It is of course the people, who are wonderful.

    I know there's a lot of focus sometimes on the divisions within Northern Ireland, but it’s a great place full of wonderful people. There are too many to mention by name, but I have a love for the people of Belfast and Northern Ireland, people with a great – and often dark – sense of humour that I find so hilarious. Generally, everyone is kind, and they really want to help you out. That’s something I have loved showing off when colleagues, friends or family came to visit.

    I’ve loved taking family and friends out and about and just letting them see the community in action here whether that’s in a restaurant, a pub, or simply shopping to interact with local folks.

    It’s always been a great experience.

    This article appears in the Big Data edition of Sync NI magazine. To receive a free copy click here.

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