David Duffy discusses recent Irish and EU VAT developments.Irish VAT updatesVAT rate decreaseAs most readers already know, the standard rate of Irish VAT has been reduced from 23% to 21% for the period from 1 September 2020 to 28 February 2021. We expect that most businesses will already have made the necessary changes to their systems and processes to apply the new rate to affected transactions from 1 September 2020 onwards. However, when preparing your September/October VAT return in November, it may be helpful to check that the new rate has been correctly applied. Some of the points to check may include:Has the new VAT rate been correctly applied to your sales? The tax point and corresponding VAT rate for your sales may differ depending on whether the sale was to another business or consumer, whether you operate the invoice or cash-receipts basis of accounting for VAT, and whether a payment was received in advance of the supply. The Revenue Tax and Duty Manual on changes in rates of VAT, available on the Revenue website, provides further guidance on how to apply these rules.Has the appropriate VAT rate been applied to purchase invoices received in the period?Has the appropriate VAT rate been applied to credit notes issued or received during the period? In general, the VAT rate applied to the credit note should match the VAT rate applied to the invoice to which the credit note relates.Does VAT charged at the new rate correctly map to the appropriate general ledger accounts and is it correctly captured in your VAT reports for the period?Extension of COVID-19 reliefsRevenue has confirmed an extension of a number of temporary, indirect tax reliefs introduced earlier this year to help combat COVID-19. These reliefs were originally due to expire on 31 July 2020, but have now been extended until 31 October 2020, subject to further review. The temporary reliefs include:The zero-rate of VAT applies to personal protective equipment (PPE), thermometers, medical ventilators, hand sanitiser, and oxygen when supplied to the HSE, hospitals, nursing homes, care homes and GP practices for use in providing COVID-19-related healthcare services. Relief from import VAT and customs duties applies to the import of medical goods to combat COVID-19 by or on behalf of State organisations, disaster relief agencies and other organisations approved by Revenue, and which are provided free of charge for these purposes. No VAT clawback will arise for the owner of a property used to provide emergency accommodation to the State, HSE or other State agencies in order to combat COVID-19. EU VAT updatesDeferral of VAT e-commerce rulesThe EU has recently agreed to defer the introduction of significant changes to the EU VAT rules for e-commerce transactions from 1 January 2021 to 1 July 2021. The deferral was in response to potential challenges of meeting the 1 January 2021 deadline for tax authorities and businesses as a result of COVID-19. While this deferral gives businesses more time to prepare, it is important for businesses that will be impacted by the changes to begin their preparations. Businesses which will be most affected include retailers with online stores, online platforms and marketplaces which facilitate sales of goods to consumers, and postal and logistics operators which handle imports of goods on behalf of retailers or consumers. A brief summary of the changes coming into effect on 1 July 2021 is set out below. The current domestic VAT registration thresholds for cross-border business to consumer (B2C) sales of goods in each EU member state will be abolished. As a result, a retailer selling goods to consumers in other EU member states will be obliged to charge VAT at the appropriate rate in the member state to which the goods are shipped regardless of their value, subject to a very limited exception where the value of sales to consumers across all EU member states is less than €10,000 per year. The VAT payable to tax authorities in other member states on these sales can be remitted through a quarterly One Stop Shop (OSS) registration rather than requiring an overseas VAT registration. VAT will apply to all goods imported into the EU, at the appropriate rate in the EU country of import, regardless of their value. This is as a result of the abolition of the import VAT relief for low-value consignments with a value of up to €22. This is likely to significantly increase the volume of packages imported on which VAT must be paid. To help facilitate the payment of VAT, the retailer or, in certain cases, the online marketplace facilitating the sale can charge the VAT at the time of sale and pay this VAT to the tax authority in the country of import through a new Import One Stop Shop (IOSS). This return would be filed, and related VAT paid, on a monthly basis. However, this will only apply to imported consignments with a value of up to €150. Packages above that value will be subject to import VAT and customs duty in the normal way at the time of import. An online marketplace that facilitates sales of goods to consumers will be deemed to have purchased and resold those goods in two scenarios: first, the goods are imported from outside of the EU in a consignment of up to €150; or second, the goods are sold within the EU by a retailer established outside of the EU. This will bring additional VAT collection and reporting obligations for these platforms.Additional VAT record-keeping requirements will apply to platforms and marketplaces which facilitate other supplies of goods and services to consumers within the EU.VAT on property adjustmentIn the HF case (C-374/19) the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) ruled that a VAT clawback was payable by a German retirement home operator where it ceased to carry out taxable supplies in a cafeteria attaching to the main retirement home building. The operator constructed the cafeteria and fully recovered VAT on the construction costs as its intention was to sell food and beverages to visitors. This activity would be subject to VAT. It was subsequently determined that there had been approximately 10% use of the café for VAT exempt supplies to residents of the retirement home, which resulted in a partial adjustment of the VAT reclaimed. This was not in dispute.However, subsequent to that initial adjustment, the taxable activity of sales of food and drinks to visitors ceased entirely. The only remaining use was in respect of the VAT exempt supplies to the residents, albeit there was no absolute increase in their use of the building. The question was, therefore, whether this triggered a further adjustment of VAT.The taxpayer had sought to rely on earlier court judgments which support the position that where VAT is reclaimed based on an intended taxable activity but that activity does not subsequently take place, the taxpayer’s right to VAT recovery is retained. However, the CJEU distinguished this case from the others because the intended taxable activity had commenced but ceased and the property was now only being used for VAT exempt activities. Ireland has adopted similar rules (referred to as the capital goods scheme) which can result in a clawback or uplift in VAT recovery where the proportion of taxable/exempt activity in building changes. This typically needs to be monitored over a period of up to 20 years. It is, therefore, important to carefully consider any changes in use of a building as this could have significant VAT consequences.David Duffy FCA, AITI Chartered Tax Advisor, is an Indirect Tax Partner at KPMG.

Oct 01, 2020

The pandemic has broken several business taboos and accelerated the role of digitisation in all walks of life. The UK tax system is no different. HMRC’s role in developing the job retention and self-employed schemes’ online portals at speed to deliver support to employers and businesses at a time of crisis has shown that digitisation can be done quickly. It might not have been perfect, but it was very good. On the back of these lessons, the UK Government published its vision for tax administration in the UK in July: building a trusted, modern tax administration system. The strategic importance of this goal has clearly been brought into sharper focus by the pandemic.An important part of the July publication was the announcement of further steppingstones in the roadmap of the Making Tax Digital (MTD) project, starting with extending MTD for VAT to VAT-registered businesses with turnover below the current £85,000 VAT registration threshold from April 2022. MTD for income tax will commence for self-employed businesses and landlords with income over £10,000 from April 2023.But there’s one glaring issue missing from the picture: UK tax legislation is extremely complex. Unless this is seriously addressed, efficient, problem-free, further digitisation of the UK tax system cannot be effectively achieved. For that reason, the Government should also develop a roadmap for simplification of the UK tax system which should work as a precursor to any new digital services developed. This should begin with income tax complexity. If this doesn’t happen, having to navigate legislation that continually increases in complexity coupled with a requirement to make multiple filings to HMRC has the capacity to be extremely challenging for both HMRC, the taxpayer and their agent. The UK Government must simplify to digitise.Leontia Doran FCA is a UK Taxation Specialist with Chartered Accountants Ireland.

Oct 01, 2020

In late 2018, HMRC surveyed over 1,000 businesses on their awareness of the corporate criminal offences legislation. Claire McGuigan reports on the findings and the next steps for businesses.Corporate criminal offences (CCO) legislation, introduced in the UK two years ago, was designed to drive a behavioural shift in companies and partnerships to take an active role in preventing the facilitation of tax evasion. HMRC conducted a research project in late 2018, one year after the legislation took effect, to examine the extent to which this has been successful.The results show that more work is needed to raise awareness of the legislation:74% have not heard of the Criminal Finances Act (the Act) and, of those aware, only one-third thought it was relevant to their business.Large businesses and those in the financial services and insurance sectors are much more likely to have taken action.64% of businesses had not made changes to operations as a result of the Act.55% of respondents said they had at least one of the five standard prevention procedures in place.Over one-quarter of respondents intended to make changes in the next 12 months.While some operational changes are happening as a result of the introduction of CCO, it is also clear that the key messages in HMRC’s guidance are not getting through. With no de minimis to the CCO legislation and with sanctions including unlimited fines, criminal prosecution and director disqualification, organisations face a genuine risk if they fail to act.Below is a list of commonly asked questions and lessons based on my work in this area.1. What is a corporate criminal offence?The CCO legislation took effect on 30 September 2017. It created two corporate offences, one relating to the evasion of UK tax and one relating to the evasion of foreign tax. It can apply to the evasion of any tax, including indirect and employment taxes, anywhere in the world. Any UK business, UK corporate, or a foreign corporate doing business in the UK will be within the scope of both offences. The business will have a strict liability under criminal law for failing to prevent the facilitation of tax evasion by one of its associates (employee, contractor or any other person providing services for, or on behalf of, the corporate). A defence exists of having ‘reasonable prevention procedures’ in place.2. Who does this affect?All companies and partnerships. There is no de minimis.3. What happens if we don’t do anything? Are we at risk of penalties?Yes, you are. A successful prosecution could lead to:an unlimited fine;a public record of the conviction; andsignificant reputational damage and adverse publicity.4. What has HMRC said since the legislation came into force?HMRC has made it clear that it is taking this legislation very seriously. It has undertaken investigations, for example, which include interviewing staff to see what they know about CCO, what actions they are aware the business is taking in response to CCO, and if personnel know what to look out for to identify tax fraud.5. Can you provide examples of what this legislation covers?Here are three examples:A member of your payroll team deliberately falsifying information relating to a worker so the worker is treated as a contractor rather than deducting PAYE at source.An employee deliberately collaborating with one of your suppliers to falsify the amount paid on an invoice.An employee deliberately conspiring with a supplier to conceal the true source country of goods to evade customs duties.6. We already have Bribery Act and AML/KYC procedures in place. What more do we need to do?You may already have financial and economic crime prevention procedures in place. These existing procedures are relevant, but a risk assessment specific to the facilitation of tax evasion must be carried out and then mapped to current procedures.7. What should the message be from the board?You need top-level commitment. The board is typically best placed to champion this. From here, your staff will need training so they know what they need to do.8. I haven’t done very much. What do I need to do?The CCO legislation is no longer new, and HMRC will expect you to have reasonable procedures to demonstrate a defence to this legislation in place. There are four stages of compliance with the CCO legislation:Risk assessment: your priority is to conduct and document your risk assessment.Implementation: the risk assessment process should include the development of an implementation plan, setting out the next steps and responsibilities.Training and communication: this is to ensure that CCO policies and procedures are communicated within and outside the business.Monitoring, review and testing: this comprises testing current process and the periodic update of the risk assessment.9. What are other organisations doing at a practical level?Once the risk assessment is complete, there are typical ‘quick wins’ and practical steps that businesses can focus on. This includes developing a suite of CCO policies, such as a board paper and communications to suppliers, and ensuring that CCO training is rolled out across the business.10. What should my business do now?All businesses should continue to develop their response both to COVID-19 and an evolving working environment. The challenges and opportunities of a remote workforce and the accelerating pace of digital change mean that different approaches to compliance, governance and regulation must be considered.It is important to ensure that your reasonable prevention procedures are designed to prevent associated persons committing the facilitation offences in the new reality. Ensuring that your staff and other associated persons understand their responsibilities is also a critical control in minimising the risk of enforcement action.Where there are staff reductions, employees working from home or management focused on critical functions only, unique opportunities arise to commit tax fraud. Risk assessments should be reviewed regularly, particularly within the context of COVID-19.For businesses that have already performed a risk assessment, it is important to carry out a periodic review of existing policies and procedures, as well as refreshing your current risk assessment to reflect any changes in the business.Claire McGuigan is Director, Corporate Tax, at BDO Northern Ireland.

Oct 01, 2020

Budget 2021 is the next instrument in the government's response to the impacts of COVID-19 on the Irish economy. Between the pandemic and a possible disorderly Brexit, Budget 2021 will not be a normal budget, says Kim Doyle.COVID-19 has presented unprecedented challenges for the global economy. Governments, along with their tax authorities worldwide, have adopted and administered emergency measures to preserve the health of their people and defend against collapse of their economies. In Ireland, we had a mini-Budget in the form of the July Jobs Stimulus, a €7.4 billion package of measures aimed at supporting the Irish economy in response to the impact of COVID-19. We also have a number of administrative measures in operation by Revenue to ease taxpayers’ compliance burden. Brexit also brings challenges. At this stage, we do need to respond to the immediate impacts of Brexit, and a possible disorderly Brexit, and plan for the long-term stability and robustness of the Irish economy. Climate change is, too, the ‘defining challenge of our generation’, according to the Minister for Finance. And, indeed, a raft of measures were introduced last year to tackle this challenge, while others were promised in the future. EU and OECD tax reform proposals continue to pose challenges and bring additional uncertainties into play. The impact of these on the Irish economy could extend well beyond corporation tax receipts and may influence unwanted changes in investment decisions by MNC groups going forward.Framing Budget 2021Budget 2021 may target revenue raising measures to cover the expenditure introduced to deal with the recent challenges brought about by COVID-19 and a possible disorderly Brexit, but any budgetary measures must avoid undoing the impact of the July Jobs Stimulus Package. Health and housing priorities will also have to be addressed in the budget. The government has said the measures will focus on the short-term and not beyond 2021.The government has pledged no increases to income tax credits or bands. (This is also promised in the Programme for Government.) The level of government expenditure over the coming months is unlikely to fall substantially, if at all. Despite the backdrop, tax receipts for the first eight months of 2020 are only 2.3% behind the same period in 2019. Given that some of this deficit is a timing issue and will be recovered in 2021, this is a remarkable outturn. September tax returns will be the final “piece in the jigsaw” before the final Budget 2021 is decided, according to the government. ExpectationsPre-COVID-19, Budget 2021 was expected to be framed around Brexit and climate change. Now, amid a pandemic, what are we more likely to see in the Budget from a tax perspective? Income taxConsidering the government has stated there will be no broad based increases in income taxation, we don't expect to see much by way of income tax measures. We may see some modest tax cuts in the form of increased tax credits for stay-at-home parents and other credits and reliefs targeting lower and middle income earners. We would like to see a long-term commitment to a reduction in our high marginal tax rates of 52% and 55% for employees and self-employed respectively; however, there is no fiscal space to make any pledge to reduce these rates in the short-term.The concept of broadening the tax base, so more people pay a little, has long been debated with very little reaction by government. The main reason may be it is likely to be unpopular with constituents. However, considering the challenges for the Irish economy, the government may need to embrace this concept but balance it with the pledge for no broad income tax increases. A new form of tax relief for individuals working remotely is a possible outcome of the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation public consultation on Guidance for Remote Working. Some responses to this summer consultation called for changes to the tax rules for reimbursement of employee expenses and changes to the tax treatment of expenses incurred by employees. We may see some tweaks to the Irish Tax Code in response. Corporation taxThe government reaffirmed its commitment to the 12.5% corporation tax rate in the Programme for Government. The importance of this commitment is evident in the remarkable tax receipts for the eight months to end of August 2020, which are largely driven by large corporation tax increases along with a strong start to the year pre-COVID-19 and more resilient income tax receipts. Ireland is obliged under EU law to implement changes to our tax code to restrict the interest tax deduction taken by companies. At the time of writing, these changes are more likely to take effect in 2022. The EU agreed last year to park its digital tax proposals in order to allow global consensus be reached through the OECD digital tax discussions. Changes to accommodate any digital tax proposals will be premature in 2020 and, therefore, unlikely to be a feature of Budget 2021. Capital taxes In order to further stimulate the economy, lowering both the CGT and CAT rates will likely promote activity in the market and should ultimately see assets put to a more productive use. This rate reduction has been called for and debated in recent years. Perhaps Budget 2021 will deliver. Considering residential property prices have fallen in recent months, there may be scope to increase the related Stamp Duty rate. However, such a rate increase will likely be unpopular among constituents and not helpful considering the struggles reported by many in getting a foot on the property ladder. VATThe extension of the 9% VAT rate to construction services would help encourage the scale of property development needed to absorb the current demand and address the housing shortage. The re-introduction of the 9% VAT rate to stimulate the hospitality sector would complement the other measures, such as the Stay and Spend Tax Scheme. An extension of the new temporary 21% VAT rate, while desirable by many, is unlikely; the headline VAT rate is a useful revenue raising measure. Increasing the threshold for cash-receipts basis of accounting, and the VAT registration thresholds, may support businesses to deal with the current challenges. Old reliablesPetrol and diesel excise increases may feature, particularly in the context of requirements to address climate change. Increases in the excise to diesel only to bring it in line with the cost of petrol at the pumps is more likely. Excise increases on alcohol and cigarettes is possible but the hospitality sector has already taken a battering due to COVID-19 and any further perceived attacks may not be in favour. ConclusionOverall there isn’t the fiscal space for wide-ranging and significant tax reductions and reliefs in Budget 2021. But the Budget 2021 equation must consist of tailored tax measures to support and stimulate the hardest hit sectors of the Irish economy and defend against the impacts of a possible disorderly Brexit on the economy while also satisfying climate change targets.Kim Doyle FCA is Tax Director, Head of Tax Knowledge Centre in Grant Thornton.

Sep 30, 2020

Taking the time to carry out a corporate simplification project during COVID-19 could help sustain your business while safeguarding employees’ motivation and focus, writes Claire Lord.The effects of COVID-19 are severely impacting the global economy. To ensure long-term protection and sustainability, organisations are likely considering ways to reduce costs and improve business efficiencies. Simplifying your corporate structure by removing dormant or unnecessary companies is one way to achieve both objectives.It is not uncommon for organisations to have complicated corporate structures. While many companies within these structures serve a particular purpose that brings value to the business, other companies may be inactive and costing the organisation money to maintain. A lack of time and resources often results in organisations putting off any review of the efficacy of their corporate structures.Perhaps now, a time when employee capacity could be higher and long-term sustainability is a crucial focus, is time for your organisation to examine whether your current structure meets the changing needs of your business? The sooner the steps in a corporate simplification project are taken, the sooner your organisation can enjoy the many benefits.Cost savingsThe cost of maintaining a dormant or inactive company is usually understated. The actual cost can exceed €8,000 per year when compliance and audit costs are taken into account. This does not include the hidden costs of administration and employees’ and management’s time spent coordinating this compliance.Employee productivityMany employees are worried about job security as a result of COVID-19. A project demonstrating that your business is focused on long-term sustainability may help improve employee motivation and focus, consequently enhancing productivity and alleviating fears of job security. Workloads may also be lighter due to the impact of COVID-19 on the economy, and utilising employee time to assist with a simplification project can ensure that their time is spent productively to help sustain the business.Business efficiencyManagement, legal and compliance teams must focus their time, now more than ever, on the core companies required to sustain and grow a business. Eliminating unnecessary companies allows these teams the time to do that. A less complicated structure can also simplify the repatriation of cash from trading subsidiaries and other intra-group financing arrangements.Mitigate riskThe existence of a company can expose a business to risk, including error, fraud, or a failure to meet regulatory or compliance requirements. These risks arguably increase with dormant and inactive companies, given the likely reduction in monitoring as management focuses on the core companies required to run the business. There is also the risk that, over time, corporate memory will disappear, making it more difficult to assess whether a company needs to be retained.Governance standards and transparencyWith ever-changing legal and corporate governance requirements for companies, including new anti-bribery and data protection laws, ensuring that companies meet the required standards is a constant challenge. It is easier to maintain these standards with a less complicated structure. Improved transparency through a simplified structure is likely to be welcomed by investors, finance providers, and other stakeholders.Tax benefitsComplicated structures can sometimes lead to tax inefficiencies, such as tax leakage or additional tax compliance burdens when repatriating cash through the business. Simplifying the complexity of a structure may resolve these inefficiencies and allow for improved tax planning for the business.ConclusionAt a time when organisations must reduce costs and increase business efficiencies to ensure long-term sustainability, considering a corporate simplification project may be a simple step that delivers meaningful results.Claire Lord is a Corporate Partner and Head of Governance and Compliance at Mason Hayes & Curran.

Sep 30, 2020

Kieran Moynihan explains how boards, and non-executive directors, in particular, can optimise decision-making during times of crisis.A veteran non-executive board director (NED) recently shared valuable insights into the workings of an experienced board dealing with the severe impacts of COVID-19 on the organisation. While this is quite an experienced board with battle-hardened veterans in both the executive and non-executive ranks, he indicated that they collectively struggled with the enormity of the challenge facing the organisation.While the board was quite mature in terms of risk management and business continuity planning, several significant decisions were required in a very short time frame. He was extremely complimentary of the efforts, understanding and commitment of the employees to the organisation as well as the outstanding leadership shown by the CEO and executive team. He also highlighted how much the NEDs “rolled up their sleeves” and provided great support in reviewing, challenging, and providing valuable input to the crisis management plan. He highlighted that the CEO witnessed a “new side” to the board whereby it demonstrated a huge commitment not only to the organisation, but in supporting the CEO and executive team as they implemented an elaborate crisis management plan under severe pressure.Unfortunately, some boards have not performed as well during the crisis. The core problem, I believe, is often the calibre of board members. Some are not strong enough to cope well in an emergency to add any strategic value to the executive team. This scenario continues to play out in boards across the world where, in some cases, board and executive teams have faced existential challenges in terms of their organisation’s survival. Amid the devastating impact on employees, an organisation’s financial health, and its shareholders and stakeholders, boards must stand up and be counted like never before.The following definition of crisis management from Deloitte caught my eye recently: “Crisis management is a special, strategic discipline that enables an organisation to leave ‘business as usual’ behind, and to enter a different mode of governance and operations, designed to get decisions made, implemented and communicated quickly, with clear – but different – designated authorities.” While a board has many broad types of responsibilities, the fundamental duty of a board is to make significant decisions. At a time of extreme crisis management, this acute responsibility comes to the fore. It represents a real test of a board of directors in terms of its calibre, decisiveness, effectiveness, judgement, and performance. The following factors can help a board optimise decision-making in the eye of a storm.Quality informationThe brutal reality of the COVID-19 crisis is that major decisions must be made in compressed time frames of days or, in extreme cases, hours. Many of these decisions have serious consequences for the organisation and its employees, customers, shareholders, and stakeholders. Board chairs have a critical role in enabling the board to overcome these compressed review/decision cycles and drive coherent and decisive decision-making.In normal times, quality information is the lifeblood of a board in terms of significant decision-making. In times of crisis, however, it is challenging for the CEO and executive team to create comprehensive board packs when you may have just 24 hours before the next virtual board meeting. In this context, quality is more important than quantity in terms of helping the board understand the logic behind significant proposals from the CEO and executive team.While not ideal, firefighting CEOs and executive teams rely heavily on gut instinct to choose from what appear to be radically different options. It is essential to provide the NEDs with your gut instincts and blunt assessment of the pros and cons of each option.Challenge, debate, and oversightWhen the stakes are high for significant board decisions, the board must maintain the highest standards of challenge, debate, and oversight. A CEO and executive team under severe pressure could undoubtedly get a big call wrong or struggle to create a coherent proposal for consideration by the board. Despite the challenging time frames for decision-making, NEDs must prepare for board meetings, ask hard questions, and add genuine value (in some cases, by identifying additional options or variations/combinations of options that will help the executive team see the wood from the trees).The board chair has a vital role in balancing the level of challenge, debate, and oversight with supporting the CEO and executive team. Genuine board diversity has been a very positive strength for boards as the broader range of thinking styles has enabled greater left-field thinking and more creative problem-solving, while significantly reducing the potential for group-think. At such a crucial time, shareholders, employees and stakeholders rely heavily on NEDs to provide such critical challenge, debate, and oversight to reach the best decisions.The trust equationThe COVID-19 crisis is testing the bonds in many board teams. In such fraught times, tensions can morph into damaging conflict, which boards can do without. While some high-performing board teams have managed this challenge in their stride, this crisis has also galvanised many board teams around a common purpose.A crisis of this magnitude shines a bright light on the ‘trust equation’ of a board. It can be challenging in such a volatile landscape, with so much uncertainty in each sector, to make concrete decisions. Decisiveness, however, is nevertheless a vital trait for a board in crisis management situations, and it is much more effective when the trust quotient is high. In order to strengthen trust, boards can extend a greater degree of latitude than normal to the CEO and executive team, enabling them to provide timely, insightful updates back to the board on the progress of major decision implementation.Changing courseOne of the most challenging aspects of the crisis for many company boards has been facing up to the requirement in specific sectors to make significant changes to the company’s business model and strategy. For companies that had a dominant market position for many years, it can be challenging to face up to the reality that the market has changed, customer requirements have changed, and in some cases, barriers to entry have been lowered with disruptive new technologies.'Independence of mind' is a critical quality in a NED whereby the board director who is not involved day-to-day is able to step back, take a cold, objective view on the organisation’s position, assess the options and implications of a major proposal being put forward by the CEO and provide a sound independent judgement. In this scenario, where an organisation is facing severe challenges to its existing strategy and business model, independence of mind in the NEDs plays a critical role as it can help the board and executive team face up to and address severe challenges to the existing strategy. Some boards might hope that everything will go back to normal but, for most sectors, things will never be the same. As a result, the organisations that adapt will stand a much higher chance of thriving in the years ahead. Throughout the crisis, I have seen several progressive NEDs utilise this time as an opportunity to evolve the overall mindset and level of ambition in the organisation. NEDs are ideally placed to catalyse this evolving growth mindset as in the majority of cases, the CEO and executive team are in firefighting mode and struggle to have the bandwidth to think strategically and grasp the growth opportunities that the organisation could be presented with.External expertiseWe are in uncharted waters in terms of crisis management. As a board gears up to make big decisions, it is vital that, where appropriate, key shareholders and stakeholders are consulted. They will be forced to live with the consequences of the board’s decisions for years to come.Besides the fact that this is the right thing to do, engagement builds support and is formally required in some instances. It will also provide valuable feedback that, in specific scenarios, may be incorporated into the board’s thought processes.It is also vital that, where needed, external expertise is sought to assist with significant decisions. This might be an existing advisory partner who understands the organisation and sector, or an independent sector expert who could provide an objective assessment of the options.Avoid ‘all-in’ decisionsI play chess at a competitive level, and one of the things you learn as you get more experienced is to avoid, wherever possible, making very committal decisions. This is particularly important when the chessboard is ‘on fire’ with severe complications, and it is simply not possible to calculate the variations. Instead, you seek to stay in the game and get through the next few moves. As the board position becomes clearer, you then make a more committal decision as you execute your plan.The COVID-19 crisis is changing by the hour. As governments struggle to balance the resumption of normal life with the associated public health risks, it is tough for the majority of boards to accurately predict how their sector will look in three months, not to mention one year from now. In some cases, companies are being forced to consider severe changes to their business model. Boards should avoid making premature decisions based on assumptions about how the COVID-19 crisis will influence customer behaviours, business models, and the overall business landscape. Like a game of chess, boards would be wise to develop a range of scenarios linked to the public health and associated economic impacts with appropriate trigger points.Understand the broader impactsAt the start of the year, many boards had made significant progress in increasing their focus on environment, social and governance (ESG) goals, employee engagement, and ‘doing the right thing’ in terms of focusing on the long-term, sustainable wellbeing of the organisation. This has since been severely tested in how boards signed-off on significant decisions impacting their employees, customers, and stakeholders.In some cases, the COVID-19 crisis is undermining much of the significant progress made with decisions favouring short-term shareholder interests at the expense of employees, other stakeholders, and the long-term sustainability of the organisation. Throughout the world, employees have demonstrated incredibly strong commitment and understanding to their organisations and customers. How boards respond to this commitment says a lot about the character, culture, integrity, and values of an organisation. It is encouraging to see a significant number of institutional investors highlight the importance of this for their portfolio of listed companies. In many respects, we saw ESG at its very best in the first few months of the crisis with so many employees and organisations stepping up to help society in its time of need.I strongly believe that the organisations that commit long-term to the core ESG principles of sustainability, partnering with their employees, going the extra mile for their customers and “doing the right thing to ensure the longer-term interests of the organisation” will be the organisations that flourish and thrive going into this uncertain future. The board has a critical leadership role in this. We are moving into an era where progressive boards are evolving into a far more thoughtful balancing of the interests of shareholders, employees and stakeholders. The COVID-19 crisis has crystallised the importance of this multi-stakeholder engagement model and is now firmly in the mindset of customers, prospective employees, partners and investors when they consider engaging with organisations.ConclusionSeven months on, boards continue to grapple with COVID-19 and struggle to make some of the most significant decisions ever made in the history of their organisation. Even the strongest, most high-performing boards struggle to get this right, so for any board members struggling right now, you are not alone.This is a time for board teams to pull together and work closely with the CEO and executive team. Through challenge and debate, you will collectively make the best decisions possible and help your employees, shareholders, and stakeholders envision a path to better days ahead.Key takeaways for boards and non-executive directorsAt a time of such crisis and volatility, it is vital for the board to regularly discuss what is happening with your customers, how the crisis is impacting them, how their requirements are changing both short-,  medium-and longer-term and how the organisation needs to adapt to support your customers.It has never been more vital for the executive reporting to the board to be high-quality, succinct and utilising executive summaries to enable the board members to prepare effectively for the board meeting and assist in the creation of a meeting that can focus on strategic and “move-the-needle” type discussions.Balance cost-cutting, productivity and risk mitigation with supporting innovation-led growth and strategy and business model shifts where needed.Be aware that boards are moving to agile approaches to strategy and budgeting using scenario planning and triggers that work better in situations of high uncertainty such as the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.Organisations, as they facing their greatest crisis, have never had such a strong requirement for board members to demonstrate a great work ethic and commitment to the board and organisation.Kieran Moynihan is Managing Partner at Board Excellence, which supports boards in Ireland, the UK and mainland Europe.

Sep 30, 2020

Mark Kennedy explains how ESG strategies that combine uncertainty management with resilience can lead to a differentiated and sustainable market position.There is an urban myth that COVID-19 has displaced the focus on sustainability issues as a significant concern of business leaders. The pandemic has certainly consumed much of our attention in the past six months but rather than replace the concern about sustainability issues, I would argue that COVID-19 has underlined in a profound way why businesses must engage with sustainability (or environment, social and governance (ESG)) issues if they are to achieve long-term success.A strategic approach to ESG means engaging not only with climate change, but also with the range of societal and governance issues that relate to the risk profile of any business. This is a significant exercise and requires a full view of the business, its operations, and its positioning. The primary role of the leadership team, then, is to formulate strategy and create an environment in which the business can address ESG in a structured way while creating a long-term competitive advantage using ESG as a strategic vector. Such an approach requires boards to consider both the risks and opportunities presented by ESG issues.Risk and resilienceLet us start with risk. Today, we acknowledge that the challenge of business risk management has been transformed in two ways. First, the level of uncertainty has changed. We recognise that unpredictability has increased and that the analysis of uncertainty is becoming a discipline in itself. Second, and perhaps conversely, we can know more about risks and their likelihood than ever before. Despite the feeling of shock we all experienced in relation to COVID-19, experts have been predicting a pandemic event for over a decade. Similarly, the impacts of an overly financialised economy and climate change have been flagged for many years. However, business leaders have not traditionally gathered the data and assessed the consequences of these types of event for their business.Of course, ESG offers an opportunity for many, if not all, businesses. Some will benefit from a clear trend in consumer preferences. There is both a marketing and value advantage to firms positioning appropriately on the ESG issues that relate to their ‘theory of the business’. There are also profound advantages in taking a long-term view of strategic elements of a business, such as supply chain, resource management, financing and state aid, and fiscal policies. The EU Commission has supercharged this trend by creating the EU Green Deal, which provides for a radical reorganisation of economic incentives to support profound environmental action. There is also the unarguable benefit to any business of avoiding the worst consequences of crises. Writing about the improvements made to the resilience of financial systems over the ten years since the global financial crisis, Jon Coaffee noted that “the trick now is to ensure they are fit for purpose, and that means baking in flexibility and adaptability in a way that means they not only bounce back, but also bounce forwards when disruption hits”.Making sense of ESGSo, how does a business begin to address what could be a vast and confusing topic? Boards must consider five key issues to address ESG in a structured way.Understand: the board must take a lead in understanding the ESG context. What are the elements? How do they relate to business? Which are relevant to the theory of business/business model? As well as taking steps to understand the issues themselves, the board must also create a framework for the whole business to understand the context, and for all team members to understand why ESG is important and how it impacts their sphere of influence.Analyse: data is king. We must understand the key assumptions that drive the business and results. We must also analyse carefully the impact of ESG issues on those assumptions. This is a significant exercise and leads to the development of key performance indicators (KPIs), which can steer the business effectively.Plan for uncertainty: the management of risk and unpredictability has become a discipline in itself. Techniques such as forecasting, back-testing, crisis simulation, trend analysis and wargaming can form the basis for a board’s evaluation of the issues and possible solutions.Execute: execution differentiates the successful. Change management, influencing behaviours, reporting, and governance are all essential elements of a successful ESG strategy.Embed processes and strategies: finally, businesses must embed the ESG strategy, as they must any strategic component. This means building the key elements into our culture, infrastructures, feedback systems and reporting.The four Rs of resilienceUncertainty management is a key concept in any strategic analysis. A second key concept might be resilience. Since the global financial crisis, we have progressively moved towards a more resilient financial system. If the COVID-19 pandemic has demonstrated anything, it is the need to embed resilience in businesses even more widely. What do I mean by resilience? In essence, it has four characteristics:Robustness: the capacity to withstand shock. In a business context, this might include the consideration of issues such as liquidity reserves, brand loyalty, and stock on hand.Resourcefulness: the availability of adequate resources to continue business during a period of crisis. This includes capital assets, financial capital (both equity and debt), operational assets, and people.Responsiveness: the ability to respond effectively during a crisis. This includes governance arrangements, communication technologies, and the processes to make them work.Redundancy: availability of alternatives where there is damage to, or failure of, a key business component. Can an alternate supplier be found? Have we more than one distribution channel? Can additional staff be sourced?In combination, an ESG strategy that embeds both a sophisticated uncertainty management approach and a resilience model offers a business a differentiated and sustainable market position.A look aheadWe have seen how an event beyond our control – in this case, COVID-19 – can impact businesses and push them beyond the normal operating range. Indeed, we have seen businesses succeed – even in these circumstances.The ESG agenda sets out a template for considering both the risks and opportunities facing a business model. The importance of addressing these issues is also increasingly acknowledged by investors and authorities.In Europe, we will see the emergence of additional and more prescriptive non-financial reporting standards over the next two years. The UK, US and China are also working on these issues. This is forcing a change agenda on the business community and creating a situation where both public and private supports provided during the pandemic might be allocated in a more directed fashion.The science tells us that disruptive events will occur periodically, whether economic, financial, geopolitical or public-health. The question is: will your business be ready?The link between ESG and SDGEnvironmental, social, and governance (ESG) refers to the three central factors in measuring the sustainability and societal impact of an investment in a company or business.There is mounting evidence that businesses which focus on ESG as a core part of their strategy outperform rivals in the medium-term and long-term. There are three pillars of ESG, which together form a framework for businesses to consider their strategic focus. They are economic, environment, and society.The ESG pillars are linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which provide a roadmap for society to address key sustainability challenges. The SDGs list 17 global goals, designed to be a “blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all”. Set in 2015 by the United Nations General Assembly and intended to be achieved by 2030, the SDGs are part of UN Resolution 70/1, the 2030 Agenda.The Sustainable Development Goals are:No povertyZero hungerGood health and wellbeingQuality educationGender equalityClean water and sanitationAffordable and clean energyDecent work and economic growthIndustry, innovation and infrastructureReduced inequalitySustainable cities and communitiesResponsible consumption productionClimate actionLife below waterLife on landPeace and justice strong institutionsPartnerships to achieve the goalFor business leaders, the SDGs and the ESG pillars provide a template that allows businesses to consider their strategic position in an ESG context.Mark Kennedy FCA is Managing Partner at Mazars Ireland.

Sep 30, 2020

Eric O’Rourke explains why organisations should not fear the process of corporate cultural change, and how internal audit can play a pivotal role.“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it”. When it comes to changing a company’s culture, this quote from Peter Drucker is something I, as an Internal Auditor, have heard often over the years.However, culture can be viewed as amorphous and, therefore, difficult to define and alter. For an organisation’s governance structure (i.e. the board and senior executives), the inability to measure an existing corporate culture can create an apprehension and some degree of fear around how to best progress to a desired culture.Culture matters for any organisation but from a financial services perspective, a positive culture drives conduct by promoting the benefits listed later in this article and protecting against conduct risk. A positive culture provides a guiding light for an organisation, particularly when it faces challenges and difficult choices.Culture guides what you should do, not what you can do. It helps organisations do the right thing and, in the context of financial services, this involves restoring trust and protecting the industry’s social license.In May 2020, the representative body for the funds industry in Ireland, Irish Funds, published the ‘Irish Funds Culture Guidance Paper’ for its members. The paper aims to provide member firms with guidance on key themes and good practices to measure, monitor and embed culture. It considers the critical factors to take into account when implementing cultural change. They include defining culture (present and desired) in addition to metrics that can be used to measure/monitor culture and related changes.Existing culture vs desired cultureFor all organisations, the first step is to evaluate the existing culture while identifying the board’s desired culture, as its members effectively lead the organisation’s strategy. Based on this evaluation, the board can then decide whether a culture change programme is required.Employees at all levels should be engaged to ensure that the echo from the bottom matches the tone from the top. The tone from the top is critical to ensure that culture and values are articulated and hence, can be measured. A ‘cultural roadmap’ should then be created. This task should be championed by the organisation’s appointed culture champion or chief cultural officer from the senior leadership level.The advice of Internal Audit (IA) should also be sought at the outset, as the role of IA extends across organisational structures and can provide unique insight.The art of measurementTo measure culture, multiple cultural touchpoints should be amalgamated to give a full picture to key committees and the board. A ‘corporate culture report card’ should also be compiled every quarter and presented to the board by the cultural champion, as culture change is a long process. The report card should be reviewed thoroughly, and corrective action taken if required.Below are some of the metrics that were published in the Irish Funds Culture Guidance Paper. Evidence from the suggested mechanisms should form the basis of the corporate culture report card (see Table 1). Furthermore, IA should audit these metrics as part of any thematic culture audit, or question auditee culture as part of any audit undertaken.Benefits of a considered and defined cultureMany benefits accrue to organisations that embrace a healthy culture, including:Sustainable growth and improved profitability;A more engaged and motivated workforce;The ability to attract and retain top talent;Better and more transparent decision-making;Responsiveness to change and risk;Improved customer satisfaction; andA corporate image and identity that others aspire to.So the critical question is: what culture is desired? Determining the desired culture and measuring the existing culture are the first steps.In closing, I note the words of Dale Carnegie: “Inaction breeds doubt and fear. Action breeds confidence and courage”. The time is ripe to review and possibly enhance your organisation’s corporate culture. Do not fear change; instead, focus on what can be achieved.Eric O’Rourke ACA is Head of Internal Audit at Sumitomo Mitsui Trust Group Global Asset Services and a member of the Irish Funds Internal Audit Discussion Forum.

Sep 30, 2020

Donnchadh O’Neill explains why boards and their advisers will have to tread carefully as they work to recover their foothold in the new landscape.All professional advisers, including Chartered Accountants, are seeking new ways to support their clients. They are helping them navigate unprecedented changes in their workplaces, their financial reporting, their restructurings, and their contracts. In many cases, they are helping businesses fight for survival. Given the heightened risk of missteps in such a turbulent environment, corporate reputation management is now more vital than ever.In the short-term, clients face practical and legal considerations affecting business reopening following a Government-induced coma. Finance functions have been virtualised and governance structures tested. Workforce and workplace transformation has been sudden. Margin sustainability is the new short-term challenge as costs increase, and that is before you consider the looming recession and inevitable insolvencies that will follow.In the last crisis, services and supports to business changed with firms flexing different muscles more suited to the adverse conditions. Liquidators and receivers found themselves in the headlines, sometimes even taking strict precautions to protect their safety by avoiding media attention.Now no one can predict with any accuracy where this crisis will lead in working trends, in accountability requirements, and in ownership structures post-bailouts and business retrenchment as we face into recession. It is easy to foresee the bloodbath on Grafton Street and in specific sectors, which has already begun in terms of liquidations and receiverships. What is more intangible is the effect this long drawn out crisis will have on corporate behaviour, communications, and corporate reputation. Chartered Accountants are on the front line with their clients as these winds blow.I have worked over many years with excellent companies delivering on what they see as their mandate for their various stakeholders. They focus on delivering shareholder value, but also stakeholder value. Following the financial crisis, good corporate ethics, culture, and governance became a priority. Chartered Accountants Ireland shared a leadership role in this arena, with strong educational initiatives to teach and support members, business executives, and even directors. Accountants helped their clients develop risk management processes, including reputation risk, to embed prudence into corporate culture, prevent hubris, and guide decision-making.Regulation increased, especially in the financial services sector. The banking industry set out to address its behaviours by establishing the Irish Banking Culture Board. The EU grew its oversight activity by exercising its muscle to protect consumers. As climate change moved up the public agenda, companies began to include sustainability reports in their annual reports – and this will continue.Over the past number of years, the corporate sector has increasingly had to become more socially conscious, valuing and measuring its societal impact and its corporate reputation. This emergency has put a whole new speed and power behind what was already a growing trend. As harder decisions are taken in the months ahead, companies and clients will need sound judgement as they implement decisions that have a societal, as well as a financial, impact. The climate crisis is upon us and is already forcing its own reset. Failure to make decisions that account for the common good and the public interest can wreak enormous reputational damage and all the attendant costs of that. Great care and balanced thinking will see companies achieve their goals without being forced by political or public opinion to backtrack or revisit decisions ineptly announced or executed. Markets will judge companies ever more so on their ethical behaviour.Look at the public interest trend of late: companies and wages being kept afloat by the State;   companies declaring a pause in dividends (if only to preserve cash); others being mandated to do so (e.g. the banks). More than 300 listed companies in the UK have cut or cancelled pay-outs. Money earmarked for shareholders will be used instead to service or repay debt, or just to stay afloat. The insurance industry was elbowed by the Minister for Finance, while the courts will probably have the final say. Companies such as Aldi pledged to pay their small suppliers early to keep their cash flow healthy.I do not doubt that as governments the world over ultimately face the bill for this COVID-19 bailout, tax and tax avoidance and wealth taxes will move much faster to the top of the agenda. This will feed into director and corporate reputation management, and advisers will have to be aware of the spirit as well as the letter of the law when advising clients.Commentators are already forecasting a shift away from capitalism and globalisation – that will continue. Growing your food locally and manufacturing locally suddenly look like viable ways to manage your own future risk. Brexit and global trade wars are yet to hit, not to mention the effects of preparing businesses for a low-carbon future.Will companies and their financial advisers, expected to act as citizens, focus on protecting and building up their social capital as well as their share capital? Employee health and protection became the top priority in recent months. How do you provide for unknown bottom line impacts for employee illness, absenteeism, or indeed legal claims? Insecure, gig economy, zero-hours type jobs have also been exposed for their human cruelty, and there will be a continuing priority on workers’ economic health (possibly even a universal wage or basic income for all).While capital will naturally only go where it has a reasonable expectation of a return, will investors be forced to rethink what is proper and possible for successful companies in an era of depression? How will directors and boards justify levels of executive remuneration that might look extreme and still manage to retain the permission to operate under a social contract, maintaining trust and enjoying a corporate reputation that underpins value? Apart from taxes, will companies have to become almost philanthropic in some of their behaviours?Corporate activism will grow as companies need to be seen to be responsible; to solve, not just sell. Liquidators and receivers will have to execute their mandates with an assured eye on the public and political impact of their decisions.Will companies build and wield their ‘soft power’ in focusing on purpose as well as profit? We have all admired genuine public service and public servants in recent months. Will the era of State-owned commercial entities come back into fashion by necessity, forced to step in and own hotels (remember Great Southern?), airlines, food companies (remember Irish Sugar and Erin Foods?), shops and insurance companies? We might well be facing an era of “de-privatisation”.In a perfect storm of increased costs, reduced margins, and recessionary outlook, with bankers and receivers taking hard decisions, the need for companies to communicate, to explain, to justify and most of all, to “do no harm” will be right up there among the top commandments. Boards and their advisers will have to tread carefully as they adjust, speak, and act to recover their foothold in the new landscape. Companies will sustain great reputations not just because they have great products and services, but also because they take full account, in advance, of the public impact on – and reactions to – their decisions.Donnchadh O’Neill is Managing Director of Gibney Communications.

Sep 30, 2020

Dr Joanne Murphy distils four common themes from the battlefield to help you lead and manage through the COVID-19 crisis and into an uncertain future.The COVID-19 pandemic is frequently referred to as a ‘war’. We hear about the battle for ventilators and the need for collective action against an invisible enemy. But what does the reality of wartime tell us about managing through, and beyond, a system shock like COVID-19? While there is no rulebook to guide our responses, we do know a great deal about the positive behaviour of leaders in other extreme situations, navigating rapid system-wide change, and facing risk and imminent danger.My research on leaders and managers operating in extremis provides some insight into the leadership behaviours and practices that work best in stressful and complicated environments. The individuals I have spoken to have managed to maintain organisational life and direction in contexts of emergency, violence and disruption. These include police and other ‘blue light’ services, those running businesses and public services in Northern Ireland during The Troubles, entrepreneurs in the Basque country during the ETA campaigns and, most extreme of all, those driving organisational activity in Bosnia during the dreadful siege of Sarajevo.The dynamic nature of these environments is akin to the large-scale systems change we are experiencing as a result of COVID-19, and effective responses require a similar set of leadership skills and attributes. Four common themes emerge from these experiences that will help us think about how to lead and manage in extremis, and which are relevant to both these times and the challenges that lie ahead.Organisation is everything.Let go of the old to make sense of the new.One leader is not enough.Be courageous.1. Organisation is everythingMany of us will feel that we understand the role of military leadership in conflict, but what do civilian leaders do in war? In 1984, the city of Sarajevo hosted the Winter Olympics, memorable for the triumphal success of British figure skaters Torvill and Dean. Only a few years later, in 1992, the Bosnian war brought the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted 1,425 days – the longest city siege in modern history. Ismet Kumalic, a director in a state company in the former Yugoslavia, lived in the purpose-built ‘Olympic’ suburb of Dobrinja which, on the frontline of Serb shell and sniper fire from the surrounding hills, was quickly isolated. Ismet became the civilian administrator, accountable for keeping 30,000 people alive under daily bombardment, with meagre supplies of food or fuel. During the siege, he and his team achieved the extraordinary, including the development of a 10km tunnel network to allow people to move between buildings and avoid sniper fire, the cultivation of every inch of available land to grow vegetables, and the management of a school and medical unit. While many residents were killed, Ismet reflects with pride that no one died of starvation (though sometimes food was rationed to just 300 calories a day). He has three messages about leadership in such an extreme environment.The first is about the position of leaders: “In such a situation, you are not that important… you are at the bottom of the pyramid, not the top. You are carrying them on your shoulders.”The second is about management: “Organisation is everything. You cannot succeed without organisation. You must think of everything.”And the third is about decision-making: “You have no time. You have to make decisions. To make decisions without time, you have to be brave.”2. Let go of the old to make sense of the new As in more normal organisational contexts, in extreme environments, it is also important to distinguish between leadership and management. Management relates to how an organisation functions, the implementation of plans and objectives, and the maintenance of a ‘steady-state’. Leadership is different. It relates to change, communication and vision. Leaders are ‘pathfinders’, able to articulate a shared vision and understand strategy as a dynamic process that is always under review.During periods of crisis and threat, people look to leaders to take action. This requires those tasked with leadership to make sense of confusing environments and mixed messages from stakeholders. The ability to let go of existing models in the face of change and embrace new ways of making sense of the shifting world around you is a key requirement. Leaders need to be self-aware and avoid clinging on to old rules or ways of doing things. Successful leaders in periods of extreme change become more receptive to input from followers, more likely to integrate their efforts into teams, more approachable, and less intimidating.When stress is heightened, certain qualities and behaviours become essential. They include the ability to prioritise, understanding the significance of role clarity, and effective communication. One police leader, who had been instrumental in the controversial and emotional transition from the Royal Ulster Constabulary to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, said: “Just because you think you have said something, it doesn’t mean that people have heard it. You need to present the message in multiple forms. The more important that message is, the more mediums you use for distribution.”3. One leader is not enoughIt is not uncommon to perceive leadership as involving charismatic individuals, superheroes who can lead through adversity and overcome incredible odds to succeed. However, in extremely challenging environments, such individual leaders are rarely enough. Instead, we see the cultivation of social networks of leadership.The Basque city of Bilbao features the Guggenheim Museum, an architectural marvel designed by Frank Gehry. This beautiful building is just one aspect of a much broader strategy to revitalise and reframe Bilbao away from its reputation as being polluted by its industrial heritage and scarred by the violent ETA campaign for independence and the equally ferocious security response of the Spanish state. Economic regeneration in such an environment seems almost hopeless.When those who worked for the reimagining of the region and its economic regeneration reflect on their achievements, they speak about two important requirements. First is the importance of teams of leaders operating collectively, and the capacity to navigate troubled waters together with a set of common objectives. This requires collectivisation of leadership, which can be a challenging approach for many.Second, for the revitalisation of Bilbao, it was the primacy of beauty and aesthetics. Change, especially in the aftermath of extreme adversity, requires hard work and a little bit of luck – but also an understanding that there is more to regeneration than the economy. In this case, the creation of a beautiful and authentic cityscape, with pride in the built and natural environments, provided a core motivational dimension.4. Courage in the face of fearThe COVID-19 pandemic is not just a physical health crisis; it also presents a considerable threat to people’s mental health and wellbeing. Anxiety caused by lockdown and isolation, fear of losing one’s job and economic hardship are all overlaid with the danger of ill-health and mortality associated with the virus itself.Those who have managed businesses during conflict often speak about their fear, and sometimes terror. The spectre of having to deal with paramilitaries on the one hand and the police on the other left many feeling isolated and alone. One businessman commented on his investment in a bar and the early days of the business, “We had a door that squeaked, and I thought, ‘sometime in my life I’m going to work in this bar, and that door will squeak, and my stomach won’t tighten. I’ll not have fear in me’… the first year was just like hell”.At times of extreme stress, it is easy to default to task-based decision-making and forget the human element, which is critical to maintaining personal and organisational resilience. The individual courage required to lead, and to keep leading, in such environments should not be underestimated. At an organisational level, keeping spirits up in the worst of times is also a critical leadership skill, one that is often lost in the chaos of rapid change. Others have framed it differently. Irish diplomats tasked with crafting a workable peace process amid the seemingly intractable Troubles spoke movingly of having “a duty of hope”, an understanding of both professional duty and personal emotional response. However it is conceived, it represents the last pillar of leadership for these challenging times.Dr Joanne Murphy is Academic Director of the William J. Clinton Leadership Institute at Queen’s University Belfast.

Sep 30, 2020

Dr Annette Clancy explains why a growth mindset is critical to success when faced with relentless, and seemingly endless, uncertainty.COVID-19 forced companies to adapt and change with unprecedented speed. Change is always on the agenda, but the pandemic accelerated it. Right now, organisations are planning to bring people safely back to the workplace. Planning is essential to reassure workers and clients that their safety is a priority but, as COVID-19 has demonstrated, plans are only partly useful in a context where the future is complex and unpredictable. Organisations will need to cultivate adaptability to continue to respond to this ever-changing environment.AdaptabilityCarol Dweck is a Professor of Psychology at Stanford University who researches human motivation. After studying the behaviour of thousands of children and their attitude to failure, she coined the terms ‘fixed mindset’ and ‘growth mindset’ to describe people’s beliefs about learning. A fixed mindset assumes that intelligence or character is limited in the sense that it cannot change. As a result, people see effort as fruitless and obstacles as indicators that they should stop working. A growth mindset thrives on challenges and learns from criticism. It sees obstacles as opportunities to learn and persists when faced with a challenge.Dweck’s mindset theory has been enormously influential in how we think about motivation and adaptability, not only in relation to children but also because of its applicability to people and organisations more generally. Dweck’s book, Mindset, has been a best-seller since its publication in 2006. And it has particular relevance today, as a growth mindset approach to planning amid a pandemic is likely to yield more benefits than a fixed mindset approach.The power of ‘yet’Those with a growth mindset do not view obstacles or challenges as failures. Rather, they view them as challenges to be overcome. Dweck shared the following example in her 2014 TED talk.“I heard about a high school in Chicago where students had to pass a certain number of courses to graduate, and if they didn’t pass a course, they got the grade ‘Not Yet’. And I thought that was fantastic, because if you get a failing grade, you think, I’m nothing, I’m nowhere. But if you get the grade ‘Not Yet’, you understand that you’re on a learning curve. It gives you a path into the future.”The concept of ‘yet’ removes the fear of failure. It suggests that it is possible to achieve outcomes with adaptability or change, thereby increasing the likelihood of increased cooperation and the free flow of ideas. From a fixed mindset perspective, changing direction or re-strategising is a significant problem that may throw the company off direction. From a growth mindset perspective, this may be a challenge, but also an opportunity to adapt creatively.Dweck’s research suggests that the latter framing allows for psychological adaptability, which will yield practical results.The blame gameDweck tells us that blame is part of a fixed mindset, as she explains in this quote from her book: “When bosses become controlling and abusive, they put everyone into a fixed mindset. This means that instead of learning, growing, and moving the company forward, everyone starts worrying about being judged.”This type of atmosphere inhibits creativity because employees will fear being blamed for risk-taking, which is central to adaptability. Leaders who exhibit a growth mindset have a vested interest in developing people and encouraging creativity. They rarely use the company as a vehicle for narcissistic posturing. Their interest is in growing the company and supporting the creative adaptability that will ensure the success of the organisation and its people.COVID-19 is pushing everyone to adapt to new ways of working. Dweck’s research on mindsets offers one perspective on enhancing creativity at a time of uncertainty and change.Dr Annette Clancy is Assistant Professor of Management at the School of Art History and Cultural Policy at UCD.

Sep 30, 2020

Although the relentless adoption of technology is not without risk, the audit – and the profession as a whole – stand to be net beneficiaries in the long-run, writes Lynn Abbott.The COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly usher in a new era for business. There have already been significant changes, with some businesses creating their first online store or introducing contactless payments. Others, however, have realised that they must introduce more sweeping changes, such as offering staff the ability to work remotely. We have yet to see the impact of these changes, but the world will be a different place to the one we knew previously.The Oxford English Dictionary defines a revolution as “a great change in conditions, ways of working, beliefs, etc. that affects large numbers of people”. This accurately describes the transformation that was already underway in audit before the COVID-19 crisis. With advancements in technology, the use of data analytics, artificial intelligence and machine learning are fundamentally changing how business works. Resistance is not only futile but seems to put companies at a competitive disadvantage. The COVID-19 crisis will only serve to accelerate this process, and professional services firms are no exception.Drivers of the revolutionWhen we hear buzzwords like 'data analytics', 'artificial intelligence' and 'machine learning', it can be intimidating. Many people don’t fully understand such concepts, but in truth, you don’t need to. You just need to get comfortable with them. And you probably already are: familiar services like Netflix or Spotify use artificial intelligence to understand your preferences and make subsequent suggestions based on that knowledge. The level of consumers’ expectations is continually increasing, and the successful companies are those that are advancing with technology. The same is true for businesses and their expectations. In audit, the revolution is underway and the sections that follow highlight the key drivers for this change.Improve the audit experienceThe volume of data available to auditors is astounding, but in most cases, this data is simply not being used. If this were happening in any other industry, there would be questions to answer. Data analytics can improve the audit experience in several ways, for both the audit team and for the client.Improve audit qualityDuring the planning phase of the audit, audit teams must shift their focus away from the old mindset of “what could go wrong?” Through analytics, we can turn our attention from what could go wrong to what has gone wrong. Auditors have access to the client’s complete financial data for the period under audit – if they focus on analysing and understanding the data, they could identify an unexpected transaction or trend in the process. During the execution phase, auditors should also build on the knowledge gained in planning to truly understand the business in question and focus their attention on higher risk transactions. Finally, auditors should move away from a ‘random sample’ approach and, instead, focus on the transactions that appear unusual based on their knowledge of the client, business or industry. These are just a few areas where improvements in audit quality can be achieved using data analytics.Improve efficiencyIn the examples above, the use of data analytics in planning will identify what has gone wrong and any associated unusual transactions. In execution, these transactions will be tested as part of the audit sample. It could also cover some requirements under auditing standards concerning journal entry testing, as the journal entries will likely be the data that highlighted what went wrong in the first place. Again, this is just one example of efficiencies gained without even considering the hours saved by automating processes like creation of lead schedules and population of work papers.Post-pandemic worldThe world will be a very different place in years to come. Firms with the ability to perform in-depth analysis using data analytics undoubtedly have a significant advantage over those that do not, given the efficiencies they can gain and the potential reduction of physical evidence required from clients, among other things. Due to the changes we have all had to endure, auditors may also have additional procedures to perform (e.g. roll-back procedures where they were unable to attend stock counts at year-end due to the COVID-19 closures of businesses). Such procedures have the potential to be automated, saving even more time and effort for audit teams.Improve engagementRather than spend time performing mundane tasks such as testing large randomised samples, data analytics allows audit teams to jump into the unusual transactions. This will make the job more interesting to auditors and cultivate a curious and questioning mindset, which will, in turn, lead to improved scepticism and audit quality.Improve client experienceThis might happen in two ways. First, the time saved by the client’s staff (who, in theory, will have fewer samples for which to provide support) and second, through the value the audit adds to the business. As an example, consider an audit team performing data analysis on the payroll for their client. As payroll is a standardised process, the audit team has an expectation around the number of debits and credits they would see posted to the respective payroll accounts each month. As part of their analysis, however, they find an inconsistent pattern. This can be queried as part of the audit and the client will be better able to understand a payroll problem, which they were previously oblivious to.Client expectationsGiven the level of data analysis that occurs daily in the life of anyone using a smartphone, a consistent, high quality is understandably expected in people’s professional lives, too. Audit clients, like all consumers, want more. They want a better and faster audit. They want an audit that requires minimal interference with the day-to-day running of their business, without compromising the quality of the auditor’s work. With troves of data now available to auditors, such expectations are not entirely unreasonable. Audit firms have access to vast amounts of financial and related data – in some instances, millions of lines of information – that, if analysed robustly and adequately, would improve their processes, their clients’ experience, and the quality of their audit files.Aspirations of professionalsAudit professionals can often struggle with work-life balance. Though most firms are getting on top of remote working, the hours in busy season are long. In a time of continuous connectivity, the time frame around ‘busy season’ is also becoming blurred. Through the use of technology, we will one day make auditing a 'nine to five' job. Many will scoff at that idea and, although I do not expect this to happen in the next five years, or even ten years, it is possible. By automating mundane tasks and continuously upskilling our graduates, we can transform how an audit team completes work. There will be more scope to complete work before clients’ financial year-ends, thus moving much of the audit out of the traditional ‘busy season’. Machines can complete specific tasks overnight so that auditors could arrive at their desk, ready to work on a pre-populated work paper that needs to be analysed by a person with the right knowledge. With appropriate engagement by all parties (i.e. audit teams, senior management, and audit clients), we could significantly reduce the hours spent on audit engagements and give this time back to auditors. Along with attracting high-calibre graduates, we will retain high-quality auditors in the industry while also avoiding mental fatigue and burnout, which will again lead to better quality audits.Graduate recruitmentGraduates joining firms in recent years have particular expectations of the working world. They want job satisfaction, flexible hours, remote working, and an engaging role that will challenge them. Professional services firms have to compete for the very best graduates, and no longer just against each other – a host of technology-enabled businesses are attracting talent on an unprecedented scale by meeting the needs listed above. Technology, and data analytics, in particular, can offer the solution to the graduate recruitment challenge – by making the work more efficient and automating mundane and repetitive tasks, graduates can instead focus on analysis. When people find their work challenging and interesting, they will feel more engaged.ChallengesThis move towards technology is not without its risks to the profession. Automating basic tasks removes the opportunity for graduates to form a deep understanding of these sections of the audit file. The onus is therefore on the current cohort of Chartered Accountants to take the reins, both to drive technology advancement forward and also provide practical, on-the-job coaching to ensure that this knowledge is not lost for the generations that follow.Lynn Abbott ACA is an Audit Inspector and Audit Analytics Expert in the Audit Quality Unit at IAASA.

Sep 30, 2020

John Kennedy explains how Chartered Accountants can help their clients break free from the shackles of their current challenges and, instead, work towards a brighter future.As we continue to deal with the implications of the untamed coronavirus, we have all been forced to pause and take stock. Many things we historically assumed can no longer be taken for granted. We, therefore, need to learn new habits, develop new routines, and adopt new ways of thinking.At the core of that change is the need to secure our future by identifying, and wisely investing in, our most precious assets. Take a moment to pause and think of the most valuable assets your practice holds – what are they?In my opinion, there are two: attention and energy. Your future success will be determined by your ability to take control of your attention and energy and, in turn, by how you guide your clients to invest their attention and energy where it is most productive and provides the greatest return. You and your clients must stop wasting your attention and energy on unproductive, corrosive thinking.Corrosive and constructive thinkingThe world is flooded with corrosive thinking right now. And, like anything with massive oversupply, it has no value. Corrosive thinking keeps you in a closed loop of negativity, consuming your attention and energy by focusing on the missteps, the problems, and how costly they will be. You will get no positive return on the attention and energy you invest in corrosive thinking.Constructive thinking, on the other hand, is entirely different. It is scarce and, therefore, has an unusually high value. Constructive thinking moves you away from worrying about how you and your clients reached this difficult place and, instead, focuses your attention and energy on reaching a better place. To move from A to B, however, requires the wise and judicious investment of your vital resources.The key is to take control of your future decisively. This is not an invitation to undertake some form of positive thinking or encourage you to merely wish or hope for better times. It is quite the opposite. It is a specific and practical skill that will enable you to create a clear image of a better future and identify the steps to reach that destination.The kitchen testNeuroscience has helped us understand how to harness the power of our brain and use our capacity to think more effectively. If you don’t take control of this capacity, your brain can easily work against you or steer you off-course. But when you know how to harness the power of your brain and focus it on success, profound change is possible.Achieving the success you seek always begins with creating a clear image of that success. Let us put it to the test.Take a moment to think about a room you are familiar with. Your kitchen is a good place to start. As you develop a clear and vivid image of your kitchen, your mind will work with you and help you set out in great detail the many specific aspects of your kitchen. You will be able to give this image real substance – the colour of the walls, the type of floor, or any paintings, pictures or posters on the walls, for example. You can create an image that is clear, vivid and substantial – and that is a very useful talent.The kitchen test shows that you can harness your thinking to work your way through the recent crisis and create a clear image of a better future. This is key to your investment strategy, as you can create an image of future success that has the same level of detail and clarity as to the image of your kitchenWhy is this important in terms of your future success and your success with clients? Left uncontrolled, your mind will come up with detailed and comprehensive images of the difficult situation you are in. It will default to wasting your much-needed energy by placing too much emphasis on the worries of the present. However, the troublesome present is where the problems lie. You want to be in a better place, but you have – at best – a vague and hazy image of that destination.The difficulties of your current reality will appear more potent than any possible future success. And since the mind values clear and detailed images, it will be drawn to where clarity and detail already exist – in this case, on the difficulties of the present situation. This is why the strength and scale of your problems seem to grow and grow. The more you focus your attention and energy on your current difficulties, the more vivid they become to the point that you may not be able to discern a successful future at all.This is where your investment strategy can provide its most significant return.The high-return investment strategyIn taking active control of your thoughts, you can switch your attention and actively invest your energy where it can deliver a more valuable outcome. This is not a trivial skill – it is scarce, of high value, and the vital key to future success for you, your practice, and your clients.To get full value from this insight, you need to establish a new habit. From this point on, every time a client falls into the routine of talking about the worry and stress they face, take active control of the dialogue and help them create an image of a better future.Don’t waste their attention and energy on vague or wishful thinking. Instead, guide them to create a clear and vivid image of a better place, an image that is as clear and real as the image of your kitchen.Rather than dwell on familiar problems, set them on a quest to establish what a successful future would be like. Your client has already built a business that is successful enough to need your accountancy expertise. Now, you can use your insights to help them leverage their knowledge and experience to create an image of a successful future.Research has conclusively shown that this ability is central to the success of the very highest achievers, those who achieve great success and prevail at times of stress or uncertainty. By helping your clients invest their attention and energy in creating a clear and specific image of future success, you are providing them with an immediate and powerful resource. They turn their thinking, attention and, therefore, energy to what they want to accomplish.For more than three decades, I have encountered a habitual pattern of clients focusing on current problems rather than investing actively in future success. Ironically, this habit can be most pronounced at the very time when it is least useful – when the problems seem so large and so vivid and are the cause of significant corrosive stress.When managers, groups or teams spend their time thinking about their most challenging problems, they tend to become dispirited and demotivated. When you help your clients do the opposite, however, you will become a scarce resource: the route to a better place.John Kennedy is a strategic advisor. He has worked with leaders and senior management teams in a range of organisations and sectors.

Sep 30, 2020

David Lucas explains how businesses can access funding and trade through the COVID-19 crisis.The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted businesses throughout the country. Cash flow is scant, debt is mounting, and many companies have yet to resume trading in any meaningful way. Those that are trading again have returned to a desolate and unfamiliar environment. Shops and high streets are empty, many stores remain shuttered and, with further restrictions in the pipeline, dented consumer confidence in certain sectors looks unlikely to rebound fully until a vaccine is developed.SME supportsWithout access to significant cash reserves, liquidity and cashflow are critical concerns for many small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Fortunately, SMEs adversely affected by the COVID-19 crisis can access a range of Government supports. The schemes listed below have been well-received by business owners, but preparation is the key to a successful application.SBCI COVID-19 Working Capital SchemeThis scheme offers loans from €25,000 to €1.5 million at a maximum of 4% interest to SMEs and small mid-cap enterprises. Applicants must meet at least one criterion related to the impact of COVID-19 on their business and one innovation criterion as per the European Investment Fund’s (EIF) standard conditions. No security is required on loans up to €500,000.Future Growth Loan SchemeThis scheme aims to make up to €800 million in loans available for terms of seven to ten years to SMEs and small mid-cap businesses. Loans range from €25,000 to €3 million per eligible company, with loans up to €500,000 available without security. The initial maximum interest rate is capped at 4.5% for loans under €250,000 and 3.5% for loans more than or equal to €250,000 for the first six months. The rates after that are variable.Sustaining Enterprise FundSupport of up to €800,000 can be provided to eligible companies that have been negatively impacted by COVID-19. Funding will be provided for five years using repayable advances, grant aid, equity, or loan note, comprising a combination of repayable and up to 50% non-repayable support. Administration fees on repayable support will be 0% over the first six months and 4% per annum after that. Repayments will be due in years four and five.Restart Grant PlusRestart Grant Plus is an expansion of the Restart Grant scheme. It provides grants of €4,000 to €25,000 to businesses with 250 employees or less, turnover of less than €100,000 per employee, and a 25% reduction in turnover as a result of COVID-19.Trading Online VoucherGrants of up to €2,500 (with 10% co-funding from the business) are available to companies with ten employees or less seeking to build an online presence. The voucher is targeted at small businesses with little or no online presence, turnover of €2 million or less, and at least six months’ trading history.Business Continuity VoucherBusinesses employing up to 50 staff are eligible to apply for a Business Continuity Voucher to the value of €2,500 towards third-party consultancy costs to assist with developing short- and long-term strategies to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic.Pandemic Stabilisation and Recovery Fund (PSRF)The PSRF is set up to invest in large- and medium-sized enterprises employing more than 250 employees or with annual turnover of over €50 million. Enterprises must be able to demonstrate their business was commercially viable prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, and that they can return to viability and contribute to the Irish economy. Investments are made on a commercial basis and they will seek a return for this and can invest across the capital structure, from equity to debt.Temporary Wage Subsidy SchemeBusinesses have also relied on the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS), which was replaced by the Employment Wage Subsidy Scheme (EWSS) in September. The main elements of the EWSS are as follows:A €203 flat-rate subsidy per employee per week for businesses with a decrease in turnover of 30% or more;Employers in all sectors may qualify, subject to meeting certain qualifying conditions; andThe EWSS will expire on 31 March 2021. The legislation, however, provides that it may be extended beyond that date.CashflowThe measures above can provide critical relief and cash support to businesses. However, there are other proactive and straightforward ways in which companies can meet their liquidity needs before repayment moratoriums expire in Q4.Businesses can optimise by selling slow-moving stock to generate cash, for example. Also, debtor management might sound obvious, but assets can become tied up and the longer a debt remains unpaid, the less likely it is to materialise.Debt fundingMany people talk about loan-to-value and property, but at the end of the day, cash repays debt. Property and asset values are significant from a security perspective, and the banks draw comfort from having this as security. However, in recent years, cashflow (and its recurring nature as the first port of call in servicing debt) has been increasingly analysed. Banks are not in the business of selling companies or property unless they have to, but they do need to see cash being generated to service the existing debt quantum.In this volatile business landscape, SMEs may need to renegotiate covenants or restructure debt. Many businesses will find themselves over-leveraged and unable to make their debt repayments as they fall due. Banks expect this in cases where COVID-19 has hit businesses hard, but the key to success is open communication with the bank or funder.Think of it as a partnership approach. Businesses must be extremely well-prepared as approaching a bank can be painstaking and time-consuming. That said, they do understand the position you are in; all business owner/managers want to be able to pay down debt and keep their businesses alive.The standard suite of bank covenants comprises leverage (net debt/EBITDA), interest cover, and debt service cover ratio (DSCR), with the latter often proving the most difficult to manage. As a result of existing trading circumstances, all three may have been breached or be approaching a breach. The banks have provided moratoriums in many cases, but they will need to be looked at and renegotiated as they expire later in the year.The amortisation or repayment profile on debt may also need to be readjusted to match the company’s ability to repay. COVID-19 has devastated many businesses, and some may never return to the same trading levels as before. This outcome would, therefore, require a re-calibration of amortisation; back-ending or reducing it may be the only option. Banks will likely begin to pursue ‘cash sweep’ mechanisms to reduce debt positions in a restructure. Cash sweeps can be administratively cumbersome but show the bank that you intend to work with them to pay down debt.Meanwhile, businesses seeking access to further funding must become familiar with the various options available. Alternative lenders can be less onerous in terms of covenants. They tend to lend a little bit more than the traditional banks and offer increased flexibility, but they also charge higher interest, often as high as 7%.Invoice discounting, where banks lend based on an entity’s debtor book, has also become a popular form of lending from a working capital perspective. It gives the lender increased security, as they have direct access to the debtor book. The facility limits can also grow concurrently with business growth.Private equityEquity is another potential option for SMEs in need of a capital injection. This route has become increasingly popular in recent years, as investors provide experience and growth potential as well as capital.Many business owners are apprehensive about trading a piece of their business, but it is always better to own 70% of a thriving venture than 100% of a failing one.ConclusionOpen communication is crucial at this uncertain time. Lenders understand the position many businesses are in and will expect requests to pay down debt at a slower rate, given that earning profiles may have changed. The key to success, however, is organisation and planning.Seven tips for approaching a bank during a crisisSeek expert advice. A skilled and experienced adviser will know what the bank and its advisers want and will be able to communicate this effectively.Accept the situation. Look for the positives and work with the advice given to you to identify areas for improvement in the business. Listen to recommendations and have robust discussions about solutions.Be honest. A bank likes certainty and predictability. These are uncertain times, so work with the bank and do your best.Prepare a deliverable plan. Create a budget that is real and deliverable, with actions and assumptions clearly laid out. Communicate. Deliver the information clearly and precisely to reduce the potential for misinterpretation and confusion. Don’t ignore the bank and hope that the problem will go away.Prepare. Talking to your bank can be a very confronting and stressful process. Be prepared for hard questions, and don’t take it personally.Have back-up plans. Speak to your adviser about alternatives in the market, be it a direct lender or private equity investment.David Lucas FCA is Corporate Finance Partner at PKF O’Connor, Leddy & Holmes.

Sep 30, 2020

John Convery discusses the important elements when creating a start-up and how you can improve its chances of success.Entrepreneurship is actively promoted and regularly encouraged. Being a business owner can be very fulfilling but starting a business is no easy task. This is a journey where you will meet a rollercoaster of highs and lows. It is a challenging, demanding, frustrating, testing, isolating, lonely, long road on the way to – hopefully – profitability and success.Research suggests 20% of start-ups fail in year one, just under 50% make it to year five, 66% have failed by year 10, and by year 15 only 25% are still surviving. Some businesses deemed to survive merely limp along for years, often referred to as 'the living dead'. However, with the right planning, mindset, and funding, improving start-up survival rates is achievable.Why start-ups failThere is a myriad of reasons why start-ups fail. In my view, it is usually due to a combination of factors rather than just one. Figure 1 summarises the most common reasons start-ups fail. They are broken into four areas:  market, founder, finance and other.Improving your chances of successTo improve your chances of having a successful start-up, you must get some fundamentals right.Sell a product/service that customers want A key reason start-ups fail is because there is an insufficient market need for the product or service. This can be mitigated through focus on the customer from the start. You must be customer-centric before you build, design, or develop anything. Take the time to put your ideas down on paper, and then go out to customers.Talk to potential customers or users, listen to them, try to identify their biggest pain points or struggles. Do market research.Build a basic, early version of the product.Go back to some potential customers, get their views and feedback.Refine, modify and enhance your product based on the feedback. Go back to potential customers again, get their views and any further changes or improvements needed.Enhance your product again.It is only with constant feedback and user reaction that you can improve the product and arrive at a point where it can begin to appeal to potential customers. It is a test and feedback loop. After the testing is done, you will begin to get a feel for a business model and pricing.Create a balanced teamFind good people with complementary skills who gel with one another – preferably a designer, engineer and marketeer. Teams build companies, not individuals. Investors also want to see a team, not a single founder.Control cashflow tightlyIt’s the job of the main founder or appointed finance person to make sure the company does not run out of money and to control finances tightly.Write a business plan The process of writing a business plan is not an academic exercise, it is a validation exercise on the product and overall business. The business plan should corroborate whether the product and overall business has potential. Appoint a savvy external business mentor or adviserTheir role is to ask hard questions, challenge you, objectively evaluate progress against targets set and hold you accountable. This person should not be a close relative or friend.Is entrepreneurship right for you?Creating a start-up is not for everyone. Like any career choice, not everyone is cut out for certain roles. It may not suit your interests, temperament, passion, or skills. The requirements or skillset for an entrepreneur are not specified, yet the skills required to be successful are rarely discussed other than in academic textbooks.Your character and resilience will be severely tested in a start-up, especially in the early stages. Delays, disappointments, criticism, rejection, frustrations, travel, endless presentations, knockbacks and 80-hour weeks with little pay is what a founder is facing. Fundraising is arduous, where it can take six months of meetings, calls, presentations and visits to secure investment. This takes a toll on you mentally and physically, and your ability to face these knocks and challenges while remaining optimistic is difficult. Successful entrepreneurs show some essential personality characteristics such as patience, an ability to listen, learn, accept criticism, and stay positive. They are a people person, and able to get along and deal with all types of individuals. Failure does not defeat them, and they learn from mistakes. They can take things in their stride and are willing to adjust or pivot when required. Successful entrepreneurs possess drive, ambition, and determination.Anyone who might be considering creating a start-up should do some self-examination as part of the planning. They need to ask themselves honestly if they have some or any of the requirements that an entrepreneur needs to have. Ask yourself questions such as:Do I have that entrepreneurial drive and determination?Am I cut out for this?Why do I want to start a business? You should only start a business for the right reasons. Self-indulgence, fulfilling a dream and pleasing someone else are not valid reasons.You fail and you learnThe aim of a start-up is to solve a problem for a customer. The customer comes first. Your starting point is talking to customers, discovering their pain points, and then using that feedback.If you are not getting good market traction, be prepared to pivot and change. If the business is still struggling to get off the ground, be prepared to disengage. This can be a difficult decision but necessary. You can always start again. Remember: you will pass failure on the way to success. A failed start-up is a valuable lesson. You fail, you learn, you start again and you do things better.I believe it is possible to improve start-up survival rates with good planning, the right mindset, and a funding plan. If your product/service is good enough, you will always secure funding. While the risks of failure in a start-up are high, the entrepreneurial spirit will nevertheless always be alive.John Convery FCA is a business adviser to start-ups and small businesses.

Sep 30, 2020

2020 has been a year of expected and unexpected change for the pensions industry, but even more change lies ahead, argues Elma Fox.When looking forward to 2020, the pension industry anticipated a year of change and development. We have certainly experienced much change, unfortunately, much of it from unanticipated events. We can learn a lot from our response to these events, which will inform how we deal with future changes and developments.When looking forward, we expected change to arise from the usual sources – legislative changes mainly from the EU, and both domestic and international political developments. Anticipated changes included:The transposition of the IORP II Directive into Irish law;The implementation of the European Union Anti-Money Laundering Beneficial Ownership of Trust Regulations 2019 requirement for a beneficial ownership register for pension trusts;Clarity on the application of the European Union Supplementary Pension Rights (Outgoing Workers) Regulations 2019;European Central Bank Statistical Data Reporting requirements to the Central Bank of Ireland;Guidance on, and increased use of, master trusts;Preparations for the increase in the state pensions age to 67 in January 2021;Further consultation on, and development of, the structure and system for auto-enrolment pensions for roll-out in 2022;The impact of a new government with potentially different pensions objectives, following a general election;The ongoing impact and fallout from Brexit; andPotential market volatility during the US presidential election campaign.These issues have, and will continue to have, an impact on the development and future of the industry. This will be covered in more detail later in this article.Amid this hectic period of change and development for the pensions industry came the global COVID-19 pandemic. The first restrictions and lockdowns in March coincided with a significant drop in investment markets. The pensions industry, along with every other industry, faced challenges and circumstances it hadn’t dealt with before. The immediate impact and response fell mainly into two areas:Providing essential services while facilitating work from home practices across the board. In normal circumstances, such a change in working arrangements would take months of planning and implementation; andEnsuring that benefits continued to be paid and assets kept secure while ensuring contributions could still be paid and invested.Immediate considerationsOnce the immediate actions were taken to ensure that services could be provided from homes around the country, several items had to be considered for the short- to medium-term operation of pension schemes and the provision of benefits. They included:The Pensions Authority’s announcement on 27 March and its subsequent update on 24 April. These announcements covered several topics, such as:o The prioritisation of pension and other benefits payments, and the collection of contributions;o Making immediate investment decisions, which was cautioned against unless necessary;o Dealing with requests to cease or suspend contributions, obligations to pay what has been deducted, checking contracts of employment, scheme rules (and, in some cases, legislative requirements), funding commitments for defined benefit schemes, and interaction with the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS); ando Obligations on disclosure requirements (annual reports, member benefits statements, communicating changes etc.)The Emergency Measures Act, which didn’t mention pensions. The TWSS payment could not be reduced, so it was assumed pension contributions could not be deducted from it;Business continuity plans for service providers, employers, and pension schemes had been implemented and needed to be reviewed, updated and, in some cases, documented;The ability to hold meetings, both in terms of hardware/software and the power or authority to hold them. Meetings had to be held to deal with the usual cycle of trustee meetings, which covered administration, service, compliance, and investment. COVID-19 response meetings were also necessary;Employers’ and members’ current circumstances in terms of employment, remuneration, and contributions;Notwithstanding the Pensions Authority’s caution against making immediate investment decisions, trustees needed to consider the implications of the fall and subsequent rebound in asset values, the impact on their investment strategy, and the performance of the funds against their benchmarks and expectations. Were changes required? Would the funding of the scheme be affected? Was there a need to communicate with the employer and members? The results of Mason Hayes Curran (MHC) and Irish Institute of Pensions Management (IIPM) survey found that 71% of schemes had not adjusted their investment strategy as a result of the pandemic;The ability to maintain risk benefits for members and employers where employment or contributions are temporarily suspended. Insurance companies were supportive in providing cover in most cases; andThe information to share with members to reassure and assist them and how to issue those communications.COVID-19’s impact on pensionsThere are also longer-term impacts and associated economic and employment effects to consider, arising from the COVID-19 pandemic. They include the effect on valuations of changing and volatile liability and assets values, and the potential for lower contributions (e.g. the suspension of employer and employee contributions, reduced salaries, and/or reduced contribution rates). Other potential impacts include changed membership (e.g. temporary or permanent layoffs, reduced working hours, phased returns to work) or changed employer status, which may impact on the employer covenant, the ability to pay, and on benefits and pension budgets.The general outlook for pensions provisionThe outlook for the pensions industry, taking into account the changes anticipated for 2020 but filtered through a COVID-19 lens, leads to the following conclusions:There will be an increased focus on governance and risk management. The crisis may highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the current system;Timelines for IORP II implementation will be needed, given the number of other challenges in play;The changed economic outlook may impact the planned timelines for auto-enrolment. The results of the MHC/IIPM survey found that 66% of respondents expect the roll-out to be delayed due to the current crisis;Concerning the state pension age, employers and employees need to know what they are planning for. The current Government deferred the planned change from age 66 to 67 pending a report on the issue by a Commission on Pensions, which will be established to examine various issues related to the sustainability of, and eligibility for, the State pension; andIn terms of ECB/EIOPA reporting, one wonders if outputs or feedback will be provided to the Central Bank, when we might expect clarity on EIOPA reporting requirements from the Pensions Authority, and whether the reporting requirements will be coordinated.The effect of 2020’s expected and unexpected changesThe impact of both the expected and unexpected changes on the pensions industry – and the broader political, legal, and economic environment – places enormous demands on those involved in providing pensions to respond and adapt to changed outlooks for schemes, sponsors and members. Professionals should also expect increased governance and compliance standards, increased reporting requirements, and the need for new functions, including internal audit and risk management.The increasing professionalism of trustees to meet these growing requirements and expectations will also be a point of sharp focus, resulting in a need for upskilling, training, and qualifications for new roles and requirements – not to mention knock-on implications for service providers.The pensions industry has proven that it is resilient and capable of adapting to the changes and challenges presented by COVID-19. We must continue to learn, develop and innovate to ensure that we are ready to deal with the immediate and longer-term challenges and can continue to provide stable, reliable, and sustainable pensions for members.Elma Fox is President of the Irish Institute of Pensions Management.

Sep 30, 2020

The new auditing standard on estimates will have a significant impact on management as well as auditors. Brian MacSweeney reports.The revisions to ISA (Ireland) 540 (Revised) will have important implications for chief financial officers, financial controllers and management responsible for financial statement preparation and the determination of accounting estimates. Its impact may be felt outside finance functions where others contribute to the calculation of estimates – for example, valuation specialists, taxation teams or pension specialists. It will also give rise to additional considerations for audit committees recommending financial statements for approval.What are the implications?The new standard requires the auditor to perform additional understanding and risk assessment procedures over estimates, along with other new requirements. This means that:more time is needed from management to help the auditor perform these procedures;management will need to articulate their processes and controls around estimates better;there will be more dialogue between auditors, management, and those approving financial statements about the critical aspects of estimates; andthere will be a better and more robust audit approach to auditing accounting estimates in the forthcoming financial reporting cycle.Why was the standard revised?The preparation of financial statements involves many different elements, but the preparation of estimates is perhaps more complex than others. Estimates are monetary amounts (recognised or disclosed), which are a fundamental part of entities’ financial statements. They are subject to estimation uncertainty due to inherent limitations in knowledge or data, and as a result, there may be a wide range of measurement outcomes for any estimate. In forming estimates, management apply methods or models where they make assumptions and use data. They exercise judgement involving complexity and subjectivity when measuring the estimate. Due to the nature of this process, estimation is susceptible to material misstatement, and for the users of financial statements, they are the main focus.Over time, accounting estimates have become more prominent and visible in financial statements, garnering additional scrutiny from readers. This is caused by increasingly complex business environments (now made more complicated due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and the introduction of new accounting standards over the last number of years. The previous version of the ISA 540 standard was written before these changes and they, along with challenging audit inspection findings, meant that a new framework was needed for auditors to robustly audit estimates. In response to these challenges, the Irish Auditing and Accounting Supervisory Authority (IAASA) issued ISA (Ireland) 540 (Revised).What is the aim of the new standard?The new standard aims to:address changes in financial reporting standards and business environments that make estimation more difficult;enhance auditors’ professional scepticism, considering recurring audit inspection findings criticising the quality of audits of accounting estimates; andRealise public interest benefits through better two-way dialogue between the auditor and management concerning estimates.What is new?Enhancements contained in the new standard include:Enhanced risk assessment: the standard requires a robust risk assessment of estimates. The aim is to heighten auditors’ understanding of processes and controls around the identification of estimates and the determination of the related monetary amounts. This risk assessment is performed at a granular level and focuses on the models, assumptions, and data used to determine the estimate. The assessment is made with reference to inherent risk factors, including the complexity of the estimate, its subjectivity, and estimation uncertainty.Scalability of testing approach: the testing approach options in the old ISA 540 are maintained. These include testing management’s calculations of the estimate, developing an independent estimate, or using events after the year-end as audit evidence for the estimate. However, the new standard focuses on aligning the level of procedures performed to the assessed risk. This gives the standard scalability, where the level of audit effort is dictated by the complexity and risk associated with the estimate.Professional scepticism: ISA (Ireland) 540 (Revised) has several provisions designed to enhance the application of professional scepticism. These include:o A requirement to design and perform further audit procedures in a manner that gives more focus to evidence that may be contradictory.o A requirement to evaluate the audit evidence obtained regarding the accounting estimates, including both corroborative and contradictory audit evidence.o Changing the language in the standard to use purposeful words like 'challenge', 'question', and 'reconsider', thus reinforcing the importance of exercising professional scepticism.Disclosures: there are enhanced requirements to assess whether the estimate disclosures are “reasonable”.Communication and representations: there are new requirements to consider when communicating with those charged with governance. There is a requirement to request written representations regarding the reasonableness of methods, significant assumptions, and the data used.What is the impact on management?Table 1 sets out the key changes required by ISA (Ireland) 540 Revised and their impact on auditors and management. This summary was prepared by Chartered Professional Accountants Canada and was adopted by the IAASB (International Auditing and Assurance Standards Board) for its client briefing document dated November 2019.What happens after implementation? The standard-setters intend to undertake a post-implementation review after the effective date of ISA (Ireland) 540 (Revised) to see if the revised standard has achieved its intended objective. They will focus on whether the standard is sufficiently scalable and whether it enhances the exercise of professional scepticism.First impressionsHaving read the new standard and prepared illustrative audit work papers to see it in practice, it is clear that this is a significant change to how auditors will approach the audit of estimates. The key message is that auditors will need to prepare early to perform a detailed understanding and risk assessments procedures. Management will have more to do to help the auditor in their risk assessments, but early communication and engagement between the auditor and management will ensure successful adoption.In addition to the above, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, developing estimates for expected credit losses, going concern analysis, and related disclosures, in particular, is more challenging. A focus on the audit of estimates is therefore paramount. Overall, in a financial reporting environment that is evolving due to changing business environments and accounting frameworks, ISA (Ireland) 540 (Revised) provides audit practitioners with a good basis to audit estimates and to serve the public interest by fostering audit quality.  Brian MacSweeney ACA is a Director at KPMG Ireland.

Sep 30, 2020

Dr Aideen O’Dochartaigh provides an accountant’s introduction to natural capital.Concepts such as carbon budgets, natural capital, and carbon taxes illustrate the increasing interaction between accounting and environmental issues. While nature and the biodiversity crisis are often overshadowed in public discourse by the climate crisis, awareness of the economic and intrinsic value of natural ecosystems is growing, highlighted by issues such as pollinator loss and the spread of zoonotic diseases like COVID-19. One of the most useful tools to account for the human impact and our dependency on nature is natural capital accounting.This article offers an introduction to the emerging thinking and methodologies in this area, exploring its applications and benefits for organisations and considering how accountants can engage with natural capital accounting.What is natural capital accounting?Natural capital has its origins in the concept of capital as a stock that can give rise to goods and/or services. In the case of natural capital, the stock is natural resources or ecosystems such as forests, water, grassland or air, while the goods and services (known as ‘ecosystem services’) that flow from the stock include raw materials for production and consumption (fuel or food, for example), the absorption of wastes from production and consumption, and the fundamental life-supporting services provided by nature.Historically, goods and services flowing from ecosystems have been accounted for, or rather not accounted for, as ‘free gifts’ from nature. The depletion of natural capital has, in turn, been accounted for as income (the sale of forestry products recorded as income, for example) with no recording of the loss of the services provided by the forest, such as the absorption of carbon dioxide.Mounting evidence indicates that human activity is increasingly threatening the stability of natural systems and the ability of the earth to provide a safe space for humanity, and economic activity, to flourish. Four of the nine planetary boundaries identified by scientists have now been transgressed due to human activity, including two core boundaries, climate change and biosphere integrity, with significant impact on the stability of earth systems. We must, therefore, rapidly develop tools to account for our interactions with natural capital and incorporate the calculations into decision-making at management and policy levels.Natural capital accounting frameworks have largely been developed at country and company level. At country level, the most widely used framework is the UN System of Environmental-Economic Accounting (SEEA). The SEEA methodology measures the scale of the asset, the condition of the asset, the services flowing from the asset, and the benefits to humans. Four thematic accounts are commonly developed: carbon, biodiversity, water, and land, with the valuation of stocks and flows accounted for in both physical and monetary terms. Multiple research institutions are applying this approach in Ireland through the Irish Natural Capital Accounting for Sustainable Ecosystems (INCASE) project, which is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency.Corporate natural capital accountingThe SEEA methodology translates at organisation level to the corporate natural capital accounting (CNCA) approach. The Natural Capital Coalition has developed the Natural Capital Protocol to offer companies a roadmap for implementing natural capital accounting, which is a useful initial resource for accountants interested in applying CNCA in their organisations. Natural capital accounting interacts with several other reporting frameworks, such as the Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Guidelines and integrated reporting, and is also directly related to several UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).In practice, corporate natural capital accounting requires the entity to set up accounts for assets, maintenance costs, and physical and monetary flow. A simple illustration of the process and the accounts required is shown by the assessment approach adopted by Northern Ireland Environment Link (see Figure 1). Two reporting statements are generated:The natural capital balance sheet, which presents the asset values and the related liabilities (i.e. the costs of maintaining the natural capital). The asset value must include both the value accruing to the organisation and the value for the rest of society in terms of ecosystem services.The statement of changes in natural assets, which reports the gain or loss in asset values in the reporting period. An example of the reporting statements is shown in Figure 2 and a comprehensive guide to CNCA, which includes these statements and examples of all the supporting accounts, is provided by the 2015 EFTEC et al. report cited in the figure. In Ireland, Bord na Móna, Coillte and Bord Iascaigh Mhara already apply this approach to accounting for their peatland, forest and marine assets.  Who should use natural capital accounting?The Natural Capital Coalition stress that their Protocol can be applied to any organisation in any industry, and it is recommended that all entities consider their impacts and dependencies on nature and integrate a nature-centred approach into decision-making. Adopting comprehensive natural capital accounting is typically most relevant in the categories summarised in Figure 3:Sectors that are directly dependent on and/or own large natural capital assets and have a direct impact on these assets (e.g. fossil fuels, forestry, farming, and fisheries).Sectors where raw materials in the supply chain are directly dependent on, and have a direct impact on, natural capital. For retailers in the food and beverage sector, for example, their supply chains are dependent on natural capital such as fresh water or healthy soil.Sectors that rely directly on infrastructure that requires significant land use and/or with significant impacts on natural capital (e.g. energy, transport, and communications).Sectors that are indirectly dependent on large infrastructure through their supply chains (e.g. the technology sector, which relies on energy-intensive data centres). Why use natural capital accounting?There is an increasing focus on accountability for environmental and social interactions in the supply chain, and natural capital accounting can help organisations understand where their impacts and dependencies lie. For example, luxury goods group Kering has used natural capital accounting to develop its environmental profit and loss (EP&L) account, which illustrates that 90% of the group’s environmental impact relates to its supply chain, largely through raw material production and processing.More nuanced cost-benefit analyses can also be supported by natural capital accounting. In the Netherlands, for example, analysis of peatlands converted for dairy farming revealed that due to the cost of maintaining the land, plus the cost of controlling carbon emissions and water levels, it was not cost-effective to continue to farm the lands. They will instead be converted back to natural ecosystems.Natural capital accounting completed thoroughly and transparently can support reputation management. However, it is important to ensure that information is communicated transparently and consistently to avoid the risk of ‘greenwashing’.Finally, natural capital accounting can help organisations manage nature-based risks such as supply chain disruption, scarcity of raw materials, and new regulatory requirements. The Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD) has developed a framework to support organisations in accounting and reporting on climate-related risks and plans to establish a similar task force on biodiversity-related risks.Table 1 illustrates how accountants can engage with natural capital accounting.Future directionsAs natural capital accounting develops, it is important to be cognisant of risks and critiques, and for researchers and practitioners to work to address them. As Kering’s EP&L reveals, many organisations will find that their nature-based impacts and risks are largely associated with the supply chain. To date, however, the potential for accounting and reporting on social and environmental issues at supply chain or sectoral level has not yet been fully explored. Inherent in natural capital accounting is a recognition of interconnectedness between ecosystems, species, and human (and business) activity. In this way, the natural capital approach of looking at impacts and dependencies can help us to link organisation-level activity to sectoral and supply chain activity and, ultimately, to global indicators such as planetary boundaries, including vital climate change and biodiversity targets.It is also crucial to be aware of the risks of instrumentalising nature by reconceptualising it solely as natural capital, rather than seeing it as intrinsically valuable. Financialising nature in this way can encourage the use of ‘trade-off’ arguments to justify environmentally and socially destructive activities, which also privilege some actors over others. For example, corporate natural capital accounting could be used to support a decision to harvest forestry in the Amazon, or kelp on the Irish coast, which privileges the company’s valuation of the natural capital asset over both the intrinsic value of the related ecosystem and the value it holds for local or indigenous communities. Natural capital accounting must be accompanied by a holistic approach to performance measurement and decision-making, characterised by community engagement, accountability and transparency. Accountants are encouraged to work with multiple actors in a participatory way as we develop new means of accounting to support a sustainable future.Dr Aideen O’Dochartaigh ACA is Assistant Professor in Accounting in  DCU Business School.

Sep 30, 2020

Brendan O’Hora reports on the findings of the 2020 All-Member Survey.For more than a decade, Chartered Accountants Ireland has surveyed its members every two years to track levels of satisfaction and identify their needs and perspectives. This summer’s survey was markedly different. Reflecting the challenging social and economic circumstances across the island and beyond, this survey focused on members’ experiences of COVID-19 and how members have been coping in their business and personal lives, while also recording views on the Institute’s performance in serving its members.The survey was conducted in June by independent research agency, Coyne Research, and built on other flash surveys undertaken in the wake of the lockdown. All members who had provided an email address to the Institute were invited to participate. Almost 1,900 members completed the survey, a 10% increase on the last survey in 2018. This is much appreciated as this level of participation helps us build a much more accurate picture of member experience.The survey was launched just a month before the publication of the Institute’s new strategy, Strategy24. Many issues of importance that emerged in members’ responses also resonate through our new strategy, reflecting the level of member contribution to the strategy development process.Impact of COVID-19 on membersMembership of Chartered Accountants Ireland means being part of a network of professionals, working in support of each other. Therefore, it is now vitally important that the Institute understands how members have been managing during the COVID-19 crisis so we can respond with new initiatives and services.The survey included several questions assessing the impact of the pandemic on every aspect of members’ lives, and members engaged openly and candidly with these questions.Economic uncertainty is evident in every part of the economy, and it is clear that our members are in no way inured. One in five members expect some changes to their current role because of the pandemic.WellbeingWhen questioned as to the impact of COVID-19 on various aspects of members’ daily lives, 40% responded that it had had a negative effect on their physical health. In contrast, one in three members claimed that the pandemic led to a positive impact on their physical health. More than half of members report that their mental health has been negatively impacted.Around half of all members report that COVID-19 has had a negative impact on their financial security, with members in practice more likely to agree with this statement.CA SupportAwareness of the Institute’s member support service, CA Support, stands at 80% with awareness higher among males and those aged over 40. Of the services provided by CA Support, respondents indicated that they were most interested in accessing support in the areas of mental health and resilience, retirement planning, and financial planning.Impact of COVID-19 on firmsThe survey asked members to compare the financial position of their business or practice before the start of the pandemic with the present day, and the contrast was stark. For members in business, 83% said that their organisations had been either stable or expanding before COVID-19, dropping sharply to 38% post-lockdown. For firms in practice, the contraction was more acute. 93% of members in practice considered their firms to be stable or growing at the start of the year, but 63% changed their description post-COVID-19 to being somewhat impacted or struggling.Over half of all members stated that returning staff safely to work is one of the top three challenges facing their business/organisation over the next 18 months. A higher proportion of members in practice were concerned with liquidity/cashflow (45%) as well as meeting spikes in demand (25%).Economic recoveryMembers were also asked to estimate the length of time before our economies return to 2019/early 2020 levels. The average answer was just under two years, subject to subsequent twists and turns in the public health crisis.Satisfaction with the InstituteLooking at Institute-related results, the standard benchmark questions on satisfaction and relevance were once again included. Satisfaction with membership of Chartered Accountants Ireland remains high and consistent with 2018, and there has been a 4% decrease in those claiming to be dissatisfied. Results were consistent across business and practice, though Republic of Ireland satisfaction levels surpassed their Northern Ireland equivalent.The perceived relevance of membership scored highly, and scores for lower relevance dropped by nearly 10%. More than two in five members said that membership represented good or very good value for money, similar to 2018.In terms of the relevance of communications received from the Institute, encouragingly two in three members described themselves as satisfied. This represents an increase of 24% since 2018, with those dissatisfied with how we communicate down significantly by -14%.Net promoter scoreThe net promoter score (NPS) is a widely recognised measure to assess members’ likelihood to recommend the qualification. This is an exacting metric, and even for brand leaders, NPS sometimes tends towards single-digit results. It was, therefore, encouraging to see the Institute’s NPS increase to +44%, an uptick of 3% since 2018, with over half of members regarded as promoters. NPS ratings from members in business shaded those in practice, while the Republic of Ireland figures slightly exceeded the Northern Ireland equivalent.Members servicesMembers were invited to rate a range of Institute services based on their experience and degree of satisfaction. Accountancy Ireland and our suite of electronic newsletters ranked most highly, but the standout results were for the new suite of webinars and online CPD, developed and launched to satisfy members’ professional training requirements during the lockdown. The new COVID-19 hub on the Institute’s website also received a strong reception from members.The 2020 All-Member Survey points to a profession that is coming to terms with the harshest economic and personal challenges in decades and is already planning for future recovery. Over recent months, teams across the Institute have responded rapidly to member needs with new online professional development platforms, consistently effective and targeted advocacy and representation on behalf of members, and enhanced communications and webinars.Chartered Accountants Ireland is of its members and for its members, so member satisfaction is the most critical measure of our performance. Member satisfaction remains consistent with 2018, and there is also a high level of satisfaction with communications to members. Our recently launched Strategy24 will help us grow these figures even further, with a strong focus on optimising member experience and further strengthening the relevance and reach of the Institute’s voice. While the overall research findings are very positive, specific challenges remain for individual segments of our membership, and these will receive a particular focus. The Leadership Team has begun to address some of the immediate issues, and we will work with the Members Board to bring these insights into the 2021 business plan and our implementation of Strategy24.Brendan O’Hora is Director, Members, at Chartered Accountants Ireland.

Sep 30, 2020

Chartered Accountants in practice have had a lot to contend with over the last six months. Here, they share the lessons learned from the challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic.Chartered Accountants and their skills have been at the forefront of business during this pandemic, ensuring that businesses across the island of Ireland – including their own – continue to stay afloat. In this feature, three Chartered Accountants describe what challenges they and their clients have faced during the COVID-19 crisis.Members in practice, Conor Woods from Woods & Partners, James Kelliher from Kelliher O’Shea and Wendy Merrigan from Williams Merrigan share their insights on current business challenges, the lessons they have learned during the pandemic and what the future holds for SMEs. Meeting adversity with growthConor Woods FCA, Managing Partner at Woods & Partners, outlines how technology and innovation have enabled him and his staff to keep the business running through the COVID-19 crisis.QHow has your business been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis?Initially, it was a shock to the system for everyone. However, we have invested heavily in our cloud platform over the last five years, so we were able to adapt to remote working relatively seamlessly. The greatest initial challenge was not having a ‘physical' closing meeting with our clients nor being able to have team meetings in the same format we were once familiar with. What is the most challenging aspect of leading a practice in this environment?On-boarding new staff is the most challenging aspect of growing a firm in the present environment. We have hired 12 staff in the last three months and it's challenging to integrate, train and induct them into an organisation where ‘normal office conditions’ do not prevail. The strength of our profession is in the quality of the training that our articled clerks receive in practice, so we must ensure that this training continues to the highest of standards in the current social distancing climate. We have been lucky our size enables us to continue this training which has proven to be a key attraction for high calibre graduates to come to our firm.What business changes have you made to ensure that you continue to deliver for your clients?Due to growth across our practice, we have recently opened new offices in Laois and Cavan to meet client and market needs in these locations. Clients want premium advisory, audit and taxation services close to their businesses without having to travel to Dublin and so we see this as a key opportunity. Additionally, more and more of our staff do not want to commute, so having regional locations helps us with staff retention and attracts a high calibre of staff from the city and larger firms. If you could make one change to the supports available for your clients, what would it be?We would like to see an expansion to the Local Enterprise Office Business Continuity Voucher scheme for another six months for SMEs. This proved to be a hugely supportive and popular scheme for them. What does the future hold for small- and medium-sized accountancy practices, in your opinion?The future is bright and exciting for firms who innovate and continue to re-invest in people and technology. It’s critical that firms maintain financial liquidity and strength to enable them to hire the best and invest in technology within their practices. The firms that have strong technology platforms have found it easier to adjust to the enforced changes in work patterns. I see smaller firms engaging in more collaboration with each other due to increased regulation and, perhaps, more consolidation in this space. As a practice leader, what has been your most important lesson to date?It’s just as important to work on the business as it is to work ‘in the business’. Practices must manage working capital, lock up, and liquidity relentlessly. This is now more important than ever before. This can be difficult as our clients, may want more leniency in terms of credit, support, and time in the present environment, so there is a fine balance to be achieved. Managing client expectations and our own business performance is a pivotal aspect of our own practice strategy.Adapt and be flexibleJames Kelliher FCA, Partner in Kelliher O’Shea, Chartered Accountants, has found that flexibility with staff and clients has been key to navigating business changes that have cropped up because of the pandemic. How has your business been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis?As a small accountancy practice, we offer a wide range of services. We provide bookkeeping services to a number of businesses in the hospitality sector which was impacted severely. We have a diverse client range across many sectors from hospitality, media, motor trade, retail, nursing homes and agriculture who all had various challenges and continue to do so as we work through the crisis. Our workload, in terms of dealing with client queries, increased dramatically, especially around the introduction of the Temporary Wage Subsidy Scheme (TWSS) and other government supports. What is the most challenging aspect of leading a practice in this environment?There has been a level of disruption to both the practice and client business which has had a knock-on effect on the timing and delivery of work. The business disruption will have an impact on filing deadlines being met later in 2020 and this will be an issue for our staff and clients in an already demanding year. What business changes have you made to ensure that you continue to deliver for your clients?Although our office was closed for a period, we were still very much accessible throughout for our clients by phone, email and Zoom/Microsoft Teams. We also facilitated some of our staff with young children to work shorter hours. Our audits have been conducted remotely this year; previously, we would have carried out the fieldwork for our larger clients on-site. We have had to be flexible with our clients and cognisant of the fact that some of their finance personnel were also working shorter hours with an enhanced focus on their short-term cashflow management.If you could make one change to the supports available for your clients, what would it be?For many small businesses, funding during the current crisis has not been easily accessible. While the TWSS and Restart Grant were successful, many small businesses failed to secure additional short- or medium-term facilities from their lending institutions as a result of the uncertainty surrounding the crisis and the impact it was having on current trading levels. We would have liked to have seen a simplified, low-interest government loan or capital grant made available for PPE expenditure, which was significant for many SMEs in reopening. What does the future hold for small- and medium-sized accountancy practices, in your opinion?We believe there will be further consolidation within the industry among small- and medium-sized practices. This trend had started pre-COVID-19. The talent pool for small practices was at an all-time low because of the larger firms attracting the majority of graduates to the cities. Consolidation should enable practices to attract better people and possibly offer a more attractive work-life balance that people crave. Smaller practices need to continue to invest in technology and their people, and use technology to move towards a paperless environment. The current crisis has highlighted how reliant we are on technology.As a practice leader, what has been your most important lesson to date?The ability to adapt and be flexible is key to leading our practice and being able to advise our clients. This has never been more prevalent than in the current COVID-19 climate where guidelines that impacted on both decisions that needed to be made for the practice, as well as advice given to our clients, were evolving on a weekly and sometimes daily basis.Focus on positive actionWendy Merrigan FCA, Co-Founder and Director at Williams Merrigan, has seen the workload in her practice increase in the last six months, but believes opportunities are there for accountants who concentrate on serving clients’ needs.How has your business been impacted by the COVID-19 crisis?We have a small team and the level of queries regarding COVID-19 issues has been overwhelming. This has led to a slower turnaround time for some work which has its own impact as we approach large filing deadlines later this year. While working remotely was used by our practice for several years, COVID-19 meant some staff no longer had childcare facilities and had to home-school children for a period. Ensuring staff did not take on too much work and balanced their homelife with their need to provide ongoing quality, timely service to clients, specifically regarding tax filing return deadlines, was a specific challenge. Right now, it is unknown what will occur during winter months regarding schools and this is stressful for staff. What is the most challenging aspect of leading a practice in this environment?Staying on top of the ‘normal’ workload as well as managing client queries. A serious challenge has been planning and scheduling work while also finding time to keep up-to-date with Government and legislative changes as they arise to ensure clients are kept informed. This increased workload has meant I have had less time as I would like with staff members.What business changes have you made to ensure that you continue to deliver for your clients?Responding to email and telephone queries proved highly challenging. For some queries that arose, it became more practical to share information generally by way of email or, in certain circumstances, on social platforms. This has meant less time repeating answers to queries that many clients have. Sharing knowledge with other accountants and making new connections to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on our profession has been beneficial also.If you could make one change to the supports available for your clients, what would it be?Grants have been made available to review cashflows and financing, yet necessary ongoing compliance costs for accountancy services were not included. I would have granted subsidies to businesses to allow their usual monthly or yearly fee to be included in the grants awarded. Ensuring clients have tax clearance for subsidies and grants mean accountancy services were vital for all businesses yet not provided for.What does the future hold for small- and medium-sized accountancy practices, in your opinion?Regardless of size, I believe we are fortunate to have a qualification whereby our services, expertise and advice are continuously sought and needed. Our practice is small yet, as I mentioned, there are always opportunities to be found when you are laser-focused on serving client’s needs. I believe services will always be sought from proactive accountants with good communication skills.As a practice leader, what has been your most important lesson to date?I've realised uncertainty can be positive and have learned to let go of the need for control. Inspiration and creativity come from not being rigid in views or practices. It's important to move with the times and learn to embrace new working environments and social networking platforms to serve client needs efficiently. Above all, the most important lesson has been the realisation that uncertainty is neutral; we can continue to focus on positive action.

Sep 30, 2020

Enda Gunnell FCA had a successful career in corporate advisory but the entrepreneurial impulse was always there. When the opportunity to start his own company presented itself, he couldn’t turn it down, writes Barry McCall.There aren’t many successful companies based on a business model of selling less product to its customers, but that pretty much sums up the Pinergy strategy. Established in 2013 to provide electricity on a pay-as-you-go basis to budget-conscious households, Pinergy has evolved to become a purpose-driven business with a mission to help customers reduce their electricity consumption by providing them with ‘energy with insights’.Founder and CEO Enda Gunnell began his career as a Chartered Accountant with Mazars but entrepreneurship was probably always in his DNA. “My family had a shop and filling station on the outskirts of Roscrea,” he explains. “I was raised in a business environment and we all had to put our shoulders to the wheel to help out.”The varied and challenging life of a Chartered AccountantBut his pathway to accountancy was certainly not mapped out from an early age. “I was surprised when I was accepted for a place in UCD Commerce,” he says with a degree of self-deprecation. “I was the first member of my family to go to college. I got in because my matric maths mark got me a few extra points. When I went to UCD, I did work experience with a local accountant in Roscrea during the summers and other breaks. I gravitated towards the Chartered Accountancy route.”He says he got a bit fed up with the ‘milk round’ recruitment interviews but was still offered a training contract with Rawlinson Hunter which went on to become Mazars. “I stayed with them for 23 years and ended up working with the then-Managing Partner Joe Carr in the consulting team doing corporate advisory work. That was always my type of work; I enjoyed it more than audit. I really liked working with SME owner/managers. You get a chance to form a relationship with them. They might have 50 employees but no one to talk to.”He also worked on some major projects during the years, including a strategic review of the GAA and a review of Irish banks’ loan books for Blackrock which was working on behalf of the Troika at the time.Interesting though these projects were, they couldn’t really compare to an assignment in Lithuania on behalf of the World Bank. “It was just after the country had gained independence from the former Soviet Union. One night, I was approached in the office lobby in Vilnius by an armed man who asked me to value some uranium for him. His English wasn’t very good, and my Lithuanian was even worse, but I managed to say thanks but no thanks. When I think about that, I always remember something that Joe Carr said about the varied and challenging life of a Chartered Accountant.”The start of PinergyHe believes the entrepreneurial impulse was always there to one extent or another. “When I was working with owner/managers, helping them take their businesses to the next level, it was always in the back of my mind that I would like to do it myself. I was open to the opportunity for a long time, I just didn’t know what it was. I knew I wanted to get out of the dugout and onto the pitch and try it.”As often happens, the stars aligned to create the opportunity. “A set of circumstances came together,” says Gunnell. “The funding was available, the market conditions were right, and the idea was there. I figured someone would give me a job if it didn’t work out. I had come across the pay-as-you-go electricity space a few years previously and then met someone in the electricity market and another person interested in funding a start-up in the space. I put the three together. Everyone needs electricity; the country was on its knees. The regulator was telling electricity retailers that there must be a better way to provide the service. Pay-as-you-go already had 15% of the UK market but had almost no share here.“The technology was there in a box ready to roll out and we had the other elements in place. We weren’t reinventing the wheel. The technology and the model were already being used around the world. It was of its time, and we were introducing it in a recessionary market. It took a little while to get going. We had to do a lot of work before we could sell a single kilowatt. We had to integrate the technology with the existing market and systems. It’s a regulated industry so you can’t just do it your way.”The next stage was to go out and sell. “We got a sales team together. As an accountant, I liked the idea of variable costs. We had the sales team knocking on doors and we paid them if they made a sale. We didn’t have fixed overheads. We were rewarding success. Back then, we sold everything through the Payzone platform. I remember driving around Dublin going into shops buying Pinergy credit to make sure the platform worked. Our original plan didn’t have TV ads or brand ambassadors, but we had to do that in the end. We had to learn how to build a brand and I found myself on sets watching TV commercials being made. Today, Pinergy supplies businesses and homes with clean energy as well as insights to give clarity and knowledge to help them change how they use energy.”Creating a sustainable futurePinergy is now a purpose-driven brand. “I believe everyone has a role to play in creating our sustainable energy future,” says Gunnell. “The energy market in Ireland hasn’t really changed in years. The market has not been responding nearly enough. We realised five years ago that the whole industry was fixated on price. It was a bit conflicted in how it approached sustainability. The traditional business model in the retail space is getting paid for kilowatts used and wasted. There is no incentive to encourage customers to be more sustainable and reduce their consumption.”Pinergy was the first company in Ireland to use smart meters. “We showed that by using smart technology, consumers could reduce their electricity usage. We began to view the smart meter as an energy-saving device. Then we started looking at LED lights. They use 80% less electricity than incandescent bulbs, but they were very expensive back then. We knocked on people’s doors and offered to sell them at the wholesale price and use the smart meter to recoup the cost over the next two or three years.”While innovative offers like that won the company customers and admirers, it was all too easy for those customers to switch to another provider with a discount offer. “The regulator’s main mandate is to look after consumers. That makes it very easy to switch.”That saw the company evolve its strategy to look beyond domestic consumers. Initially, the focus was on apartment blocks to get the contracts to supply the common areas as well as gain access to residents. After that came the move into the commercial market. “We were in the electricity sales business, but we wanted to sell less electricity to individual customers. The way we see it, if we can partner with a new customer to save 30% or 40% of their electricity consumption that still means we are selling more electricity overall. When we moved into the commercial market, we realised SMEs could be paying 20% more for their electricity than a householder across the road. We took our smart meter technology and pricing model and sought to apply the same principles to the commercial market.”The energy with insight model gives customers the ability to analyse and understand how and where they use electricity in their business. “For example, a retailer with five branches gets the data from the smart meters on a single portal and they can compare and analyse the usage patterns in the different locations and get insights to help them reduce energy consumption. One of our customers owns a warehouse which closes at 6pm every day, but was still using half as much electricity in the evenings as it was in the daytime. They found that equipment was being left on and were able to make immediate savings.”Immediacy is the key. “Rather than wait for a bill two months after the event, we put real-time data in customers’ hands and give them the ability to take control of their consumption. After that, we can talk about other technologies like LED lighting, microgeneration and heat pumps and so on. Instead of selling a commodity, we want to create an advisory relationship-led business. It’s the same principle as when I was in practice, helping customers to meet their business objectives.”But competitive advantage is fleeting. “All of our electricity comes from renewable sources. This is now taken for granted by our customers,” says Gunnell. “That’s a lesson in business, the market keeps changing and customer expectations change, and you’ve got to keep taking it a step further or others catch up.”The impact of COVID-19The business is now strongly profitable. “We started with a single product in 2013 in an intensely competitive business. The ability to generate a return in the electricity space is all about gaining critical mass. We have installed around 60,000 smart meters around the country but have about 30,000 domestic customers now. The cost of customer acquisition is very high. 2018 was a turning point for us. Our financial performance in 2018 was a negative EBITDA of €3.3 million. Then we transitioned into the commercial space and in 2019 that changed to a positive EBITDA of almost €300,000. For this year, we were projecting €3 million before COVID-19.”While COVID-19 will have had an impact, the business will emerge from the year in a very good position. “We don’t want to supply everybody. Our only interest is in those who want to be more sustainable and efficient, and we will have a significant share in particular sectors.”The COVID-19 impact could have been quite severe though. “The government had said the lights would stay on,” Gunnell points out. “That meant electricity suppliers couldn’t cut people off. We were worried that people would be slow to pay their bills or wouldn’t pay them at all. The way the wholesale market is regulated, we would have had to pay for electricity even if it wasn’t used. Fortunately, that situation was addressed. Working capital was a concern for us but we had been approved for a loan under the government Credit Guarantee Scheme early in the crisis so that helped. Other government and Revenue schemes helped our working capital.”Despite the challenges, there have been positive aspects. “It’s been a really intensive period. We had to respond with quick decision-making and really good staff communications. I enjoyed it, to be honest. COVID-19 has changed how business will be done forever. We told people to continue to work from home if they wanted to after we reopened in June. Even when we do go back fully, 80% of our staff have said they would like to work from home one or two days a week and some of them would like to work from home all the time. We have to look at how we care for the welfare of our people. That will be much more challenging when we don’t have daily contact and those water cooler conversations.”For the immediate future, the company is introducing a number of new innovations for customers. These include Lifestyle, a billing offer for families which guarantees discounted energy prices at the times they use most.Another is a smart charging product for electric vehicles which will allow the vehicle to communicate with the grid and select the cheapest time to charge. “Ultimately, there will even be times when there is excess power on the grid when users will be paid to use electricity,” Gunnell adds.“Instead of ‘there’s a bill two months later and pay it or we’ll cut you off’, we want to change the nature of how consumers are treated and continue the journey towards a sustainable, carbon-free electricity future.”

Sep 30, 2020
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