Six Chartered Accountants assess the events of the past year and consider what could lie ahead as the New Year approaches.2020 has changed the trajectory of many lives. Some have seen their careers go in unexpected directions while others have adjusted to the new working world around them. No-one can say that they have escaped unscathed by the events of this year, personally or professionally. Patrick O’Sullivan Greene, Jude Fay, Declan Walsh, Fiona Byrne, Henry Duggan and Jennifer Harrison explain their challenges and triumphs from 2020, the changes to their personal and professional lives during the pandemic, and their predictions for the New Year. Remote working goes mainstream For Patrick O’Sullivan Greene, author and activist shareholder, 2020 has taken him away from the office, colleagues, family and friends, but a changing business world had prepared him for remote working. When COVID-19 announced itself on the world, I had already been a member of the remote working community for a number of years. When I started working in my native Killarney after returning from London, I was able to take advantage of the strong communication network in Kerry, the two direct flights a day to London and a good rail connection to Dublin. As a director of an activist fund that has invested in quoted companies across Europe and being involved in a number of early-stage businesses in Ireland and France, I was still able to conduct business from a distance.  Remote working, of course, has now become more mainstream. This has been facilitated by the rapid growth in shared office providers across the country and the ‘internationalisation’ of rural Ireland. The opening of the Box CoWork space in Killarney, combined with an emerging coffee culture in the town, has given me access to a community of similar-minded people. The enforced lockdowns have brought a major change to my work life; no office, no travel, no coffee. Of course, this is a minor inconvenience next to the impact the pandemic has had on many other people’s lives. But, COVID-19 has not just impacted negatively on my work life. I have not met some close friends and colleagues in nearly ten months, including the parents of one of my godchildren, and I am unlikely to meet them for another six.  However, there have been compensations. I was able to put the final touches to my first book – Crowdfunding the Revolution: The First Dáil Loan and the Battle for Irish Independence, the story of the founding and funding of the well-known start-up called Ireland. Going forward, I expect some structural changes in the post-pandemic world; more remote working, less international travel and a greater appreciation for the environment. Humans are social animals and we will adapt as necessary.  It is important that the Government continues to provide support to SMEs, in particular the retail, pub, restaurant and wider tourism sector. We need to ensure those businesses make it through to the other side. Embrace transformation Jude Fay, a psychotherapist and supervisor in private practice in Co. Kildare, considers the challenges and opportunities faced by the mental health sector this year and outlines the important changes she plans to make in the years ahead. Previously, psychotherapy services, therapist training and CPD were mostly delivered in person. Like other industries, we have had to adapt to providing services online. Psychotherapy can be delivered online, but it is not the same. We lose some of the visual clues, such as body language. However, the transformations are not all bad. There is greater awareness of the importance of mental health. For some, online access makes it easier to engage, both practically and emotionally. Services online do not rely on physical proximity. For practitioners or clients in rural areas, this offers greater choice. But since the pandemic began, I have been very aware of a free-floating grief, and hear others in the profession saying the same. A sense of confidence and certainty has been lost. While, intellectually, we know the future is always uncertain, the pandemic has brought that uncertainty much closer. COVID-19 losses are not just the obvious ones. I believe this pandemic is an opportunity to reflect on what is important, to look at where our lives have become unmanageable and take action to change that. Personally, the biggest impact has been the inconvenience and a restriction of my normal movements. A couple of friends contracted the virus but, thankfully, I have not lost anyone to it. A good friend died in April, and I was unable to attend the funeral. My mother was hospitalised shortly before, and again during, the lockdown, and the family was unable to visit her. Those experiences were very hard.  On a lighter note, I turned 60 this year and had many plans for celebrating, most of which had to be shelved. I should be preparing to travel to South America, but clearly that’s not going to happen! Going forward, I will look for the joy in each day and be mindful of my many blessings. I will connect more with loved ones, let small things go, and appreciate my good health.  Adjust accordingly Declan Walsh, founder of Deferno Solutions, the Chartered Accountants Northwest Society and The Neurology Support Centre, reflects on the drastic changes the charity sector was forced to undertake in 2020 and what all organisations should look forward to in 2021. COVID-19 has, and will continue to, negatively impact the charity sector. Not only has it had an impact on the charities’ ability to fundraise, but the more direct impact has been on the actual provision of services to the end-user. Over the next 12 months, charities will have to think differently about how services can be provided. New service delivery platforms will become the new short-term norm. While not ideal, the move to online service provision is becoming necessary and differing skillsets are needed. At the Neurology Support Centre, we have just launched, in conjunction with Spectrum Life, an online counselling and wellbeing service for users and their families, which provides 24/7 confidential access to a range of services. Strategic planning, both from a business and charity perspective, has been turned upside down over the past year. The five-year plan is now often replaced by a five-month or five-week plan. However, it is critical that board and management teams review their long-term goals and make sure that the short-term goals are equally aligned. The near future will continue to be uniquely challenging as we emerge slowly from COVID-19 restrictions, restart the economy, and deal with Brexit. However, this change to a new norm has, in many cases, provided time to reflect on what may be a person’s main motivator in life. Ultimately, it is all about people, connecting directly, listening, understanding and being more empathic and, perhaps, relegating the necessary, but invisible, forms of instant communication and social media to a more secondary place. Whether as the founder of a charity, or as a financial advisor, the same rules apply. You must not only listen, but also hear what is being said, and adapt accordingly. Find value in community relationships Fiona Byrne, Director of James Byrne & Company, has found that, while this year has presented challenges, it has also strengthened her relationships with her clients, community and colleagues, and given her a better work-life balance. Our industry was transformed overnight – the move to remote working has definitely been the most significant challenge. The majority of our team had previously operated entirely from the office, so there was an immediate need for IT infrastructure to be mobilised to our teams’ homes. This added to the uncertainty and stress at the time. Luckily, we had already begun the process before COVID-19 hit. It is incredible how people across the age spectrum and industries have been able to adapt and demonstrate an agility that, perhaps, we knew we had but never truly tested before.  Despite this, we all miss the social aspects of the traditional office environment, of course. Although technology keeps us in touch, the lack of daily in-person contact has been tough and I am very conscious of the mental health and wellbeing of our team. Assuming this is the new normal, we need to work on how we can continue to build our office culture while taking in these new ways of working. The current circumstances have really demonstrated the value in relationships, and I take great pride in the fact that my company has offered support to both our clients and community.  Looking at my own life, remote working allows for additional flexibility, less time is spent commuting and more time is spent with my family. I have noticed that as our professional and personal worlds have become blurred, people were extremely accepting and understanding. At the end of the day, we all have various family commitments and the fact that everyone went through this together meant that we all learned a little bit more about each other.  2021 looks challenging but, hopefully, the New Year will bring a fresh sense of optimism and new ideas. As we approach Christmas, I am mindful that we will need to be focused on people taking a break – it is clear we all need to refresh.  On the whole, the combination of virtual working and people’s adaptability is a positive development for our industry, and new innovative ideas will emerge that allow us to be fully compliant and work more efficiently. I believe remote working is here to stay and, if used properly, will allow accountants to become more efficient and have a better work-life balance.  Secure a different future Jennifer Harrison, sole practitioner at Jennifer Harrison Chartered Accountants, left the security of a “guaranteed monthly income” to set out on her own in September, leading her to walk down a more fulfilling professional path. The pandemic has probably been one of the biggest life-changing events for me professionally. Like many others, 2020 started full of optimism, working in full-time employment with the opportunity of promotion in sight. This pandemic threw a spanner in the works with cutbacks, increased workload and home-schooling. I was forced to re-evaluate the priorities in my life, allowing me the opportunity to see a different future professionally. I was a firm believer that security was in the form of a guaranteed monthly income, but this year has proven that nothing is guaranteed. Life is full of curveballs and we need to learn to change and adapt as they come.   This change in perspective encouraged me to set up my own practice. It has only been a few months since I opened my doors, but I can already see the benefits along with a steady increase in interest and commitment from new and future clients. Although the pandemic has prevented the face-to-face interaction with clients, it has allowed many clients to experiment with online communication, expanding my customer base. It has also allowed me to work alongside some amazing organisations, offering online support to businesses in Donegal. This is something I really enjoy doing and now, I hope to expand my business to include online training and support as a standard service (but it’s early days).   I have to say, this year has been challenging personally. Restricting movements, fear for the health of my loved ones, reducing my social life and so on, but it has taken me down another, more fulfilling path professionally. This is a big step for me, which is scary and exciting all at once. Utilise the tools you have Henry Duggan, Managing Director of EMEA Financial Services at FTI Consulting, has found that the agile nature of his job was ready-made for remote working, leading to greater collaboration and creativity on his team. COVID-19 has highlighted the need for flexible solutions to meet client demands. My work primarily focuses on sensitive, multi-jurisdictional investigations relating to money laundering, terrorist financing and breaches of international sanctions. My organisation has been extremely proactive in exploring how technology can facilitate such investigations during the current pandemic and been very successful in that respect. My team is leading multiple remote investigations across many jurisdictions, and COVID-19 has emphasised the need to embrace new ways of working and think about more creative tools and solutions. I relocated from the Middle East in March, so I have worked from home since then. FTI Consulting has invested in forensic technology, which has ensured that I (and my team) have been able to continue conducting our investigations work since then. Notwithstanding the inability to socialise and travel, I have found that my ability to respond to client needs has been unaffected due to advances in this firm’s forensic technology. And, while normal face-to-face interaction has been lost during the pandemic, I have found that many colleagues have embraced virtual meetings, and this has led to greater collaboration and creativity. Sure, the casual coffee chats and unexpected catch-ups have been lost, but productivity has increased in my view. Personally, given the agile nature of the work that I conduct, I don’t anticipate any major changes in the coming year. The biggest change that I have experienced so far is in relation to conferences and seminars. Previously, I would travel to other countries to deliver lectures on financial crime and money laundering. However, the increased prevalence of webinars has been refreshing and has reinforced the importance of distance and blended learning. The tools are there if you’re prepared to adapt and use them.

Dec 01, 2020

Suzie Arbuthnot ACA, the winner of BBC’s Best Home Cook, discusses life as a parent, entrepreneur, and TV presenter.Earlier this year, you were crowned BBC’s Best Home Cook, how did that come about?Back in 2017, I entered the Great British Bake Off. I was first reserve and was devastated when I didn’t get called up. One of my friends told me to enter this other food programme, and so I did. A few days later, I had a phone interview and then a face-to-face meeting in Northern Ireland, where I had to make a savoury and a sweet dish. I was then flown to London to replicate the three stages you see on the show and, as they say, the rest is history!You recorded the show while setting up your own business. What was that experience like?I became self-employed on 1 February 2019 and I flew to London at the very beginning of March to start filming Best Home Cook. I was completely stressed because I wasn’t bringing in an income, but my husband said: “You have worked so hard for this opportunity, you can’t give up now!” So, having won the title and trophy plate, I had to return to normal life and not tell a soul. It was an agonising nine months. I set up my own practice by following the straightforward steps set by Chartered Accountants Ireland. I was extremely fortunate that my old firm (PGR Accountants, Belfast) referred a piece of work to me, and that got me started.What would you describe as your greatest challenge or achievement to date?I used to say: “finally qualifying as Chartered Accountant”, as it took me eight years. I never gave up, and I knew I could do it. I was able to have my family, have my children, and just enjoy life. I don’t regret a moment of it at all. However, I think winning a UK-wide cooking competition and now presenting my own food-focused TV show, Suzie Lee’s Home Cook Heroes, is pretty amazing!What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned?Have faith in yourself in whatever you do, as others are quick to knock you down. This has been true in all areas of my life, so be kind to everyone you meet, treat them the way you would like to be treated, and have no regrets.What do we most need in this world?We need to learn how to switch off. I am a huge culprit, but we are too connected these days – attached to our phones, tablets and laptops. The art of social interaction is starting to wane right in front of our eyes, and it’s all down to our devices.How do you recharge?I love keeping busy, but I get my energy from spending time with family, cooking, going to the gym, playing hockey for Lisnagarvey Hockey Club, and singing with Lisburn Harmony Ladies Choir.

Oct 01, 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

Lucy-Anne O’Sullivan, a trainee Chartered Accountant at KPMG and qualified radiographer, talks about her recent return to the front line at St Vincent’s Hospital, Dublin to help tackle the COVID-19 crisis.How did you arrive at a career in accountancy?It is safe to say that I have taken quite an unconventional route to accountancy. I studied radiography at University College Dublin (UCD) as my undergraduate degree and started working in St Vincent’s University Hospital shortly after. I worked there for two years with a fantastic team and made life-long friends. I was always drawn to the corporate world and wanted to explore this interest further, so I completed a Masters in Management at UCD Michael Smurfit Graduate Business School. It was something totally different and allowed me to explore various aspects of business. This was my steppingstone to KPMG Risk Consulting, where I am currently preparing to sit my CAP 1 exams.You recently returned to the front line. What was that experience like?When the COVID-19 pandemic hit the country earlier this year, I felt compelled to make use of my skills as a radiographer and returned to St Vincent’s. Radiology has had a huge role to play in both the diagnosis and treatment of COVID-19 patients. I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to help out a department that has been under a lot of added pressure.The transition back to the hospital was smooth as I was familiar with St Vincent’s, having worked and trained there before. KPMG was hugely supportive of this move, which I am very thankful for. The first week or two took some getting used to as there were numerous new protocols, but wearing head-to-toe PPE and voluntarily walking into the COVID-19 intensive care unit (ICU) quickly became the new normal. The hospital looked and felt quite different, but I felt quite safe as the protocols in place are very effective. There are enormous backlogs of exams as a result of the lockdown, but it is reassuring to see that these patients are slowly but surely starting to come back to the hospital as it looks a little more normal each day.Describe your typical day at the peak of the COVID-19 crisis.The role of the radiographer is very hands-on and, as a result, there is no scope to shy away from the virus. A standard day involved running to COVID ED (the COVID-19 emergency department) to perform chest X-rays on every query case that arrived into the hospital. Every ICU patient needed a daily chest x-ray to monitor progress and assess new line positioning. Radiographers can be seen running all over the hospital with portable X-ray machines to examine patients on the wards, as well as treating non-COVID-19-related patients in the emergency department. I trained in the Cardiac Catheterisation lab, so I also spent some time there as standard illnesses are still occurring.What lessons will you bring back to your role in Risk Consulting?My lessons are quite simple: people are critical to the success of any team, regardless of the working environment. My time in St Vincent’s was tough at times, but I never had to face it alone and always had the full support of my team. It is incredible to see what you can overcome with the backing of a good team behind you.If you could give the public one piece of advice, what would it be?Don’t get too complacent too quickly, as the virus is still out there. That said, I am as excited as anyone to get back to normal. Also, hand sanitiser is your best friend!

Jul 30, 2020

John Convery discusses the critical elements of an investor-grade business plan and what investors and venture capital firms look for in an investable business.The saying “paper never refuses ink” can certainly be applied when business plans are being written. Entrepreneurs and business owners have license to include what they want and can go overboard in producing great looking (and sounding) documents, but to what end? Venture capital firms will tell you privately how many plans pass across their desks but are discarded very quickly because they are not grounded in reality or properly thought through.There is any number of sources that proclaim to give you the formula for “how to write a perfect plan” or “how to write a winning plan”. Thanks to the web, there are now templates galore you can use in tandem. There are also multiple sites that outline what a great business plan should contain.Writing a good plan is not an exercise in producing grandiose business models and frameworks, with dazzling technical language and 2-D diagrams in brilliant, sharp colours and padding the whole lot off with forecasts and various scenarios. This sort of approach might win you a prize in a visual design contest, it will not help you raise investment.A business plan clarifies what a business is going to do, and how it is going to do it. For any start-up or established business, the process of writing a business plan is a discipline in explaining this. The article will therefore focus on what is required to produce an investor-grade business plan, what should go into the plan,     and what investors or venture capital firms look for before they invest in a business.Function and roleThe business plan is a blueprint for a business; it is essential if you are thinking of starting a business and is also an important tool for any established business. It is not static; rather, the business plan for any business will change over time as the business develops and as objectives change. For any start-up business, here are strong reasons why you need to write one:the process of writing a business plan will challenge owners to critically examine the business potential. It will test and serves to clarify the feasibility of the business idea;it allows you to set out your goals and prioritise business objectives;it allows you to measure what progress is achieved; andit is required to attract investors and secure funding.ContentsIn terms of length, an investor-grade business plan of 10-20 pages is reasonable. The key elements and content should include the following:1. Executive summary: the most important part of the business plan, the executive summary is generally the last section to be written. The objective is to grab the reader’s attention, sell the investment opportunity, and to get the potential investor to read the entire plan. It should be succinct and no longer than two pages. The key elements are:Opportunity: in a nutshell why is your product great and what customer problem will you solve? Explain the pain-point, your solution, and what are you offering.Product: describe its benefits and what it can deliver.Value proposition: who is the target market, your customer, and why will they want to buy it? What are the benefits?Marketing strategy: how will you reach your customers and what are your distribution channels?Competitive advantage: who is the competition? What is your competitive advantage?Business model: how will you generate revenue, and from whom? Why is your model scalable?Team: who are the management team, and why will they succeed?Financials: include highlights from the P&L for the next three years, cash balances, and headcount. Explain how you will reach your revenue targets.Funding: how much funding is required, and what will it be used for? Outline plans for future funding rounds.2. Product/service solution: what is it, what does it do, how does it work, who is the typical customer, and why is it different?3. Value proposition: explain the problem your business aims to solve. Where is the pain? Quantify the benefits for your customer in terms of money or time – and remember, the pain must be large and the benefits meaningful to convince a customer. Skip the technical jargon and be customer-centric.4. Market and opportunity: explain the overall industry and market dynamics. Segment the market by customer group and identify your target customer. Quantify the total market size and market opportunity of your addressable market. Use charts or graphs if necessary but remember that all figures should be from accredited sources and referenced.5. Competition: list and discuss all your competitors. Include any product/service that could be a substitute or alternative for your customer and outline how you compare with competitors.6. Competitive advantage/edge: some call this the secret sauce. How are you differentiated from your competitors? Detail your sustainable competitive advantage, highlight any barriers to entry that might keep your competitors away, and explain why any customer would buy your product/solution.7. Business model: how will you make money, who pays you, and how much do you keep after any expenses? Explain all sources of revenue from your customers and explain how your model is scalable.8. Marketing/sales strategy: this is your ‘go to market’ strategy. How will you reach your customers? Will you choose direct sales, partners, resellers or web? Include pricing and how much will go to channel intermediaries; provide a timeline of key milestones.9. The team: detail founders and key members, their qualifications, experience, track record, and domain knowledge. Include any advisory board members or industry figures involved with the business.10. Financial projection: for a start-up, include one-year detailed P&L data, cash flow prediction, balance sheet by month, and annual summary figures for three years thereafter highlighting key figures in P&L, cash flow and headcount. Also, what and when is your peak cash requirement? Cash is critical, and the cash flow statement is the key one. For an established business, include P&L, balance sheet for the last three years, and project P&L, cash flow and balance sheet by month for the next three years. For any financial projection, outline all key assumptions used. These must be based on sober and pragmatic reasoning, clearly justify growth assumptions, and highlight the peak cash requirement and break-even point.11. Funding requirements: explain the amount of funding required for the business. How much is being provided by other investors? State what the funds will be used for and show how much existing founders and owners have provided to date.12. Exit strategy: discuss the opportunities for investors to exit such as an acquisition, trade sale or IPO (beware, IPOs are only for the very best companies). Highlight trends in the market and give examples of valuations relevant to your business, but don’t go overboard and perhaps discuss your aim to build a truly sustainable business.Business plan pitfallsDo not make exaggerated claims. Business plans are meant to inform and reassure, not entertain, readers. Avoid the following types of statements or claims unless you can back them up with robust evidence:according to Gartner, the market is worth X billion; we only need Y% of this.we have no competition.our product is vastly better than anything else available.we can be number two in the market within 12 months.our technology is superior.customers will switch to our product.we will be profitable within 12 months.we can repay our investors after three years.our mission-critical kit is best of breed.we plan to target multiple overseas markets.we need to pay top salaries to attract top people.we want to retain the maximum amount of equity possible.It generally takes at least four years to reach €1 million in annual turnover, and that is if you are exceptionally lucky. It generally costs twice as much and takes you at least twice as long as you think it will to get there.Raising financeA start-up will typically go through different stages of funding sources as it moves from idea stage to product development, testing, initial customer validation and on to generating revenue. Initial funding will be provided by the founder, family and friends. Sooner or later, the founders will need to seek seed funding, which might be provided by an angel investor or seed venture capital fund. When a business seeks to raise outside finance from an investor or venture capital firm, they will look for the following criteria:Team: investors ultimately back people, not ideas. This is the number one criterion. They especially like those with deep knowledge and great experience; they will focus on track record and achievements.Market: they will seek a large market opportunity and strong growth rate. If the market has barriers to entry, better again. It needs to be big to support the returns many venture capital firms seek.Sustainable competitive advantage: a clear competitive advantage or unique selling point over others.Technology: great technology is a fundamental requirement now.Scalability: clear potential to grow in overseas markets.High gross margins: this reduces the amount required for working capital.ConclusionWithout a well-prepared and researched business plan, there is little chance of attracting outside funding. For a reader, the plan should be:credibleplausibleimplementableinvestableIt goes without saying that the plan should be grammatically correct, with no spelling errors. It should also be page referenced with no mistakes in the financials and look professional overall.John Convery is a business adviser to start-ups and small businesses. In the October issue, John will consider why so many start-ups fail, and how to improve the chance of success.

Jul 29, 2020

Imelda Hurley has had a challenging start to her role as CEO at Coillte, but her training and experience have proved invaluable in dealing with the fallout from COVID-19, writes Barry McCall.Imelda Hurley’s career journey to becoming CEO of Coillte in November 2019 saw her work on every continent for a range of businesses spanning food to technology. That varied background has helped prepare her for the unprecedented disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.“We have been working remotely since March, and the business has kept going throughout the pandemic,” she says. “We closed the office straight away and have had 300 people working remotely since then. Our primary focus since has been on the health, safety and wellbeing of our colleagues, and against that backdrop, on ensuring that a sustainable, viable and vibrant Coillte emerges from the crisis.”A diverse challengeThis has not been as straightforward as she makes it sound. “Coillte is a very diverse business,” she adds. “We are the largest forestry business in the country, the largest outdoor recreation provider, we enable about one-third of Ireland’s wind energy, and we have our board manufacturing business as well. We needed to continue operating as an essential service provider. That remit to operate was both a challenge and an opportunity.”The company’s timber products are essential for manufacturing the pallets required to move goods into and out of the country. “Some of our board products were used in the construction of the Nightingale Hospital in London,” she adds. “And the wind energy we enable provides electricity for people’s homes and the rest of the country.”Organisationally, the task has been to enable people to continue to do their jobs. However, the challenge varied depending on the nature of the operation involved. “In forest operations, people usually work at a distance from each other anyway, so they were able to keep going. That said, we did suspend a range of activities. We needed to continue our factory operations, but we had to slow down and reconfigure the lines for social distancing. And we kept the energy business going.”Those challenges were worsened by an ongoing issue associated with delays in the licensing of forestry activities and by the unusually dry spring weather, which created ideal conditions for forest fire outbreaks. “Even a typical forest fire season is very difficult,” she notes. “But this one was particularly difficult. In one single weekend, we had 50 fires which had to be fought while maintaining physical distancing. Very early on, we put in place fire-fighting protocols, which enabled us to keep our colleagues safe while they were out there fighting fires, and to support them in every way possible.”The lure of industryHer interest in business dates back to her childhood on the family farm near Clonakilty in Cork. “I was always interested in it, and I enjoyed accountancy in school and college at the University of Limerick. I did a work placement in Glen Dimplex and that consolidated my view that Chartered Accountancy was a good qualification that would give me the basis for an interesting career.”She went on to a training contract with Arthur Andersen in Dublin. “The firm was one of the Big 6 at the time,” she recalls. “I availed of several international opportunities while I worked there and worked in every continent apart from Asia. I really enjoyed working in Arthur Andersen, but I always had a desire to sit on the other side of the table. Some accountants prefer practice, but I enjoy the cut and thrust of business life.”That desire led her to move to Greencore. “I wanted to be near the centre of decision-making and where strategy was developed. I stayed there for ten years, learning every day.”And then she moved on to something quite different. “Sometimes in life, an opportunity comes along that makes you pause and think, ‘if I turn it down, I might regret it forever’. The opportunity was to become CFO of a Silicon Valley-backed business known as PCH, which stood for Pacific Coast Highway, which was based in Hong Kong and mainland China with offices in Ireland and San Francisco. It was involved in the supply chain for the technology industry and creating, developing and delivering industry-leading products for some of the largest brands in the world.”The experience proved invaluable. “It changed the way I thought. It was a very fast-moving business that was growing very quickly. I got to live and work in Asia and understand a new culture. I took Chinese lessons and the rest of the team took English lessons. There were 15 nationalities on the team. It was remarkably diverse in terms of demographics, gender, culture, you name it. That diversity means you find solutions you would not have found otherwise.“I spent three years with PCH and ran up half a million air miles in that time. It had a very entrepreneurial-driven start-up culture. The philosophy is to bet big, win big or fail fast. It was a whole new dynamic for me. I also got to spend a lot of time in San Francisco, the hub of the digital industry, and that was a wonderful experience as well.”Returning to IrelandImelda then returned to Ireland to become CFO of Origin Enterprises plc. “As I built my career, I always had the ambition to become CFO of a public company. And I always believed that with hard work, determination and a willingness to take a slightly different path, you will succeed. Greencore and Origin Enterprises gave me experience at both ends of the food and agriculture business; they took me from farm to fork. A few more years in Asia might have been good, but Origin Enterprises was the right opportunity to take at the time.”Her next career move saw her take up the reins as CEO of Coillte on 4 November 2019. “I always wanted to do different things, work with different organisations and with different stakeholder groups,” she points out. “Coillte is a very different business. It is the custodian of 7% of the land in Ireland, on which we manage forests for multiple benefits including wood supply. It is a fascinating company. It is an outdoor recreation enabler, with 3,000km of trails and 12 forest parks. We get 18 million visits to forests each year. We also have our forest products business – Medite Smartply. We operate across the full lifecycle of wood. We plant it and it takes 30-40 years to produce timber.”Imelda’s varied career has given her a unique perspective, which is helping her deal with the current challenges faced by Coillte. “Throughout my career, I have worked in different ownership structures and for a variety of stakeholders. I worked for public companies, a Silicon Valley-backed business, and have been in a private equity-backed business as well. Now, I am in a commercial semi-state. That has taken me across a very broad spectrum and I have learned that a business needs to be very clear on a set of things: its strategy, its values, who its stakeholders are, and how it will deliver.”Entering the ‘new’ worldWhile Coillte has kept going during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still affected by the economic fallout. “We are experiencing a very significant impact operationally, particularly so when building sites were closed,” she says. “There has been some domestic increase in timber requirements since then, and there has been an increasing demand for pallet wood. That has had a significant financial impact and it’s why I’m focused on delivering a sustainable, vibrant and viable Coillte. We remain very focused on our operations, business and strategy. In the new post-COVID-19 world, we will need a strategy refresh. We must look at what that new world looks like, and not just in terms of COVID-19. We still have a forestry licensing crisis and Brexit to deal with.”The business does boast certain advantages going into that new world. “Our business is very relevant to that world. The need for sustainable wood products for construction is so relevant. Forests provide a carbon sink. The recreation facilities and wind energy generated on the land we own are very valuable. It may be a difficult 12-18 months or longer, but Coillte is an excellent place to be. In business, you manage risk. What we are managing is uncertainty, and that requires a dynamic and fast-paced approach. Time is the enemy now, and we are using imperfect information to make decisions, but we have to work with that.”Coillte will begin the first phase of its office reopening programme in line with Phase 4 of the Government’s plan. “We have social distancing in place and it’s quite strange to see the floor markings in the offices. We are doing it in four phases and carried out surveys to understand employee preferences. We then overlaid our office capacity with those preferences. Our employees have been fantastic in the way they supported each other right the way through the crisis.”Words of wisdomDespite the current challenges, she says she has thoroughly enjoyed the role since day one. “It would be wrong to say it’s not a challenge to walk into a business you were never involved in before and take charge, but I have a very good team. None of us succeeds on our own. We need the support of the team around us. The only way to succeed is to debate the best ideas and when there isn’t alignment, I make the final decision, but only after listening to what others have to say. You are only as good as the people around you. You’ve got to empower those people and let them get on with it.”Imelda believes her training as a Chartered Accountant has also helped. “It facilitated me in building a blended career. The pace of change is so incredibly quick today and if we do not evolve and learn, we lose relevance. Small pieces of education are also very valuable in that respect. Over the years, I did several courses including at Harvard Business School and Stanford. I love learning and I’m not finished yet. I’m a firm believer in lifelong learning.”Her advice to other Chartered Accountants starting out in their careers is to seek opportunities to broaden their experience. “Learn to be willing to ask for what you want,” she says. “Look for opportunities outside finance in commercial, procurement or operations. Look through alternative lenses to bring value. Make sure you are learning and challenging yourself all the time. Keep asking what you have added to become the leader you want to be someday.”And don’t settle for what you don’t want. “Be sure it is the career you want, rather than the one you think you want or need. It’s too easy to look at someone successful and want to emulate them. You have to ask if that is really for you. This role particularly suits me. I love the outdoors and I get to spend time out of the office in forests and recreational areas. That resonates particularly well with me.”

Jul 28, 2020

As the saying goes, rough seas make great sailors and the new President of Chartered Accountants Ireland, Paul Henry, has abundant experience of leading in times of crisis. Perhaps in a sign of the times, Paul Henry sat down at his desk at home in Belfast to conduct this interview. With the lockdown in full effect, he was working from home as he sought to run his commercial property business and prepare for the year ahead as President of Chartered Accountants Ireland. And it will be a busy year indeed. In July, Paul will also become Chair of CCAB – a forum of five professional accountancy bodies that collaborate on matters affecting the profession and the broader economy. There will undoubtedly be much to discuss. From recovery to regulation, Paul will lead the charge for both Chartered Accountants Ireland and CCAB at a turbulent and fragile time in the island’s history. The global COVID-19 pandemic has spawned an economic malaise that may well be compounded by the effects of Brexit but leading through such crises was far from his mind when he decided to become a Chartered Accountant in the 1980s. The path to industry From an early age, Paul was determined to become both a Chartered Accountant and businessman – influenced in part by the apparent success of his friends’ parents. Upon leaving his science-focused secondary school in North Belfast, Paul attended Queen’s University Belfast where he studied accounting at undergraduate level before completing what was then known as the Postgraduate Diploma in Accounting. He readily admits that his first year studying accounting was “a wee bit of a mystery” but with some perseverance, both the art and the science of the subject began to make sense. Paul went on to qualify as a Chartered Accountant with PwC Northern Ireland in 1989, where he met his wife, Siân. He subsequently held positions with the Industrial Development Board, Enterprise Equity, PwC (for a second spell), and ASM Chartered Accountants before joining his current firm, Osborne King, where he is now a Director and equity partner. The move from practice to real estate advisory came about when Paul was working with ASM Chartered Accountants, primarily on corporate finance projects. “I had been speaking with the team at Osborne King about developing the business and the commercial skills they would need to do that, so I helped to shape a role and job specification for them,” he said. “They went to market with the role and close to the closing date for applications, one of the team said: ‘We’ve received some good applications, but we didn’t receive one from you’. For me, that was the light bulb moment because it was precisely the career I wanted. So, I went through the application process and thankfully landed the job.” Becoming a businessman Paul’s evolution did not end there, however. Having joined Osborne King in 2000, he led transactions involving sophisticated financial structures including private finance initiative and public/private partnership deals. Business was booming but unbeknownst to most, the financial crash of 2008/09 was not far away. The global downturn that followed decimated many sectors and industries – not least commercial property. Osborne King, like many others, felt the pinch but out of crisis comes opportunity and Paul went on to achieve his second childhood dream: becoming a fully-fledged businessman. “Through a series of developments and the downturn in particular, I ended up completing a management buyout of Osborne King with one other colleague. We restructured the business and the shareholders haven’t looked back since,” he said. With the benefit of hindsight, Paul can identify several lessons that are pertinent today as employers attempt to stay solvent and keep their businesses afloat. “The critical thing is to be open and honest with your people. In a downturn such as this, businesses must reduce their cost base and conserve cash, and that means having difficult conversations – particularly with staff and suppliers,” he said. “But if you communicate clearly and often, people will trust you and that is a precious asset to have. So be straight with them about the challenges facing your business, but don’t forget to repay that trust when the business landscape improves.” Indeed, one of Paul’s proudest achievements is keeping the full Osborne King team intact throughout the 2008/09 crisis and its aftermath. “We were probably the only commercial real estate firm that didn’t make any redundancies during the last recession,” he added. “We did that because, in my mind, we have great people and it is our people that will help us thrive once the economy recovers.” The current crisis Nobody expected to be in an even worse economic predicament just 12 years later, but the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic has led to plunging world economic growth. Businesses are operating in a near-absolute environment of uncertainty as governments scramble to provide the necessary lifelines for corporations, entrepreneurs, and their staff. In that context, Paul has been impressed by the agility and ingenuity of the governments in the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland in responding to the needs of both businesses and citizens. “People are often very critical of the public service but in recent months, we have seen its very best elements – not least in the health sector and emergency services. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to those who put themselves in harm’s way to keep us safe,” he said. Paul is also keen to highlight the vital role of the Institute in helping its members through the pandemic. “In times of adversity, we become incredibly creative and innovative and the Institute has responded very well to offer members even more services – whether it’s the COVID-19 Hub on the website or our regular webinars on soft skills or the Wage Subsidy Scheme,” he added. “Since March 2020, the level of member engagement with the Institute has increased significantly so we can see clearly that our Digital First programme is the right strategy. If there is a silver lining to all of this, it is that we have been forced to accelerate many of the innovative member services initiatives that were already on our agenda for 2020 and beyond.” All of this, he said, complements the traditional role of the Institute as a source of support for its 28,500 members. “CA Support is there to support all members and students in times of difficulty or crisis, and the service has seen an increase in activity in recent months,” Paul said. “Whether you have lost your job, are struggling to cope with uncertainty, or feeling lonely, all members and students can turn to their member organisation for support and guidance, and that is something that makes me immensely proud.” The role of the Chartered Accountant In addition to helping each other, Chartered Accountants will also be relied upon to help steer businesses through the pandemic and towards a sustainable future in what remains a very uncertain economic and regulatory landscape. Paul is hopeful that the global economy will recover relatively quickly, but there remains much to be done even if the economic signals begin to improve. “As we work through the fallout of the pandemic, businesses will need to be aware of the ‘wall of creditors’ waiting for them on the other side of the crisis,” he said. “Although survival is the name of the game at the moment, rent, commercial rates, and other obligations will need to be settled at some stage and Chartered Accountants – both in business and as advisors to business – will need to turn their focus to that issue.” All the while, Brexit rumbles on in the background and although it has the potential to compound the economic woes bestowed on the island of Ireland, Paul points to the profession’s pragmatism as its most valuable asset in navigating the added uncertainty. “The Institute has made clear that it would be preferable if Brexit did not happen, or if it did, that it happened in a planned and managed way with ample time for businesses to acclimatise to the new reality. But Chartered Accountants will play the hand they are dealt and work to understand what role they must play in making Brexit work without judgement,” he said. The President’s priorities Paul takes the helm at Chartered Accountants Ireland at a distinctly turbulent time but as the saying goes, rough seas make great sailors and Paul’s experience – both in industry and practice – gives him a rounded view of the needs of the membership during times of crisis in particular. In the year ahead, the Institute will launch a new four-year strategy that will hopefully outlive both COVID-19 and Brexit and despite the uncertainties, Paul’s focus will remain very much on people, talent, and potential. “When I joined Enterprise Equity, my chief executive said ‘Paul, it’s going to cost me £1 million to train you’. I was thrilled because I thought I was going to be educated in the best universities in the world, but he really meant that I would make many costly mistakes along the way,” Paul said. “In business, you are often backing the jockey and not the horse. It is the people, team and leaders that will get you around the course and win the race, and this focus on people will be a core element of my Presidency in the year ahead.” Paul will also focus on other strategic imperatives during his tenure: building on the recent evolution of the education syllabus, supporting the Institute’s Digital First initiative, and adapting to the ‘new normal’ for students, members and staff – whatever that ‘new normal’ might be. “My key priorities will revolve around member experience. It is vital that we engage with members, both at home and overseas, and become increasingly relevant to members in all sectors,” he said. “Building engagement with our members will be central to that sense of relevance. And as someone who wasn’t engaged with the Institute for many years, I can say with conviction that once members engage with Chartered Accountants Ireland and come to understand the breadth of services and support available to members and students alike, they will be amazed.” Conclusion Paul’s presidency will be a presidency like no other. Travel will be restricted in the short-term, a global recession is looming, and the world of professional services work has undergone a dramatic upheaval. But Paul remains optimistic for the future. “Through our education system, we are equipping the next generation of Chartered Accountants with the skills and expertise necessary to lead businesses into the future and support economic recovery and growth,” he said. “Meanwhile, our members continue to be relied upon as the people who connect the dots, bring people together and make individual elements more effective and valuable by creating and leading great teams. For me, the future is all about empathy, people, and teams – and if we get that right, we can and will recover.”

Jun 02, 2020

Pamela Gillies shares her thoughts on the future of the profession, wealth distribution and the therapeutic art of mowing the lawn. What do you most enjoy about your role at BDO? I started my career in BDO Northern Ireland 23 years ago, and today, I am a Director within the Advisory team in the Belfast Office. Depending on the cycle the broader business environment is going through, I see my role as either helping my clients’ businesses to grow or helping them navigate challenging commercial and financial situations. Being able to help and guide my clients gives me enormous satisfaction. What is your professional highlight thus far? One of my earliest career highlights was the sense of achievement when we completed the first M&A transaction I managed. Other highlights range from successfully securing new funding for my clients to helping clients develop their strategic plans and returning to see that they have been successful in achieving their targets. The aftermath of the financial crisis was an interesting period in my career when our team was managing around 200 jobs covering insolvency and land/property receiverships. I worked on several high-profile cases at that time and enjoyed the challenge of managing complex transactions and working to save as many jobs as possible, while maximising the return to creditors – often a delicate balance. How will the profession change in the next ten years? Like all professions, we must evolve with the times. Our clients are becoming much more innovative and we are no different; going forward, we will all need to be adaptable and more agile in the services we provide and how we support them. While the majority of our clients are Northern Ireland-based, we see an increasing number with global reach, and we need to be equipped to support this with a broader knowledge of the global marketplace. As a profession, integrity must be the absolute cornerstone upon which our work is based and as such, I expect to see more advanced regulations, standards, and change for the better in the years ahead. What is the most memorable lesson you have learned? Patience is a virtue. When I was younger, I was probably quicker to react to situations than I am now. This usually came as a result of trying to impress someone with my speed of action and the desire to move onto the next task. I have since learned to take in all the facts, to listen, and to assess all of the information calmly and thoroughly before deciding on the best course of action. What do we most need in this world? We need a more balanced and sustainable approach to the generation and distribution of wealth. As we have, once again, seen over the last 12 weeks, we are all collectively facing unprecedented challenges. The statistics show, yet again, that it is the poorest who are suffering most. The 26 wealthiest people in the world control the same level of wealth as the four billion poorest. There must be a more equitable solution so that everyone can benefit from wealth creation but, importantly, that the creators of wealth are not penalised in doing so.    How do you recharge? I get my energy from staying busy. I like to be ‘on the go’ both during the working week and as a family at weekends. I am not the sort of person who likes to sit down a lot. A perfect Saturday is mini rugby with the boys in the morning, a walk up the Cavehill in the afternoon, followed by a great meal (prepared by my husband) around the kitchen table with the kids. My guilty pleasure is cutting the grass – one day I am going to write a book entitled ‘Zen and The Art of Mowing the Lawn.’

Jun 02, 2020

Joan Curry, who recently joined the first female majority board of IFAC, discusses her varied career in the public sector. Joan Curry is Head of Finance at the Department of Transport, Tourism & Sport; ex-chair of the Chartered Accountants Ireland Public Sector Interest Group; member of Council at Chartered Accountants Ireland; and a board member of the International Federation of Accountants. Add to that six children and a keen golfing interest, and one could reasonably say that Joan leads a hectic life. In terms of her professional career, Joan had an interest in figures and accountancy from an early age. “I was the eldest of five children, and my mother and father both worked outside the home,” she recalled. “We swam and my father was treasurer of the swimming club. I helped him with the money, so it was a subliminal introduction really.” At school, Joan and three friends were the first pupils of Mercy College in Coolock to do higher-level maths. “It didn’t occur to us that we were trailblazers or anything like that,” she said. We just did what we did. I got an honour in maths in the Leaving Cert, so I suppose I always had a head for figures.” No college fun Joan planned to do a commerce degree in university when fate took a hand. “My brother’s football coach was an accountant and he called to the house one evening and convinced me to become a Chartered Accountant by working for an accountancy firm,” Joan said. “I took that advice and qualified with Smith Lawlor & Co., now JPA Brenson Lawlor in 1988.” Joan completed her training contract and qualified in 1988 when she moved into industry with Nokia with a desire to gain commercial experience. Nokia was a tissue paper manufacturer, and Kittensoft was its major brand. The company was a big player in the Irish retail FMCG scene at that time. As a financial accountant, Joan was responsible for budget and financial management including the preparation of accounts for consolidation into the European group headquarters and, subsequently, for the United States when it became part of the James River and Georgia Pacific corporations. Looking back, Joan reflected: “In practice, you are engaging with clients annually. There is more continuity in industry; you are part of decisions and can see their cause and effect and results.” It wasn’t all work in Nokia, however. Joan made up for the lack of fun at college as she met her husband in Nokia. “I married the site engineer after he left the company,” she said. A wide and varied career Joan has spent the past 18 years in the civil service in several roles that have broadened her capacities. She gained extensive experience in multi-disciplinary environments and brings all of that to bear in her current financial role with the Department of Transport, Tourism & Sport. Joan’s career in the public sector began with a contract role as a project accountant for the Department of Finance, as it implemented the JD Edwards financial management system. This was later extended into a contract of indefinite duration. In 2011, Joan moved to the Department of Public Expenditure & Reform on its formation to work in the Government Accounting unit, the standard-setter for government accounts in Ireland. There, she built relationships with colleagues in both finance and internal audit in each government department. Joan also spent three years as Head of Corporate Services for the National Shared Services Office. A role that Joan particularly enjoyed while working in the Department of Public Expenditure & Reform was a secondment as Secretary to the Public Service Pay Commission. This was a non-financial role, utterly different to anything she had done before, and involved supporting the Commission in its examination of recruitment and retention matters in specific areas of the public service. Joan managed the research, contribution and report-writing phases of the Commission’s work and engaged with the public sector employer, union and other stakeholders in the process. Current role Joan joined the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport as Head of Finance in August 2019 and her role covers “vote and expenditure management, financial management, risk management, and responsibility for the procurement framework”. The use of the term “vote” serves to highlight the differences between the public sector and private sector accounting practices. This refers to the financial allocation made to a department or public body by the government, which is approved by a vote of the Oireachtas. The differences run deeper than mere terminology, however. The State doesn’t utilise private sector financial reporting standards, nor does it prepare its accounts on an accrual basis. Joan is a firm believer that the State’s move to re-examine this area and consider the use of accrual accounting is the right one. A change in policy here would be consistent with OECD guidance on the matter Joan stressed. Joan reflects that, in contrast to government accounting, local authorities have been engaged in an advanced form of accrual accounting since 2002. They prepare their accounts in accordance with an accounting code of practice, which complies with FRS102 where applicable. The Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport has an oversight role in various bodies under its aegis and at times, Joan’s expertise is called on by departmental colleagues directly involved in the oversight function. “It extends into the transport sector – public transport, roads, local authorities, and then we have the tourism industry and Fáilte Ireland and Tourism Ireland and the breadth of activity they are involved in to attract tourists. It goes right down to sport and grants to local clubs. I didn’t realise the breadth of services involved until I started working in the department.” And unsurprisingly, there is no such thing as a typical workday for Joan. “There is a huge variety on any given day,” she said. “I try to look at it in its different compartments – vote management, financial management, risk management, and procurement. Those are the four key areas I try to interface with every day.” At the time of writing, the COVID-19 pandemic was taking up much of Joan’s time. “We have been engaged in emergency planning and contingency planning and arranging for staff to work remotely and so on. The staff here have been really fantastic,” Joan said.  Joan is also working daily with critical stakeholders on liquidity funding strategies to keep key transport systems and supply chains going – getting people and goods to where they are needed in light of COVID-19. Volunteer work Joan is a Fellow of the Institute and a Member of Council at Chartered Accountants Ireland. She is also a member and former Chair of the Public Sector Interest Group and recently became a member of the International Federation of Accountants (IFAC). Joan describes her initial introduction to the Institute’s Council as the result of ‘a tap on the shoulder’. “I was approached to run for Council and I agreed. It all goes back to networks. I play in the Chartered Accountants Golf Society and have made some great contacts there. Within an hour of seeking nominations, I had ten nominations and I only needed seven.” Joan’s next step came when she was asked to go forward for the IFAC board. “I was nominated by Chartered Accountants Ireland and was short-listed. I went for the interview and was fortunate enough to be invited to join the board. Being there for Ireland is an immense honour, and being able to contribute that public service perspective is also very important to me.” The 23-member board includes 12 males and 13 females. “It’s gender-balanced, and the overall diversity is great,” she said. “I have four girls and two boys, and I have always stressed to them the importance of equality.” Life outside the office In Joan’s view, one of the best things about working in the public service is the scope offered to do other things. “The support I have received over the years has been invaluable,” she said. “I got better at managing my time and learned that I don’t need to be involved in everything that’s going on. I have improved at delegating and saying no. I have also learned that the time you spend on yourself is good for you and your employer. If you’re not feeling good, you won’t perform at your best.” When her children – Aisling, Ciara, Dearbhla, Shane, Sonia and Karl – are not keeping Joan busy with various college, school and extracurricular activities, she can be found on the golf course. “It’s the perfect place for headspace for me,” she concludes. “And a little competition as well!”

Apr 01, 2020

Colm Davitt, CEO at Dental Care Ireland, discusses life at the helm of the five-year-old dental business he founded with his brother. What do you most enjoy about your current role? My role involves acquiring dental practices and helping them achieve their full potential. It combines my background in business and accountancy with a passion for the healthcare sector. I love seeing the practices grow and evolve as we invest in facilities, services and management support structures. Our 15 practices are located all over the country, which means a fair amount of travel, but I enjoy getting out of the office every week to meet with current and potential practice teams. What has been your career highlight thus far? Two career milestones stand out. First, I passed my final admitting exams to become a Chartered Accountant at age 21. My qualification has been the foundation and bedrock of my career achievements to date. Second, a major highlight was the opening of our first branded Dental Care Ireland practice. I first came up with the Dental Care Ireland concept in 2014 with my brother, Dr Kieran Davitt. Our vision was to create a group of established, high-quality dental practices nationwide. It has been a hugely rewarding experience to see that idea become a reality in just five short years. How do you stay productive day in, day out? I am a firm believer in setting goals. We have ambitious growth plans for Dental Care Ireland, so I review our objectives and targets at least every six months. I am also fortunate to have built a highly motivated team around me. Our head office is located beside the sea and close to home, so I can walk to and from work. When I’m not on the road, it gives me some guaranteed fresh air and headspace. I try to balance work with plenty of family time too. I dedicate my weekends to watching my kids in action on the sports field or catching up on GAA.  What changes do you anticipate in your profession in the next five to ten years? I expect to see the large-scale automation of routine accounting and data processing over the next ten years. It will be essential for Chartered Accountants to remain commercial and value-focused. In general, I think the need for flexibility in the workplace will continue to grow, and employers will have to adapt accordingly. In the dental sector, we may see fewer dentists willing to run their own businesses due to increased compliance and administration requirements. What is the best advice you’ve ever received? Stay true to what you really believe in. Being a CEO can be a lonely place, and there are many ups and downs along the way. If you believe in what you are doing, you will gain respect and trust from those around you. Over the years, I have had the privilege of working with several great mentors and CEOs. They all had the ability to create a small but very loyal team, which is probably the most important lesson I have learned. Working with a talented and supportive team makes the days much more enjoyable and fulfilling.

Apr 01, 2020

President of NUI Galway, Prof. Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, the first Chartered Accountant to be appointed president of an Irish university, reflects on his career in academia as he embarks on his third year at the helm of his alma mater. When people talk about Chartered Accountants’ career progression, they often refer to the ‘linear path’ to the position of Managing Partner or CFO. While Prof. Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh’s professional path has been similarly structured, albeit in a different sector, his route has been more circular than linear. From his youthful days as a BComm student in NUI Galway to his current post as President of that same university, Ciarán has enjoyed academic success in a range of roles. As an educator, however, his teachings are grounded firmly in the values of fairness and the greater good – values that he was embued with at a young age. A social science When Ciarán joined the BComm class in NUI Galway, he was drawn towards a career in corporate law – an area that was gaining traction as a viable career option. However, he was converted to accountancy by two lecturers – Keith Warnock and Seamus Collins – who taught accountancy as a social science. They looked at the impact of accounting on decision-making in both business and society, and according to Ciarán, “it was a really nice way of looking at accounting; not just as a technical subject, but as something much more interesting than that”. It may be dramatic to describe this as a Damascene conversion, but following his experience at undergraduate level, Ciarán followed a path to accountancy. Having completed the Diploma in Professional Accounting in UCD while training with Arthur Andersen, he went on to qualify as a Chartered Accountant before moving swiftly into academia. His career has taken him to the Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand and Boston College as a Fulbright Scholar, and he has also taught at Dublin City University and University College Dublin. Indeed, he has enjoyed his greatest success in Ireland, becoming UCD’s Dean of Business in 2011 before joining NUI Galway as President in 2017. Teaching “at the heart of my day” Ciarán’s rise to the role of Dean and, more recently, President of two of the country’s most respected academic institutions did not come at the expense of his love of teaching, however. He continues to teach into one accountancy module per semester, taking a number of classes with first year accountancy students, for example, in 2019/20. As Warnock and Collins did back in the 1980s, Ciarán positions the subject as part of a broader landscape. “In research, accountancy is seen as a social science to a great extent, but it’s also seen – because of the professional requirements – as a technical subject. Trying to marry those two is always an interesting challenge,” he said. While Ciarán teaches for the enjoyment it brings, there are other more strategic reasons for stepping up to the podium every week. “I’d miss it if I didn’t teach,” he said. “But teaching is also a great way to get into the routine of the year and get to know what’s happening on the campus. It’s a great way to meet students, but more importantly, it sets a good example to both students and staff. Teaching is an essential part of the mission of the university, so putting teaching at the heart of my day is important from that perspective.” The leader’s skill set This type of signalling is an important aspect of Ciarán’s skill set as a leader. When he assumed the role of President at NUI Galway, there were several challenging issues in his in-tray, including issues of gender equality.  “Diversity is strength, particularly in a university. It is not a burden, and should be cherished rather than challenged,” he said. Ciarán is very pleased that NUI Galway has since been awarded Athena Swan Bronze status and has been designated as a University of Sanctuary, meaning that it welcomes refugees, asylum seekers and travellers as part of its community – but he is clear that “there’s always work to be done” in this area.  At the time of his appointment, one of Ciarán’s first acts on his first day was to meet with the Students’ Union President and to send an introductory video to all his new colleagues. In this communication, he talked about our “kindnesses to each other”, a phrase he found echoed across the university community during his subsequent ‘listening tour’.This strategy, according to Ciarán, was very deliberate. “I try to deal with issues early on,” he said. “And a lot of my role as President involves signalling, so you turn up at things that you think are important and you push with determination on issues that are important.” An ambitious new strategy  It will therefore come as no surprise that the university’s new strategy, which Ciarán launched last month, centres in large part on respect and openness. It also channels his business acumen and skills as an innovator by ensuring that the university complements the region’s strengths in medical technologies, culture and creativity, and climate and oceans. Speaking at the launch, Ciarán described the university as being for the “public good”, belonging to the people. And given that NUI Galway has no gates, this sense of openness is very much part of the university’s cultural fabric in his view.But running a university with 19,000 students is an expensive business, so this public good comes at a high cost. That said, Ciarán is keen to guide the debate away from price and towards value. And given that Ireland and Croatia are viewed as “systems in danger” by a European University Association report published in 2017, this debate couldn’t be more timely. “First and foremost, we must make the argument that universities are for the public good and good for society. After that, society needs to think about how we fund that ambition,” he said. “If the funding doesn’t match that ambition, then we need to find some way to translate that ambition for the third-level sector with a funding model that supports us in an international context.” Life lessons When you devote your life to something, as Ciarán has done, it often becomes difficult to draw a line between the person and the professional. To counter that, Ciarán relies on a Flann O’Brien tale – one he shares with his students regularly. “In The Third Policeman, a policeman cycles the roads of the west of Ireland so often that he becomes part-policeman, part-bicycle,” he said. “For me, the lesson is simple: don’t become the job. Always maintain your personality and joie de vivre, because that’s important.”It will come as no surprise that Ciarán, who has spent decades educating the leaders of the future – and, more recently, leading the educators themselves – has a wealth of advice for fellow Chartered Accountants, colleagues and students alike. He advocates being yourself as this makes for a more comfortable life; he’s a firm believer in trying new things; and he advises everyone to take the time to think and read. But overall, Ciarán returns to the philosophy of his BComm lecturers, Warnock and Collins: “Accounting has a role to play in shaping society and we should be a profession that supports not only the powerful but those on the periphery as well,” he said. “That would be a very good future for everyone in the context of the changes we see in society today.” Ciarán on... His family “Dad and mam had a real view on making a difference, doing your best. And as the youngest of six, I think that was helpful as I grew up with adults and people older than me.” The threat to third-level education “It isn’t about the universities or the staff; it’s actually about our students, their families, about companies and civic society.” Launching UCD’s MA in aviation finance “The idea here is that you work with your hinterland. Dublin is a global hub for aviation finance so the feeling was, let’s include that group and educate the talent pool for the industry.” The potential impact of Brexit “If we position ourselves as the gateway to Europe – Galway in particular and Ireland in general – we can capitalise on student mobility and research opportunities.” Venturing into the unknown “If you try something you’ve never tried before, one of two things will happen. You will either find that you are good at it, or you will find that you’re not – in which case, the sky doesn’t fall in and you learn something and perhaps emerge even stronger from the experience.” Communication “The people aspect of accountancy is often missing. When you are doing audits, you have to ask questions and talk to people. It can be a very people-oriented existence and people too often think of accountancy as not involving people when generally speaking, it does.” Doing the right thing “I make decisions that I think are right, and that makes it easier to sleep at night. The ones that unsettle you are the ones where others convince you, but you don’t quite think it’s the right thing to do.” Logic and morals “Someday, you will have to make a decision that looks entirely logical. You know you should do it, but it has implications for others that you might not be aware of at the outset. Endeavour to find, and consider, that implication or consequence for an individual or group because not everyone is as well off as ourselves.”

Feb 10, 2020

Jenna Mairs ACA, Senior Investment Manager at Whiterock Finance, discusses her career highlights, productivity at work and the future of the profession. What do you most enjoy about your current role? The variety, without a doubt – no two days are ever the same. Whiterock Finance offer loans ranging from £100,000 to £2 million across two funds, so we deal with an extensive range of Northern Ireland-based SMEs from early-stage (two years plus) to well-established businesses on a growth trajectory. We have no sectoral focus, so one day you could be meeting an IT company in Ballymena and the next an engineering firm in Enniskillen. It’s interesting to meet businesses of varying degrees of complexity and to see what a difference our funding can make to their growth story. What has been your career highlight thus far? I’ve had many highlights, so it’s hard to narrow down. Over the years, I’ve worked with some great people who have taught me so much – both professionally and about myself. I’ve made lasting friendships with both past and present colleagues and had a lot of fun and laughs along the way. I’ve grown a fantastic support network and have many people I can rely on for advice and guidance. I’ve also had the privilege to meet some inspiring and passionate business leaders and to learn about their trials and triumphs along the way. If I had to choose one recent highlight, it would be winning the “Woman of Influence” award at the inaugural Northern Ireland Women’s Awards last year. How do you stay productive day in, day out? I am a morning person, so I try to start every day with exercise – either a class at the gym or a 5km run, which means that by the time I get to work, I’m wide awake and ready to go. At the start of each week, I make a list of everything I’d like to achieve that week and then allocate the tasks to each day. To keep my productivity high in the afternoon, I always try to get out at lunchtime for some fresh air and, although it’s a bit of a cliché, I drink a lot of water. I also focus on maintaining a positive work-life balance to ensure that I’m productive in the long-term. I appreciate the importance of having downtime to spend with friends and family, visiting new places and experiencing new things. What changes do you anticipate in your profession in the next five to ten years? In the short-term there will be greater digitisation with cloud-based applications becoming more prevalent, thereby leading to an increased ability to work remotely and collaborate globally. Automation will continue to rise, especially in terms of replacing repetitive and mundane tasks. In light of recent issues within the profession, there is also likely to be a requirement for increased transparency and accountability and further aligning of global accounting standards. Within business, there will likely be an increased focus on sustainability and increasing environmental awareness. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?  When I was completing my training contract, a colleague told me that there’s no such thing as a stupid question. I’m not sure I agree with that statement completely, but I am a firm believer that you should not be afraid to ask questions to further your understanding. If you want to increase your knowledge, you need to be inquisitive and you shouldn’t be scared to question everything you are told. It is advice that I have shared with others many times, and I am always more than happy to answer questions put to me.

Feb 10, 2020

When Marie Claire McDonnell noticed that Irish Chartered Accountants in Toronto were left out in the cold, she started the Toronto Chapter. Now, she wants the new group, and her career in recruitment, to gain momentum. Tell us about your current role. I recruit mid-senior level accountants in mining, real estate, energy and technology industries in Toronto, Canada. Describe your typical day.  No two days are the same in recruitment. The focus of my role is relationship building both on the client and candidate side. I have control and influence over people’s career choices, which is very gratifying. How did your involvement with the Toronto Chapter come about? I have had a lot of success placing Irish Chartered Accountants in Toronto. In a city that networks significantly, I noticed there was no formal networking group for all the Irish Chartered Accountants I meet. When Fergal McCormack and Brian Keegan visited Toronto in March, I jumped at the opportunity to work with the Institute to set up a committee here and kick-start the Toronto Chapter. Our first event in July 2019 was a great success. We had four Irish Chartered Accountants in a panel discussion about their experiences living and working in Toronto.  What are the best and worst aspects of living in Canada? Best: the quality of life, diversity and there is always something fun going on in the city.  Worst: the winter. We get a lot of snow. I like to ski so I enjoy that side of it, but when it is still snowing mid-April, the novelty has well and truly worn off! What are your goals/plans for 2020? I would like to host three successful events with the Irish Chartered Accountants in Toronto Chapter in 2020. Career-wise, I am hoping to gain momentum in the technology industry in Toronto, which has become a major hub for talent. I recently visited the Robert Walters office in San Francisco and realised there are cross-border relationships which can be developed through our partnerships in California.  What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? The early bird catches the worm! I wake up every day at 5.30am, start work at 7am. I feel those golden hours pre-9am are crucial in providing clarity and structure around the productivity of my day. It is challenging to stay organised in recruitment, so if I have that quiet time in the morning to set my goals for the day, it allows me to be more focused. Marie Claire McDonnell is Senior Consultant at Robert Walters, Canada.

Dec 06, 2019

Trócaire’s Michael Wickham Moriarty speaks to Accountancy Ireland about his career in the non-profit sector and the satisfaction he gets from volunteering. From Monaghan to Dublin to Khartoum and back again, Michael Wickham Moriarty’s career path as a Chartered Accountant has been anything but predictable. Trócaire’s Director of Corporate Services, who recently collected the ‘Best Large Charity Annual Report’ award at the Published Accounts Awards, and two additional accolades at the Good Governance Awards, has worked in the charity and non-profit sector since completing his training contract with PwC’s tax department – but in fact, that’s where his passion for meaningful work began. As a trainee, Michael’s work exposed him to several family businesses and non-profit organisations. Reporting to PwC’s Teresa McColgan, who is a board member at Concern, helped him realise the value he could bring to organisations as a Chartered Accountant – both as an employee and volunteer. The first stint overseas Despite enjoying his work in tax during the Celtic Tiger years, a career in practice wasn’t in Michael’s long-term plan. Rather than move straight into another ‘career’ role, however, he instead opted to work overseas for one year with GOAL. “In 2008, when the economy was beginning to wobble, I moved to Khartoum in Sudan to work with GOAL as their on-site donor compliance officer,” he says. “I was working under the supervision of GOAL’s financial controller in Khartoum, which was great because donor compliance was a new area for me.” At the time, Sudan was also ruled by Arab dictator, Omar al-Bashir, whose forces imposed an arbitrary sharia legal system within the country. “I experienced a lot of changes in a very short space of time,” Michael recalls. “Plus, I had to get used to a new way of living. The stipend provided by GOAL meant that you had just enough to get by and this was a major drop from my salary as a Chartered Accountant working in practice, but it was never about the money. Ultimately, it was a fascinating experience and I learned a lot during my time there.” Over the course of the year, many of Michael’s colleagues returned home for brief spells. At this point, the financial crisis was taking a wrecking ball to the Irish economy and he was hearing reports that described a different country to the one he left behind. After a year of volunteering with GOAL, he took up another donor compliance role with Plan International Ireland, which divided his time between Dublin and West Africa. “It was quite shocking for me to hear just how bad things were in Ireland. I was in Guinea when I heard on French language radio about the IMF coming into town, and I remember having to explain to the locals about the situation back home,” he says. “It was devastating because so many people overseas rely on Irish aid. In one village, for example, the only stable concrete building was built using Irish aid and the locals were extremely grateful because it allowed them to care for disabled children safely.” Returning to a changed Ireland Michael worked with Plan for three years – before joining the Ana Liffey Drug Project as Head of Finance and Administration. Working with Ana Liffey was very different from working overseas, Michael recalls. “Our clients were in and out of the building every day and I had the opportunity to meet them and hear their stories,” he recalls. But the most interesting thing he noticed about small charities is how little they have by way of resources to get by. “The organisation had an amazing ethos that really appealed to me, but every cent mattered,” he says. “So much so that when a computer broke down, I found myself carrying it to the local PC repair shop rather than spend money on a courier. And that’s the reality for many small charities in Ireland today.” Michael’s stint with small charities came to an end, however, when an opportunity arose to join the team at the Central Remedial Clinic (CRC). The CRC had survived a major scandal in 2013 that involved top executives receiving salaries far in excess of agreed official public service pay rates – and these executive salaries were being topped-up in part by public donations. Although Michael was a spectator to many scandals, he now found himself in an organisation that was working to rebuild its reputation and regain the trust of the public. “Eighteen months after the CRC scandal broke, the new CEO decided to recruit a new Head of Finance. I applied for the job and it helped that I was interested in governance and reform, as that was a critical objective for the entire organisation,” he said. “And it was a wonderful experience. I headed up a great Finance team and we quickly recruited a new external audit firm, adopted Charities SORP and implemented a new internal audit regime.” The key to success, in Michael’s view, was the fact that change was supported at all levels of the organisation – not least by the leadership team. “The technical changes weren’t without their challenges, but that was my area of expertise,” he says. “What really impressed me, though, was the CEO’s focus on culture change. The entire organisation moved from an old reality to a new reality in a relatively short space of time, and it was fascinating to observe that shift happening.” Stepping up During this time, Michael was also volunteering as the Company Secretary and Deputy Chair of EPIC – a national organisation that works with children and young adults who are either in care, or who have experience of being in care. He stepped down in July 2017 after five years as a board member, to take up a voluntary role with the Rotunda Hospital where he is now Honorary Treasurer, Vice President, and Chair of the Audit and Governance Committee. According to Michael, both volunteering and working in the non-profit sector allowed him to see both sides of the same coin – something that benefited him in his capacity as an employee and board member. “In my younger years, I volunteered because I had the time and inclination to put my training to good use, but it ended up being a mutually reinforcing experience,” he says. “The time I spent at the board table certainly made me a better executive when reporting to the board. It also introduced me to an entire network of people with similar values to my own and it has become an outlet of sorts for my own need to make some sort of positive change in society. So, in that respect, I’ve found volunteering very worthwhile.” Living a meaningful life While Michael is a volunteer in one sense, he is very clear about his paid role as an employee – and this extends to his approach to management within Trócaire, where he now works. “I lead a team of accountants and IT professionals, so I think about talent retention a lot. My colleagues don’t get paid as much as they could elsewhere, but they don’t work as a favour either. All staff in the not-for-profit sector need to be paid fairly; you need to be able to send people home with the ability to pay their bills and support their families,” he says. “Otherwise, only the independently wealthy could work in this space and that wouldn’t be right or good.” And while Michael himself took a significant pay cut to work with GOAL in Sudan all those years ago, and has only recently recovered the shortfall, he is happy with his lot. “Some of my friends stayed in practice while some moved into industry, and they get paid very well, but I am happy with my circumstances,” he adds. “I am very lucky to do meaningful work, which brings me a lot of value and satisfaction. Many people have been interested in my experience and career path, but I’ve found that they often struggle with what they would be forced to give up financially and that is very understandable. But for me, working in an organisation that provides life-changing and life-saving services gives my work great meaning and ultimately, that has influenced    my career choices and it’s what keeps me in the sector.” Michael on… Volunteering: “We can’t solve all the problems of the world, but volunteering gives you an outlet beyond being upset or angry about it.” Scandals: “There is a sceptical eye on charities, and that will continue. We must respond to that scepticism and the best way to do that, in my view, is through transparency.” Reporting: “Charities need to present financial statements in a way that allows people to understand the issues with ease, and the Public Accounts Awards is doing great work in driving standards up across the sector.” Motivation: “When you see kids donating €2 for their school’s hot chocolate day or pensioners donating part of their weekly pension, there’s nothing more motivating than that. It pushes you to ensure that their money is used for the full benefit of the people you serve.” Diversity: “A lot of boards are dominated by white, middle-aged and middle-class men, and I’m at least two of those myself! We need to help more young people, women and those from ethnic minorities to get involved in boards – and that diverse talent pool is available amongst the membership of Chartered Accountants Ireland."

Dec 02, 2019

Tilly Downes, trainee in PwC in Cork, is moving on to her FAE after grabbing the top spot in her CAP 2 exams. Tilly answered some questions about exam preparation and her future as a Chartered Accountant. Can you bring us through your preparation process for the CAP 2 exams? I began my study leave ten weeks before the exams were due to commence. At the beginning, I spent some time preparing my folders and dividing them into sections so that when it came to study and the exams, I knew where everything was. Following this, I focused on completing the exam papers in the fastest time I could which helped me during the actual exam; I knew how much time to allocate to each question and learned how to work against the clock.  What was the most challenging part of your preparation? Ten weeks of study leave is a long time, and it can be hard to motivate yourself to keep going, so this is definitely what I found the most challenging. What is one tip you would give to someone going into their CAP 2 exams in the next year? My advice would be just to give your best shot at the interim exams. These exams will really set you up for the final exam if you have a steady mark going in. It gives you that bit of extra confidence.   What do you plan on doing with your career once you qualify? At the moment, I have no definite plans on what I want to do after I qualify. I have toyed with the idea of moving abroad; I feel living in another country and meeting new people from different cultures would be a great experience.  If I do move abroad, I hope to work in the financial industry. The idea of getting insight into how businesses operate, the different challenges they face and, ultimately, what makes these businesses successful appeals to me. I also believe this could be an invaluable opportunity to develop myself both personally and professionally. For the time being, my main goal is to obtain my ACA qualification so that I will be able to reap the rewards it offers to its graduates.  In third year, I chose to go to PwC for my six-month placement. PwC has always come across as a progressive firm, and anytime I spoke to someone who had done an internship in their offices, the feedback was always positive. Given its global recognition, I felt it was a good place to work that will hopefully stand to me later in life if I end up moving abroad.  Why do you want to qualify as a Chartered Accountant? From a young age I had an interest in numbers. As a child, I used to count all the change for my mother’s newsagent and bring it to the bank. This passion continued throughout my life. In secondary school I knew I wanted to pursue a career as a Chartered Accountant which is why I opted to study BSc Accounting in UCC. I have always been someone who enjoys learning, and the fact that the BSc Accounting offers a broad range of modules appealed to me. I liked the idea of discovering new areas of interest and developing skills in a variety of areas. I believe studying accounting, and now pursuing the ACA qualification, has allowed me to continuously build on what I already know and to further develop my skills.

Nov 05, 2019

Claire Fitzpatrick FCA looks back on her career, from trainee auditor to the frontier of blockchain technology innovation. What’s wrong with me?” For someone who has enjoyed a varied and successful career in professional services and large corporations, it might come as a surprise to learn that Claire Fitzpatrick asked herself that very question in her 30s as she watched her peers move into senior roles. “You just need to get on the track,” she was told – a less than subtle reference to the perceived linear path to CFO/CEO roles. But as Claire readily admits, this isn’t how she operates. The Dublin native has made serendipitous career moves since leaving PwC in 2000 to work with one of her audit clients, Point Information Systems, but the draw has never been status or salary. Instead, her career has been guided by two things – people and culture. Venturing out While working as a PwC Audit Senior with Point Information Systems, Claire saw the culture she wanted to work in – ambitious, fast-changing and transformative. “I remember coming back after a year and the company had changed completely, whereas some other companies I audited would be the same year-on-year,” she said. “It was evolving at pace and the energy there just stood out for me.” Claire joined the company and her role expanded her knowledge base in a variety of new disciplines from engineering to sales and marketing. This diverse exposure would be of great benefit to her later in her career, not least when she returned from a working holiday with Nestlé in Australia and New Zealand to a role in O2. The company was in expansion mode at the time and Claire managed to experience the full life-cycle from early adoption to the sale of the business, which she was centrally involved in. From there, Claire moved to Wayra, Telefónica’s start-up accelerator, to accelerate digital embryonic businesses. As Claire recalls, it was a move that raised some eyebrows at the time. “A lot of my peers thought it was a step down for me in career terms, but I really wanted to get involved in the innovative digital space,” she said. “It reminded me of the energy and pace I felt in Point Information Systems and I had experience of both start-up and corporate environments, so I was able to bring a lot to the table.” Start-up life In her first three weeks in Wayra, Claire met with hundreds of entrepreneurs and developers across the tech ecosystem and this intensity continued unabated for three years. The hub was a success, investing €6 million in the Irish start-up ecosystem including 33 equity investments while returning the same amount. “For early-stage start-ups, that’s a great return,” she said. However, following the sale of O2 to Three in 2014, Telefónica ultimately closed its Wayra hub in Ireland and Claire decided to take on a new challenge.  The idea of starting her own business had never entered her mind, but the closure of Wayra meant that Claire and her two colleagues faced a fork in the road. “We saw real value in what we were doing at Wayra, and we were good at it,” she said. “So, we decided to set up Red Planet and to flip the accelerator model on its head. We started with the corporate to understand the problem it was trying to solve, and then sourced the best start-up talent to solve that particular problem.” The venture was successful and it achieved what Claire describes as “the holy grail” for start-ups – being sold to a large corporate. Red Planet was acquired by Deloitte in 2017 and Claire continued to work with the firm for 18 months. “Selling our start-up was a tough decision, but the right one. Deloitte was really good at the strategy piece and identifying the challenges facing their clients, while Red Planet was able to find the solutions in the start-up world and develop them to scale. We were very good at curating diamonds in the rough.” Blockchain calling At this stage in her career, Claire faced an inflection point. Not content to simply go with the flow, she began plotting her next move when an opportunity arose to join a new blockchain venture headed by the co-founder of Ethereum, Joseph Lubin. The company was founded in 2014 and was at the forefront of Ethereum blockchain technology innovation. It needed someone to establish its base in Dublin and build its team, and the company ultimately chose Claire as its Director of Strategic Operations. The Dublin hub, which is known as ConsenSys Ireland, is developing the products that will enable society and enterprises to advance to the next level of blockchain adoption. Claire is very excited about the bigger picture. “In the future, you won’t even know you’re interacting with blockchain. It will be just like the Internet where nobody really thinks about or considers the infrastructure or protocols – they just see the applications,” she said. “Blockchain will be as transformational as mobile telecommunications was 25 years ago. We are part of a new industry, a new technology, new products, and a market which we have to create and educate. That’s a big challenge, but a very exciting one.” Leadership style But amid the excitement and potential lies ambiguity, and it takes a certain type of person to thrive in an ambiguous environment according to Claire. “Given the nascent nature of blockchain technology, we’re continually refining our vision and new industries are constantly wanting to explore new directions with the technology. So, although everyone in the company has goals to achieve, some are set in stone and some evolve to meet the needs of our clients,” she said. “That’s no different to a traditional organisation but we do differ in that we could have to tell staff to drop projects and pivot in a new direction at a moment’s notice – and some people find that challenging.” Luckily for Claire, working in a maturing industry adds to the allure of her new role in ConSensys – one she believes will contribute to a decentralised, democratised future for individuals. “It’s a rollercoaster, but with experience and age comes perspective and balance,” she said. “And the most important thing for me, throughout my career, has been the people I work with. My colleagues today are not necessarily wired like me but we work well together in the good times, and the challenging times, to make something great happen. That’s what it’s all about.”   Claire’s advice for Chartered Accountants Chartered Accountants will have a central role in the deployment of blockchain technologies and rather than wait for mass adoption, Claire believes the time to upskill is now. “The conversation around blockchain has moved from proof of concept to pilot schemes so when we’re talking to clients, we’re discussing real systems as opposed to hypothetical ideas,” she said. “So, I wouldn’t recommend waiting to start blockchain projects because we will reach the point of mass proliferation quicker than most people expect.” “The first step for all Chartered Accountants is education. There are free educational resources through ConsenSys Academy and Blockchain Ireland is working to raise awareness of what’s coming down the tracks,” Claire added. “But it’s vital that Chartered Accountants realise that anyone can quickly become a laggard in this dynamic environment.” “Finally, I would stress the point that Chartered Accountants don’t need to worry about losing their heads in the weeds trying to understand the programming and coding side of things,” she said. “They should educate themselves with regard to the characteristics and applications that they can see for blockchain in their business.”

Oct 01, 2019

Paul Duffy, Ding’s new Head of Finance, discusses his move from practice to industry and life in an entrepreneur-led environment. What enticed you to move from practice to industry? I spent 10 years at PwC. I worked in the audit practice in Dublin for five years, specialising in the technology and telecommunications industries. I then spent the next five years working in the deals practice in Boston, advising private equity and corporate clients on their M&A deal execution. Although I thoroughly enjoyed my time there, I felt a move to a new industry would provide a fresh challenge. I’ve always wanted to work for an entrepreneur-led company in the technology sector and, preferably, one going through a period of accelerated growth. Ding seemed like a good fit all round. What does your new role at Ding entail?  As head of finance, my role covers a wide remit. My colleagues in finance are much more than retrospective number-counters at Ding. The team is central to how Ding functions. It is a complicated machine, due in no small part to the number of jurisdictions in which it operates. I also oversee the financial operations function, which comprises a team of 15 employees in Dublin, London, Barcelona, Paris, New Jersey, Florida, Dubai and Dhaka. Our financial operations team acts as a business partner to our business development team, so the tasks can vary from on-boarding and negotiating with new mobile operators to implementing new systems to support business growth. What do you find most challenging about your role? It is probably the demands that come with having such an international business. Ding operates in more than 140 countries and works across multiple time zones, in over 100 currencies, and across a myriad of complex regulatory environments. This brings its challenges. It’s been an adjustment just getting used to the various time zones and holiday schedules alone. We sell operator airtime so we hold stock for over 500 operators around the world, which the finance team manages. To facilitate this, we buy and sell in multiple currencies every day, and we need to forecast demand to determine stock levels.  Describe your typical day. Given the international nature of our business and the demands that brings, no two work days are the same. I try to start off the day with a quick gym session, then to the office. I tend to catch up with our CFO mid-morning to discuss the status of ongoing finance projects and the latest business performance. Each day, I try to speak with our various teams around the world so I have to work within the time zones. Before lunch, I usually have a video call with Dubai to chat through any issues or ongoing projects. In Ding, we try to promote collaboration across different business functions. I’m a believer in doing things face-to-face where possible and we have an in-house barista and coffee bar, so it’s a nice place for regular meetings with colleagues. In the afternoon, I could be working through the key commercial terms of a new customer agreement with legal, or meeting with business development to discuss things like banking and tax requirements for a new region. In the evening, I usually log on to answer emails from our US team, who are often on the road meeting potential new customers. What traits do you value most in your colleagues? Intellectual curiosity, which isn’t always encouraged as people come up through the ranks in finance. In today’s business world, speed and efficiency are often a key focus but possessing an intellectual curiosity encourages critical thinking and ultimately yields better results for the business. Flexibility is another trait that I value. In a fast-paced environment such as Ding, deadlines and targets change frequently and having the ability to be flexible and agile is important. It makes for a better team player, and a better partner for customers. What is your best piece of business advice? Build a meaningful network.

Oct 01, 2019

Conall O’Halloran FCA, President of Chartered Accountants Ireland, outlines his plans as he prepares for a busy year in office. After six years as Head of Audit at KPMG Ireland and more than 20 as Partner, Conall O’Halloran is very well-prepared to assume his position as President of Chartered Accountants Ireland. The timing is fortuitous given the feverish debate over the value and future of audit. But that is just one of the many issues the Cork native plans to address during his presidential year. Speaking at the Chartered Accountants Ireland AGM following his election on Friday 17 May, Conall noted that his tenure as President would also focus on broadening the public’s understanding of the role and value that Chartered Accountants bring to business and society, and widening access to the accountancy profession at graduate level. Building blocks of the profession At the core of his ambition for the profession, however, is quality. That, he said, begins with the profession’s trainees. “When I graduated from University College Cork with a degree in engineering, Chartered Accountancy offered the most flexible and most appropriate route into business with any degree of authenticity,” he said. “And over three decades later, that still holds true. The training, the discipline and the analytical skills are embedded in a foundation of ethics and integrity, and it is this that makes Chartered Accountants a very compelling proposition as business leaders.” Despite the negative publicity levelled at the profession, Conall points out that demand for the services of Chartered Accountants – particularly in the areas of audit and assurance – continues to increase year-on-year. This, he adds, is mirrored in the number and quality of candidates pursuing a career in the most versatile of professions. “We continue to attract top-quality candidates to this day and they are the profession’s basic building blocks,” he said. “If you don’t have the right foundations in place on day one, you can’t expect quality further down the road. Chartered Accountancy is very fortunate in that respect and that’s very precious to me, to the Institute, and to the wider profession.” Rising to new challenges However, Chartered Accountants and the profession as a whole are facing into an era of new challenge. From regulation to technology, the business landscape has changed in recent years but in Conall’s view, the biggest changes are yet to come. “While there have been huge advances in technology, most of what our audit trainees do today isn’t vastly different from what previous generations of audit trainees did,” he said. “But we are on the cusp of massive change. The larger firms have invested heavily in their data analysis tools and electronic audit capabilities, which are capable of achieving a transformational change in the quality of evidence available to the auditor.”   To help the profession thrive in this new data-driven environment, Conall plans to focus on enhancing the routes of access to a career in Chartered Accountancy in an effort to harness the profession’s full potential. “We are very fortunate that our large- and medium-sized member firms train the vast majority of our students, but there are many other very capable candidates who simply aren’t interested in that particular training mechanism and would prefer to begin their career in industry,” he said. “Training in professional practice is a wonderful discipline, but it isn’t for everyone so I will focus on working with senior Chartered Accountants in industry to reinvigorate our industry training programme while at the same time, the Institute will continue its work on the syllabus to ensure that we train Chartered Accountants who are much more IT savvy.” The value of audit Further change may be forced on the profession as the UK’s various audit reviews are concluded and acted upon. From the Kingman recommendations to the current review by Lord Brydon and the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) Study, the profession – and audit in particular – is under unprecedented scrutiny. Speaking on the issue following his election, Conall noted that he has recently been looking to the UK and reflecting on the fractured relationship with the regulator, the Financial Reporting Council (FRC) and with society. “Many of the reforms recommended by Sir John Kingman’s recent independent review have now been accepted by the FRC and by the profession and politicians generally. However, the wider review by the Competition and Markets Authority and also the independent review into ‘The Quality and Effectiveness of Audit’ being conducted by Lord Brydon will be fundamental to our future and the future of business more broadly,” he said. “I think we need to be very careful here in Ireland that what works, and indeed what may be required to work in the UK, is not necessarily or automatically right for Ireland. I will work very hard as President to ensure the profession delivers what is expected of us by society and regulators and ensure the very particular strengths that we have in Ireland are protected and nurtured.”   He added: “It is very clear to me that the absolute focus of KPMG and all the large audit firms is on audit quality. We have had a very strong and robust auditor oversight regime in place in Ireland now for many years, and it is heartening to note that our audit regulator, IAASA, has confirmed that, following its recent complete round of inspections, the quality of audit here is generally of a good standard. However, we need also to recognise IAASA’s shared role in driving quality and take actions ourselves to reinforce public confidence in audit.   “Take for instance auditors’ provision of non-audit services to audit clients. The reality for almost all Irish public interest entities (PIEs) is that auditors do not provide any consulting services and only modest levels of tax services. However, because the profession campaigned for a more permissive regime over many years, the impression was created that audit was somehow a loss-leader for the provision of other consulting services. This is absolutely not the case in the PIE market here in Ireland but as a profession, I feel we could have shown more leadership and more respect for the societal role auditors play when we campaigned for more relaxed rules,” Conall continued. “While we need to do a better job of explaining what we do to the public, audit committees can also play an important role in representing and reporting to shareholders,” Conall added. “They understand what we do and the positive feedback from audit committee chairs with regard to the quality, robustness and integrity of our work is incredibly powerful and a great endorsement of what we actually believe about ourselves. What we as auditors read about ourselves in the press is completely alien to how we see ourselves and how we actually deliver our duties to the public.” Acting in the public interest Conall is also very clear on how auditors can play their part in rebuilding trust with the public and key stakeholders; particularly focusing on anything that could damage the perception of audit independence. “That’s the core area where society wonders if we are acting in their interest, or not,” he said. “While the quality of our audit work is difficult for the public to assess, any suspicion that our independence is impaired is easily understood and very damaging to our relationship with society and we do recognise that much more keenly now. I think that all firms and PIE auditors understand that they have an incredibly important societal responsibility and that they treasure the responsibility very carefully.” The voice of business Despite the dialogue and debate surrounding the profession, Conall is extremely optimistic about the profession’s prospects for the future and members can expect to see the Institute take a more prominent position on a range of issues affecting businesses and the economy on the island of Ireland. “Chartered Accountants Ireland is the largest professional body on the island and I think anyone would say that we represent the gold standard in accountancy,” he said. “But beyond our technical capabilities and business acumen, we can also add value by commenting on economic and tax policy, and by essentially acting as the voice of business to help Government and policy-makers understand the consequences of the many options placed before them. Yes, they have to listen to many interest groups also – but when they hear a view from a body like Chartered Accountants Ireland, they take it as being balanced, informed and fair.”   And as with past presidents, Conall will also lead the Institute as it navigates the unpredictable terrain of Brexit – but he has lauded Chartered Accountants Ireland for being to the fore and discharging its all-island remit in the best interest of society both north and south of the border. “We were one of the first business bodies to publicly express a view on Brexit and although there are members who may not have supported our position, we were very strong and very public,” he said. “I also think that while Brexit will certainly challenge our ability to operate as an all-island body, it will not prevent us and my sense is that there is little appetite in the UK to diverge significantly from EU standards in any meaningful way – there is no commercial rationale to do so.”

Jun 03, 2019

Baker Tilly’s Diarmaid Guthrie ACA divides his time between Ireland and Cyprus, where he helps Cypriot banks manage their non-performing loan portfolios. What does your current role involve? My current role is divided between Dublin and Nicosia, Cyprus where I was on secondment for 12 months in 2018. In Dublin, I am responsible for managing and overseeing the progression of cases such as examinerships, liquidations and advisory projects together with training and development of other team members as they progress through their own careers. I am still involved with a number of projects in Cyprus, particularly restructuring and advisory services to Cypriot banks, which requires me to travel regularly to Cyprus. How did the secondment opportunity come about? After qualifying as a Chartered Accountant in early 2017, I made the decision to travel and experience different cultures around the world. I didn’t travel after college; I instead jumped straight into my training contract with Baker Tilly so this was the perfect opportunity to combine work and travel. I approached Neil Hughes, Managing Partner in Baker Tilly, in mid-2017 and expressed an interest in going on secondment to another firm within the Baker Tilly International network. Neil’s response was: “tell me what you need me to do”, which was exactly what I wanted to hear. I explored a number of options for the secondment but I settled on Cyprus as it recently enacted examinership legislation, which is almost a verbatim copy of the Irish legislation. Our department had also worked on a number of projects with our Cypriot colleagues and from my research, it was also interesting to see that the Cypriot economy was where Ireland was five or six years ago. So, I thought I could bring some of our experiences from the last five years to Cyprus to help kick-start the recovery there How did your average day pan out in Cyprus? Similar to the Dublin office, every day at Baker Tilly Cyprus was different – different challenges, meeting different people. One of our contracts in Cyprus required me to spend three days per week in a bank providing them with restructuring advice in relation to their non-performing loan portfolio, which was around €500 million. I spent the other two days in the Cyprus office working on liquidations and other restructuring projects and meeting potential new clients. Do you have any habits or routines to help you get the most out of your day? One routine I certainly find helpful is taking five minutes at the start of each day to plan or map out what I need to get done; it’s kind of like a mini ‘work-in-progress’ list. I might not get to every item on the list as other emergencies may arise and need to be dealt with first, but at least I know I’ve made a note of matters to be addressed and they won’t be left to one side. Another good habit is managing my mail inbox. Once I’ve dealt with an email or read it, I immediately move the email to a specific folder for that case. I aim never to have any more than 10 emails in my inbox at any one time. What’s the most interesting thing about you, which we wouldn’t learn from your CV? I have a great memory for remembering pointless details and nuggets of information. This comes in very handy for charity table quizzes here and there.

Jun 03, 2019

Niall Anderton FCA, CEO at Circle K, talks about life at the wheel of one of Ireland’s most visible brands. Always be open to change, because things will change around you anyway. That’s the key lesson Circle K Chief Executive, Niall Anderton, has learnt during his career to date. “Be open to changing your career because things will change whether it’s consumers, the industry or the ownership of your business,” he says. “There’s no point getting worried about what’s going to happen next because it will happen irrespective of what you do. Don’t be afraid of change, look for it.” And he has lived that philosophy since setting out on his career as a Chartered Accountant with KPMG in the mid-nineties. “I love fast-paced and dynamic business environments that are constantly changing.” The son of an IBM engineer, Anderton had no history of accountancy in his family but he knew from a relatively early age that it would be the career for him. “I’ve always liked working with numbers and I was very good at maths at school,” he recalls. “I really enjoyed the structure to accounting; what I liked most about it was the ability to balance things.” Having considered investment banking and becoming an actuary, he chose accountancy for its more defined career path. But that thirst for change led him to move on from auditing and into industry. “I learnt an awful lot in practice in KPMG when I was there, but I felt that I was going in a bit of a cycle. I was there for nearly five years and you were seeing the same customers, clients and challenges but you really weren’t making any helpful decisions in terms of turning the business around or driving it in a certain direction.” Niall worked with a number of retail-focused clients before deciding to make the move into that sector. “I was always aiming for the retail business because my preference would have always been to work in an industry that I could relate to,” he explains. His first role was Financial Controller with Brown Thomas subsidiary, A-Wear. “I did the Brown Thomas audit when I was in KPMG and they had a role as Financial Controller for A-Wear, and I went in there.” It was far from an easy option. “Retailing is tough,” he says. “Whether it’s in finance, operations or buying, what might look glamorous at the front in terms of the models and fashion is very hard work behind the scenes. That’s probably one of the things I learnt from going into the A-Wear business. A-Wear was at a size that meant I learnt a lot from working with the operations guys and the buying guys and I got a lot of exposure to a range of stuff. I was in there doing a negotiation on the leases, walking the streets with the operations guys, going out to China to see how the buying was done, so I got huge exposure to how the business was run and was able to influence decisions. You don’t always get the broad experience that I was very lucky to get.” He moved on from A-Wear to logistics firm, Target Express, before being asked to join telecoms company O2. “The Finance Director of Brown Thomas went into O2 and he asked me to come across because there was an opportunity to look after their retail business and bring it forward. I spent three years in a non-finance role, which was very interesting. You’re promoting a product which is a commodity at the end of the day, so you have to put a lot of marketing behind it. I got lots of really good experience and it was very enjoyable as well.” From there he moved to Primark as Finance Director just as the business was making the change to becoming the slick multinational operation it is today. “Primark is a brilliant business, I really enjoyed it. The cultural change from when I went in was huge in terms of moving from a very old-fashioned, typical retail business into a multinational fast-paced business was incredible. Huge credit to what they’ve done in there.” But then Topaz came calling with the missing piece of the jigsaw. The one thing he hadn’t done so far in his relatively short but highly varied career was mergers and acquisitions.  And what timing. Topaz was just about to acquire the Esso business in Ireland and within 10 months, had itself been acquired by Canadian firm Alimentation Couche-Tard. “I gained invaluable M&A experience within 10 months of joining.” Incredible and a little fraught. Topaz had to deal with the Irish Competition Authority in obtaining approval for the Esso deal on one side while at the same time, negotiating the sale of the enlarged company to Couche-Tard. “We eventually got clearances for the Esso business on 1 December and we agreed to sign everything on 2 December. It was incredible. You can imagine the late night we had on 1 December when we were still negotiating with the guys in Canada and were just closing the deal with the Esso guys in Europe.” Within months, he had become CEO of Topaz, which was about to rebrand its retail operations as Circle K. He is very modest when it comes to that appointment. “I had the experience and the finance background as well, I was probably seen as the safer pair of hands initially.”  The transition from CFO to CEO allowed Niall to develop a more wide- ranging role encompassing all areas of the business across retail, brand, strategy, strategic HR, understanding changing consumer demand and crucially, organisational change by preparing to lead the organisation through an impending and significant period of change. Two years of groundwork went into the Circle K rebrand. “The first two years were spent getting the systems lined up. We had to change our ERP systems, we had to change our structures, our reporting line, basically everything had to change. That was a lot of hard work in terms of alignment and understanding it from a people point of view, understanding how the business works and the cultural changes and so on. That all had to be done in the background. “We started on the rebrand last April and that’s been very quick – we’re doing eight a week – but that’s the last piece if that makes sense. That’s when the consumers see it, but there was an awful lot of work to get us to that position in the first place. I am very grateful for the support I received along the way from my colleagues on our exceptional and energetic young leadership team, and for the hard work and dedication of our wider team at head office and across our network of sites nationwide.” The filling stations are just part of the business. There is also the aviation fuel side, the terminal business in Dublin Port, and the commercial business supplying fuel oil distributors and so on. But Niall is keenly aware of the challenges facing a traditionally low-margin business in the fossil fuels sector. “The fuel business is traditionally a very low-margin, high-volume business,” he notes. We are very dependent on getting customers in as it is a very competitive industry. We have tried to diversify our offering over the past number of years to a more food-based offering whether that’s coffee, food or car wash.” That has seen a €50 million capital investment in the brand and the add-on consumer offers. “I see the business as being much wider than forecourts and it’s all about getting the person to buy the coffee from us rather than making it at home.” Brexit is a challenge in the short-term in terms of its potential impact on consumer spending, but Niall is looking further than that. He mentions a speech by Minister for Energy, Richard Bruton, where he stated that all energy must be from renewables by 2050. “It will be very interesting to see how we get there. The growth of electric vehicles is both an opportunity and a risk so we’re looking firstly at how we meet that demand – there are Tesla and other chargers on our sites, and we have the biggest network in the country. We’re also looking at how we work with other electricity providers to potentially ‘white label’ our products into people’s homes. “Obviously, the challenge for us is to really replace the main footfall driver because people today go to forecourts to buy their fuel and then buy products in the stores. We now need to turn it on its head so that they buy products, and then they get fuel, so we become much more of a retailer than a fuel provider. And as electrification becomes more prevalent, you’ll be charging your car at home or at the office and what does that mean for our business? We need to stay relevant, but the one good thing is that we’re thinking about it now and you won’t really see the impact of this for another five or six years in Ireland. We have time on our side, which is good.” And his own future? “We continue to make Ireland more relevant for the global Circle K business, which is really important,” he says. “I think for us to continue holding the market position we have, developing new offers and so on. In my capacity as CEO of Circle K, I’ve joined the National Council of IBEC which is important for me in the context of the wider business environment Circle K is operating in and as a business, we have much to contribute both from the point of view of our experience in recent years as well as our plans for the future and the opportunities we see.”

Apr 01, 2019

Notwithstanding her successful career in accountancy, Yvonne Cohen’s love for history remains as strong as ever. What led you to a career in Chartered Accountancy? I fell into a career in Chartered Accountancy accidentally. I was doing a master’s degree in Mathematics at University College Cork (UCC) when the Big 6 accountancy firms were doing the ‘milk-round’ interviews. A classmate suggested that I attend, as he felt it would suit me. When I was accepted by Coopers & Lybrand (now PwC) in Cork as a “non-relevant graduate” in 1989, I literally didn’t know a debit from a credit as I had never studied any business subjects previously. With lots of help from my colleagues, it all started to make sense after a few months and to my amazement, I got first place in the Professional 2 exams in 1990. How did you come to co-author a book on the mathematician and logician, George Boole? My primary degree was a BA in Mathematics and History. Professor Des MacHale of UCC was one of my mathematics lecturers and had published his biography of Boole, The Life and Work of George Boole, in 1985 when I was an undergraduate. Just before Des’s book was published, UCC purchased a collection of Boole’s personal papers and letters from Sotheby’s in London for the Boole Library in UCC (named in Boole’s honour in 1984). Unfortunately for Des, it was too late to incorporate much of the new material into his biography but luckily for me, it provided a wonderful opportunity for a master’s thesis, which I completed in 1989. Des felt that the collection contained enough material for a second book on Boole but with accountancy exams, marriage and three children in quick succession, the book got put on the long finger. In 2014, Des rang me out of the blue to say that UCC would celebrate the bicentenary of George Boole’s birth in 2015, so it was now or never! The book took four years to complete and was published in 2018. What was the greatest challenge and reward in writing this book? The greatest challenge was to do justice to George Boole. He was a self-taught genius from a very humble background. Despite a limited secondary education and no third-level education, he became a prominent mathematician and the first Professor of Mathematics in Queen’s College Cork (now UCC) in 1849, publishing mathematical papers prolifically and corresponding with the leading mathematicians of his day. His magnum opus, An Investigation of the Laws of Thought (1854), written in Cork, contained the origins of Boolean algebra and symbolic logic, which provided the ideal foundation for the design of the modern computer, and Boole is often referred to as ‘the father of the information age’.  The greatest reward, however, was the privilege of having a unique window into the life of this genius. Many of the personal letters written by Boole had remained hidden for over 150 years. The letters to his sister, mother and close friends revealed his most personal thoughts and his attitudes on a variety of subjects. How did you manage to squeeze this into your busy schedule? With great difficulty! I used to work on the book in the evenings from about 9pm onwards. I didn’t see much television for about four years and my husband and family were very tolerant of George Boole accompanying us to Kerry on summer holidays and weekend breaks. Although Des and I live only about three miles apart in Cork, it was as though we worked in separate time zones. Des is a bit of a night owl so when I emailed him my work at the end of my day, he would generally be online working into the small hours and there was usually an email waiting for me the next morning. If you weren’t a Chartered Accountant, what other career would you pursue? History was always my first love, so I would have liked to have been a career historian.

Apr 01, 2019
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