The electrifying career of a Chartered Accountant

Apr 01, 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.”