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Feature Interview

As Feargal McCormack takes the reins as President of Chartered Accountants Ireland, he shares his thoughts on the quality of the Institute’s membership, the importance of positivity, and his role as the conductor of the orchestra. In the corporate world, people often talk about their “core values” or “guiding principles” but few people live out their philosophy as comprehensively as Feargal McCormack, Managing Director at PKF-FPM. Feargal, who recently succeeded Shauna Greely as President of Chartered Accountants Ireland, is a firm believer in the philosophy of St Francis of Assisi – it is in giving that we receive – and this principle has shaped not only his work ethic, but also his leadership style and sense of value. Addressing the 130th Chartered Accountants Ireland AGM, the Warrenpoint native echoed the sentiment of St Francis when he outlined his main objective for his presidential year – caring for members, staff, trainee students and the community. While his evident sense of empathy could be attributed to the accumulated learnings from 27 successful years in business, it has its roots – in part at least – in his own family’s personal tragedy. “I went over a few hard stones on the way,” he said. “Our first child, Eimear, died after four days and our second child, Seamus, is severely autistic and requires round-the-clock care. Then, when my wife Anne was pregnant with Ruairi who is now 17, she suffered a brain tumour which she thankfully recovered from fully. “Although you wouldn’t want them or go looking for them, those experiences do prepare you for life. They put things into perspective and as a result, I’ve never lost a wink’s sleep over work,” he continued. “I love my work and I love life. From the outside, people would say I’m a reasonably busy person, but I love every moment of it.” A high achiever To say that he is “reasonably busy” could easily be described as an understatement given the amount of time and expertise he has shared with organisations throughout the island. From Special Olympics Ireland and his beloved GAA to Ulster University Business School and the Prince’s Youth Trust, Feargal has balanced his role as Managing Director of an award-winning mid-sized accountancy firm with various extracurricular roles – something he is keen to encourage in those who work with him. “I’ve always been able to mix work and home life with extracurricular activity, and I feel that both work off each other. You have to have balance in life, but interaction is important,” he said. Indeed, Feargal attributes his involvement in activities beyond the workplace with his ability to succeed as a young leader. “When I joined the Industrial Development Board, I was the youngest ever Principal Officer in the Northern Ireland Civil Service at 26 years of age,” he said. “At that stage, all of my subordinates were considerably older than me, but extracurricular activities gave me the experience to deal with that because from my teenage years, I was secretary or chair of committees where people were, in general, considerably older than me – old enough to me my father, I’m sure. “I believe that it’s key in any organisation to encourage your team to get involved in areas they’re comfortable with – whether that’s charity, sport or the church, for example – because they can then bring the skills they develop back to the workplace. I genuinely don’t believe that you can turn the clock off at 5pm so if you’re not a caring person after 5pm, you won’t be a caring person before 5pm.” Putting people first Feargal encapsulates this idea in another life-long mantra – “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care” – and he hopes to bring this to life within the Institute during his presidency. “For me, continuity is key. I’m a member of the Institute’s oversight board and I can’t recall one decision in the last three years that wasn’t unanimous, so there won’t be any solo runs,” he said. “I only see a slight change of emphasis to increase our focus on becoming more caring and people-focused. That’s very consistent with our core values of integrity and ethics so I will be encouraging us, as an organisation, to walk that vision.” The ultimate aim is to increase the Institute’s relevance amongst its membership and create a team of 26,000 brand ambassadors who will raise the profile of Chartered Accountancy – and Feargal plans to lead this charge. “I’ve always found that the key to happiness is looking outwards,” he said. “And throughout the Institute, there are many role models across many sectors who – both in work and beyond work – are making fundamental, positive differences to the societies in which they live. “I hope to have an opportunity to shine a light on those role models but to do that, it’s important to get out there and meet those members,” he added. “So, over the next 12 months, I will be busy visiting companies and schools throughout the island. You’ll also see Council members hosting events where the President can meet members, and this will give us a great opportunity to tell the story of how Chartered Accountants make a difference to society because ultimately, that is our key contribution.” Building the Chartered brand Feargal also plans to enhance the external profile of Chartered Accountants and build on the “excellent work” currently under way to raise the Institute’s voice in the business community and beyond. While this is a key ambition for his presidency, Feargal sees himself more as the “conductor of the orchestra” who brings the best out of people. “The diversity of our membership is our greatest strength – diversity not only in skillset, but geography also. There are some areas I’d like to explore a little bit further, including the diaspora of international members,” he said. “I would personally like to chair a taskforce to assess how we can best make use of our international dimension both for our membership on the island of Ireland and also, as a professional network for our overseas members and younger members wishing to work abroad.” Another area of focus for Feargal is the parallels between sport and business. “Nobody really wants to speak to a 58 year-old man promoting our profession, so I would like to see Chartered Accountants who are also involved in sport promoted as role models for the profession. It will be interesting to hear how they blend their Chartered Accountancy studies and career with success in the sporting arena; how that discipline of study and integrity in the workplace can be transferred onto the field. There’s a lot we could learn from this group.” Adapting to change Learning from each other feeds into another important issue for Feargal – enhancing the Chartered Accountant’s capacity to adapt to change, which is more important than ever in the context of a volatile international landscape. “If we think about leadership in the corporate setting, it’s all about the ability to adapt – to be agile and change,” he said. “There’s no doubt that we’re in a very challenging market environment but in challenging environments, there are always exciting opportunities. “We should therefore have positivity in the breadth of our membership. We can’t control what happens around us, but we can control how we respond and I firmly believe that there is no problem out there – however and whenever it arises – that we as an Institute cannot deal with,” he continued. “We have to prepare ourselves and be in a state of readiness, but there is nothing we should fear.” Feargal does acknowledge, however, that technology, regulation and governance will bring many good things, but they will also bring challenges for the profession. “Am I confident that these are issues that we, as an Institute, will address? Yes, I am. We may have to work in collaboration with other accountancy, professional and – in some cases – statutory organisations, but are we up to that? We certainly are.” Indeed, this drive for agility extends beyond qualified members and into the Chartered Accountancy syllabus, with a number of changes in the pipeline – a responsiveness that Feargal is keen to nurture. “Two new electives will soon be introduced for FAE students and I think that’s the start of a trend,” he said. “We’re also seeing responsiveness in the enhancement of technology in our exam process and in the flexibility we can now offer to students. All these factors will help us address challenges as they arise. “The most important thing for the Institute is to listen, and then move forward with pace. I suppose I would have a reputation – rightly or wrongly – for getting on with it and if we make a mistake, we go back and correct it,” he added. “If I have one frustration in life, it’s too much talking and not enough action. I firmly believe that action is the way forward – yes, conduct research but get on with the job quickly and learn from your experience.” He added, “I’ve only seen positive things in the last 12 months but I can assure you, if I come across any negativity I will ask people to desist or leave the room because I believe you must be solutions-focused. I’ve been known on quite a few occasions to stop meetings as in my view, negativity has no place in any progressive and forward-looking organisation.” The challenges ahead Despite the challenges ahead, the Institute is in a very strong position according to Feargal – a testament, he says, to the leaders that preceded him as President. “The Institute’s current churn rate is minimal and the fact that members who previously terminated their membership are now returning as members demonstrates better than anything else the value of being a member of our great Institute,” he said. “I would certainly like to encourage the Institute to continue the very good work that’s currently under way. We have made very significant progress in recent times and while we have achieved much, we must continue to work to ensure that we remain relevant to our members. Therefore, it’s always good to try new ideas and I certainly see us continuing to innovate because, in my experience, you either innovate or evaporate. “Finally, I am very honoured to become President of Chartered Accountants Ireland. The Institute has been fortunate in the quality of its leadership and I hope I can carry on that tradition,” he said. “I am also very conscious that it is the 130th year of the Institute and while we have come a long way in 130 years, the journey has only just begun.” Feargal McCormack is Managing Director at PKF-FPM and President of Chartered Accountants Ireland.

May 31, 2018
Feature Interview

Sinead Mahon FCA, COO at Barclays, talks to Accountancy Ireland about her career to date, the accountant of tomorrow, and the satisfaction of balancing work and family commitments. Growing up in Tullamore, Sinead Mahon – now COO at Barclays – considered several career options before choosing accountancy as a basis for “a strong professional grounding”. From her early days in PwC, she has become a well-known figure in the world of financial services, holding a variety of roles including group accountant at KBC, a senior finance role at Ulster Bank, and CFO and programme director of a major transformation project at Danske Bank (formerly National Irish Bank). While Sinead has worked primarily in industry, she credits her Chartered Accountancy training with much of her success, describing it as an “exceptional training ground”. “The accountancy qualification itself is only a portion of what training delivers – I learned professional skills such as balancing the requirements of multiple stakeholders, building respectful relationships, teamwork, negotiation, managing fees and budgets, work ethic and consistency. I was also motivated by the fact that, in my experience, it was a very level playing field where the focus was on quality performance.” The move to industry Having been promoted to the position of manager at PwC, Sinead opted for a career move that would allow for a deeper insight into a single organisation. Her journey into the world of financial services began in the shadow of a well-known crisis, however. “At that time, the ‘dot-com’ bubble was very fresh in everyone’s mind, so I focused on opportunities in the financial services space and joined KBC as a group accountant.” This set Sinead on a path that would bring her face-to-face with another more dramatic crisis that would test both her resilience and skillset. She recalls, in the third week of August 2007, a notable shift in the financial services landscape. “It was a very difficult and challenging time, without clear and tested processes to follow. And, of course, it evolved into experiences which were dreadful for many people on many levels,” she said. “My lasting memory is of thinking on our feet, developing a clear sense of focus and of a lot learned in a short time.” As a young professional, those years underlined some important messages for Sinead: the value of a balanced temperament when events are stressful, a positive approach to challenges and opportunities, and to be vocal, as the best outcome will likely come from multiple inputs. In 2012, having moved to Danske Bank, Sinead was appointed to the position of CFO and later, programme director for the bank’s withdrawal from the personal banking and business banking markets in the Republic of Ireland. By this time, she was an established member of the bank’s C-Suite – but this achievement wasn’t a career goal in the strict sense. “Starting out, I’m not sure I had a plan to navigate myself to the C-suite or anywhere else, I just took the job in front of me each time and did the very best I could with it,” she said. “I also expressed an interest where I had one and sought to adopt a partnership approach to tasks. This helped identify me as a likely successor for subsequent roles.” Work-life balance This level of progression naturally brings with it a degree of challenge, according to Sinead. “There have certainly been tough days and situations where I didn’t know what to do next, but experience had taught me to just get on with it, take the first step and the rest will come,” she said. “Personal equilibrium can be a challenge with a young family, and I try to share my experience of balancing work and home life with female team members – it’s okay to have personal ambitions along with your professional ones. I’ve gone on maternity leave twice and don’t feel I was disadvantaged as a result. In fact, I returned to more senior roles both times.” As you might expect, family is a priority for Sinead and she regards her two small boys as her greatest success. “They are the most precious part of our lives and a refreshing break from office life. They are fortunately very forgiving when I have a Lego man in one hand and a bundle of papers for the following morning in the other,” she said. Professionally, Sinead has had “many good days” but she cannot pinpoint one single great success. “In my view, a career is built on consistently getting small things right, or better than the last time. That’s what I try to focus on,” she added. Agility and the 80/20 rule This philosophy permeates Sinead’s working life and she now operates firmly by the 80/20 rule rather than seeking perfection. “Agility in this fast-paced environment means finding ‘good enough’ and then going for it with conviction. That works for me,” said Sinead. “Investing in relationships is also critical; building a team spirit and respecting colleagues, so coaching, providing and receiving honest feedback, supporting colleagues who need it and maintaining standards. To me, it’s important to be kind to the people around you, particularly as the responsibility of the role grows. “As I have a broad COO role at the moment, I speak a lot about driving performance through discipline – sourcing relevant information for decision-making, selecting an approach and then sticking with it, delivering with consistency and managing the message. This inspires confidence in our stakeholders and provides a frame of reference for the next set of activities.” The accountant of the future Operating in this fast-paced environment also requires a degree of personal adroitness if accountants are to be prepared for the challenges of tomorrow, according to Sinead. While ongoing professional development is something she both undertakes and recommends, she has identified three key skills for the accountant of the future – a people-centric partnership approach, acute strategic awareness and an ability to be flexible. “The traditional approach I trained in 20 years ago is almost gone. Preparedness and the capacity to meet challenges head-on is key,” she said. “With the current pace of change, the ability to interpret what is happening promptly and have a network as a resource to utilise are differentiators. Taking the time to successfully develop and nurture relationships within your own team, the wider organisation, group stakeholders, other local stakeholders such as regulators, service providers and so on are prerequisites now.” According to Sinead, it is a given that a trained Chartered Accountant has the skills to do the job – it’s how the job is done that defines success. “Putting relationships high on the agenda, staying close to valued peers and lifting the head to consider the broad picture unfolding around you are aspects that have set me apart through the years.” New threats in financial services While the effects of the financial crisis are now ebbing, new threats face the financial service industry and wider economy. Persistent low interest rates, increasing demands and costs of regulation, cost-cutting, reshaping, the threats and opportunities of technological and cyber advances, and challenges to the old ways of doing things – and that’s before Brexit and its potential impacts are taken into consideration – will all guarantee that Sinead’s skills will remain in demand. “We are operating in a new world and new skills are required to enable positive reaction to change in real time. A challenge within all of this is to attract bright graduates to the sector rather than Silicon Valley-type organisations. This is a real test,” she said. “To insulate ourselves, we must focus on the day job – serving clients and providing solutions, doing it consistently well, alongside continuous horizon scanning to identify and manage risk,” she continued. “Plans and preparation inspire confidence in times of uncertainty. To do this, we need to attract and retain top class people, embrace proactive communication with stakeholders and act with integrity.”

Aug 01, 2016
Feature Interview

Éilish Finan has enjoyed much success in her career – both in practice and business. She is now putting her knowledge and experience to good use as a non-executive director on the boards of some of the best-known organisations in the country. Éilish Finan’s career has spanned practice, business and – most recently – the boardroom. While her success can be contributed in part to her willingness to embrace opportunities, as a student of electronic engineering at Trinity College Dublin Éilish took a measured approach to professional life that has stood her in good stead. While Éilish’s undergraduate degree allowed her to pursue her love of mathematics, she considered it to be a strong and analytical base that – when combined with her subsequent ACA qualification – would act as a unique selling point in whatever career path she followed. Indeed, Éilish regards her ACA qualification as an “internationally transportable” asset that, in terms of her overall skillset, remains “a great differentiator”. As it happened, Éilish’s training in KPMG led her to a career in AIG Global Investments that spanned almost two decades – one that saw her hold a number of senior positions including Global Vice President of Finance, CFO and Executive Director. She was also a member of the global senior executive team before stepping down in 2007, just months before the vulnerabilities in the global financial services industry became apparent. Although the financial crisis of 2008 had a defining impact in a very negative sense on many people’s careers, it offered an opportunity for Éilish to leverage the skills she acquired during her executive career, contribute to the recovery of the financial services sector and ensure that individual organisations performed better from a corporate governance perspective. From crisis to career opportunity “AIG, in the years leading up to 2008, was an exciting and busy place to work,” said Éilish. “The ever-expanding nature of AIG required a determination to grow market position as the business expanded. And, as the organisation grew internationally, Dublin became a global centre of excellence.” This consistent growth saw AIG in Dublin grow its assets under management from US$300 million to US$150 billion with a swathe of financial services products in the international client market. Éilish’s role also grew and she assumed global responsibility as CFO across a number of business functions. The global financial crisis raised several personal questions, which led Éilish to believe that sound corporate governance and strong boards were critical to the future of the financial services industry. “In a way,” she added, “the global financial crisis defined the next phase of my career.” Putting executive knowledge to work Having spent more than 20 years as an executive, 17 of which were spent at AIG, Éilish sought a career that would afford her the leverage to influence the culture of an industry as it emerged from the financial crisis and faced a seemingly endless amount of challenges. “I saw the role of the nonexecutive director as a step in the right direction for me,” she said, “as it would allow me to work in different cultures and apply my executive knowledge in a variety of organisations and business environments.” Éilish took on her first position as a nonexecutive director just months after leaving AIG and has since held positions on the boards of JP Morgan Bank Ireland, New Ireland Assurance, MetLife Europe and the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA). While her current career might seem like a natural progression, Éilish warns that there is much more to the role of nonexecutive director than is often anticipated. To “professionalise” herself as a nonexecutive director, Éilish completed the Diploma in Corporate Governance at UCD Smurfit Business School and later, completed the Institute of Directors’ Chartered Director Programme and the Institute of Banking’s Certified Bank Director Programme. While formal training has given Éilish “certainty and knowledge” in challenging situations, she also chooses carefully the organisations with which she works. “Each board position is both an opportunity and a risk. I must be confident that I am appropriately skilled for the role and capable of adding value to the board,” she said. “Corporate value and culture is also critically important to me and as a nonexecutive director, I must trust the company and believe in its strategy. The board is a collective body and while I, as a nonexecutive director, challenge and query with independent judgement, ultimately decisions are made collectively and the entire board takes responsibility.” A new world in corporate governance Éilish has acted as a non-executive director since 2008 but the post-crisis board regime bears little resemblance to the typical pre-2008 boardroom. “Boards have changed significantly since 2008 and the approach to corporate governance isn’t recognisable when compared to pre-2008 standards,” she said. “Board composition, skill diversity and accountability have expanded while strategy and risk management operate within more prescriptive frameworks designed to ensure effective execution and robust oversight.” A big lesson from 2008, added Éilish, was that risk management was not sufficiently “front and centre” on the governance agenda. This has been largely corrected through specific board activities and best practice corporate governance structures. “Risk appetite now sits firmly within the board and the evolution of the chief risk officer and associated risk functions ensure that risk awareness is part of business as usual,” she added. “Business growth and profitability must be achieved and shareholder value must be delivered, but in a sustainable and risk-balanced way.” Éilish also believes that increased regulation and responsibility for the non-executive director heightens the personal challenge and risks associated with the role. “Any risk that regulators or other stakeholders will place a higher expectation on non-executive directors when compared to executive directors will threaten the concept of collective responsibility of the board,” she said. “Ultimately, this is not good for sound corporate governance or for the prospect of recruiting the best-calibre nonexecutive directors.” A sense of balance While Éilish now enjoys a strong reputation in the corporate governance space, her career has involved a constant commitment to excellence, which has resulted in certain sacrifices. “Balancing day-to-day and ensuring a good work-life balance can be a challenge,” she said. “I have three wonderful children, who are now adults. Being present for them has always been a privilege and a priority for me. I share the load with an equally busy but supportive husband – it works well and it’s been a fun journey so far." As a successful woman in business and a respected director, Éilish is also acutely aware of gender imbalance in the corporate world. She has one simple piece of advice for younger females: “Never consider yourself as a female. Instead, consider yourself as a professional and if there is a glass ceiling, then you can see through it – and if you can see through it, perhaps it isn’t there. “As a non-executive director, females in the boardroom are still unusual but since 2008, boardroom diversity – in the widest sense of the term – has become a priority and that’s a good thing,” she added. “I don’t consider my gender as a specific differentiator. I believe that my contribution throughout my career has been to do an excellent job and I have been lucky to be recognised for my performance – regardless of my gender.”

Apr 07, 2016
Feature Interview

Melanie Sheppard, Financial Director at Pfizer Healthcare Ireland, speaks to Accountancy Ireland about career progression, gender inequality and the broader benefits of the Chartered Accountant training. Since joining Ernst & Young as a trainee auditor in 1991, Melanie Sheppard has climbed the corporate ladder with a steady determination. The Chartered Accountant is now Finance Director at Pfizer Healthcare Ireland and was recently voted one of Ireland’s 25 most powerful women in business by the Women’s Executive Network, but her career path wasn’t always linear. From sideways moves with associated salary cuts to job interviews in airport terminals, there are aspects of Melanie’s career that could only be described as unconventional. However, the Dundrum native has made her mark on several businesses in several industries over her 24-year career. Career path Melanie, who is a Fellow of Chartered Accountants Ireland, completed a BSc in Management at Trinity College Dublin before entering the working world with Ernst & Young. While the majority of her career has been spent in the realm of industry, she credits her audit training with much of her success. “Audit gives you a feel for different cultures in different companies,” she said. “You also had to engage with the different partners, the clients and the various members of their teams to get what you needed to complete the job while being respectful so it was a great way to learn how to interact with people.” After almost five years working with a range of clients including the K Club, Coca Cola and UNIFI, Melanie left the world of practice for an internal audit role with Sony in London. For her, it was a logical next step that allowed her to broaden her horizons beyond audit. 18 months later, she had moved to Aspect Telecommunications where she was responsible for statutory reporting and compliance for eight European entities within the group. While Melanie’s career was blossoming in London, the lure of a move home began to grow. “I remember coming home for weekends and seeing all the job ads in The Irish Times,” she said. “I felt that, if I didn’t come home at that stage, I could miss the opportunity. So it was timing more than anything else – plus, the lease was up on the house where I was staying.” Melanie duly sent her CV to a number of firms in Dublin but one company in particular caught her attention. “I met Nicky Sheridan, who was setting up Oracle’s shared services centre in East Point, in Terminal 1 at Heathrow and I really loved his personality,” she said. “And he liked the fact that I was managing the reporting for eight countries out of a base in Stockley Park so it was a natural fit.” Melanie later joined Oracle as employee number 19 and a member of the management team. She played a key role in growing the business, which is still in operation, into one that managed back office finance functions for 43 subsidiaries and handled $3.8 billion in revenue. “It was hard work but it was a young workforce, so everybody was at that energised stage and it was an infectious place to be.” While Melanie was very passionate about Oracle, she reached a point where she knew every aspect of the business. “The challenge then for me was to find somewhere that was going to give me that energy, so I moved sideways from Oracle as a senior manager to Pfizer as a senior manager – and I took a salary cut to do it,” she said. “I was getting in at ground level and I really loved that the last time. When I joined, there were around 20 of us and we were setting up Pfizer’s shared services centre using the Oracle platform so it was like destiny.” Words of advice After growing the shared services team to 103 employees managing reporting for 214 legal entities, Melanie joined the business proper as Finance Director where she is now a member of Pfizer’s country management team and board of directors. While much of her career success has been down to her own hard work and instinct, she has worked with a total of 21 bosses from 17 countries – just two of which were female. This breadth of experience has taught key many key business lessons throughout her career. When it comes to driving performance, Melanie believes that trust is the key ingredient for success. “I don’t like being micro-managed and I don’t like to micromanage,” she said. “Managers should be like the stabilisiers on a bicycle – you will support your team and won’t let them fall, but the onus is on them to come to you if there’s a problem.” She also believes strongly in the art of listening when managing up. Her advice is to let people finish the asking of their question before providing an answer and where you don’t have the answer, say so but be sure to get back to the manager in question. “Don’t just kick to touch and run out the door thinking you got away with it,” she said. On the issue of gender equality, however, Melanie is “torn” as to the best way forward. “I hear so much about quotas and I get torn because I would be concerned if I thought I was only somewhere because I was filling a quota,” she said. “I want to feel that I’m where I am because of what I do and how I do it.” While Melanie is keen to see the gender imbalance improved through diversity initiatives within Irish businesses, she credits the growth of women’s networking events as a positive step on the road to equality. “They have grown without negativity, which is fantastic,” she said. “And sometimes men would like to be in those networking events, but we have to make sure that we don’t exclude people because we won’t solve the diversity issue without men being involved.” A marathon effort Throughout her career, Melanie has demonstrated a determined streak that has helped her achieve her goals. While she describes herself as “a hard worker”, her determination is also apparent outside the office. “A friend once read an article that said everyone has a marathon in them before saying ‘everyone except you’, so I did one,” she said. While golf is Melanie’s hobby of choice, she trained diligently for the 2008 Edinburgh Marathon spurred on by the suggestion that it was out of her range. “There was a challenge, and I loved the sense of discipline in the training and actually running the marathon,” she said. Despite finding herself in tears at the start line, Melanie completed the marathon and has since taken part in triathalons, adventure races, long-distance cycles and other marathons. The discipline involved in training for such events, according to Melanie, is similar to the discipline instilled in Chartered Accountants through their training – something that has stood her in good stead in various aspects of life. “Chartered accountancy is a phenomenal brand but sometimes we undersell ourselves,” she said. “It’s important for people to see it as a really great starting point that can take you anywhere. And if I look within my own teams, I’ve hired lots of Chartered Accountants because they have a disciplined way of approaching problems and eating the animal bite by bite. They never give up.”

Dec 08, 2015
Feature Interview

From a $3.3.billion sale to voluntary bankruptcy, Declan Daly has had a challenging but thoroughly satisfying career. Now, his sights are set on global growth as CFO of Sláinte Healthcare. When Declan Daly talks about his career in accountancy, he talks about “luck”. For someone with such an impressive CV and track record, it is quite ironic that his route into accountancy was almost accidental. Having completed the full term at Monkstown’s Christian Brothers College, Declan undertook a Management Science and Industrial Systems degree in Trinity College Dublin in an effort to “figure out where I wanted to go”. Although he enjoyed his time there, the clouds hadn’t parted at the time of his graduation. “I didn’t do the milk round but after Christmas, I heard that PricewaterhouseCoopers had a second round in May and I applied there,” he said. On being offered the position, Declan went on to receive a “typical broad training” at the firm and also spent two years at the firm’s London office working primarily in the area of financial services auditing. At the age of 27,however,BDO’s Anthuan Xavier was on the lookout for an audit manager at the time – a coincidence that led to a happy pairing that lasted for seven years. “BDO made me more commercial. I was in charge of technical queries and I was working for Anthuan almost exclusively on really interesting things like a Christmas tree fund,” he said. “I also audited a lot of the firm’s public companies so I had a very unusual mix, but I loved it.” The highs After 14 years in the auditing business, one of Declan’s clients at BDO asked him to join the company. Inamed Corporation, a global healthcare company based in Santa Barbara, was in a poor state – it had been delisted from the NASDAQ stock exchange, its CEO had just been exited, and the company faced multiple business and accounting issues. The challenges were strangely alluring for Declan, but his decision was somewhat complicated by the fact that Anthuan was just about to nominate him for partnership at the firm. “There wasn’t a choice in my mind. It was a black and white answer for me, and I really wanted the challenge,” he said. “I wanted to move on and do something different, but it was the challenge that piqued me.” Declan joined Inamed and set about restructuring the company with Ken Pearce, Inamed’s Vice President of International Operations. They quickly took control of the entire international division and based it in Ireland while also retrenching in other areas. “The hardest thing I had to do was visit Mexico quickly after I joined and close the operation down. It was heavily loss-making but the team had no idea how badly they were doing. The managing director was literally misleading them,” he said. One of the benefits of working with an American firm, according to Declan, is their willingness to let you make decisions. Within his first 12 months at Inamed, Declan had made a number of key decisions that helped the company move from a loss-making position to one where the firm generated annual profits of $10 million. Declan’s performance brought him to the attention of Inamed’s new CFO, who was appointed in 2002, and he was subsequently transferred to the company’s global headquarters in Santa Barbara as Corporate Controller. While it seemed like a positive move, Declan was once again in at the deep end following the resignation of his immediate superior. “I found myself reporting to a CFO who resigned two months after I joined for personal reasons,” he said. “And I found myself in the middle of a storm as we had a number of historical Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) accounting issues to deal with.” Following a forensic review of the accounts, Declan opted to announce the accounting issues in one go. This ultimately resulted in a SEC audit and a steep plunge in the company’s share price. The firm eventually recovered, however, and went on to make “a lot of good strategic partnerships” that developed Inamed into a global aesthetics and healthcare business. Declan also moved up the ranks and eventually rose to the position of CFO while still in his 30s. The best was yet to come, however. While Inamed was contemplating a merger with another firm of similar size, Allergen entered the fray with a bid that valued Inamed at $3.3 billion – raising Inamed’s value by more than $500 million. Declan, along with Inamed’s CEO and General Counsel, successfully negotiated the sale in April 2006, but not before Inamed’s second-largest shareholder – a large fund – threatened to scupper the deal. “They rang me threatening to pull the plug on the whole deal if we didn’t renegotiate the price up by a dollar or two. Their average buying price was $33 per share and they eventually sold at $82 per share,” he said. “We said: ‘Go ahead, if you think you’re going to get a better deal’. But they didn’t in the end because it was a tremendous deal. The fact that they wanted an extra dollar was a real eye-opener for me though.” And the lows Two months after the completion of the sale of Inamed Corp to Allergen, Declan and his family returned home to Dublin. His stay was short lived, however, as the former CEO of Inamed, Nicholas Teti, called on Declan to join him at Isolagen Inc. – a Pennsylvania-based firm. The company, which was developing LAVIV – a personalised cell-based therapy to combat ageing and skin defects – had an 80-strong division in the UK and Declan agreed to join the firm as CFO and head of the international division, provided he could operate from Ireland. Nicholas agreed but in a familiar twist of fate, Declan was quickly burdened with a host of issues. “I was over and back to the UK and just three months after I joined, it was obvious that the UK division was in terrible condition,” he said. “The division was making significant losses and hemorrhaging cash. I didn’t know a whole lot about manufacturing and sales, but it didn’t take a genius to see that it wasn’t being done well.” Declan quickly took the decision to close the UK business and seek a major cash injection to allow Isolagen to focus on gaining approvals in the United States. “Fundamentally, it was the right decision because it was going to bring the whole group down. It simply had to be closed down.” The next step was to gain approval to bring LAVIV to market. The procedure had failed phase three trials three years previously, just months after the previous CEO resigned. Unfortunately for Declan, history was to repeat itself in a cruel case of déjà vu. “In January 2008, we were going through the trials and Nicholas suddenly resigned as CEO, but he was going to remain as Chairman,” he said. “Our share price plummeted. I had to meet our large shareholders and try to explain the situation – but to no avail. Part of the problem was, when LAVIV failed phase three trials previously, the CEO had resigned four months beforehand and the inference was that Nicholas knew something bad lay ahead.” According to Declan, the board had “no choice” but to appoint him as CEO of Isolagen, and he had no choice but to “either leave or man up”. As it happened, the trials were a massive success and Declan, as CEO, quickly set about raising cash for a firm with no revenue – but he hit two critical snags. “August of 2008 was the worst possible time to raise money and coupled with that, we had convertible debt on our balance sheet that required 100 per cent concurrence of debt-holders before any deal could be done – and we literally couldn’t find 10 per cent of them.” The firm was going through a “slow death” before Declan ultimately opted for voluntary bankruptcy in June 2009. Under this arrangement, just 66 per cent concurrence was required for any debt deal and the firm was in and out of bankruptcy in 10 weeks. The company was renamed Fibrocell Science Inc., a new board was appointed and David Pernock, who ran a $4 billion sales line at GlaxoSmithKline, joined as Chairman. It took some negotiation but by January 2010, David agreed to become CEO. Both he and Declan then worked to get LAVIV approved by the FDA (and become the first aesthetic cell therapy to gain approval), get listed on the NYSE stock market, raise $150 million and get biotech billionaire RJ Kirk’s Intrexon Corporation on board before Declan once again stepped down from his role and packed his bags for Ireland. Looking ahead After a year out, Declan was once again eager for a challenge and this time it came in the form of a comparatively small healthcare technology company based in Sandyford – Sláinte Healthcare. The firm aims to help hospitals become more efficient by digitising their entire paper trail and its cornerstone product, Vitro – an electronic medical records system – is in use in hospitals and healthcare institutions throughout the world. The firm has enjoyed considerable success since its foundation in 2006 and now employs over 130 people in Ireland, the Middle East, Australia and South America. It was also ranked fifth in Deloitte’s list of the 50 fastest growing companies in 2014. Following a number of meetings with CEO, Andrew Murphy, Declan quickly saw an opportunity to build on this success and turn the small Irish company into a global player. “If we want to take this to the next stage, we’re going to have to raise money and that’s something we’re actively looking at,” he said. “We won’t do a deal unless we achieve terms we think are reasonable and, equally important, we are comfortable with the potential investor.” With one eye on a possible IPO, Declan still has day-to-day responsibilities within the firm as CFO but this burden is eased thanks to the three Chartered Accountants on his team. This allows him to remain at the “bigger picture” level, devising strategy and driving the company’s performance. And while there are undoubtedly long days ahead, he’s ready for the challenge as always – thanks in no small part to his training. “If you are going to develop in business, having a grounding in finance is really important. You get that with Chartered Accountants but you also get more – you get the ability to think into other areas and disciplines,” he added. “The accountant of tomorrow is evolving gradually. It’s multidisciplinary and while you need your core skill set in financial-related topics, you need to have a good grasp of business and strategy. Even in practice, you must be able to talk rationally and with some nuance in terms of what’s involved in the running of a business – and that’s what you get from audit.”

Dec 01, 2015
Feature Interview

With Budget 2016 and a general election looming, Tánaiste Joan Burton remains focused on safeguarding Ireland’s nascent recovery. When Accountancy Ireland spoke to Joan Burton in August 2011, she was Minister for Social Protection and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party. Labour had just entered government under the watchful eyes of the troika and an existential crisis in Greece threatened the viability of the euro zone. Four years later, she is now Tánaiste and leader of the Labour Party, and continues in her role as Minister for Social Protection. With the general election scheduled for spring 2016, the Tánaiste lists a range of achievements during her term in office. She draws attention to the transformation of her Department from a payments agency into a public employment service; the establishment of JobBridge and Tús; and the incorporation of 1,800 staff from both the HSE and FÁS into her Department. She also mentions the visits of Queen Elizabeth and Barack Obama, and the marriage equality referendum as “psychological” wins for a country that was finding its feet. With Budget 2016 just weeks away, however, attention quickly turns to the future and imminent budget decisions that are currently under discussion. “As we look forward to the budget, I think we’re going to be careful,” she said. “It’s people’s money… but we do need to spread the recovery to the whole country and we need to make sure that, in particular, people who are less well-off are very firmly in the Government’s policy perspective.” Budget measures After a series of bruising budgets, the Tánaiste is keen to reward taxpayers for years of fiscal retrenchment and believes that the coalition’s decisions are bearing fruit. “We now have 1.96 million people at work and the figures to the end of June show that, year-on-year, the rate of growth was seven per cent,” she said. In the forthcoming budget, Labour is expected to push for an increase of at least €1,000 in the threshold at which workers enter the higher rate of tax and a phasing-out of the universal social charge. “The priority in terms of tax reform should be to look at the totality of the charges that people face in employment or self-employment,” she said. “That means not looking exclusively at income tax… but to look at the totality.” The Tánaiste acknowledged that workers enter the top rate of tax too early and this is also on her agenda for change. “In Ireland, the debate around taxation should be around the effective, real, experienced rate of taxation,” she added. “We will seek to positively reform the point at which people go into the top rate. This is not a conversation the Government has concluded in relation to the budget… but it remains something we must absolutely continue as a society.” Capital investment While Budget 2016 will make provisions for investment in key services through a capital investment programme focused on transport, healthcare and education, the Tánaiste believes that revenue generation must be maintained if Ireland is to enjoy high-quality services – even if some of the measures aren’t well-received. “The water charges, for example, are all about investment into a creaking, disintegrating water system broken into 32 separate parts and bringing it into a unified utility, which admittedly has been difficult to do,” she said. “But we would be crazy as a country… to simply throw a unified plan away and pretend that we can magic up the money out of nowhere.” The Government’s Spring Statement highlighted “fiscal space” of €1.2 billion to €1.5 billion but there are two major problem areas in need of attention – health and housing. While health has been “the most difficult in terms of reform”, the Tánaiste is determined to achieve universal access to primary healthcare services through the extension of GP visit cards to more age groups. She is also pushing for increased investment in social housing and the taming of spiralling rents. “I’m very anxious to see the provision of rent certainty,” she said. “We could provide rent certainty around longer lease situations – lots of European countries do this and it works very well.” The general election A clear theme in the Tánaiste’s narrative is improving the lot of the average worker through tax reform and improved services. Economic giveaways have become synonymous with pre-election budgets, but the Tánaiste believes that a longer-term view focused on safeguarding the nascent recovery is required. Indeed, it was this longer-term view that led Labour into government in 2011. “We could have stood on the sideline and say everything about the country is bad, everything about the country is a failure,” she said. “Personally, I took a long view that we could recover the country.” The OECD’s recently-published assessment of the Irish economy, which it describes as being on a sounder footing than before the crisis, is testament to the Government’s efforts in this regard. “Ireland is the ‘comeback kid’ of Europe’s crisis-hit economies, and much of the credit for this strong recovery goes to the government’s steadfast commitment to reform,” said OECD Secretary-General, Angel Gurría. “To avoid repeating past mistakes, now is the time to build resilience against future nasty surprises while ensuring the recovery is sustained, and its benefits broadly shared.” The Tánaiste believes that the Irish electorate will give the coalition the mandate to pursue such a policy. “When people come to making voting decisions, they will be looking to hold on to the hard-earned recovery they have invested so much in and worked so hard to achieve,” she said. “I think people will be cautious about throwing that recovery away in response to populist demands that you can have world-class services without any contribution to them. “We have to be conscious that we have opportunities in Ireland and we need to grab them with both hands to grow the economy and provide serious reform. We also have to be conscious that we cannot do this overnight,” the Tánaiste added. “That’s why I would like to see a further five-year programme for government that would see the recovery bedded down.” As for her role in that possible programme for government, there is little room for doubt. “With any politician, it’s all about energy, plans and optimism,” she said. “I have a lot of those.”

Oct 01, 2015
Member Profile

Fiona Byrne FCA, Director at James Byrne & Co., shares her experience of leaving a Big 4 firm to manage the family business. Was the move from a Big 4 firm to your family’s business a tough transition? Moving to a family business is always daunting, no matter what the industry. Moving from a Big 4 firm, with all the supports and structures, is a double shock. You go from being a cog in the corporate wheel to suddenly being an entrepreneur. There’s a different dynamic when you’re working with or for a family member. This, coupled with a steep learning curve in running your own business, leads to lots of shop talk over the family dinner table – much to the annoyance of other family members! What is your firm’s approach to succession planning? Succession in any organisation is paramount to success. Within family-run companies, this can be more complex. However, having a clear vision for the company and a strong, capable management team gives you the confidence to lead into the future. My tips are to be open with management and your family; have a defined route to progress; and invest in your people and yourself. You need to think and act differently; innovation is key to growing your business and yourself as a person and accountancy professional.  How did your family’s firm bounce back so well after the financial crisis? The financial crisis was tough on everyone and I think we have all learned some valuable lessons and skills from the crisis. One consideration is to avoid being too dependent on one industry or service and planning forward so that this doesn’t happen again. In other words, diversify. We are lucky in that we have a multi-disciplinary workforce that is flexible and able to meet our clients’ ever-changing requirements. The practice merged with Gerard Sheehan & Associates in 2016. However, Gerard has been working with the firm since 2010. This merger is focusing us on monthly reports for clients and has created an additional service offering for the company. These strategic partnerships and skillsets have been the foundation of our success in 2018 and is a key part of our service offering for the future. What do you see as the key challenges for the firm in the decade ahead? This year, we celebrate 40 years in business and today, we face some of the same challenges we have dealt with over the last four decades like recruiting and retaining high-quality, multi-disciplinary employees. There is a trend for accountants to be specialists in certain fields and we are a general practice, so we are expected to have a strong knowledge of audit, accounts, tax, banking and finance. As a modern practice, we also tackle new challenges such as ever-changing accounting, audit and taxation legislation. It is becoming more and more difficult not to specialise, which poses a unique challenge for a three-partner practice as one needs to be proficient across the core areas and have a network of trusted advisors. There are, however, some significant opportunities. I think smaller, progressive SMEs are beginning to use practices as surrogate finance directors by seeking timely financial and management information with additional advice and assistance. This will help them stay on top of issues before they become problems.   What should other similar accountancy firms focus on into the future? That’s a difficult one. I think we all need to be focused on maintaining high standards, developing our trainees to a high standard and giving them a full and complete education. Otherwise, the profession will suffer and that’s not in anyone’s interest.

Jun 01, 2018
Member Profile

Olwyn Alexander, PwC’s global asset and wealth management leader, talks about her path to success. You are responsible for 18,200 people. How do you manage and motivate such a vast team of experts?  I have always led from the front in terms of my work ethic, my dedication to clients and my passion for the asset and wealth management industry. I have learned from the best the importance of engaging with our people and taking a personal interest, so much of my time will be spent visiting our important practices globally, meeting with our people and their clients out in the field. It’s a team effort.   Looking back on your career, what do you think was the key to your professional success?  There was probably a number of influential junctures in my career to date. Doing ‘tours of duty’ to Dallas, Boston and then New York had a large impact on my knowledge and learning, as well as my network of colleagues and clients. Taking the Chartered Financial Analysts exams also made a difference in my favour in terms of a skill set. It gave me a new perspective of the industry that was helpful to our clients. The investment PwC makes to keep their people trained, both in technical and soft skills, is of huge benefit to anyone in the firm and has kept me informed and prepared.  Part of your role is to help companies prepare for the future. What trends do you expect to see over the next decade?  In PwC, we’re very bullish on the potential for growth in assets under management (we predict to $145 trillion by 2025) and we see lots of opportunities and four key trends: a stable buyers’ market; businesses realising the importance of embracing exponential change in the technology and digital space; opportunities for asset and wealth management to fund the future in terms of financing private investments; and investors continuing to focus on multi-asset outcome-based solutions. These four trends will transform our industry into the next decade. It will be a case of survival of the fittest.  Given your work on a number of boards, what is your take on the current governance landscape in Ireland?  Ireland really has a high standard of corporate governance by international standards and should be rightfully proud of the knowledge and experience that professionals have developed in that area. With each passing day there are significantly more demands of those in governance positions – from cyber security to data protection to strategy for the future, to workforces of the future and talent management, there are myriad issues facing corporates and boards have such a wide scope to cover in the discharge of their duties as stewards.  As an experienced mentor, what’s the best piece of advice you’ve given a mentee?  Take control of your career. You will be more successful if you are proactive, decide what experience you want to obtain and go for it. I also advise anyone who can to travel and work abroad. There is nothing like working with different people, different clients, different cultures and environments to broaden your horizons and create a network.  Taking a personal interest in people you meet can help you reap such rewards.

Dec 01, 2017