Spotlight

Leading through COVID-19

Jun 02, 2020
Chartered Accountants play a critical role in operations around the world, and many are now guiding their organisations through the uncertainty and economic turmoil wreaked by COVID-19. Accountancy Ireland spoke to several members at the fore of this difficult task.

Liam Woods 

Director of Acute Operations at the HSE

As a member of NPHET (the National Public Health Emergency Team) and with responsibility for the public hospital system in the Republic of Ireland, Liam Woods has played a central role in the country’s response to the COVID-19 crisis. In normal circumstances, Liam oversees acute services and the deployment of a €6 billion budget for the acute hospital system, which covers 48 hospitals across the country. Today, however, he is at the forefront of the public health system’s response to the global pandemic.

Liam and his colleagues have worked relentlessly since December 2019, when the first case of coronavirus became known. “At that time, we were aware that there was an emerging set of concerning circumstances in China,” he said. “We are linked in with the World Health Organisation and the European Centre for Disease Control through the Department of Health, so we began receiving information on the situation almost immediately.”

According to Liam, the threat to Ireland was confirmed by the Italian experience, with Ireland’s first case confirmed in late February 2020. This in turn led to an escalation of the pre-existing national crisis management structures. “Once we saw Italy’s crisis unfold, we implemented the HSE emergency management structures and assessed emerging scenarios and the subsequent requirements for intensive care capacity, acute capacity, and community capacity,” he added. “As March approached, we expected a major surge in cases of COVID-19. That surge did occur, but we didn’t see the levels experienced by Italy and that was primarily down to the public health measures taken in February and March.”

As the pandemic progressed, areas under Liam’s remit such as the National Ambulance Service became increasingly critical elements of the response strategy. But as the pressure increased, so too did staff absence. “Today (30 April), 2,800 colleagues are absent in the acute system with a further 2,000 absent in the community system related to COVID-19,” he said. “That is a big challenge for the frontline, as is the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE). Our procurement teams are working night and day to secure the necessary equipment to protect our workers.” That effort has been supplemented by the overwhelming generosity of individuals and businesses according to Liam. “We had a massive response from the business community and society as a whole, from distillery companies manufacturing antibacterial hand gel to people making face shields using 3D printers,” he added. “Beating this virus has become a truly collective effort and those working in the HSE really felt and appreciated that.”

Although restrictions are now being cautiously eased, Liam expects the workload to remain relentless. “At a personal level, it is demanding but if you work in the health system and understand how it needs to operate, you at least feel that you can make a direct contribution and a lot of positivity comes from that. The response of frontline staff in hospital and community services has been amazing and the commitment to delivering care has been key to the success to date in responding to what is a global crisis.”

Tia Crowley 

CEO at Western Care

Tia Crowley had an “unusual” induction to the role of CEO at Western Care, as her appointment coincided with Leo Varadkar’s statement in Washington on the first wave of measures to tackle COVID-19 in Ireland. Given that her organisation provides services and supports to adults and children with intellectual disabilities and/or autism in Co. Mayo, Tia was very conscious of the need for – and challenges to – the provision of her organisation’s services.

“When the COVID-19 restrictions were imposed initially, we risk-assessed all areas of service provision and made the difficult decision to close day/respite services and limit community support services to essential supports that could be provided safely,” she said. Many of the organisation’s 950 staff were reassigned to support Western Care’s residential services, which now operate on a 24-hour basis.

According to Tia, maintaining an optimum level of service while securing adequate PPE for frontline workers is a constant concern – but there are longer-term challenges in the horizon. “I, and the new management team, had hoped to bring in a balanced budget for 2020 after prolonged periods of cutbacks, deficits and containment cycles. However, a shock 1% cut to funding allocations across the sector coupled with the impact of COVID-19 will impact our ability to meet the demand for our services within our existing allocation,” she said. “The cost of the crisis, and the associated long-term implication for funding, is a challenge that is constantly on our minds. But at the moment, our focus has to remain on keeping our service users and staff safe.”

Aside from financing, one thing preventing organisations like Western Care operating to their full potential is an overly burdensome compliance regime, Tia added. “I hope the Government recognises how organisations like Western Care responded to this crisis and the support they provided to the HSE when it was most needed,” she continued. “After the worst of this crisis passes, I would like to see a streamlined regulatory environment where, once an organisation is deemed to comply with a basic set of standards, that is accepted by all regulators. We, like others, struggle to comply with multiple regulators and compliance regimes and at last count, more than 35 different regimes applied to Western Care.”

Despite the many challenges, Tia has noticed certain positives amid the bleak backdrop. “The atmosphere of cooperation throughout the organisation has reinforced my belief in human nature and I hear stories of resilience among service users, families and staff who have gone over and above to support families in crisis and keep service users happy and content,” she said. “We are also building supportive relationships with the HSE locally as we turn to them for support and guidance. But equally, we provide them with reassurance and support too because we are all in this together.”

Ultimately, Tia’s hope for the future is a simple one. “I hope that we can emerge from this pandemic with a sense of pride and renewed purpose, knowing that we have come through one of the most significant events in our lifetime and that everyone in Western Care did their best.”

Dermot Crowley 

Dalata Hotel Group

Dalata Hotel Group was quick to respond to the threat of coronavirus to its business. From cancelling its shareholder dividend to renegotiating with lenders, the company has cut its cloth and according to Dermot Crowley, Deputy Chief Executive, Dalata is well-positioned to weather a long storm. “We have always been very careful with our gearing and as things stand, we have access to €145 million in funding,” he said. “We immediately created a worst-case scenario of zero revenue for the remainder of the year. We examined every cost item and calculated our cash burn. The major fixed costs are elements of payroll, rent and interest. Having done that exercise, we were in a position to reassure our shareholders that we could survive at least until the end of the year on a zero-revenue model.”

As it happens, the company is still generating revenue. Dalata raised a further €65 million in April when it sold its Clayton Charlemont Hotel in a sale and leaseback transaction and although most of the company’s hotels are formally closed, Dalata responded to requests from governments and health agencies to accommodate frontline workers, asylum seekers and the homeless – often at much-reduced costs. Meanwhile, all other hotels have management and maintenance teams in place to ensure that all properties are ready to re-open at short notice.

While some workers remain, the company was forced to lay-off 3,500 staff at the outset of the crisis, but Dermot is determined to re-employ as many people as possible as restrictions ease and trading conditions improve. “One of the most frustrating things about this crisis is letting our people go. We invest a huge amount in our staff and last year alone, we had 350 colleagues in development programmes. We also take on 35 people each year through graduate programmes and we have several trainee Chartered Accountants in our employ,” he said. “We absolutely want to take everyone back on.”

Despite the company’s preparations for the ‘new normal’, whatever (and whenever) that might be, Dermot remains cautious in his outlook for the sector. “Dalata is a very ambitious company and we have a lot of new hotels in the pipeline, but the reality is that we are likely to be facing lower occupancies once the restrictions are lifted,” he said. “When we re-open, the domestic market will be the first part of the business to recover but the international market could take quite some time depending on travel restrictions.”

At its AGM at the end of April, the company confirmed that earnings fell almost 25% in the first three months of the year to €17.7 million. With even worse results certain for the period after 31 March and normality a distant prospect, Dermot expects the sector to experience both tragedy and opportunity in the months ahead. “Some companies will not make it through this crisis and that’s just reality,” he said. “That will create some opportunities. We built a strong company after the last crisis, but I do not see the same fallout in Ireland as in the UK this time around. The UK has many old properties and companies with high gearing ratios, so that may be where the most changes will occur.”

Naomi Holland

International Treasurer at Intel

As International Treasurer and Senior Director of Tax at Intel, Naomi Holland had a demanding role before COVID-19 became a threat, but her role has since expanded as she – and her colleagues – seek to protect the chipmaker and its people from the threat posed by coronavirus. As leader of Intel’s Global Tax & Treasury Virus Task Force, Naomi also sits on the Global Finance Virus Task Force, which develops and implements Intel’s crisis response for the corporation’s worldwide finance function.
This is not just a strategic project for Naomi, however. Her global role means that she has direct responsibility for employees in some of the worst affected areas of the world. “I have teams based in China where we were dealing with the outbreak from early 2020,” she said. While it was largely restricted at that stage, the China situation effectively became a test-run for the global pandemic that was to come.”

Some employee considerations included colleagues who had returned home for the Chinese New Year and became confined to their province, others were on secondment outside their home country and Intel needed to assess the return home versus the remain in situ options, and some countries’ lockdown notice was so short that staff ended up not returning home to their families and were confined alone.

In the early days of the crisis, Naomi and her colleagues engaged in extensive scenario planning. They considered single sites closing down, multiple sites closing down, and the impact of COVID-19 outbreaks on the organisation’s operability. That led to a rationalisation of activity to ensure that critical functions remained up and running. “In addition to ensuring that we had the necessary contingencies in place should a person, team or site fall victim to COVID-19, it was also essential that we prioritised our activity,” she said. “This required significant coordination as we needed to ensure that our partner organisations around the world were satisfied with what remained on our priority list and, importantly, what didn’t.”

This required extensive communication, which was central to Intel’s response according to Naomi. “We were acutely aware that people needed information,” she said. “So, we focused on our internal communications and developed a ‘people’ track to complement that.” This was particularly important for Naomi, whose team spans several countries including Ireland, the Netherlands, Israel, India, and China. Her leaderhip remit meant the US teams were also on her agenda.

Despite the complexity, Intel’s quick response meant that the company “didn’t miss a beat”, according to Naomi. “COVID-19 has forced all companies to assess items including their liquidity, their work-from-home capability, and their technological infrastructure,” she added. “We took all the necessary decisions, amended procedures as required and augmented our hardware in places. The greater complexity, of course, resided within our factory and logistics networks but I am proud to say that their delivery can only be described as incredible.”

As the shock factor subsides and people increasingly become resigned to the prospect of living and working alongside COVID-19 for the foreseeable future, Naomi is determined to maintain her focus on her people and their mental health. “I’ve always said that people are a company’s best asset and if this crisis has taught me anything, it’s in our augmented ability to deliver when we operate as one team despite the circumstances,” she said. “The first six months of 2020 have been a traumatic time for many. However, with senior executives leading from the front and maintaining communication with their people, this crisis is in fact humanising us and helping us connect with our colleagues on a more personal level.”

Shauna Burns

Managing Director at Beyond Business Travel

Beyond Business Travel is ten years old this year and like the rest of the travel sector, it faces severe challenges due to COVID-19. According to Shauna Burns, the company’s Managing Director, 2020 was the year the firm planned to reach £20 million in turnover and build on its investment in Ireland following last year’s opening of offices in Dublin and Cork.

The impact of the pandemic was felt by the company in February, according to Shauna, when FlyBe entered administration. March then saw the domino effect of countries closing their borders, which presented a unique set of challenges. “We had clients and staff located all over the world, and we had to work 24/7 to ensure they got home quickly,” she said. The company was also involved in the Ireland’s Call initiative to bring home medical professionals to work in the HSE and NHS.

After this initial flurry of activity, Shauna and her team had to take both a strategic and forensic view of the business amid a fast-changing business landscape. “Difficult but essential decisions had to be made on operational continuity and cash flow while engaging with our key stakeholders and looking into the potential for financial assistance from Government,” she added. “From the off, we were determined that our company’s core values around excellent customer service would not change. We retained some key staff to provide ongoing information and to ensure that clients who urgently need to travel can do so. This comes at a financial cost in terms of maintaining our premises and fixed overheads, but it is a decision we believe will benefit the business in the long run.”

With one eye on the easing of travel restrictions, Shauna’s firm is also compiling information and advice for companies whose people must resume travel, so that they make informed decisions and manage the impact of COVID-19 on their business. The travel industry will re-open and travellers will take to the air again, she said, but they will travel less often and with an increased focus on traveller health and safety. “We expect to operate below capacity for the immediate future, so part-time furlough allows us to raise activity in line with demand,” she said. “Consequently, we are looking at our offering and service lines, and right-sizing our business for the ‘new normal’. There are opportunities to become leaner, faster, and more efficient, and digitalisation is a core element of that process.

“We now have an opportunity to ask ourselves if the business were starting from scratch, what would we do differently and reimagine what this looks like ,” she added. “But for our business, restoring confidence in the safety of air travel is a vital pre-requisite to enabling recovery and with more than one third of global trade by value moving by air, it will also be vital for the recovery of the global economy.”


The entrepreneurs

Growing businesses with finite resources are very vulnerable to economic shocks, but one Chartered Accountant is using technology to weather the storm. Fiona Smiddy, Founder of Green Outlook, had three active revenue streams before the onset of COVID-19 – e-commerce, markets/event retail, and corporate services including speaking engagements. She is now down to one viable revenue stream, but the growth in online retail has allowed her company to grow during the pandemic.

Fiona runs a tight ship from a cost perspective. She outsourced her order fulfilment activity in 2019 and engaged the services of a ‘virtual CFO’ who keeps her focused on her KPIs. “Green Outlook turned one year old at the end of March and the key challenge remains brand awareness and cash flow management,” she said. “The company is self-funded with no outside investment or loans, so I am restricted to organic growth.”

Green Outlook continues to support Irish suppliers, with 22 Irish brands represented among the more than 170 sustainable, plastic-free products available online, and Fiona cites this as a contributory factor in her success. “I have noticed a huge uplift in supporting local and Irish businesses and I hope this continues post-COVID-19,” she said.

Brendan Halpin, Founder of WeSwitchU.ie, also hopes to support Irish businesses and households in the months ahead. He launched his new company in March 2020, just as the lockdown came into effect, but having spent 2019 in the development phase, he is certain that now is the right time to launch a cost-saving business.

WeSwicthU.ie is a digital platform that finds the best electricity and gas energy plan for individual households each year and even as COVID-19 reached Ireland, Brendan did not consider it a threat to his business. “It was pandemic-proof in a sense because our entire proposition is online. From the comfort of your home, the platform takes the stress and hassle out of switching and saving money on customers’ home electricity and gas bills,” he added. “The only change in the business plan was on the marketing side; I had intended to be out and about meeting people, but that activity simply moved online.”

While the market reaction has been positive so far, Brendan is conscious that any planned expansion would require funding – and that may be a challenge as the economic malaise becomes more entrenched. “I have funded the business myself so far but if I really want to grow, the next step will involve external financing,” he said. “I do hope that the Government and State agencies will help start-ups like mine grow through their relevant phases despite the uncertainty that lies ahead.”