The heart of the economy

Apr 01, 2020
Six influential Chartered Accountants in business and politics share their stories.

Chartered Accountants are in many ways a driving force in the economy. With more than 16,000 members working in industry, and many in C-suite roles, our colleagues are found in every sector and at every level.

In the pages that follow, we meet a number of trailblazing Chartered Accountants at various stages in their career. Each has had a significant influence on Ireland Inc. and continues to exemplify the very best aspects of the profession.

From Sharon Cunningham, Co-Founder of Shorla Pharma to Michael Cawley, former Deputy Chief Executive at Ryanair, these profiles offer a snapshot of the talent and influence within the membership – qualities that will be in high demand in these uncertain times.

Senan Murphy

The CRH Group Finance Director discusses his journey from technical subject matter expert to general manager and leader.

CRH Group Finance Director, Senan Murphy, divides his career into five chapters, beginning with his education and training as a Chartered Accountant and culminating in his current role. “I was interested in maths, business and science in school and did a BComm in UCD,” he recalls. “You could take a number of routes after that, but Chartered Accountancy looked the most interesting to me. I did a Diploma in Professional Accounting, which took the first three years out of the accounting exams at the time.”

Senan joined Arthur Andersen in 1990 when it was one of the so-called Big 8. “I stayed there for five years and it was a very good place to work. It was a great transition from college into the real world. I moved into industry in 1995.”

That saw him move to GE and begin chapter two. “Practice is a great experience, but you are an adviser. I wanted to be part of the execution and implementation; not just give advice and come back the following year to see how it worked out.”

His GE career took in finance, acquisitions and business development in Europe and then the US, before moving back to Europe to what became GE Money. But the call of home was loud, and he moved back to Ireland with his wife and children in 2003 to begin the next chapter with Eddie O’Connor in Airtricity. “I stayed and helped grow the business until it was sold to SSE in 2008,” he said.

That saw the beginning of chapter four with Senan moving into banking, first with RBS Ulster Bank and then Bank of Ireland. “2008 was an interesting time for the sector,” he noted with at least a hint of humour. “When something is in a crisis, you learn more than when things are going smoothly. It was a tough time for the banking industry but an interesting time to be part of it.”

He sees the transition from subject matter expert to general management as quite natural for a Chartered Accountant. “The move from accountancy to financial leader to general management happens naturally. You start off learning about the financial side, but most of the job is about managing people. It’s about collaborating, working in teams and leading teams. As a financial manager, you get more and more involved in the commercial and operational sides of the business. In Airtricity, I became more and more involved in growing the business.

“In some ways, it’s good to leave the numbers behind,” he continues. “As you go on, it’s about building good teams around you. The expertise around you comes from them. You become an orchestrator in a way. Accountants all start off the same way, and a lot of Chartered Accountants own their own business or end up running businesses. We don’t all stay in the financial world.”

His fifth chapter sees him back in the role of Group Finance Director with CRH. “It’s a large organisation with lots of operating companies around the world. My job is to help drive performance and improve the business, but I also help to recruit, develop and promote talent globally. I also spend a fair amount of time talking to the owners of businesses. We have lots of shareholders around the world who want to hear from us.”
For Senan, the people agenda is the most enjoyable. “That’s the part I enjoy most. I’m always pleasantly surprised by the people coming through the system who are more capable than their years might suggest. I also enjoy meeting shareholders. Some are supportive; some are quite challenging. Those two parts are very enjoyable.”

He believes Chartered Accountancy has provided a good grounding for his career. “When you come out of college, you have to decide if you want to go into a business or go into practice and train as an accountant there. Practice is a good place to start with people of a similar age. You have to be a team player and learn to work with others. You have a number of clients and you have to build relationships with them. You’re not quite in a sales role, but you are really.”

Michael Cawley

Michael Cawley recalls his unorthodox path to Chartered Accountancy and life as the second in command at one of the world’s most successful airlines.

With the candour we’ve come to expect from people associated with Ryanair, Michael Cawley says his reasons for becoming a Chartered Accountant were mostly materialistic. “My sister had a few boyfriends who were accountants and they had cars,” he says. “That was quite impressive, and it stuck out as most people didn’t have cars at that time.”

Having never studied accountancy in school, Michael chose to pursue a commerce degree in UCC. “I liked it, and I went to Coopers & Lybrand afterwards. I spent three years auditing, and I hated it with a passion! The moment I qualified and finished my training contract, I walked out the door.”

After a year teaching in UCC, he went into industry with the Cork-based motor dealer, Frank Boland. “I wanted to be in the middle of the action rather than just recording what had happened. I worked there until 1981 when I moved to Dublin to work for Kodak for five years.”

His next move was to Athlone Extrusions as Managing Director. He led a management buy-out (MBO) of the company in 1990, the biggest such transaction in Irish corporate history at the time. The company later went on to a public flotation. After that, he moved back to the motor industry with Gowan Group in 1993. “I enjoyed my time there, but it was a family-owned company, so there was no prospect of a stake in the business,” he says.

His move to Ryanair in 1997 as CFO and later, Deputy Chief Executive and Chief Operating Officer had its roots in the Athlone Extrusions MBO. “I worked on it with Gerry McEvoy in KPMG and Tony Ryan was one of his clients. I stayed in contact with him and he knew I had ambitions beyond the Gowan Group. I was 42 or 43 at the time and I wanted to really have a good lash at something. Ryanair was about to float at the time.”

That connection led him to join the airline at a crucial stage in its history. “Incredible as it may sound, I got on with Michael O’Leary from day one. I had a good few rows with him over the years as well, of course. It was always exciting, sometimes frustrating, but I was extremely lucky to be involved. It suited me from the outset.”

He describes it as a phenomenal opportunity. “Low fares were in their infancy back then. We transformed air travel across Europe. I have dealt with more than 300 airports across Europe; lots of them were a bit like Knock back then, small with a few connections. We breathed life into many communities and helped them build up tourism industries. Bergamo in Italy had 130,000 passengers when we started there; that increased to 13 million by 2014. Charleroi grew from 30,000 to 7.5 million.”

He stepped down from his executive role with Ryanair in 2014. He took up several non-executive directorships with a wide range of organisations including the Gowan Group, Kingspan plc, Fáilte Ireland and, of course, Ryanair.

“I was 60 and grandchildren had started to come along,” he explains. “When I joined, we had 3.5 million passengers, and when I left, we had reached 83 million. It was 142 million last year. I’m delighted to still be on the board. I’m in and out every five or six weeks to catch up, so I haven’t really left. I’ve also been lucky enough to have become involved in a number of very fine businesses.”

Michael concludes by   emphasising the need to keep pace with change. “You have to be open to change. Despite the advent of artificial intelligence and so on, accountants will still be able to master their environment. But we have to stay up-to-speed and be flexible and humble about the need to change. You can be top of the pyramid today, and irrelevant in six months’ time.”

Ronan Dunne

Ronan Dunne, the self-declared “accidental accountant”, has taken opportunities as they arose – and to great effect.

A stellar career that has seen Ronan Dunne become Executive Vice President and CEO of Verizon Consumer Group, the largest division of the world’s biggest telecoms company, could have been very different if not for a teachers’ strike back in 1981.
“I was all set to do Law in UCD, but there was an examiners’ strike the year I did the Leaving Cert,” he says. “The papers couldn’t be marked and there were no college offers.”

And then fate took a hand in the form of intervention by Terry O’Rourke, Managing Partner of Touche Ross, and a past pupil of his school. “He contacted the Dean and said if anyone was interested, they had three to four unfilled slots for trainee accountants. I was one of those kids who was always fascinated by finance. My dad worked for Shell in a finance role and I was always interested in it.”

A phone call from the Dean and a chat with O’Rourke sealed the deal. “It sounded like an interesting opportunity, so I decided to give it a go. I am an accidental accountant.”
Six years later, the newly qualified Chartered Accountant was about to experience his next encounter with fate. An injury in his final year at school had put paid to a promising rugby career, but he was also an excellent soccer player and went on to play at senior level for the Mount Merrion club in south Dublin.

“We were playing in a soccer tournament in Wales, and I visited my brother in London as part of the trip. I was sitting in his apartment when my mother rang, saying a lady had called about a job interview. The job was in London so I borrowed a suit and tie from my brother, went for the interview that afternoon with BNP and by 4.30pm had a job offer. It was 1987 and the markets were on fire. They couldn’t recruit fast enough. I signed a contract, went back home and packed my bags, and returned to London three weeks later.”

Rapid promotion followed, and by the age of 25 Ronan had become the chief accountant at the bank. He then switched to the banking side of the operation where he dealt mainly with major US corporates with operations in Europe. And then came a call to jump the fence.

That saw him switch to senior finance and treasury roles, first with Waste Management International and then with transport and logistics group, Exel.

Dunne’s next move saw him follow his former boss at Exel into BT Mobile, which was about to become O2 and de-merge from its parent. “In 2005, O2 was acquired by Telefónica and I became CEO of Telefónica UK in 2007,” he says. “That was an interesting back story. When I became CFO in 2004, my boss gave me responsibility for legal and regulation, then procurement, and then asked me to take on HR as well. After a while, I pointed out that I was doing all the heavy lifting and doing three jobs instead of one. He said I had missed the point. I clearly had the capability to be a general manager, and he was getting me ready to be a success in such a role. I still thought my future was as a big public company CFO. My boss and my chairman saw my potential before I did.”

Dunne’s departure to Verizon followed a blocked sale of the business to Hutchinson in 2015. “I had decided to leave once the deal was closed. I had a fairly extensive non-compete agreement, so I had to move sector or move geography. Verizon is the largest telecoms company in the world and when I got that approach, there was no way I would turn it down. In late 2016, we headed off to New Jersey.”

“My training as a Chartered Accountant has been incredibly valuable at every stage in my career,” he adds. “It really is best-in-class, and I don’t think there is a better skillset out there. In my opinion, a good Chartered Accountant is better than any MBA from any business school in the world. It’s the best business qualification out there.”

And he has some advice for his fellow accountants. “The biggest challenge and opportunity for accountants is to realise that your success is measured not by what you do, but by what you can make happen and the influence you have on people. Building teams, coaching and developing them, and bringing them on a journey with you is what’s most important.”

Sharon Cunningham

Ambition and tenacity helped Sharon Cunningham forge a path from practice to the cutting edge of pharmaceutical innovation and entrepreneurship.
Award-winning entrepreneur, Sharon Cunningham, learned about business and accounts literally at the kitchen table. The Shorla Pharma founder was interested in business from a very early age. “Both of my parents owned companies, and it was ingrained in us from a very young age. They did the books on the kitchen table. I used to go to the accountants with my mother and was fascinated by the questions the accountant would ask. My mother was focused on things like sales and cash and had her own goals. The accountant was asking about things like profit margins, inventory management and so on.”

That early inspiration led her to a degree in finance in UCC. “I wasn’t 100% sure what I was going to do when I went to college at first, but by the time I finished I knew I wanted to be a Chartered Accountant and wanted to get a training contract, preferably with one of the Big 4.”

Sharon went to work with PwC in Waterford initially but soon found herself travelling to Dublin, Chicago, New York and London. “It was fun but difficult; it was lots of hard work, but it was great. I went on an international secondment to an investment fund in Manhattan. That was a great experience.”

Her move to industry came about almost by chance. “At the height of the recession in December 2010, I was working on a very challenging audit. A colleague of mine got wind of a job going in a pharmaceutical company I had never heard of in Waterford. I met with the co-founders of EirGen, Tom Brennan and Patsy Carney. They are very inspirational people, and I joined the company.”

Having spent seven years with the company, initially as a management accountant and later as Head of Finance, Sharon decided that it was time to start her own venture with her colleague, Orlaith Ryan. “EirGen was sold to a multinational in 2015 for $135 million in a very successful exit,” she explains. “After the takeover, the company started to change and was no longer the entrepreneurial organisation that we knew and loved. The excitement wasn’t there anymore, and both of us knew it was time to move on.”

Their idea was to establish a speciality pharmaceutical company based in Clonmel, which would develop a pipeline of innovative oncology drugs for women’s and children’s cancers.

“We spent two years planning Shorla at night and in our spare time, and we launched the company in January 2018,” says Cunningham. “Both of us would say that at no point were we scared. We believed in ourselves and our vision for what we wanted to do; we never thought it would fail.”

That confidence was well-founded. “We don’t have billions of dollars and 20 years to wait like major pharmaceutical corporations. We are not a major corporation, nor are we a generics company. We are somewhere in between. We take existing active substances and do something novel with them. We put them to different uses and make them less toxic to the patient. The time to market is much quicker. Business is great and we are very busy. We are in the middle of multi-million euro ‘Series A’ funding round and we are growing and scaling up for the US market launch of our first product, a breast and ovarian cancer drug.”

It is a bit unusual for a Chartered Accountant to set up a pharmaceutical company, she concedes. “But accountancy is a very useful skill to have in any industry. The Chartered Accountant qualification gives you a certain degree of confidence when you talk about numbers; people listen to you and don’t tend to probe too much. They accept and trust what you say. The profession as a whole has a very positive impact on society.”
Sharon’s experience has taught her the value of planning. “It’s much more beneficial to work smarter, not harder,” she says. “Everyone should sit down and decide what they want to do and what they want to be, and then map out a way to get there. Don’t get bogged down in small details; don’t sweat the small stuff.”

Michael McGrath

Having moved from practice to politics via industry, Michael McGrath has brought his training and experience to bear in his role as Fianna Fáil’s finance spokesperson.

One of the most prominent faces in politics in recent years has been that of Fianna Fáil finance spokesperson, Michael McGrath. The Cork South Central deputy has earned plaudits for his work on tracker mortgages and the regulation of so-called vulture funds, among other pressing issues. And he attributes at least part of that success to his training as a Chartered Accountant.

“There is no doubt about it, the training I received as a Chartered Accountant has proven to be far more valuable than I ever thought it would,” he says. “It equipped me with the skills to get to grips with the finance portfolio. It also makes you comfortable with numbers and reaching informed decisions. The analytical skills you acquire are hugely valuable when it comes to problem-solving.”

He started out on his professional and political journeys at a very young age. “I was the first member of my family to go to college when I went to study Commerce in UCC having just turned 17,” he recalls. “My first election was a contested role in the Commerce and Economics Society, and I won.”

Having completed his degree in 1997, he joined KPMG in Cork. “I wanted to stay in Cork and was keen to get a professional qualification. I stayed for four years and was fortunate to work with a number of companies and organisations in a variety of sectors.”
Then came the move into industry. “Following the end of the training contract, an excellent opportunity came up to join Red FM, a new start-up commercial radio station in Cork. I joined as Financial Controller in late 2001. The station had yet to go on air, and I was involved in helping set up the processes and systems to run it. It was great working for a station with a youth focus. I was reporting to the CEO and the board, and I enjoyed the diverse range of responsibilities. It was very nice having a company car as a 25-year-old, of course. I didn’t think things could get much better.”

He left Red FM for a relatively short stint in the UCC finance function. “It was quite a senior role and a step up for me,” he notes. But the call of politics was loud.

“I always had an interest in politics in parallel with my working life,” he explains. “I was fortunate to live in a town that still had a town council. That provided a fantastic platform for a young person to contest an election. A few hundred votes was all you needed to get elected. I ran in 1999 at the age of 22 and managed to get elected. My heart was set on politics after that.”

Michael was elected to Cork County Council in 2004 and quickly realised he couldn’t continue working full-time. “I resigned from UCC in 2005 and found some part-time work to tide me through the next year and a half.”

Election to the Dáil in 2007 followed. Re-election in 2011 was an altogether more difficult proposition, however. “It was an incredibly tough election. Fianna Fáil lost over 50 seats. At a time when the party vote collapsed, I managed to take the fifth and final seat. I focused on playing my part in rebuilding the party after that. Brian Lenihan passed away in June 2011, and I was appointed spokesperson on finance.”

He enjoys his role as a public representative. “It is an enormous privilege to be a member of Dáil Éireann, and I still pinch myself walking in as a member. As a T.D., I am juggling a number of responsibilities. I have the finance portfolio and at a local level, I try to serve people to the best of my ability. What I get most out of it is being able to help people. Very often, people come in with difficult and sensitive issues. Sometimes they need guidance; sometimes they need someone to fight their corner.”

Serving in government remains an ambition, of course. “Having spent nine years as finance spokesperson and four years involved in confidence and supply, to present a budget as Minister for Finance would naturally be an ambition,” he says.

Fergal O’Dwyer

Fergal O’Dwyer is one of the driving forces that helped turn DCC into the industrial powerhouse it is today.

DCC is one of those quiet Irish success stories. Since its flotation in 1994, it has grown into a significant force in the energy, electronics and healthcare sectors with a substantial presence in 17 countries. From an investor perspective, the company delivered returns of nearly 7,000% up to the beginning of 2020.

One constant throughout that success has been Chief Financial Officer, Fergal O’Dwyer, who joined the company in 1989 when it was still a venture capital firm. “Shortly after I joined, the company decided to change its colours and become an industrial group,” he recalls. “That required a complete transformation. We had a number of minority investments and had to decide which ones fitted in with the new strategy and which did not. Between 1990 and 1994, we spent our time moving out of some of them and moving to ownership positions in the others. I am not aware of other companies that made that strategic change.”

He began his accountancy career with Craig Gardner (now PwC) almost straight out of school due to a natural aptitude. “I did maths and accountancy subjects at school and was always going to head towards finance or accountancy. I didn’t have a burning desire to be an accountant or anything, I sort of gravitated towards it.”

O’Dwyer qualified as a Chartered Accountant at the age of 21 with a year or so of his training contract remaining. Ireland was in the depths of a recession at the time, and the search for opportunities took him overseas. His search took him and his wife to South Africa. “After we got married in 1983, we headed off to South Africa. I worked for three years there for Thomson McLintock, which represented KPMG at the time, and came back to PwC in 1986.”

That move back led him indirectly to DCC. “I had clients who were looking for development capital, and I had worked on a number of deals on their behalf with DCC and they had worked out well for everyone. In 1989, I got a call from the founder and former CEO of DCC, Jim Flavin, who asked me to join the firm.”

That was a major change. “I became an associate director of a venture capital company. I was dealing with entrepreneurs and building relationships with them. I learned about the venture capital focus on return on capital employed. That’s still the same mantra in DCC to this day. What is the return we are going to get on every euro? We aim to get a circa 15% return because we want returns well in excess of the cost of capital.”

He describes the transformation from venture capitalist to industrial group as “very exciting”, but the flotation in 1994 was not without its challenges. “The flotation was a success, but we didn’t raise any capital, and our share price didn’t perform for quite a long time. We wore out a lot of shoe leather explaining our business and strategy. It has been all about constant delivery over the years, getting investors to listen and building a following. We were growing revenue, growing profits, growing cash flow, but still were having to work hard to sell the story. It was frustrating, but we had to accept that the market is always right.”

His advice to other Chartered Accountants starting out on their careers is to keep learning. “The qualification equips you to do much more than just the numbers. You’ve got to interpret and advise on them. I still learn every day and you have to try to learn all the time. And you’ve got to learn from your mistakes. You can find business to be stressful, but if you put in the work and effort, it can be rewarding and fulfilling.”