Vision

Vision

Ambition is a key ingredient for success, and Martina Keane has it in spades. Originally from Ballygar in Co. Galway, the Chartered Accountant now leads the Irish assurance practice in EY EMEIA Financial Services having spent well over a decade specialising in financial services in both Ireland and the United Kingdom. Today, Martina is responsible for the development and leadership of a large group of professionals – a challenging, yet familiar role given her early start in leadership. The feedback loop “I was probably 21 years old when I started leading people,” she said. “I’m very driven and focused, but you need a stellar team with a mixed skillset if you really want to succeed.” Having been mentored from an early age, Martina is aware of the value in a positive role model – something she tries to replicate in her day-to-day work in EY. “In my work as a mentor, I focus on giving an honest view. That can only be done when there’s integrity and trust on both sides,” Martina added. “And face-time is extremely important in this context. You need to tell people that they have done a great job but you also need to point out areas for improvement, and you simply can’t do that by email.” Although some managers shy away from giving developmental feedback, Martina is living proof of its benefits. “It’s hard to take criticism at the best of times but people are motivated to achieve. They work best when they have a bar to reach and one of the roles of those in positions of leadership is to set that bar high and help people reach their full potential.” The importance of prioritisation To rise through the ranks at EY, Martina learned quickly that she needed to acquire a number of key skills. “I was appointed as partner in large part because I’m client-focused and solutions-driven. Nowadays, technical excellence is expected of the Chartered Accountant, so you need to build on that base and demonstrate your ability to lead if you want to advance your career,” she said. “One of the downsides of being solutions-driven is impatience. Once a solution is identified, I’m always in a hurry to implement it, but the reality is that people and processes don’t always move at a pace you would like – so I’ve had to work on that.” To help her team make valuable progress day after day, Martina’s daily routine begins with setting three tangible goals. “I would love to do a lot of things on any given day but if you spread yourself too thinly, you will fail. Now, I prioritise effectively,” she said. “I’ve also learned how to say no. If I’m asked to do something by a colleague, it has to align with my priorities and those of my team. If they don’t, then I am not as quick to accept. There’s a certain guilt that comes with that approach but at the end of the day, you can’t ruminate on it. You have to move on and stay focused on achieving your goals.” Future-proofing your business Amid intense debate about the role of artificial intelligence and robotics in the accountancy profession of the future, Martina is adamant that the focus on human skills will need to intensify in the years ahead. “The two critical challenges facing the business community are transformational digital change and the huge demand for talent,” she said. “Chartered Accountants need to consider whether the talent in their organisation is fit for purpose in an innovation age. The talent mix must align with the organisation’s innovation strategy because, as an example, the audit process will look entirely different in five years’ time. Coping with that type of transformative change begins with who we hire today and in short, they need to be adaptable, continuous learners and innovation-focused.” Stand by your values Despite the complexity of her role and responsibilities, Martina follows one very simple rule to help her maintain her commitment to ethics and integrity. “I have to sleep with ease at night, so I have to be happy with my decisions during the day. The world of leadership can be very challenging at times, but you have to stand by your personal values and never, ever leave them at the door,” she said. “I’m the type of person who needs to be very comfortable with the decisions I make from a values perspective and even when that brings you into conflict with the views of others, you actually get a lot of kudos from those who see you stand up for what you truly believe – even if they fundamentally disagree with you or your point of view.” Martina Keane FCA leads the Assurance practice in EY Financial Services, specialising in banking and capital markets. She works across the Irish and UK banking landscape, serving both assurance and advisory clients. You can read more articles from business leaders in the second issue of Vision, a publication from Accountancy Ireland for members in business, supported by FK International.

May 03, 2019
Vision

Brian Healy FCA, Managing Director at Atlantic Vantage Advisory, reflects on two decades of innovation and growth at the Irish Stock Exchange. Brian Healy has been described as a “veteran” of the Irish Stock Exchange. The Cork native spent 20 years at the heart of the organisation. Having initially passed on the opportunity while working at Arthur Andersen, a persistent recruiter convinced him to meet the management. Thus began a journey that led to the transformation of one of Ireland’s critical market infrastructures. When Brian joined the Irish Stock Exchange it had 30 staff, there was no electronic trading, no central clearing capability and it generated a small profit on its almost entirely domestic business. Although many predicted publicly the demise of the Exchange after its demerger from the London Stock Exchange, Brian had a contrary view. In his opinion, if managed correctly, the Exchange was potentially on the cusp of something big. “It was an opportunity to direct and guide the evolution of a business with a national impact, and that doesn’t happen very often,” he said. “But in 1998, I thought it would be a three-year project to launch the Irish equity market into the relatively new world of electronic trading.” After three years, Brian knew the job was just beginning. The first step for the Exchange was “obvious” to him – a successful transition to electronic trading. However, he had to do that in a business with no technological capabilities. “With a clear vision, ensuring stakeholder buy-in and after building a bright, dedicated and young team, it then took us six months to go live in June 2000 with a world-class new electronic trading platform,” he said. “That technology platform – fast, resilient, very cost-competitive and, critically, easily accessible internationally – was the cornerstone of subsequent growth. In addition, it forged a team and developed a confidence that we leveraged to further diversify and internationalise the business. Other key strategic partnerships negotiated with Euroclear Group and with Eurex Clearing were also  centrally important. This foundation also saw us through the global financial crisis.” In fact, the Exchange’s conversion to electronic trading remains one of the smoothest and most successful transformations for any exchange globally. Against the grain So, how did the Irish Stock Exchange go from being an analogue organisation to having a real fintech competence? According to Brian, it comes down to a combination of understanding changing market dynamics, excellent people, smart partnering and brave decision-making. “One of the key decisions I had to make was to build or buy,” he said. “Most people assumed we would either engage a large technology firm to build a platform or buy an ‘off the shelf’ solution. Instead, we decided to simultaneously partner with Deutsche Bourse on the core trading platform, ISE Xetra, while building proprietary systems that delivered more bespoke functionality. “There were raised eyebrows at the time as Deutsche Bourse wasn’t the global player it is today, but it was a very innovative model. Our mainframe was in Frankfurt as opposed to Dublin and you could describe that as a very early adoption of cloud technology,” he added. The ancillary systems also allowed the Exchange to develop unique and deep internal technology competences. “Within two years, we had internationalised our trading membership, trebled revenues, were winning business from London and were positioned to avail of further opportunities. This taught me a valuable lesson: great things can happen when you innovate and don’t go with the perceived wisdom – and, of course,  you rigorously manage key projects and maintain focus on strategic growth drivers.” Building a compelling business case Immediately after the launch of the electronic trading platform, Brian and his team set about developing a new platform for the Exchange’s funds and debt listing business, an important growth area. The Exchange faced an embedded competitor in Luxembourg. “Our strategy was to create an e-listing platform that would transform customers’ listing experience, converting from what was essentially a ‘people and paper’ business until then,” he said. “We also didn’t want to compete on price. The resultant solution was a proprietarily developed system that enabled the Exchange to handle, profitably and efficiently, greatly increased listing volumes and to become a world leader in this area.” The Exchange’s trading platform has suffered just eight hours of downtime in the past 18 years. The stock exchange is the cockpit of the market, its indices a bell-weather, and if its systems are unavailable – even for a millisecond – the market knows, and the tolerance is minimal. The Exchange’s enviable record, coupled with the success of its international listing business, suggests that this approach has paid off in spades. Indeed, the level of interest from potential acquirors during 2017 and the Exchange’s ultimate sale to Euronext NV in 2018 at a very strong valuation is further testament to the value created. Interestingly, such ground-breaking innovation was achieved with very modest capital outlay, an obvious attraction for shareholders. Brian notes, however, that the full backing and buy-in of the board, and of all stakeholders, was also a key enabler. “The board was very supportive. However, we ensured that there was a rigorous challenge and approval process in place. I always had to provide a compelling business case for any innovation or capital investment.”  In addition, as a fundamental market infrastructure regulated by the Central Bank, there was full regulatory oversight of all significant developments. Brian notes that “ensuring the full confidence of the Exchange’s regulators was always critical. I’m proud of the track record of delivery and of keeping a completely clean regulatory slate, including throughout the years of the global financial crisis.” Need for reinvention Over his 20 years in the Irish Stock Exchange, Brian’s ambition was to create a great business, delivering a leading-edge and internationally competitive infrastructure for Ireland’s securities market and for those around him “to make the Exchange a great place to do great work”. He grew his team from four to 80 staff covering the markets, operations, finance, technology and risk management functions. He left his COO/CFO role at the Exchange in July 2018 proud of a job well done: the group was robustly profitable with an EBITDA margin of 32%, had a diversified business, great staff and was well-positioned for future growth. His management style focuses on some simple principles: “Knowing your market and understanding what your customers need are obviously central. But for me, really good leadership is defined by integrity. It’s at the core of creating a high-trust environment.” He added: “I’ve always sought to hire and work with the best and brightest. A good strategy backed by the commitment and trust of the right people will consistently outperform.” Today, the Irish Stock Exchange is in Brian’s rear-view mirror and although it was a period of great success for him and his various teams, he is looking forward to new career challenges and developing his other interests. He is now focused on a portfolio of advisory, consultancy and non-executive work. This includes chairing a cross-industry group, which is working with Euroclear Group to develop a new post-trade model for the settlement of Irish securities after Brexit, as well as two other INED roles. He has also been using his Irish Sailing Association skipper’s licence to explore other horizons. “Last summer, as a family, we really enjoyed some charter sailing in the Mediterranean and I have a small boat in Kenmare Bay, which will be used much more in the next few years.” In conclusion, Brian notes: “Businesses more than ever need to re-engineer and reinvent themselves; a corporate is just a reflection of the people that work in it and we too need to reinvent ourselves. A bit like sailing – always wonderful until familiar land disappears under the horizon, and then it’s just you and the sea! But that’s when the focus shifts to navigating to your next port of call and to enjoying the journey. I’m now fully open to new opportunities and thoroughly enjoying setting that new course.” You can read more articles from business leaders in the second issue of Vision, a publication from Accountancy Ireland for members in business, supported by FK International.

May 03, 2019
Vision

Refereeing is much like leadership. While you have a small team of colleagues to support you, you are out in front. You are making decisions that have the potential to polarise opinion and you are often on the big screen – at times, the sole focus of hundreds and thousands of people. Donal Courtney has experienced both scenarios in his sporting and business careers. Having qualified as a Chartered Accountant with Arthur Andersen in the 1980s, Donal subsequently moved into industry and was involved in building several businesses from a standing start. His first role beyond practice was with the Japanese financial services company, Orix, a former audit client that had just established an aircraft leasing and lending company in Dublin’s burgeoning International Financial Services district. Donal spent five years as CFO of the company, which continues to operate from Ireland to this day, before being lured to Airbus. The aviation giant was also looking to develop its aircraft financing and leasing business in Ireland, and Donal – having enjoyed a very successful stint with Orix – duly deployed his skills and experience with the Toulouse-based company, which has also maintained its presence in Ireland.  During this time, Donal fell into an accidental second life as a rugby referee. The former Monkstown rugby player was in the stands ready to watch Belvedere take on Skerries when a call went out over the tannoy for a stand-in referee as the match referee had picked up an injury. Donal reluctantly took to the turf, which was the first step in a journey that led him to top-tier tournaments including the Heineken Cup, the Six Nations Championship and the Rugby World Cup. “It was a happy accident, but around the time I was starting to referee more seriously, I had an opportunity to move to Toulouse with Airbus,” he recalls. “My wife, Sarah, and I had just had twins so overall, we didn’t think it was the right move for us as a family – so I declined.” Instead, Donal joined GMAC Commercial Mortgages, a division of GM, which was involved in financing commercial real estate projects. “They had operations in the US and Japan, and they wanted to establish a presence in Europe by setting up a regulated banking operation,” he says. “But at that time, acquiring a banking licence for a non-bank entity was quite difficult and that became my priority when I joined the company as CFO in 2000.” GMAC Commercial Mortgages did secure the banking licence (it was one of the first non-bank entities in Ireland to do so) and Donal stayed with the company for eight years. Having been sold to KKR – the private equity house – and Goldman Sachs in 2016, GMAC Commercial Mortgages decided to exit its commercial real estate business in 2018 due to the global financial crash. At this stage, it was time for a change of direction for Donal away from the financial world. A fresh start and the importance of people Having retired from international refereeing in 2017 and with GMAC exiting the real estate business, Donal moved into the world of referee management full-time, taking up a position with European Rugby as head of match official performance for the Heineken Cup. He also became a referee selector for World Rugby and its international matches including the Six Nations and the Rugby World Cup. Donal now holds a portfolio of independent non-executive director roles at Dell Bank International, IPUT PLC (a commercial property fund) and Permanent TSB PLC, where he also acts as chair of the audit committees. “I’ve worn a few different hats in my various roles but one thing that has always struck me – and even more so in my work with boards – is the importance of people,” he says. “I’m reminded of Zig Ziglar’s famous quote: ‘You don’t build a business. You build people, and people build the business.’ This is absolutely true and there is a real need for a seat at the board table for people who are expert in the area of talent management, development and retention.” For Donal, how leaders deal with others is founded on a core set of values. “At one end of the scale, you need to identify talent, attract them into your organisation and incentivise them to do great work. At the other, you need to create a really great environment where your people feel valued and trusted; where they feel that they can speak up and have a say in the direction of the organisation. In many cases, getting the latter ‘culture’ piece right will make the process of attracting high calibre talent to your organisation much, much easier,” he said. To err is human Given his experience on the pitch, Donal is also very accepting of the fact that leaders will make mistakes. To err is human. However, he stresses the importance of communication and reflection in setting a positive example for colleagues at all levels.  “In today’s workplace, people no longer ask what they should do. Instead, they ask why they should do it,” he said. “The best way to answer this question is through clear communication as it allows you to define the ‘why’ and gives your people something to rally around. “And when things go wrong, and they inevitably will, it’s important for leaders – and everyone in the organisation, actually – to conduct a review of their own work,” he added. “It goes back to the question of ‘why’. If something did go wrong, why did it go wrong? Once we learn from our experience, there’s an element of positivity and progress in that, no matter how bad the situation might be.” You can read more articles from business leaders in the second issue of Vision, a publication from Accountancy Ireland for members in business, supported by FK International.  

May 03, 2019
Vision

From Dublin to Dubai, MetLife’s Yvonne Hill is responsible for a number of disparate teams that span both cultures and time zones. While some might baulk at the challenge – not to mention the necessary travel – Yvonne thrives on the diversity that comes with the role of Vice President and EMEA Controller at the Fortune 500 company. Yvonne joined MetLife in 2009, having started her career as a trainee Chartered Accountant in PwC. According to Yvonne, the experience she gained – both in practice and industry – made her the “rounded accountant” she is today. Stints in Kleinworth Benson in London and Eagle Star/Zurich Life and Canada Life in Dublin introduced her to many important aspects of business, but it is the human connections that she credits with much of her success. “When I went into Canada Life, I went in as a Senior Financial Accountant but progressed to Financial Controller within six months. I was fortunate enough to work predominantly with Brenda Dunne, who at the time was CFO and the company’s Appointed Actuary. Brenda had a great way of working that brought the actuarial and accounting pieces together so I gained a great appreciation for, and understanding of, the actuarial side of the business,” she said. “And when I joined MetLife, one of my first projects was to set up a small shared services team that covered Ireland and the United Kingdom. In 2011, Damien Cranwell came over from the US with a view to expanding the shared services concept for the company’s EMEA US GAAP reporting process and quickly saw me as a potential successor. He wasn’t only my manager, he sponsored me and that really made a difference – everyone’s career could benefit from a sponsor who will promote you behind the scenes.” A people person The human aspect of business has been central to Yvonne’s career over the years. From establishing the Irish chapter of MetLife’s Women’s Business Network to leading the company’s WellMet wellness initiative, she has always been a people-first manager. “I try to do the right thing for people and the team,” she said. “That doesn’t mean that every decision is easy. Sometimes the decision is more difficult because you have the competing interests of the individual and the corporation but for me, doing the right thing and treating people with respect is important.” This feeds into the role of diversity and inclusion in today’s organisations – something Yvonne is keen to encourage although she appreciates the challenges. “It’s very hard, especially if you are more junior, to push something like diversity and inclusion if there’s no appetite for it. In such a scenario, you will need to get a senior colleague to support you because if you are pushing alone against a culture, you will get demoralised very quickly. “But my one piece of advice, irrespective of your position in your organisation, is to pace yourself; don’t try to do too much too soon or expect results too quickly. The road to full diversity and inclusion is a long one.” Work hacks Another area of focus for Yvonne is work-life balance and again, she leads by example. Although her role requires international travel and her span of control covers several time zones, her flexible approach allows her to reach her goals in the longer term. “I’m usually at work and logging on at 7am when I’m in Dublin. For me, that quiet time is invaluable – it helps me get on top of emails before meetings start to creep in,” she said. “After that, it’s a juggling act. Sometimes I leave work early and make calls at home, and other times I stay late but for me, work-life balance is a long-term play. I tend to look at it over a period or weeks or months and then ask if I’ve been able to spend time on the things that matter to me. Flexibility on both the professional and personal sides is important, and perhaps work-life integration is a better way of putting it.” When it comes to international travel, which can easily disrupt one’s routine, Yvonne sees it as a necessary evil but one that has broadened her talents as a leader. “I’m very structured with it and because I travel to the same places, if I do have to spend time in an airport, I know I’ll be able to work while I’m there,” she said. “Being mobile in your career and working in multinational organisations can bring a breadth of experience that is much deeper than companies with smaller global footprints can provide, so it’s something I would certainly recommend to young Chartered Accountants in particular.” Navigating change Such experience will be a vital asset for Chartered Accountants who are already faced with a tsunami of change. The hot topics, in Yvonne’s view, include data analytics, robotics and artificial intelligence – but understanding how each can benefit one’s industry or function is the key. “Everybody wants to do more with less and we hear all these buzzwords in our professional circles and the business media, but how do you make something happen in each of these areas? It isn’t easy because they are difficult to put into action,” she said. “I firmly believe that we need to reskill our employees to become more adept at data analytics in particular. It’s a very fast-paced environment at the moment and people are adapting and changing, but you will need skilled talent if you want to exploit the potential of these technological advancements.” Not surprisingly, one vital non-accountancy skill Yvonne has developed over the years is in change management. From her early days in MetLife, building a small shared services centre, to simultaneously developing an EMEA-focused centre of excellence in Warsaw while strategically trimming the headcount in the Dublin office, Yvonne has been keen to put her EMEA locations forward for early-stage change initiatives. “I do this for two reasons. First, we are a small part of MetLife so if I can transform EMEA into a leader in all new things, that will increase our profile within the corporation and help keep us relevant. And second, because of our size, we can be used like a sandbox. If a project fails, it isn’t a major issue – at least we tried, and we can call it and move on,” she said. “Managing the change that this approach brings can be tricky. You need to set the vision early, choose your key battles and get people on board. But most importantly, you need to be prepared to call time on a project if it isn’t working – that’s absolutely vital if you adopt an experimental strategy.” And again, Yvonne brings the focus back to her teams. “Change gives people an opportunity to develop but allowing someone to fail can be very powerful. Yes, you need to be careful in terms of how and where the failure occurs, but failure in and of itself is not a bad thing. In fact, it can be the most effective learning experience of all.” You can read more articles from business leaders in the second issue of Vision, a publication from Accountancy Ireland for members in business, supported by FK International. 

May 03, 2019
Vision

Audrey Collins FCA recently returned to Ireland after six successful years working in Australia, most recently as CFO of an Australian asset manager. She speaks to Vision about her career to date and experience ‘down under’. Audrey Collins’ career has taken her to America and Australia, from the crisis in the banking world to the top of the growing asset management industry. Now, she is back home to begin the next chapter of her career. “I’m very excited about being back in Ireland at a time of economic growth and full employment. While there is uncertainty around Brexit, there is still a marked change from the country I left in 2012,” she says. Audrey initially considered a career in psychology before deciding to pursue Chartered Accountancy. “Psychology has always interested me but the career path wasn’t as clear,” she explains. “Being logically minded and good at maths, a career guidance teacher suggested that I consider accounting. I could see a career path clearly, so I chose the accounting route and joined EY as a trainee from secondary school. I subsequently completed a diploma in psychology, which confirmed that my choice in accounting was the right one.” Laying the foundations When Audrey embarked on her career in accountancy, many practices participated in the ‘commencement course’, which was in effect an accounting apprenticeship for school leavers. “EY took six trainees into the commencement course programme each year. I went to college full-time for two years and then trained in EY for a further three years to complete my five-year training contract.” Fulfilling a further ambition to travel, Audrey took the opportunity to work with EY in Chicago. “Chicago was an amazing city for young professionals, with a vibrant lifestyle and booming economy. Travel is a great way to broaden both your personal and professional horizons and is something I would highly recommend.” Audrey spent her career with EY in audit. “A lot of people complain about audit, but I found it to be an excellent training ground at every level. Very early on in your audit career, you begin to manage people and teams. The variety of clients I worked with was unparalleled – from leasing to banking to asset management organisations. You interact with clients, build relationships with senior management and help them solve problems. I didn’t want to be an auditor for life, but the training ground was excellent – from people leadership and management skills to the breadth of industry exposure.” Developing a career in industry In 2002, Audrey was approached to join EBS as Head of Internal Audit. On joining, she quickly moved through the ranks to become Head of Compliance and subsequently, Head of Finance. “I really enjoy building teams and improving capability. It’s important as a leader to have a clear vision and goals, and to help your team understand their purpose and role in achieving those goals. You need to be brave when delivering change or establishing new ways of working,” she said. “It’s important not only to bring the team on the journey, but also the stakeholders. Getting the right people into the right roles as quickly as possible is a critical lesson I’ve learned along the way. This often involves having tough conversations and it’s important to be compassionate and respectful in such situations.” While on maternity leave following the birth of her first child in 2005, Audrey was offered the Head of Finance role at EBS. “You can never predict when opportunity is going to knock. My strategy in these situations is to ask yourself whether the role will help you develop and grow. If it will, then be courageous and open the door. The timing will never be exactly as you’d like it to be and if it doesn’t work out, you can always go back to what you were doing before.” As the crisis took hold on the financial services industry in Ireland, Audrey joined the EBS leadership team in 2009 and became Finance Director of the EBS-covered bond bank. The team navigated the many challenges posed by increasing credit losses and growing capital and liquidity constraints. The challenges were severe, but it was a time of great learning and growth according to Audrey. In March 2011, EBS merged with AIB. Australia calling Australia entered the scene in 2012 and Audrey and her husband took a trip to Sydney to explore the option of moving there. “We used the trip to Australia as a knowledge-gathering exercise, meeting recruiters, potential employers, friends and other ex-pats,” she says. “In addition to the fantastic lifestyle in Sydney, the economy was very strong and there was an abundance of job opportunities. In August 2012, I was offered a role in the wealth division of the Westpac Group and they sponsored us to live and work in Australia. It was a big move for the whole family, but one that has enriched us all.” Audrey spent a year in the wealth division of Westpac Group before moving into the Head of Finance role, supporting the Westpac Retail Bank. “I worked very closely with the retail bank leadership team and learned a lot about business partnering. Learning to influence people around you who don’t work for you, how to be the catalyst for change and how to drive business outcomes are key attributes to success in this type of role,” she says. “Finance professionals should aim to develop these skills as digitisation and automation replace more basic finance functions. The real value-add for finance professionals is in business partnering and being more commercially focused – this is a big part of the future of finance.” In October 2016, Audrey was head-hunted to take on a new role as CFO of Challenger Funds Management and Executive Director of the Australian Funds Management Responsible Entity. “That took me back to a smaller but fast-growing organisation with a presence in Australia, Asia and Europe. “When I look back at what I enjoyed most, it was working in smaller organisations where I could really make a difference. This role was all about finance transformation, change and partnering with the funds management business in delivering their growth strategy.” Returning home and the next chapter And then came the decision to return home to Ireland. “It’s never easy making a decision to leave a country, but we wanted our children to experience life and family in Ireland and decided to return home in time for our eldest to start secondary school,” Audrey explains. The move to Ireland has also provided Audrey with the perfect opportunity to consider the next chapter in her career as she completes the Certified Investment Fund Director course at the Institute of Bankers. “I’m enjoying some time out to settle back into life in Ireland but I’m keen to put my international experience and knowledge in advising boards and leadership teams to good use,” she concludes. You can read more articles from business leaders in the second issue of Vision, a publication from Accountancy Ireland for members in business, supported by FK International.

May 03, 2019
Vision

Mitchel Simpson is CFO of FPG Amentum, a leading full-service global aircraft lessor and asset manager. Mitchel recounts his fascinating career journey, from qualifying as an accountant to the heights of his current position. Indeed, he has much to discuss: Mitchel opened an office for a global transportation lender in Dublin, co-led a management buy-out and partnered with one of the largest tax equity arrangers in Japan.   Mitchel Simpson would be the first to admit that he lacked career clarity during his college years. While a career in financial services was always an option, Mitchel was involved in several small-scale ventures that would ultimately set him up well to spot opportunities as he progressed in his career. “Lessons learnt during this time, albeit on a small scale, certainly helped me with decision-making on much larger projects in the future,” he said. Mitchel followed the well-trodden path of his BComm colleagues into a Chartered Accountancy training contract but rather than join one of the Big 4, he joined a mid-sized firm where he garnered hands-on experience in a number of sectors. Mitchel subsequently joined the Bank of San Francisco, before returning to Ireland once again to take up a position in the leasing subsidiary of Rabobank, De Lage Landen, where he ultimately rose to the position of Head of Structured Asset Finance. “It was a great learning environment,” he said. “Career development was encouraged, and I had the benefit of working with tremendous people who helped me see things from a different perspective.” The early years During his time in Rabobank, Mitchel was offered the opportunity to head up the bank’s office in Edinburgh. “It gave me a huge amount of confidence and the lure of gaining experience outside Ireland was immediately appealing,” he said. The move didn’t come to pass, however, as an opportunity arose with a start-up captive aircraft lessor – an opportunity that would eventually fulfil Mitchel’s entrepreneurial interest. “The more I looked into aviation, the more interesting it became,” he said. “At that time, aircraft leasing was at a reasonably early stage of development in Dublin and there were opportunities for senior people. I took the plunge; it proved to be a great time to enter the sector and I haven’t looked back.” Amentum was then owned by a German state bank, HSH Nordbank, which was a prominent global transportation bank at the time. The company quickly grew as it supported the bank’s expanding aviation business into the operating lease sector. According to Mitchel, it was the launchpad that enabled Amentum to establish itself as one of the leading third-party asset managers in the market, supporting numerous aircraft equity investors – including its main shareholder. Following the financial collapse, however, HSH Nordbank was required to deleverage its balance sheet and divest certain sectors – including aviation. “Following a beauty parade in front of established players in the industry, it was clear that any trade sale for the business would be at distressed levels. The opportunity to acquire the company through a management buyout (MBO) quickly followed,” he said. “It will forever be that sliding door moment in my career where the MBO question changed from ‘why would we?’ to ‘why wouldn’t we?’” Building the team The new management team gave itself 24 months to steady the ship and find the right capital partner. Securing the team during a downturn was paramount. “The time and money required to invest in highly specialised people in a high turnover industry demands that you get it right and keep the team in focus. Uncertainty can be very demotivating, so the need for openness and transparency is huge.” Financial Products Group (FPG) – a Tokyo-listed equity arranger – was soon after unveiled as Amentum’s capital partner. Having started as a minority shareholder, FPG now owns 75% of the business but gives the local team the freedom to operate independently. “We were extremely lucky in many ways to find FPG. The personal fit between the two was very strong from day one,” said Mitchel. “FPG has a very progressive and innovative ethos emanating from its founder, and those key values permeate the organisation. Trust is an absolute prerequisite for any relationship, as it should be, and especially so for a new Japanese partner. Once the parties got to experience working with each other, the independence and the operational freedom quickly followed.” Indeed, this focus on trust and autonomy is synonymous with Amentum’s culture. “From day one, we built a team we directed but didn’t necessarily manage,” said Mitchel. “We operate a flat organisational structure where everyone is encouraged to take ownership and responsibility within their specific competencies. In our team, you’ll never be micromanaged and equally, you won’t walk the plank for a bad decision.” Life lessons Now an established player in Ireland’s booming aviation industry, Mitchel is quick to point out that his good career fortune is due in large part to having an excellent mentor in his younger years. “I have been very fortunate to have had a number of excellent mentors who took a genuine interest in my career. Those mentors are now good friends and I continue to seek their counsel whenever possible,” he said. “In turn, I now make a conscious effort to help or mentor people developing their careers. I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but I certainly know the questions that they should be asking.” Mitchel does sound a cautionary note for people building their careers, however. “Our business is truly global and people must be willing to travel extensively and even relocate abroad for periods during their career. Any reluctance to travel, in my view, can significantly limit future career opportunities – not to mention the intangibles of experiencing different cultures.” Mitchel also learned some very valuable lessons during his career, particularly with regard to decision-making. “When opportunities present themselves, don’t be afraid to make decisions,” he said. “As Chartered Accountants, we are trained to identify the risks in any opportunity and this can make us overly conservative and indecisive when confronted with major decisions. Such decisions may involve a business or career opportunity.” And his final piece of advice for his fellow Chartered Accountants? “Take the leap, all day long. Life is far too short to worry about it.” You can read more articles from business leaders in the second issue of Vision, a publication from Accountancy Ireland for members in business, supported by FK International.

May 03, 2019