Sustainable, vibrant and viable

Jul 28, 2020

Imelda Hurley has had a challenging start to her role as CEO at Coillte, but her training and experience have proved invaluable in dealing with the fallout from COVID-19, writes Barry McCall.

Imelda Hurley’s career journey to becoming CEO of Coillte in November 2019 saw her work on every continent for a range of businesses spanning food to technology. That varied background has helped prepare her for the unprecedented disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We have been working remotely since March, and the business has kept going throughout the pandemic,” she says. “We closed the office straight away and have had 300 people working remotely since then. Our primary focus since has been on the health, safety and wellbeing of our colleagues, and against that backdrop, on ensuring that a sustainable, viable and vibrant Coillte emerges from the crisis.”

A diverse challenge

This has not been as straightforward as she makes it sound. “Coillte is a very diverse business,” she adds. “We are the largest forestry business in the country, the largest outdoor recreation provider, we enable about one-third of Ireland’s wind energy, and we have our board manufacturing business as well. We needed to continue operating as an essential service provider. That remit to operate was both a challenge and an opportunity.”

The company’s timber products are essential for manufacturing the pallets required to move goods into and out of the country. “Some of our board products were used in the construction of the Nightingale Hospital in London,” she adds. “And the wind energy we enable provides electricity for people’s homes and the rest of the country.”

Organisationally, the task has been to enable people to continue to do their jobs. However, the challenge varied depending on the nature of the operation involved. “In forest operations, people usually work at a distance from each other anyway, so they were able to keep going. That said, we did suspend a range of activities. We needed to continue our factory operations, but we had to slow down and reconfigure the lines for social distancing. And we kept the energy business going.”

Those challenges were worsened by an ongoing issue associated with delays in the licensing of forestry activities and by the unusually dry spring weather, which created ideal conditions for forest fire outbreaks. “Even a typical forest fire season is very difficult,” she notes. “But this one was particularly difficult. In one single weekend, we had 50 fires which had to be fought while maintaining physical distancing. Very early on, we put in place fire-fighting protocols, which enabled us to keep our colleagues safe while they were out there fighting fires, and to support them in every way possible.”

The lure of industry

Her interest in business dates back to her childhood on the family farm near Clonakilty in Cork. “I was always interested in it, and I enjoyed accountancy in school and college at the University of Limerick. I did a work placement in Glen Dimplex and that consolidated my view that Chartered Accountancy was a good qualification that would give me the basis for an interesting career.”

She went on to a training contract with Arthur Andersen in Dublin. “The firm was one of the Big 6 at the time,” she recalls. “I availed of several international opportunities while I worked there and worked in every continent apart from Asia. I really enjoyed working in Arthur Andersen, but I always had a desire to sit on the other side of the table. Some accountants prefer practice, but I enjoy the cut and thrust of business life.”

That desire led her to move to Greencore. “I wanted to be near the centre of decision-making and where strategy was developed. I stayed there for ten years, learning every day.”

And then she moved on to something quite different. “Sometimes in life, an opportunity comes along that makes you pause and think, ‘if I turn it down, I might regret it forever’. The opportunity was to become CFO of a Silicon Valley-backed business known as PCH, which stood for Pacific Coast Highway, which was based in Hong Kong and mainland China with offices in Ireland and San Francisco. It was involved in the supply chain for the technology industry and creating, developing and delivering industry-leading products for some of the largest brands in the world.”

The experience proved invaluable. “It changed the way I thought. It was a very fast-moving business that was growing very quickly. I got to live and work in Asia and understand a new culture. I took Chinese lessons and the rest of the team took English lessons. There were 15 nationalities on the team. It was remarkably diverse in terms of demographics, gender, culture, you name it. That diversity means you find solutions you would not have found otherwise.

“I spent three years with PCH and ran up half a million air miles in that time. It had a very entrepreneurial-driven start-up culture. The philosophy is to bet big, win big or fail fast. It was a whole new dynamic for me. I also got to spend a lot of time in San Francisco, the hub of the digital industry, and that was a wonderful experience as well.”

Returning to Ireland

Imelda then returned to Ireland to become CFO of Origin Enterprises plc. “As I built my career, I always had the ambition to become CFO of a public company. And I always believed that with hard work, determination and a willingness to take a slightly different path, you will succeed. Greencore and Origin Enterprises gave me experience at both ends of the food and agriculture business; they took me from farm to fork. A few more years in Asia might have been good, but Origin Enterprises was the right opportunity to take at the time.”

Her next career move saw her take up the reins as CEO of Coillte on 4 November 2019. “I always wanted to do different things, work with different organisations and with different stakeholder groups,” she points out. “Coillte is a very different business. It is the custodian of 7% of the land in Ireland, on which we manage forests for multiple benefits including wood supply. It is a fascinating company. It is an outdoor recreation enabler, with 3,000km of trails and 12 forest parks. We get 18 million visits to forests each year. We also have our forest products business – Medite Smartply. We operate across the full lifecycle of wood. We plant it and it takes 30-40 years to produce timber.”

Imelda’s varied career has given her a unique perspective, which is helping her deal with the current challenges faced by Coillte. “Throughout my career, I have worked in different ownership structures and for a variety of stakeholders. I worked for public companies, a Silicon Valley-backed business, and have been in a private equity-backed business as well. Now, I am in a commercial semi-state. That has taken me across a very broad spectrum and I have learned that a business needs to be very clear on a set of things: its strategy, its values, who its stakeholders are, and how it will deliver.”

Entering the ‘new’ world

While Coillte has kept going during the COVID-19 pandemic, it is still affected by the economic fallout. “We are experiencing a very significant impact operationally, particularly so when building sites were closed,” she says. “There has been some domestic increase in timber requirements since then, and there has been an increasing demand for pallet wood. That has had a significant financial impact and it’s why I’m focused on delivering a sustainable, vibrant and viable Coillte. We remain very focused on our operations, business and strategy. In the new post-COVID-19 world, we will need a strategy refresh. We must look at what that new world looks like, and not just in terms of COVID-19. We still have a forestry licensing crisis and Brexit to deal with.”

The business does boast certain advantages going into that new world. “Our business is very relevant to that world. The need for sustainable wood products for construction is so relevant. Forests provide a carbon sink. The recreation facilities and wind energy generated on the land we own are very valuable. It may be a difficult 12-18 months or longer, but Coillte is an excellent place to be. In business, you manage risk. What we are managing is uncertainty, and that requires a dynamic and fast-paced approach. Time is the enemy now, and we are using imperfect information to make decisions, but we have to work with that.”

Coillte will begin the first phase of its office reopening programme in line with Phase 4 of the Government’s plan. “We have social distancing in place and it’s quite strange to see the floor markings in the offices. We are doing it in four phases and carried out surveys to understand employee preferences. We then overlaid our office capacity with those preferences. Our employees have been fantastic in the way they supported each other right the way through the crisis.”

Words of wisdom

Despite the current challenges, she says she has thoroughly enjoyed the role since day one. “It would be wrong to say it’s not a challenge to walk into a business you were never involved in before and take charge, but I have a very good team. None of us succeeds on our own. We need the support of the team around us. The only way to succeed is to debate the best ideas and when there isn’t alignment, I make the final decision, but only after listening to what others have to say. You are only as good as the people around you. You’ve got to empower those people and let them get on with it.”

Imelda believes her training as a Chartered Accountant has also helped. “It facilitated me in building a blended career. The pace of change is so incredibly quick today and if we do not evolve and learn, we lose relevance. Small pieces of education are also very valuable in that respect. Over the years, I did several courses including at Harvard Business School and Stanford. I love learning and I’m not finished yet. I’m a firm believer in lifelong learning.”

Her advice to other Chartered Accountants starting out in their careers is to seek opportunities to broaden their experience. “Learn to be willing to ask for what you want,” she says. “Look for opportunities outside finance in commercial, procurement or operations. Look through alternative lenses to bring value. Make sure you are learning and challenging yourself all the time. Keep asking what you have added to become the leader you want to be someday.”

And don’t settle for what you don’t want. “Be sure it is the career you want, rather than the one you think you want or need. It’s too easy to look at someone successful and want to emulate them. You have to ask if that is really for you. This role particularly suits me. I love the outdoors and I get to spend time out of the office in forests and recreational areas. That resonates particularly well with me.”