Leaving life 'down under'

May 03, 2019
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.