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Tales from the frontline: Daire Keating

I studied business and economics at Trinity College, Dublin. After university I travelled for a couple of years, during which time I played rugby for a season in Australia and worked on a number of international PGA golf events

I didn’t really know what I wanted to do as a career, but sport was a massive interest and numbers made sense to me all day long, so I found a role within the spread betting industry. I moved to south London and worked at Sporting Index for nearly two years. After deciding to move on and attending various interviews in the City, one of the things that struck me was that I needed to get a qualification. Since I already had friends doing the ACA, coupled with the discovery that the head of the trading floor was also a chartered accountant, I had my eyes opened to the qualification. That bit of life experience – I was 25 by then – helped me make the decision. I did my training at PKF because a slightly smaller firm than the Big Four appealed.

I wanted to go and learn about business, it was a more end-to-end experience and served me well. I’ve never regretted that decision, it never held me back. I was nearly 30, and recently married, when I came back to Ireland. I wanted to work for an Irish multinational and CRH was, and still is, the largest group in Ireland, so I thought it would be a good entrance into industry. I joined as an internal auditor and spent three years travelling around the company’s various businesses, including a number of assignments in the US. I really enjoyed it: you’d spend three to four weeks with a business and get to know it well.

I’ve always tried to learn as much about a business and the team running it as I can. You get the attention of the most senior people when you work in internal audit. People often tell you in business to look at something in black and white, but it never is. There’s lots of subjectivity in it, you’re commenting on people’s livelihoods. I worked in internal audit when I first joined DCC in 2011 as well and you’re in an ambassadorial role – whether you’re at a concrete plant in Texas or a fuel distribution business in Denmark, the guys want to put their best foot forward but ultimately, you’re reporting by weakness, you’re reporting by exception. The output is: “you guys are doing a great job, but these are the improvements you need to make in your controls”.

I’ve had some very tricky meetings in my time. It’s about communication and building a rapport, helping the team understand where you’re coming from, why you’re there and what can be done differently by way of improvement. This is how I looked to add value, but you need to work on it, it’s not something that ever happens overnight. DCC is a sales, marketing and distribution business founded in 1976; it’s listed on the London Stock Exchange and is a constituent of the FTSE 100. We’re spread across four divisions and we operate a devolved management structure with a global reach. We do a lot of acquisitions, that’s a pretty big part of my role, and organic business development is a key part of the story.

One of our core values is financial discipline – we invest wisely, and the shareholders expect us to do that. We acquire businesses where we can add value. The business has had a fantastic growth curve, especially since going public in 1994. It has its pressures but we’re moving apace, the group has a healthy cash balance and is always looking for the right investment to add shareholder value. You’re never “off”, but I do enjoy it.

The companies I have responsibility for include a large fuelcards business in the UK, which has organically grown from humble beginnings to reselling around one billion litres of fuel. The other companies that report to me include large fuel distribution businesses in Ireland and Austria and a payment technology business in Sweden. We continue to focus on the customer and meeting their demands; data insight is a key factor in driving this and is something I’m pretty passionate about – we can’t know enough about our customers.

The ACA has afforded me a fantastic opportunity to grow and realise my ambitions throughout my career and I continue to use the qualification as a real standard of excellence when looking to bring in new recruits, whether in a purely financial role or something more commercial.

Originally published in Economia on 6 September 2019.