Ciara Allan epitomises everything that is good about the modern CFO – Her career has been built upon strong technical knowledge at the highest level, her leadership style is one that is high-energy, covers the whole business, inspires people at all levels and she gets results.
Graduating with a first-class degree from the University of Ulster, she qualified with KPMG and claimed her first Finance Director position at the age of 28. She is still nowhere near hitting the brakes and is currently the CFO at Cooplands Bakery – having joined in April 2021, she has already overseen the transaction from BGF to EG Group –a United Kingdom based leading convenience retailer which has an established pedigree of delivering a world-class Grocery & Merchandise, Foodservice and Fuel offer.
We have done really well to find time in Ciara’s schedule to commit to this interview. Her story is just one that we know will inspire many.
Only one place to start – tell us about your experience of the recent transaction. What were the challenges and the experience of the immediate post-deal aftermath?
“How can I describe the whole experience of my first transaction? Exhausting, intense and exciting!
This was my first transaction as a CFO - I had the additional challenge of having only been in post for three weeks when the sale process began. I could not enter the process armed with knowledge behind all of the numbers and I needed to get myself quickly up to speed with the three-year history and ready for the DD process.
I can now totally challenge the misconception that you can only appoint a CFO with deal experience to lead a deal. With no previous experience of leading a deal and with just three weeks in the business, we were able to start and complete the transaction from BGF to EG Group within five months. Based on my experience, I would encourage other finance leaders to be confident in leading transactions. The skills required can be found in many other activities that the CFO needs;
There are some technical areas that will be knowledge gaps, but that is why there are so many advisers around these deals. James Nightingale from Ward Hadaway and Stuart Warriner from GCA Altium gave me all of the additional knowledge that I needed and were particularly important influences on the success of the deal.
I will admit that the immediate time after the deal is a little flat. There is so much excitement and adrenaline in the build up to the deal, that a return to day-to-day tasks is a bit of a comedown!”
How important has it been for you to lead on a deal like this? What lessons have you had to learn and what could you advise others?
“I left my last big corporate in 2018 and moved into private equity. I learned a lot in my early experience and hit some barriers. It is not an easy transition to make. It did not take long for me to set a new ambition to lead a deal, so the Cooplands transaction realises a three-year ambition of mine.
My work / life balance in the deal period was . It was an all-encompassing process that left no time or energy for anything else. It was because the deal meant so much for so many people and for me personally that I was able to stay focussed and motivated throughout this time.
Given the fact that the deal completed only a few weeks ago, I have not had a lot of time to reflect on how important it is to me, but I feel proud and recognise that I have proven capability even more and to a wider audience.
This is definitely not the pinnacle of my ambition though. I am more aware than ever that no two deals are the same and I will definitely take the learnings from this one from both a personal and technical perspective. Leading on one does not prove that a CFO is an expert in deals – the next deal will prove more about who I am and of what I am capable!
I have a few bits of advice for other finance leaders;
You have been sector agnostic across your career – Steel manufacturing, stockholding, modular homes and now retail. What do you bring that is different to those who choose to specialise in one sector?
“There is far too much importance placed on relevant sector experience by recruiters and employers. Finding the right fit of personality, culture and general skills is far more important.
I have been somewhat fortunate to work in so many sectors, but I have received the feedback “You have not been selected for the shortlist because there were candidates in the SaaS (or other) sector.” I understand that, but I also understand the benefits I bring from having come from so many different sectors.
I secured my role at Cooplands through my network and I do not believe that I would have been successful if I had been in a formal process – I would not have ticked the box of “retail / FMCG.” Not every recruitment process can rely on a network, but they should always address culture and personality at least as importantly as sector knowledge.”
Women CFOs are significantly under-represented across the UK and Yorkshire. Why is this and what needs to be done to address the imbalance?
I to make a choice of either family or career. My husband and I do not have a large family network around us, we both have commutes and careers that would not allow for regular school-runs or time at home. It would only have been viable if we had a nanny or an au-pair. It was our decision that this was not for us.
My experience of the past year would not have been possible if I had not been able to dedicate almost all of my focus and energy at work. I was speaking at a careers event for Young Chartered Accountants three years’ ago and I shared these thoughts there and was slightly taken aback with how many appreciative comments I received of my honesty.
It is clear that more needs to be done to promote the female representation of finance leaders today. Looking at the successful stories of women in finance and on the interviews of the Pratap Partnership website demonstrates the clear strengths that women can contribute to the success of so many businesses.”
What do you love most about your job?
“Everyone who works at Cooplands will say that it is the access to so many quality cream cakes!
In all seriousness, this is a quite an easy answer to give – it is the people I work with and the closeness of the senior management team. Cooplands has been successful in building up a team that is respectful to each other, there are no politics and every goal is shared. This is unfortunately rare, but this makes me cherish it more when I am fortunate enough to be a part of it. It is no coincidence that our management team is split evenly with men and women. This makes all aspects of the job so much more balanced and enjoyable. It should be no surprise to anyone to hear how well this works”
What is it like to work for you?
“I am enormously proud of the fact that people in my team have followed me across different positions in my career. I hope that speaks for itself in my own leadership and management style.
I like to think that I am firm and fair, I really enjoy developing people and just like to see people progress.
To my own detriment on a few occasions, I have always valued my team’s work / life balance more than my own and have filled in to support that. The quid pro quo is that we get results and mutual loyalty”
Tell us about Ciara outside of the world of finance
“I am very thankful that I have had a career that could be described as ‘exciting’ because I am far from exciting out of work! I would love to tell you that I have been a multiple bungee jumper or skied down the hardest runs in the world, but I have not done anything like that. My life is my husband, my two dogs (King Charles Spaniels), walking and country pubs.
Much to the amusement of our friends, we bought a touring caravan in 2019 and just love packing it up with the dogs and travelling around the countryside. We are always the youngest couple on every campsite, but it is perfect for us”
In our third and final article, Paul Davies provides advice to any business considering a public listing in 2022
Sarah is one of our region’s leading female CFOs. She is passionate about what she does and is an exceptional finance professional. We were delighted when she agreed to share her journey to such a successful career.
Gareth Hague has led two listings over the past four years. Today, he shares with you his informed views on IPOs from a CFO’s perspective in Yorkshire.
London Main Market and AIM listings rose significantly in 2021 across the UK. Yorkshire was a strong part of this trend and we continue to speak to SMEs who are considering or actively planning for IPOs as their preferred exit route.
The landscape, experiences from those involved and some expert advice and considerations