Ciara Allan

CFO - Cooplands Bakery

Ciara Allan epitomises everything that is good about the modern CFO – Her career has been built upon strong technical knowledge at the highest level, and is an inspiration to people across the board.

December 16, 2021
Women in Finance

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;

  1. Project Management (IT implementations, outsourcing or  restructuring as examples)
  2. Managing pressure
  3. Managing multiple stakeholders

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;

  • Build up and protect  your network. During my career, I have worked with some outstanding CFOs and  other KPMG alumni, these contacts have been so valuable for me.
  • Be prepared to make  sacrifices for your work. It is not always possible to balance home and work  with such large events. The rewards will ultimately hopefully pay off
  • Do not be afraid. It is  impossible to know everything and you do not need to pretend that you do”

 

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”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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