About 12 years ago, Sinead Donovan asked herself a straightforward question: “Do I want to be an auditor for the rest of my life?”

The answer was no. “I knew I could not be an auditor for the rest of my life. It was going to kill me,” she says candidly.

It was an inflection point in what had been, and continues to be, a very singular career for Donovan. The daughter of an accountant, she trained with a small accountancy practice (Ormsby & Rhodes) before moving on to a larger one (Arthur Anderson), before landing in Grant Thornton via a detour in the corporate world with Elan.

She was the first female partner in the firm’s history in Ireland (at the time, the partnership agreement made no reference to maternity leave, something she would later remedy). However, by around 2010, Donovan was on the cusp of stepping away.

The hours were intense, and Donovan placed heavy demands on herself. However, in the background, what she describes as a “crescendo of issues” were brewing. Some wise heads talked her back from leaving, but she was determined to move past the auditor job. So, along with a colleague, she pitched the idea of a new division to her then managing partner at Grant Thornton Paul McCann, a division that would service the needs of multinational clients.

“I said to myself: If I am going to stay, what am I going to do? So we set up the Financial Accounting and Advisory Services (FAAS) department and made it a multidisciplinary team that services multinationals,” she said.

It is a role that she continues to work in, although she now enjoys a much wider brief within the firm itself, having been appointed chairperson last year. And in the coming months, she will take over as president of Chartered Accountants Ireland, the island’s largest accountancy body.

During her time in the position, she wants to work on developing what she terms “the next generation of accountants” while also increasing pathways for foreign accountants to work in Ireland and vice versa.

By her own admission, she wants to be “bold” in the role and speak her mind. “I’d say the institute could be a little bit nervous, about what I might do,” she says.

Articulate, thoughtful, and cutting a colourful dash that is a world removed from many of the suited accountants she will be representing, Donovan has strong views on the future of both the profession – and the wider corporate boardroom – shaped in part by her own experiences of breaking into it.

Over the course of a wide-ranging interview, she talks about these issues, the future economic outlook, and her own journey.

We begin, however, by talking about her aspirations for her term of office with Chartered Accountants Ireland.

Sinead Donovan: “I went straight from school into chartered accountancy, and it did me no harm.” Photo: Bryan Meade

Ian Kehoe (IK): What is your ambition for your time as president of Chartered Accountants Ireland? What is your manifesto?

Sinead Donovan (SD): It’s at the time now when I really start honing down on what I want to do in the year. There is so much that I could focus on. But the one thing that I am focusing on now comes under the auspices of “next-gen”. What does the next generation of accountants look like? If I can try and break the stereotyped perception of what an accountant is in my year, that will be good. At the moment, in the institute, we’re doing a full revision and refresh of our syllabus. We are very much realising that technology needs to be front and centre of the accountant of the future.

The Irish institute is leading the way in that from a worldwide perspective. We are being very vocal this year with the second-level syllabus. The accounting syllabus at Leaving Cert level is bananas. It hasn’t been revamped since 1990.

They are teaching out-of-date standards, which are not used in the profession. In fairness, they’re listening to us. So that will be kept going.

“The profession has been slow to move.”

When I talk about next-gen, I also want the younger accountants – the new members of the institute – to be very involved in the strategy of where we’re going, what they want from their profession, their values and so on. What they consider important is quite different from the 50- and 60-year-olds. It’s about sustainability. It’s about CSR. It’s about diversity and inclusion. It’s all stuff that I do firmly believe in. But the profession has been slow to move.

IK: Well, the profession has a reputation as conservative.

SD: I think we have been moving forward, but we don’t communicate that very well. In the year, I want to be a bit bold. I’d say the institute could be a little bit nervous, maybe, about what I might do.

IK: When you talk about the next generation of accountants, that obviously leads to the pathways in – or out – of the profession. Or in fact, moving around.

SD: What we are trying to do is get across the message that there is a more diverse way of getting in. We have what’s called the flexible route. That’s for non-relevant degrees. That’s probably the older people who are late to the profession, or even for school leavers. I was a school leaver. I did not go to university, I went straight from school into chartered accountancy, and it did me no harm.

One of my big things that I think we need to address in the profession is the international piece, the ability to move chartered accountants around the globe seamlessly. There are chartered accountants all over the globe; we only have reciprocity, cross membership with a number of institutes. But if you look at the accountants out there in Dublin, and Cork and Galway – there are Filipinos, Indians, Pakistanis, all amazing accountants. So how do we enable that trend, that movement, to happen more easily? And we want it to be easy for an Irish chartered accountant to move around the globe.

A shortage of auditors

IK: It is seen as a hierarchical profession. You join a firm, you move up the ranks. If you don’t make partner, you might leave. You tend not to see a lot of movement.

SD: You probably see it a bit more now. My big worry is the audit profession. We have to make that more attractive to people or else we are going to have a shortage of auditors. There is no doubt about that. I am concerned about it. The profession is concerned. You’ve got the burden of regulation, which is making it really difficult for firms. You have the personal reputational risk. So, if you look at the UK, they are actually going after staff members in firms – naming and shaming them for mistakes they’ve made, which I don’t think you can do. We need auditing to be much more interesting, attractive, and less risky, but still have the quality that needs to be there to deliver to stakeholders.

IK: You mention audit, and there is a growing trend, particularly in the UK, for audit to be separated from advisory.

SD: That’s going to be huge for the profession to see if that happens. And I believe it will happen. I believe there are pros and cons to it. For the profession, there is a risk that we will be forced into being an auditing profession, which is not good for anyone in my view. The breadth of being an accountant is all the various disciplines you have. And you’re able to be a little bit more of a rounded person.

A singular journey

IK: You took your own singular journey. Your father was, however, an accountant. Was it always your ambition to become an accountant?

SD: It was, quite sadly. It was always what I wanted to do, hence I didn’t even go to university. I went straight into a firm; qualified by age 21 – I don’t know how much value I was to my clients at the age of 21. I trained in a small firm, Ormsby & Rhodes. At the time, it was about a four-partner firm. That was a very deliberate decision. My father, who was partner in charge of Deloitte, was very much of the view I should train in a small firm and learn the basics. And I’m delighted I did. I then went from there to Arthur Andersen for two years. So from one extreme to the other. I absolutely loved it. It was competitive. It was tough. It was hard. It had an aura of excellence. And I did love it there.

IK: Unfortunately, that aura shattered.

SD: It did, but I learned an awful lot about management, about the importance of competition in workplaces, the importance of transparency, and feedback – be that brutal, constructive, or good.

Sinead Donovan: “They were unapologetic about the growth agenda they had.” Photo: Bryan Meade

IK: And what road brought you to Grant Thornton?

SD: I did a year with Andersens here and a year with the firm in Australia. And then I came back to work with Elan in industry for five years.

IK: Was that before or after the accounting issues?

SD: It was pre the issues. I saw it very much on the up. Just before I left, it started having the issues. We were encouraged to stay on, to essentially get a payout. I said no way. I had no interest in it at the time. Some people thought I was mad, walking away from a six-figure sum. I just didn’t like the environment. I registered with a couple of agencies at the time – I had no interest in going back into practice. And then a head-hunter came and asked if I would be interested in Grant Thornton.

At the time, it was 2002 – nine partners and 90 people, so that was 2002. I met with the managing partner and the incoming managing partner at the time. They were unapologetic about the growth agenda they had. They were unapologetic about wanting people who work hard, who will drive the business. They wanted to distinguish themselves from the mid-tier. And we have. It is now the large five.

An inflection point

IK: Within that journey here, has there been a turning point, inflection points that shaped your career?

SD: I think the inflection point in my career at Grant Thornton was 2008. I was a traditional audit partner. And in 2010, I just had my second child. I was working crazy hours, there was kind of a crescendo of issues that were hidden. I knew I could not be an auditor for the rest of my life. It was going to kill me. I did consider leaving Grant Thornton. And thankfully, a couple of very wise people took me aside and talked me back. I said to myself: ‘If I am going to stay, what am I going to do?’ So we set up the Financial Accounting and Advisory Services (FAAS) department and made it a multidisciplinary team that services multinationals. The reason that we – myself and another partner – picked that was because we felt they were under-serviced at the time by a dedicated team. But they were also the type of buyers we wanted to deal with. They were educated, they were smart.

IK: And it also brought GT into a new area. It had very much focused on mid-tier indigenous companies.

SD: Completely. In fairness, it comes back to the GT growth strategy. We went to Paul McCann, the managing partner at the time, and told him we had an idea that could be off the way. He said: ‘Go for it.’

“When I told the lads I was pregnant, there was this shift that scared me.”

IK: We have not seen many women rise to the top of the accountancy profession. Was it hard to do? How did you manage it? Has it changed now? 

SD: It has completely changed. I had my first child in 2008. I was a three-year partner at that stage. I was the first female partner. When I told the lads I was pregnant, there was this shift that scared me. And it wasn’t badness; they just didn’t know how to deal with it. There was no maternity leave in the partnership agreement. There was an expectation that I would have the baby and be back in the next week. These are the conversations that were happening. And I said: Guys, I’m not going to separate from the business. But six weeks? Eight weeks?

And there was a rocky couple of years, to be honest. It was not badness from any of the partners that were here at the time. It was just they didn’t know how to deal with it. I probably went about it with a bit of bald-headedness. And that’s a learning for me. Was it difficult? Yes, it was incredibly difficult. And I think I didn’t do the best job of it because I did probably what was the worst thing to do. I became incredibly hard-nosed and driven and focused in work. But then I was breaking at home. I didn’t feel I could bring that into the workplace at the time. I think that’s what’s different now. People can bring stuff into the workplace. I think we’ve still got a journey to go on.

IK: But we’re not talking about the fifties or the sixties. We are talking about 15 years ago. And yet pregnancy was not mentioned in the partnership agreement. You mentioned the journey is not over, though?

SD: There is more we can do but I think we need to be careful. I think we need to ensure that now we look after everybody. It’s not just women. And we need to make it okay that men take time out from their careers to stay at home, it needs to be the norm to take parental leave. We need to be mindful of not alienating anyone.

Closing the gender pay gap

“Reporting the gender pay gap forces companies to think about it, it forces the discussions to be had at boardroom tables. And I think that’s what’s changed so much in the last 10 years; that there is the understanding and willingness and acceptance that all of these things need to be discussed at the boardroom table. Whereas before you were maybe the sole voice in the wilderness. I was referred to as a rocket-propelled grenade the whole time, – here is Sinead, with her RPG comment now. I was always trying to bring it to the forefront, whereas now it’s there. In relation to the gender pay gap, companies have to look at it, they have to understand if there was a gap, why there was a gap, and what they’re trying to do about it now.”

Chairing the firm

IK: What does the role of chair involve?

SD: That was the question that I asked. I said: “What is the role of chair?” Up until then, it was a bit of an honorary title, it was given to somebody who was on their way to retirement. It wasn’t even documented in the partnership agreement. So I said: ‘Look, if we’re going to have a chair, it needs to be documented in the partnership agreement, we need to work out what we want from it.’ So it is now in the partnership agreement. It is very similar to the chair/CEO relationship at a PLC. It’s about governance, it’s about being the custodian of the partnership agreement. It’s got a very important role with regard to the regulations. What Mick [McAteer, managing partner] has enabled us to do with it is challenge the composition of the management committee. So we’ve two non-executive directors on the management committee; we challenge how the management committee is chaired. So I would chair that probably quite differently to how it’d been chaired in the past.

IK: How do you balance being a chair with also having your own clients?

SD: In the partnership agreement, we had estimated that would take 10 per cent of the time. It has probably been 20 per cent. It is an elected role. So, you have to stand for it. You only stand if you are willing to do the work.

Labour and housing shortages

IK: In your job, you are engaging heavily with multinationals. The sector has seen a slump. What are you hearing from the sector about what happened and the outlook?

SD: There are two sides to the coin. In general, I would be quite upbeat. I think the wobbles that we’re seeing are just a self-correction from Covid and the ridiculous investment they made during Covid. If you look at where the job losses are, and it’s an awful thing to lose a job, it’s a lot in recruitment.

IK: Areas that are seen as non-core.

“We have people in our teams who come in from the Philippines, who are sleeping on friends’ couches.”

SD: I think it’s a bit of a self-correction. I think there’s huge interest in Ireland. I know from talking to my clients in the States and in Apac, they love Ireland because of the talent and all the things we sell – the talent, the work ethic, and the timezone.

There are two big challenges for us. One is the shortage of types of labour. There’s a shortage of accountants. And there’s a shortage of talented labour. And I hate to say it, but housing is a significant issue. People cannot get housing. They cannot afford housing. There is nothing to get. So that is going to start having a serious impact on multinationals bringing in people here.

We have people in our teams who come in from the Philippines, who are sleeping on friends’ couches for three months. And these are people that are well-paid, but they can’t get anywhere.

IK: And your outlook for the wider Irish economy?

SD: Optimism is slowing down. But there is a good outlook. The concern in the general economy is twofold. It’s a shortage of labour, and it’s the energy costs. The rising cost base is going to prevent high-scale growth. But in my view, do I think we’re heading to a dirty big recession?  No.