Yvonne Burke is ringing the doorbell of the office of The Currency. It is late December and she was at a Christmas party the night before but looks none the worse for it. Burke is one of the best chief financial officers in Ireland and is part of a team in one of the most impressive privately-owned companies in the country, Glen Dimplex, which is tackling climate change – the most serious crisis facing the world. 

Best known as a maker of consumer appliances, Glen Dimplex is about much more than that as it employs 8,000 people globally in areas like precision cooling, heating and ventilation, and electric fires, though it often flies under the radar at home.

Burke is also low-key, passionate and gritty. She laughs when asked about her experience with the media. “I’ve never done anything before,” she said. “Apart from the school magazine, that’s about it.” Over the next hour, she tells her own fascinating story and gives insights into one of Ireland’s most important companies.

Transformation and growth plans

Martin Naughton is probably Ireland’s greatest industrialist. He founded Glen Electric in 1973, before acquiring Dimplex to form Glen Dimplex, one of the largest family-owned businesses in Ireland.

It is an international leader in energy efficiency and decarbonising the world with revenues estimated at between €1.2 billion and €1.5 billion. Burke said she couldn’t give more details. “We don’t talk about our profits obviously but we have a very strong balance sheet as well,” she remarked.

Burke joined the company from the ESB after her former colleague Donal Flynn, the ex-CFO at Airtricity, told her about how excited he was working for it. “Donal had talked about it a lot,” she recalled. “So I just met him and he mentioned there was a role coming up.” A meeting was arranged with Fergal Naughton, then chief executive and today executive chairman, as well as Fergal Leamy, then chief operating officer. “I really, really liked what they wanted to do,” Burke said. “I was excited by the transformation and growth they were planning. I felt like this is what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to be in a normal nine-to-five.”

What convinced Burke to join the company? “It was the vision,” she said. “I wanted to be part of it.” Burke listened to Glen Dimplex and was captivated by its ambition. “They wanted to transform the company. They were all about the electrification of heat, which was something, when I was in the ESB, we really wanted to do. But nobody was taking hold of that. So it was the vision of actually leading customers to a more sustainable world that convinced me.”

“Never a normal Glen Dimplex” during Covid

Burke left the ESB, where she was financial controller of Electric Ireland and business services. She had her going away with her former colleagues in Doheny and Nesbitt’s on Baggott Street on a Friday night in March 2020. 

“The schools closed on the following Wednesday due to Covid” she recalled. “So yes, there was a bit of a sick feeling in my stomach telling me that I had left a good job, which came with a pension, for this new opportunity.” Glen Dimplex, like every other major business in the world, was forced to dramatically shutter its business. 

Burke recalled getting to know her new colleagues over Zoom and Teams calls. She was group director of finance, reporting to the CFO. Leamy was then chief operations officer, and Burke found herself working with him and the rest of the Glen Dimplex team on ensuring the company survived the pandemic. “I don’t like to be just a pure finance person,” she said. “I wanted to spend time on commercial aspects too. I am interested in factories and the production side.”

Glen Dimplex was working on a five-year strategic plan and Burke enjoyed feeding into that. “I like playing a number of roles. I don’t like staying in my lane,” she said. As the Covid-19 crisis settled down, Glen Dimplex was deemed an essential service, so Burke was able to go into the office once a week along with other senior executives.

“We all had our own office and there used to be five of us in the office, so it was easy to keep social distance.” In this pressurised environment, Burke got to know her colleagues. better “I used to meet my team for walks and outdoor coffees,” she recalled. “There was strangely a lot of advantages in terms of getting to know people really well.”

It was tough, too. “We had factories in certain countries that were closed for periods of time as governments got their acts together,” she said. “I never knew a normal Glen Dimplex at that time. It was not crisis mode but there was a lot of scenario planning. If this lasts a year, what’s going to happen? What are we going to do for our people? How do we lay out our factories so there is social distancing? It was really interesting work that would probably have taken me three years to get to but instead, it was normal day-to-day. It was very intense and hard work.” 

Being inquisitive and really disciplined

Yvonne Burke’s interest in accountancy began at home. One of four children, her parents Martin and Esther ran a dry cleaners in Mayo. Growing up, she thought she might be a teacher. “But Covid taught me I’d be a rubbish teacher!” she laughed. She was instead drawn to accountancy from watching Burke’s mother do the accounts for her family business. “I loved to watch my Mum do the books,” Burke recalled. “I would have wanted to do them too. Growing up, I had an inquisitive mind and I always wanted to know how everything works. I asked hundreds of questions of my parents.” 

Burke learned from her mother about concepts like PAYE and Vat early on. In school in Castlebar, accountancy was her favourite subject. “I had some really good teachers who pushed me to go for it.” After studying commerce in the University of Galway she trained as an accountant with PwC. “Training in PwC sets you up,” she said. “It is about being inquisitive and really disciplined.”

She joined General Electric as a financial analyst, where she got to know its then boss Dan O’Connor. Another influence was Senan Murphy, whom she would later work with again. “I loved the way GE approached things and they encouraged me to not just think about finance.” 

In 2004, Burke joined Eddie O’Connor’s Airtricity, then a rising star in the relatively new area of wind energy in Ireland. “In GE everything has a process but in Airtricity it was different. It was off you go guys, we need to set up a team now, and we need to do this,” she recalled. 

“We didn’t really have processes fully structured but we were thinking we might go public, or we might do a sale, so we had to get everything ready.”

This interview took place before O’Connor’s untimely death last weekend. “Eddie is so entrepreneurial. He had a strong team and strong shareholders. This enabled him to be an entrepreneur and not worry about the rest. Eddie had vision, and he had strong leaders in the organisation,” Burke said. “They encouraged me to play to my strengths.”  

Burke worked for Airtricity CFO Senan Murphy, who would go on to become chief operating officer at Bank of Ireland and group finance director with CRH. “The culture was great,” Burke said. She believed then that she just wanted to be innovative and change the world.

Horizons much wider than finance

By late 2006, Burke was group financial controller of Airtricity as it grew rapidly. “It was hugely interesting,” she recalled. She was raising money and preparing the company for sale or an IPO, and found herself drawn to dealmaking. 

In January 2008, Scottish and Southern Energy PLC (SSE) bought Airtricity for an equity value of €1.1 billion in a notable deal as the world tottered on the brink of the financial crisis. 

Burke learned even more from working with SSE where she was head of finance of its UK offshore arm and head of its residential business before becoming director of finance. “SSE is a PLC and a utility so it is very, very governed and rigorous,” she said. 

“They wanted to be more innovative, and we needed to be a bit more like a PLC.” Working with SSE meant she was travelling frequently to Scotland and SSE’s offices in Guildford, Surrey. “I was commuting more than three times a week for a number of years,” she said. 

“Through pregnancy, babies, that kind of thing. I loved my job and I got really broad experience.”

Burke’s horizons were now much more than finance. She found herself working directly with consumers and with marketing and sales teams as well as engineers and planners and the many parts required to build and manage an offshore wind farm. “I got loads of opportunities as they put a lot of trust in me,” Burke said. “But I just got sick of travelling.”

SSE wanted her to move to Perth, a town of 50,000 people about an hour north of Edinburgh where the company had a campus of more than 1,000 people. “I wanted a job in Ireland for a couple of years as I’d been travelling so much,” Burke said. “I’d been five or six years travelling three days a week with two kids so I just wanted a break.” 

“I would be 100 per cent sure the answer was black, and everyone else would say white.”

Burke joined the semi-state ESB as financial controller of Electric Ireland and business services. “It wasn’t a huge change going from a PLC to the ESB as it is a similar industry dealing with a lot of the same directives,” Burke said. “I love the ESB. I could never say a bad word about it. There are amazing people there with 20 to 40 years’ experience.” 

A difference she did find was that most of the people she worked with had grown up in the ESB. “I would be 100 per cent sure the answer was black, and everyone else would say white,” she said. She was often the different person in the room because of her non-ESB experience.

Burke stresses she liked and admired the people she worked with in the ESB but after three years she felt ready for a change and joined Glen Dimplex. She has twenty years’ experience working in energy and manufacturing, sectors that are traditionally male-dominated. 

Has that been Burke’s experience? “At times in my career I’m often the only woman at the table so certainly that was my experience probably ten years ago,” she said. “Has it been an obstacle? I’d say probably during maternity leaves it is. But other than that, I’ve been very lucky. I don’t think my colleagues see my gender. They see it based on how I do my job rather than because I am a woman. But I have seen bias against women. It is getting better, but it is still there.”

Sorting through acquisition opportunities

In October 2021, Burke took the step up to become CFO of Glen Dimplex. She felt ready for it and loved the range of skills that the position required. She had regularly been asked during her career if she wanted to be a finance person or a business person because she had been blurring the lines.

In Glen Dimplex, she said there was autonomy and a culture that supported this. “It is a small head office, which I really like,” she said. “There are really strong people there, but we’ve also devolved ownership of the business to CEOs at a local level. We shouldn’t be involved day-to-day. We’re not quite there yet but that is the business model we’re going towards.”

With Glen Dimplex, Burke has worked on six successful M&A deals and considered doing many more than that. Burke believes that not doing the wrong deal was as important as finding the right ones. “It can be easy to be deal-hungry, but part of my job is to say that this isn’t for us, and we really need to walk away. That can be as hard as deciding to go for one,” she said.

Glen Dimplex has also divested, notably selling off its Morphy Richards appliance brand in June 2022 in a €185 million deal. In March 2023, Leamy told The Irish Times that Glen Dimplex had spent €120 million acquiring businesses in six months. Burke estimated the company had spent €200 million buying companies over the last two years.

Yvonne Burke: “We find deals in many, many places.” Photo: Shane Lynam.

“We have the ambition to do two acquisitions a year,” Burke said. Being a privately-owned family business could act to its advantage when doing deals, she said. “We find deals in many, many places. Fergal Leamy and I and the team spend a lot of time going to meet banks and investors as well as getting our professional advisors to go out there.”

“We’re looking to grow by acquiring highly functioning businesses that help us meet our strategic objectives,” she said. She said sometimes deals came through interfamily connections between companies that could have known each other for many years. Being family-owned allows Glen Dimplex to move fast. “We can get acquisitions done quickly in a very professional manner. We have a strong team that understands the business. We can show we’re serious about it and that we can grow the business.”

“Everywhere we are is nearly three hours from an airport. We are not in very glamorous locations.”

Buying businesses is not the high-octane world depicted on television. “Everywhere we are is nearly three hours from an airport. We are not in very glamorous locations.” Doing due diligence, meeting potential companies and engaging with existing businesses means she is away about six nights a month. “I was in Australia in November for the launch of an electric barbecue. We had steak and lamb that tasted absolutely beautiful but in the middle of a warehouse.”

The United States, France, Germany and Britain are all places she has been in the last year. In August, Glen Dimplex bought the European process cooling business of New York Stock Exchange-listed group Lennox International, called Hyfra Process Cooling in Germany. The Irish Times estimated the deal was worth €40 million, but Burke can’t comment on that. She said advisors Deutsche Bank brought the deal to Glen Dimplex.

“We’ve been shaking the trees to get our name out there as being interesting in deals,” Burke said. PwC assisted Glen Dimplex with due diligence, as did its long-term lawyers Fieldfisher. “A lot of time was spent in Germany on management presentations and going to visit the factory,” Burke said. “Fergal Leamy would obviously have to come on the visit as it was a big enough acquisition for us.” 

Caution before commitment

Making an acquisition requires being cautious before committing. “We really want to get a feel for a business and its people and be comfortable that we could achieve synergies,” she said. Key meetings took place off site in the summer in Paris, in a law firm advising Lennox. Glen Dimplex was pitted against a rival private equity bidder. “It took days to get a deal done,” Burke recalled. “But I think that speed won for us. Our board gives us authority, so we don’t have to go back five times on every decision. That speed of execution I would say really helped us.”

Being a private family-owned company means that Glen Dimplex doesn’t have to do deals to please the stock market or time-pressed private equity investors. It is a long-term investor controlled by the Naughton family that thinks decades ahead. 

SSE was a great company, Burke recalled, but it was very results-focused as it is listed on the stock market. “If we were going to miss our results then they had to make tough decisions to help us meet them. In Glen Dimplex, we can take a long-term view and that’s a really nice place to be. We have the discipline of a PLC, and we do think about the short-term, but always the long-term too.” 

“If I say we’re going to do two acquisitions a year, the person who gives out to me would be Fergal Leamy for not doing it,” Burke said. “I don’t have to answer to investor relations. I can say ‘This one isn’t for us.’ We can afford to wait on the right deals.” 

Would Glen Dimplex itself ever cease being private or take in outside investment? “I would assume we would be still a family-owned business in 50 years’ time,” Burke said. “I see huge opportunities for growth. We’re set up for growth and we still have more transformation to do.”

“We have a huge growth agenda internally. Organic growth is a big part of our strategy,” she said. “We have very ambitious growth plans over the next five to 10 years.”

A small part of a massive machine

Glen Dimplex has products in four main categories. Heating and ventilation is the biggest category. “A lot of that is our heat pump business. France and Germany are big markets for us but we will also have a significant presence in the UK and Ireland.” 

Precision cooling is another big market where the company delivers process cooling in important areas like MRI or CT imaging devices in medicine or in 3D printing machines. “If you have had an MRI, the chances are that the fan that cools the MRI machine is made by Glen Dimplex,” she said. “We’re a small part of a massive machine but a really important one,” she said.

Glen Dimplex also makes electric fires for both consumers and industry. In the consumer appliance space, it owns multiple brands including Roberts Radio and Belling ovens. Where does Glen Dimplex see most growth? “Probably in heating and ventilation. Our purpose is to be a leader in the transition to a more sustainable world. This is a huge growth area for us.”

Is contributing to a greener planet a motivating factor for Burke? “Absolutely. It has been going back to my Eddie O’Connor and Airtricity days. Airtricity was a coalition of people talking about transition and low carbon before we even had the words to describe it. I think every job I’ve done has been on that sustainability journey. In Glen Dimplex it is the electrification of heat and being more innovative in heating technology.”

The global need to decarbonise is pressing

“We trust each other and have each other’s backs,” Burke said, adding that the company has the confidence to decide that a potential deal is not perfect and needs tweaking. “Glen Dimplex can be very agile.”

The global need to decarbonise is pressing. McKinsey & Co has estimated the cost of getting to net zero at $275 trillion (€250 trillion) by 2050, so Glen Dimplex is playing in a huge market. In Irish terms, it is a big company, but in global terms it is not as big as many of its competitors. 

Glen Dimplex’s sales have been reported at over €1 billion for many years. “A long time, yes,” Burke said. Could it get over €2 billion or even €3 billion? “That would be our ambition.” She said Glen Dimplex was conscious of how fast China was moving into energy-efficiency areas like making heat pumps. “China is going to catch up on heat pumps and we’ll be buying our heat numbers from China in the future,” she said. “We know what we are good at and we know we are strong in a certain size of heat pump and our place in the market.”

This place, she said, was making specialised heat pumps for multi-room dwellings and apartment blocks. “There are very big markets, that aren’t the mass market, where we play,” she said. “Part of my job is to keep us focused. Not to compete with China. Our future isn’t there.”

Finding large niches where Glen Dimplex can have a qualitative edge is where it sees growth. “Other players don’t want to do a lot of research and development,” she said. “We make products that are more technical and we have key relationships with customers and a service offering as well. We will be there for you. We’re trying to focus on what we are good at and be market leaders in it. We can let others do the parts that we’re not in. We don’t need to be all things to all people.” 

Burke said Glen Dimplex was at the coalface of fighting climate change, and part of its challenge was to explain that to prospective employees in their 20s and 30s.

“They go to Google and LinkedIn but when they look at us they ask why they would go to a heater company. It is frustrating as this is one of the best companies to join in Ireland.” 

Burke said Glen Dimplex was a global business, so it offered opportunities to travel and be part of a company solving big problems facing the planet. 

“From an M&A point of view, we’re looking at bigger acquisitions than we would have done in the past and that’s really interesting too,” she said. Glen Dimplex’s acquisitions to date have been significant but not huge.

Would it buy a big business if the right opportunity came along? “Absolutely, yes. I don’t know about ever being fully ready, but we’re ready enough to do it.”