Wind in NTR’s sails as it gets back into the black
Although she never set out to be a chief executive, Rosheen McGuckian has proved a dab hand at it
Rosheen McGuckian: “I’m not secretly driven, I know that for a fact.” photograph: brenda fitzsimons
As NTR chief executive Rosheen McGuckian (Rosh for short) tells it, she’s something of an accidental CEO.
Her journey to the top of the corporate ladder was certainly far from conventional. After sitting her Leaving Cert, she spent four years qualifying as a speech therapist at Trinity College Dublin even though she knew after one year that she would never put it to any use.
Why persist? “I had a sister who became an actress [Mary McGuckian] and had given up engineering and a brother who became a farmer having given up engineering. I kinda figured, I’ll be a good daughter and get the degree,” she says.
She also puts it down to a certain teenage innocence. “I was 16 years of age filling in my CAO form and did not have a clue what I was going to do. So I took out the prospectus of Trinity College and speech therapy looked interesting and felt like a mixture between medicine and English. I knew within a year that I was never going to be a speech therapist.
“I realised I probably didn’t have the patience required for a vocation like speech therapy. You work with people for the longer term. It is a true vocation. There wasn’t much of a career path at that time. You might become a senior speech therapist if you were lucky.”
After four years of speech therapy, McGuckian then “randomly applied for a post grad in marketing [at Dublin City University] that would get me closer to business”.
The late crime journalist Veronica Guerin was on the same course. “She in turn knew Bill O Herlihy and suggested I send my CV into him [at his public relations firm]. So that led to me becoming a PR person.”
That was 1988 and McGuckian spent 11 years in PR, carving out a successful career with Drury Communications. “Within Drury, I started working a lot more on change management and internal communications,” she says. She completed a PhD at DCU in change management, left Drury and joined ESB, as head of strategic change in the power generation side of the business.
After two and a half years, it was on to the multinational giant GE, as head of regulatory affairs and communications at its European headquarters in Dublin.
“I was covering Europe bar the consumer finance division and then they said we think you should go for a leadership position. They’re very good in GE like that and for women to move through [the ranks].”
She became head of GE Money across Europe, her first chief executive role.
“That was a very big learning curve for me. To go from a functional area to being responsible for all functional areas was a big change. I did it for four years, very much enjoyed it and grew with it but had decided at that time for different reasons that I wanted to work for an indigenous organisation rather than multi-national and ended up in NTR.”
Sub-prime mortgage lending was one of the products offered by GE Money across Europe (including Ireland) during McGuckian’s watch. This is effectively lending at higher interest rates to people with impaired credit ratings or those who find for some reason that high street lenders won’t offer them loans.
Sub prime lending played a key role in the global financial crash, particularly in the US when it became clear that a lot of those borrowers wouldn’t be able to repay their loans.
“With the benefit of hindsight, all lending wasn’t very responsible but I don’t just mean the GE end. A lot of financial institutions thought they weren’t sub-prime lending but they were. GE knew it was. It was part of what it did but not all it did. I’m very happy when I look back to stand over the record.”
McGuckian grew up in Massereene, Co Antrim, and remembers the early years of the Troubles. When she was 11, the family moved to Kilquade, Co Wicklow. Her summers were spent in Saudi Arabia, however, where her father, entrepreneur Alastair McGuckian, was based with his agri business Masstock.
Saudi isn’t exactly known for its gender equality. What was it like?
“It wouldn’t have been a lot of freedom or liberty for [a female of] 15 or 16 years of age but I got to meet a lot of people and to see different things. I wouldn’t recommend sending your teenage daughters to Saudi for the summer.”
Back to being the accidental CEO or the “not wannabe CEO” , as McGuckian describes it.
“This is my third CEO position and genuinely I would say to you it’s not my ambition to be a CEO. I actually enjoy commercial life and was happy being a function leader but I keep ending up in general management. It’s my destiny. I’m here. I’ve actually given up [trying to resist].”
When she interviewed with NTR for a role in 2008, she made it clear she didn’t want to be a chief executive. “Purposely when I interviewed with Jim Barry [NTR’s then chief executive] at the time I told him I didn’t want to be a CEO. I want to be a functional leader.
“I ended up back in the regulatory affairs area and corporate development. That was fine but then for a variety of reasons, the company was restructuring and I was asked to take over Greenstar [its waste business].”
The truth is that McGuckian didn’t lick her business acumen off a stone. Her father was a successful entrepreneur. Masstock was a billion euro-plus turnover business before he sold it, netting him millions, according to reports at the time.
“I’m not secretly driven, I know that for a fact,” McGuckian counters.
She’s right. Her drive is out in the open for all to see. This is not a bad thing. NTR shareholders should be pleased to have such a smart, ambitious and hard-working (she clocks up 60 hours a week) executive at the helm.
She’s one of a small cadre of women leading top corporates in Ireland in a business world still very much dominated by men, at least at the top of the pyramid.
As McGuckian tells it, she never had to break through any glass ceiling and has never experienced sexism in the workplace. “Never, never did . . . genuinely. And I’ve worked in traditional sectors like ESB and energy. What I experienced in organisations like ESB and GE is trying to promote women to give them every opportunity to come forward.
Why do so few women make it to chief executive roles in corporate Ireland?
“The bottom line is that for many women in their thirties as they start to consider having families . . . they come to a fork in the road. A number of them, for whatever reason, have to take a step back or step out for a period of time. Other women don’t feel that.”
“We’re fortunate in that we both work in roles that allow us to afford that, but equally we put a lot of infrastructure around it. So if one of us needs to travel we can travel and we don’t have to worry about the other person being there.
“We also made the decision that one of us is there for breakfast and one of us is there to put the children to bed. You just have to be very organised and you need to work hard on your diaries.”
McGuckian joined NTR (formerly National Toll Roads) in its pre-recession pomp. In the five years up to the end of March 2008, NTR’s revenues almost trebled to €421 million while its profits went from €14 million to just under €831 million. It was the financial year that saw it monetise its West-Link toll concession for €488 million and sell Airtricity to SSE for an equity value of €1.1 billion.
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Then the crash came. Finance dried up, the bottom fell out of the waste management market in Ireland and the rug was pulled from under its solar business in the US. Generous government subsidies for alternative energy sources such as wind and solar began to be pared back.
McGuckian became chief executive of Greenstar, its waste management business, but despite much good work to turn around its operation in Ireland, it was placed into receivership by its banks.
NTR’s investment in solar in the US was a technology play rather than a project finance exposure. While government grants were available, private capital had dried up and cheaper kit being made by rivals in China meant NTR was forced to pull the plug, having invested hundreds of millions of dollars.
“If I were to look back, we should have recognised that we were very good at project finance and bringing things into play but not so good at technology. There are different risks and you need a very big balance sheet to be able to progress with that.”
After six years of painful restructuring, McGuckian says there are “no companies in NTR that we have to write cheques for. We only write them when we want to rather than when we have to. We’ve been through a lot of pain and come out the other end.”
She also highlights how it has returned €400 million to shareholders since the sale of Airtricity, including €98.8 million last year. “That’s not an inconsequential sum.”
The company returned to the black last year for the first time since 2008.
NTR has 350MW of wind assets in the US, two toll roads in Ireland, a water joint venture here, and an early-stage investment in energy storage in the UK.
But its main focus now is on being an investor and asset manager of wind projects in Ireland, the UK and Scandinavia. “I wouldn’t take a field and start on the planning route. We will buy into projects where they more than likely have planning and grid connection. We make sure it’s mostly de-risked. The objective is to add 150MW to our portfolio.”
An investment on the “island of Ireland” is close and it has a number of projects in due diligence, she says.
With six years under her belt at NTR, what’s McGuckian’s career plan?
“No plans to move on. I take things in three-year horizons so I’m one year [as chief executive] into that horizon. What I really want to see in two years’ time we will have successfully built out our strategy. At that point, we’ll take it from there.”