Meet the shortlist for the Irish Times CFO of the Year Award

Ken Bowles, Eamonn Crowley, Les Wood and Marie Joyce are the four contenders

Often the unsung heroes of the business world, chief financial officers are the workhorses behind the headlines. This year’s shortlist for the Irish Times CFO of the Year Award features four of Ireland’s most successful chief financial officers over the past 12 months, for their work ranging from shoring up finances to positioning the companies they serve for growth.

Ken Bowles - Smurfit Kappa

Longtime Smurfit Kappa loyalist Ken Bowles gets one of our four nominations after what was an incredibly busy, and at some points tumultuous, year for the Irish paper and packaging giant.

First and foremost, the group produced a record set of results in February; earnings surged 25 per cent to €1.545 billion helped by economic growth.

Smurfit is also riding the wave of the increasing move by consumers towards online shopping, and it credits ecommerce as a core driver of growth.


That earnings increase is all the more impressive as the executive team faced considerable distractions in the course of 2018 – namely International Paper’s unwanted €9 billion takeover approach. The board was ultimately resolute in its assertion that the offer fundamentally undervalued the group and eventually the issue went away.

Then, in early July, the company closed its €460 million takeover of Dutch company Reparency, illustrating its determination to be among the leaders of Europe's packaging industry.

But it wasn’t all rosy in the garden. Smurfit’s Venezuelan operations were seized by the Caracas government amid complaints about prices the company was charging for its products. And while it ultimately wrote down €60 million of net assets, the company is fighting for compensation.

While all this was going on, Bowles – who joined Smurfit in 1994 – helped sell €400 million worth of bonds just days after agreeing a €1.35 billion credit line.

Eamonn Crowley - Permanent TSB

Few bank chief financial officers will have seen public applause over the past decade, and one who has faced a particularly difficult time is Permanent TSB’s Eamonn Crowley.

What with the bank’s high non-performing loan (NPL) ratio, Crowley has been central to the turnaround of what has recently been the State’s worst performing indigenous bank.

But times are changing. At the end of 2017, NPLs stood at 26 per cent of gross loans. Some 12 months later, the bank had reduced that to just 10 per cent. And while that’s still relatively high by European standards, it’s some feat for the bank.

Crowley joined the bank in March 2017 having previously held the same position in AIB's former Polish subsidiary Bank Zachodni WBK since 2011. Prior to that, he was chief operating officer for AIB's central and eastern European division. He came in to steady the chief financial officer function after a period where the bank didn't have a full-time appointee since late 2015 when Glen Lucken left.

While all Irish banks are still grappling with legacy problems, including tracker issues, PTSB has worked hard to improve its position. And despite a view from analysts that they’d struggle to address their problem loans, PTSB managed to sell €2.1 billion of soured mortgages to US private equity group Lone Star. Additionally, it refinanced €1.3 billion of restructured loans in a bond securitisation deal.

While there’s plenty of work left for Crowley, he’s made significant inroads into PTSB’s underlying problems.

Les Wood - Tullow Oil

After spending six months as Tullow Oil’s acting chief financial officer, Les Wood took the reins on a permanent basis in June 2017, having previously enjoyed a 28-year career with oil major BP.

Since he joined Tullow in 2014, Wood has been credited with positioning the company for growth after embarking upon a significant cost discipline programme as well as improving the balance sheet.

Last year, the company declared its first dividend since 2014, having turned around its heavy loss-making position to an after-tax profit of $85 million (€75m). Last year also saw the oil and gas explorer selling $650 million of seven-year bonds to refinance the same amount of debt due to be repaid in 2020. At the same time, Standard & Poor’s (S&P) raised its stance on Tullow.

Additionally, the company managed to reduce its net debt from $3.5 billion to $3.1 billion reducing its debt to earnings ratio from 2.6 to 1.9, allowing it significant headroom for growth.

While the group had a troublesome year in some respects, resulting from a dispute in Ghana, its resolution in September enabled it to resume drilling new wells in its key TEN oil field, a move likely to please investors.

By the beginning of this year, the group’s exploration potential had managed to impress analysts and with the price of oil beginning a rebound from its pre-Christmas lows, Tullow, and Les Wood with it, appears to be on the way up.

Marie Joyce - NTR

The past few months have been particularly busy for Irish infrastructure company NTR and given a significant loan it has recently received, the company shows no sign of slowing down. Central now to its prospects is its chief financial officer Marie Joyce.

Having joined NTR in 2004, Joyce has had a series of high-profile roles including deputy chief financial officer of NTR and chief financial officer of Wind Capital Group.

What will consume her time most over the coming years and months is the company’s rapid expansion, given it has already secured commitments of €229 million for a renewable energy fund out of a total target of €500 million.

More impressive, however, is the backing of the European Investment Bank, which awarded a loan of €84 million to the company to support its long-term plans. The backing represented the EIB’s first ever backing for investment through an Icav, or Irish Collective Asset-management Vehicle.

But it was important for another reason, namely that it helped attract institutional investors including British multinational Legal & General.

Now, the company is operating a €1.2 billion pan-European fund, of which €500 million is in equity with the remainder in debt financing. But this will be nothing new to Joyce, who previously played a role in Elan’s $2 billion financial restructuring and fundraising programme.

While some of the hard work has been done, there’s still plenty to do for Joyce with that total target of €500 million expected to be met by the end of this year.

Peter Hamilton

Peter Hamilton

Peter Hamilton is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in business