Perseverance and resilience: how the Best Managed Companies carry on

Now in its 15th year, Ireland’s Best Managed Companies Awards programme looks for adaptability and agility to be backed up by solid foundations

Nikki Canavan, Bank of Ireland, Neil O’Prey, Re-Gen. and Brian Murphy, Deloitte

For 15 years now, Ireland’s private companies have competed for the coveted Best Managed Companies accolade, in a programme that shines a spotlight on businesses from across the island of Ireland.

In that time, those that have achieved and retained the recognition have been joined by new entrants, all raising the bar for Irish businesses. With rigorous evaluation each year, the process requires a deep examination and evaluation of every aspect of the business, its foundations and its strategy.

“Long-time participants are maturing and developing their governance, and new entrants are bringing new standards too,” said Brian Murphy, lead partner, Ireland’s Best Managed Companies, with Deloitte. “This will be a key point for evaluation.”

In 2022, as the programme opened, Covid restrictions were giving way to a cautiously optimistic outlook. However, the war in Ukraine and its broad impact, not least on energy markets, combined with rampant inflation, meant that businesses had to deal with immense challenges. Resilience had to be underpinned by perseverance.

The starting point, Murphy said, is still going to be a solid financial position for the business, and the ability to be able to weather any kind of storm.

Resilience, agility and adaptability are still critical, he said.

“More important than ever,” said Murphy, “is going to be ensuring that the cohort of companies that we bring through this year are seeing strong balance sheets, and a good debt position where they have availability and support. This has come into sharp focus in recent years.”

From that sound financial footing, strategy is critical, but only if it is adaptable to the stream of shocks and events that now characterise the macro environment.

“Allied to this is the strategy piece,” Murphy said, “and how adaptable that is for all the change that is happening. We have seen two of the biggest crises in recent times, with the Ukraine war and Covid. Now we will be able to measure how adaptable companies are, and how they have been able to cope. If they have been able to come through all of that and still be strongly positioned, that will have them well set from our perspective.

“During Covid we were very conscious of being in the midst of a crisis – so much so, it was often hard to see beyond it. Now we will be able to measure performance better and apply that for this year, in evaluating the adaptability of the strategy and how the core people were able to work together to implement it.”

Murphy said this highlights another aspect of companies within the best managed network. The role of non-executive director in guiding the board and helping the CEO translate that into strategy and policy can be a strength in developing a company to the next level. This feeds into everything from environmental, social and governance (ESG) concerns to international expansion plans, he said.

“For the likes of family businesses and non-executive director roles, for topics like ESG and with the heightened expectation around financial position, you need the expertise at this level,” said Murphy. “So much else stems from good governance; this is now more important than ever.

“We see this particularly with indigenous businesses that are looking to go international. They often lack the expertise to do it properly and need some help on that front, to gain the understanding of how to develop into global markets.

“We are expecting to see the best managed companies continue to develop those capabilities, engaging with the right expertise to develop the right governance structures and practices.”

The area of ESG is developing rapidly, with efforts maturing and being brought together as coherent strategy. Murphy said that participant businesses are being asked about their efforts not just by their funders, but also their customers.

He said that, along with strong financials and improving governance, “the third area that is becoming stronger and stronger and is being driven by clients going out for funding and private equity, is the whole area of ESG”.

“We were aware of that last year, and we asked companies what they were doing from a sustainability perspective. This year, we will be asking if there is a policy around ESG, instead of statements of actions. We will be looking to see how seriously this is being undertaken and whether it is being embedded in the strategy,” he said.

The widely reported lay-offs in the tech industry have been felt keenly here in Ireland. And though it is never pleasant to have to downsize, it also has a wider impact.

“One of the biggest challenges for last year’s cohort was resourcing and talent – the people to do what they were planning,” Murphy said.

“They were absolutely up against it because they just couldn’t compete with salaries. In a way, this [downsizing] is a positive thing, and will have a positive impact for those companies.”

Murphy said the sudden availability of skilled, experienced and insightful people who have been inside the multinationals, often working in international markets, could be a boon for indigenous companies who previously may not have been able to compete for them directly.

By offering something different, Irish companies could benefit from a new pool of talent with the skills and experience needed to drive things on.

Murphy said the effect is noticeable “particularly outside of Dublin, because I think they have that idea of being able to work from home, emphasising how supporting communities has become increasingly important to people”.

“Last year, we saw great work and development from companies outside Dublin. They really made much more of the idea of living and working in the community and the business being part of that community,” he said. This has become a strong point on which they can compete, he said, and provide a basis to attract and retain top talent. It has drawn people out of Dublin and given them an attractive prospect, he said.

Even as the macro trends impact various aspects of the landscape, Murphy said the 15th year will still see an emphasis on that most central criterion: innovation.

On a very fundamental level, he said, one of the points that attracts judges is how businesses do what they do – that special approach of innovative delivery or development that sets them apart. He said that that’s how last year’s winners in the various categories of the programme achieved their wins, because although what they did might have seemed very simple, they did it in an innovative way – and as profitable businesses.

“That catches the imagination of the judges,” said Murphy. “There has to be that special something, beyond just a brand, that will differentiate and elevate that business.”

Bank of Ireland: anticipating ever higher standards

Bank of Ireland is once again delighted to be the lead sponsor of Ireland’s Best Managed Companies Awards programme, the only one of its type to take an all-encompassing look at every aspect of a business. We, through our team of experienced coaches and I personally in my role as a judge, see first-hand the benefits that applicants accrue from taking part, and how it can help them to develop strategies that will strengthen their companies in the future.

Each year our coaches are struck by the dedication, diligence and commitment displayed across the applicant stream. Companies who take the time to enter the programme will not have done so lightly, examining as it does their ability to respond to market forces, care for their employees, and grow and expand into new markets.

There are also learnings and insights to be taken from the programme by large organisations such as Bank of Ireland. A company’s ambition to be agile is key, as is its ability to spot and convert great opportunities, by encouraging its staff to work effectively and collaboratively. These growth opportunities and the approaches taken in capitalising on them are specific examples of behaviours that the coaching team look for as they work with the Best Managed Companies applicants and requalifiers.

Many businesses anticipated that 2022 would be a year when a sense of normality returned, following the upheaval wrought by the pandemic. It is important to recognise and applaud the many Irish businesses that continued to thrive and progress in the new working reality and the resilience they displayed during such an unprecedented time.

2022 was in fact another year of significant challenges, factoring in geopolitical instability, conflict and the resultant humanitarian crises; huge energy price volatility; supply chain disruption; rising inflation and interest rises – not to mention the ongoing presence of Covid in many countries.

Looking at the broader markets landscape for the year ahead, topics like inflation and interest rates are not going to disappear. The ongoing Russia -Ukraine conflict (with no sign of an imminent resolution) will also create more market uncertainty, so that resilience will remain a key trait for successful management teams, as will the need to remain focused on what’s best for your own company and its employees.

Employee centric work practices became a leading success factor during the pandemic, and I think will be here to stay in most organisations. Simply put, it’s not a ‘one size fits all’ model anymore, and the best managed companies are ones that keep that in mind. In Bank of Ireland, my colleagues and I can now access a wide range of agile working hubs, conveniently located close to major population centres and designed with colleague collaboration in mind.

Bank of Ireland’s team of coaches and I are looking forward to reviewing the applicants to the 2023 Best Managed Companies programme, alongside the coaches from Deloitte. Each year, we discuss the traits we want to see in a company, and each year our expectations are surpassed. However, one thing we always find amongst the very best managed companies is a determination to keep meeting higher standards and to keep finding new ways to satisfy customer demand.

So, it’s not a case of ‘out with the old and in with the new’, rather it’s a situation where management can see what worked before and aim to marry this successfully with what they believe is yet to come. I want to wish all the applicants taking part in this prestigious programme the very best. The coaching team and I look forward to taking part in the process, which never fails to delight and surprise in equal measure.

Nikki Canavan, senior director, origination and market development, Bank of Ireland Corporate Banking, is a member of the judging panel for the 2023 Best Managed Companies programme

Sharen McCabe, chief executive, McCabes Pharmacy

McCabes Pharmacy: thinking tactically

Growing from a shopfront to an online business encompassing digital technologies such as in-store kiosks, McCabes Pharmacy is a long-time participant and winner in the Best Managed Companies programme.

“Even in preparing the application, it prompts you to think not only strategically, but also very tactically about the business,” said Sharen McCabe, CEO.

“While we would have had a strategic process already in the business, the level of detail you are prompted for is very high. It really pushed us to be a lot more detailed, a lot more thorough, and to really look around corners more. To explore the ‘what ifs’ of our business.”

Going through the process of the application, there really is no stone unturned in your business, said McCabe. “It covers all the major topics, and what we found was that there were one or two areas where we probably thought we had answers, but when we got into it, there was an awful lot more work to do.”

She added, “When you get the evaluations, they are very helpful. The feedback is practical, it’s not academic. It’s real world from people who have practical business experience. Cascading that down into our different strategic headings and our functional teams, it is tangible advice. That’s very positive.

“Each year, the demands are on you to keep raising the bar, to show that you have moved on from last year — you can’t sit on your laurels once you’ve got the accreditation. You’ve got to demonstrate that you are continuously evolving the business. That can be demanding, but it’s worth it.”

Fintan Byrne, chief executive, CR2

CR2: Consistent progress

Powering banking organisations in some of the most exciting and innovative markets across the globe is Irish fintech CR2.

The company’s digital banking and payments platform powers over 100 banks across 60 countries with a significant focus across Middle East and Africa, enjoying double-digit growth across the last few years

“We will have over 200 colleagues in 10 locations across the world by the end of this year. This makes CR2 a diverse multi-cultural technology business,” said Fintan Byrne, CEO.

“The Best Managed Companies is a valuable addition to our planning calendar. When we initially looked at external award programmes — the rigour and methodology of the Best Managed Companies programme stood out. It covers the entire business. I’d advise any leadership team to complete the analysis, and even if you don’t qualify there is huge value in the process and the support. And of course, you should apply!

“This our third year, and the benefits are many. The endorsement has helped signal the consistent progress we are making to both existing and future customers. It’s another way to benchmark and demonstrate the quality of our organisation and this is hugely important to winning business.”

Joseph Doherty, managing director, Re-Gen

Re-Gen: investment in training

County Down’s Re-Gen is an industry leader in developing the market for aluminium, glass, paper, cardboard, plastics and steel.

According to managing director Joseph Doherty, winning in a Best Managed Companies award means “we are performing against other companies to an international standard in terms of performance, growth, innovation and leadership”.

“We’re delighted to join the Best Managed Companies Network,” said Doherty. “We are looking forward to sharing knowledge with companies across Northern Ireland and the Republic who have achieved the accolade. Learning from other leaders outside our industry means we will have access to experts’ opinions, approaches and experiences.

“Our staff are very important, and completing the Best Managed Companies application process consolidates our development and learning culture.”

Underpinning the company’s HR strategy, said Doherty, is an investment in training. This was evident, he said, in the constant stream of finance employees going through chartered accountants’ qualifications and its Re-Gen Academy.

Through investments made in technologies, from ERP to integrated transport systems, Doherty said Re-Gen is “committed to developing the circular economy of paper, card, plastic and glass”.