Alison McHugh, EY Ireland Tax Partner and head of Private Client Services, shares her life and business lessons.
Alison McHugh leads EY Ireland’s PCS practice. She is a Chartered Tax Adviser with about 20 years’ experience working with high-net-worth individuals and their families advising them on all aspects of their tax affairs.
She currently works with private companies, both family business and owner managed companies, advising them on a wide range of issues including corporate restructuring, M&A, design and implementation of a governance framework, pre-sale structuring and asset protection strategies.
“No two families – or private businesses – are ever the same”
Tell us about your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?
I am from Dublin, married, with four children. At school I enjoyed and had an aptitude for business and accounting. Following my Leaving Cert, I went to DCU to study Accounting & Finance and in my final year, there was a module on tax which sparked my interest in the whole area and in particular, the area of personal taxation.
After college, I joined a boutique private client firm and stayed there for five years, completing my tax exams and STEP qualification during this time.
After my first child was born, I moved to a larger firm where I continued to specialise in private clients, advising high net worth individuals, their families and privately owned companies on all aspects of their tax affairs. Then in January 2022, I moved to EY as a tax partner, and I currently lead EY Ireland’s Private Client tax practice.
What’s your USP?
I act as a trusted advisor to private clients, family businesses and privately owned companies. No two families – or private businesses – are ever the same. Whilst there will be common challenges for private clients, for example around asset protection, succession planning etc., each client is unique.
The nature of our work means that we really get to be at the coalface of important, complex issues that our clients face and work together to design solutions that meet their individual needs. This allows us to build strong and long lasting relationships, not only with our clients but also with their families as they start to transition wealth o the next generation.
“Be yourself and trust your own instinct – it has got you this far!”
What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?
I bring a pro-active, solution focused approach to my clients. Having worked with high net worth individuals and their families for over 20 years, I understand the complexity and challenges facing many clients.
I believe that I have a high level of emotional intelligence and empathy and as a mother of four young children, I can relate to and understand the concerns that my clients have when considering how best to provide for their children’s future.
We often work with our clients on highly personal, sensitive and emotive issues and therefore we need to have the ability to connect with them and flex to suit each individual situation. This feels natural to me and I have a deep rooted motivation to support my clients with practical advice to help them make decisions on the best course of action to take.
“I moved to EY to build out the private client service offering. Building any new business or offering is challenging, but it has been very rewarding to watch both the team and private client practice grow over the last 18 months”
What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?
My family have been a great support to me in my journey to partner and in particular my husband, who is my biggest supporter and has encouraged me every step of the way. I have four children ranging in age from 7 to 17, so home life is very busy and provides a welcome balance from working life.
What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?
Be yourself and trust your own instinct – it has got you this far!
“A lot of my own clients inspire me. We work with some fantastic Irish businesses, which have grown substantially over the last number of years, both at home and globally”
What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?
For me, success is having a good balance between work and home life – which is not always easy for anyone to achieve! There will often be pressure points from both a work and home life perspective – but it is important to know when to prioritise one over the other.
Having good relationships – both at home and at work – helps and so, this is also a key success factor for me.
What is the most challenging aspect of your role and why?
I moved to EY to build out the private client service offering. Building any new business or offering is challenging, but it has been very rewarding to watch both the team and private client practice grow over the last 18 months.
Private clients is a very niche area, so attracting and retaining the right talent is crucial. We have built a very strong team who can offer a wide breadth of services to our clients, their families and their business.
“I am really proud to be involved with the EY Entrepreneur of the Year programme and through the programme, I have met so many of Ireland’s leading entrepreneurs. Listening to their journeys – both the highs and lows – is always inspiring”
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Learning from our mistakes makes us who we are today so I wouldn’t change anything. But I would try to have more confidence and belief in myself.
Who inspires you in business today?
A lot of my own clients inspire me. We work with some fantastic Irish businesses, which have grown substantially over the last number of years, both at home and globally. It has been a privilege to have the opportunity to work with those businesses and see the successful transition to the next generation who continue to drive the business forward.
I am also really proud to be involved with the EY Entrepreneur of the Year programme and through the programme, I have met so many of Ireland’s leading entrepreneurs. Listening to their journeys – both the highs and lows – is always inspiring
“Remember that each person’s career journey is different. Don’t measure yourself against how quickly other people are progressing. Everyone has different priorities at different stages of their life – if it takes you a little longer to get to where you want to be, that’s okay”
What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. We have all been where you are at and are happy to help in any way. The more questions you ask the more you will learn!!
Also, to remember that each person’s career journey is different. Don’t measure yourself against how quickly other people are progressing. Everyone has different priorities at different stages of their life – if it takes you a little longer to get to where you want to be, that’s okay.
What business books do you read or would recommend?
I love reading but don’t read a lot of business books. I would read articles on LinkedIn a lot though.
“Since the pandemic, a lot of our private clients are more comfortable with technology”
What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?
While I’m very connected into tech throughout my day and I love iPhone notes, I’m also a fan of pen and paper. I always have my To Do list written out in my notebook and prefer to write down notes/draw out diagrams etc. to both prepare for meetings and take meeting notes.
At home I would be lost without our shared family calendar – everything that is happening at home for adults or kids goes into that calendar! As the saying goes in our house “if it’s not in the book, you’re out of luck”!
What social media platforms do you prefer and why?
LinkedIn – it’s a great way to follow what’s going on with colleagues, friends and clients. There is also a lot of really interesting articles on LinkedIn which I enjoy reading.
I also like Facebook for the various travel groups when planning my next holiday!
“Be a good mentor to people coming up behind you – building long lasting relationships with your teams is so important”
What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?
Technology is changing so quickly and will likely continue to move at pace. Since the pandemic, a lot of our private clients are more comfortable with technology. There is no doubt that technology is transforming our lives for the better in lots of ways – but it is also important that we do not lose sight of how important that personal connection is. I would, for example, always have a preference to meet my clients in person rather than over teams/zoom.
Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self – knowing what you know now – what would it be?
Don’t worry about things that are not within your control. Find a good mentor who will help you to grow and develop and don’t be afraid to ask questions. And finally, be a good mentor to people coming up behind you – building long lasting relationships with your teams is so important.