John O’Callaghan, management partner at Evelyn Partners, shares his life and business lessons.
Evelyn Partners in Ireland offers a comprehensive range of business advisory, accounting, tax and personal financial services. They deliver a range of financial services to Irish and international clients. They are based in the UK and Ireland.
O’Callaghan has more than 35 years’ experience working with a broad spectrum of clients in industries including professional services, motor, retail, media and advertising, professional and legal firms and not for profit organisations.
“I love to work with ambitious clients and colleagues to meet or beat the challenges that business and life throws up every day”
At Evelyn Partners, formerly Smith & Williamson, he leads the professional services team in Ireland and is focused on growing it through organic growth, strategic hires and acquisitions. Previous to Evelyn Partners, John was a Partner at BDO since 2006.
Tell us about your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?
At school I thought I would go into medicine but fortunately for the general public that wasn’t an option from my Leaving Cert. I went straight into the accounting profession, part of which was spending a year in the College of Industrial Relations in Ranelagh now the National College of Ireland – and then into Coopers & Lybrand (now PWC). I was qualified at 21 years old and took the opportunity to transfer to Australia. I spent 17 years there, the last 10 in practice with my wife before returning to practice in Ireland in 2003. I was approached by the team in Evelyn Partners and took on the role of Managing Partner from March 2022.
“Our growth will be built off the success of our clients and our people”
Why are you doing what you are doing? What need are you meeting? What’s your USP?
I love to work with ambitious clients and colleagues to meet or beat the challenges that business and life throws up every day. What’s exciting to us is the opportunity Evelyn Partners has in Ireland to bring clients the strength of a firm with €680m revenue and a fully integrated Irish and UK organisation. We focus on areas where this scale can bring real value to clients’ growth ambitions through technology, wealth management, tax planning and advice. An example is our unique inhouse wealth management and investment solutions coupled with tax advice which can be a real source of value for clients exiting or wishing to enhance their pension portfolio as part of a transaction.
One particular skillset we have developed is the management and execution of large and complex contracts with high transaction volumes. We have built a specialised contract management team who have access to the technology, tools and proven processes to manage and execute with live status updates and programme management.
In addition, because we are a fully integrated firm, we can draw on people and technical resources across all our 28 Irish and UK offices with 1,800 people and which means we can deal with significant and uneven demand and resource requirements. We have seen significant uplift in demand for these services as clients look to outsource high volume transactions to enable them focus on their core business. This is a particularly unique offering as most of our competitors tend to be network firms which are financially independent locally with corresponding resource limitations.
“By being transparent and crystal-clear with my team and my clients, I find that it keeps everyone well connected and allows me to navigate challenges and build relationships”
What are your growth plans?
Evelyn Partners has been in existence for 187 years and the brand was developed as a result of the combination of the Tilney and Smith & Williamson businesses in 2020.
Our competitors would love to hear more about our growth plans, so I won’t go into too much detail there. Other than to say that our growth will be built off the success of our clients and our people. We’re intently focused on this. As indeed are most companies, but our unique and fully integrated model gives us unique advantages to support our clients in new ways and which other firms cannot match.
“People who inspire me tend to be understated – not the striker who scores but more so the player who provides the killer pass”
What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?
As a leader in my business, it is important that I am organised and a straight shooter. By being transparent and crystal-clear with my team and my clients, I find that it keeps everyone well connected and allows me to navigate challenges and build relationships. This is a quality I really value in an organisation and at Evelyn Partners our enhanced resources and connections now allow us to provide a much wider service offering particularly in technology and advisory areas.
What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?
I have always had a strong competitive nature – more so driving myself, for example with triathlon and marathons. I bring this to a business environment – how can we do things better? Can we worker smarter, not harder? People who inspire me tend to be understated – not the striker who scores but more so the player who provides the killer pass. My late mother-in-law had an accounting firm in Australia and had a work ethic second to none – and I took this inspiration from my early career and apply it to my work and sporting pursuits.
“Success is not an exact science but there appears to be one key factor, resilience. The best people, and those who succeed, are the ones who push through the drought, learn from the setbacks, see their development as a process and who then back themselves”
What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?
A particularly memorable piece of advice I got from someone who worked with me years ago was, “Always try and turn a negative into a positive”. It is not always easy, but it frames a mindset. This requires you to meet the challenge and rise above the obstacles, if something goes wrong, it is a great starting point for finding the solution.
What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?
Success is not an exact science but there appears to be one key factor, resilience. The best people, and those who succeed, are the ones who push through the drought, learn from the setbacks, see their development as a process and who then back themselves. They also don’t sit back when they reach a certain point and they retain that sense of humility so that they enjoy success it when it’s flowing but keep on developing when success seems hard to grasp.
“Productivity happens where it happens, but we don’t need to slavishly get to an office every day”
What was the most challenging aspect of growing the business?
In this industry it can be a challenge to identify your business’ specialty areas, especially as the world becomes increasingly connected and the lines start to blur. In the year since I joined Evelyn Partners we have worked hard on our culture. The changes have been driven by the team, by their appetite and ambition. We have really come together and have seen many team members step up and take on projects that build our business but importantly are of interest to them personally. We have also worked out our hybrid working model and enhanced out best in class training.
How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?
While we are beginning to emerge from the pandemic, we are seeing it’s effect and changes in the workplace. I believe the key learning is that hybrid working is the optimal model for our team. For me, meeting with people – clients, contacts, our teams, in person, is vital. Productivity happens where it happens, but we don’t need to slavishly get to an office every day. The office is a place of learning in terms of technical skills, soft skills and simply the relationship skills that are vital to the team success but it’s not just about the office and hybrid works best with thought, organisation and flexibility by all of us.
How has digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey, and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?
Something I noticed since I joined Evelyn Partners has been that they are at the fore when it comes to technology utilisation in our sector. We use this technology and advise clients on how they can implement it for business growth. For example, we have just entered an exclusive arrangement with LucaNet, a German software solution to automate and revolutionise group reporting for group consolidations which we are introducing to the market. This tool really simplified consolidation for group companies, with multiple entities, working off different accounting systems, and desperately pulling it all together on Excel! We’ve really seen a lot of excitement on this one.
“There has been a shift in all our thinking about work, careers and work-life balance. My advice to new hires is to show up, bring your ideas, and prioritise your own voice”
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
I’m not a believer in being wise after the event but maybe focus earlier ON the business versus being IN the business.
Who inspires you in business today?
There are many people who inspire me. To be honest, I get the most inspiration from seeing my children navigating the modern workplace. I have three children, who have different career paths. Their priorities, aspirations and values are very different to those I learned in my career. I suspect I am as much or more of a student to them than the other way around.
What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?
There has been a shift in all our thinking about work, careers and work-life balance. My advice to new hires is to show up, bring your ideas, and prioritise your own voice.
At Evelyn Partners we look to build a vibrant, diverse group of people who are knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and capable of thinking differently. Mentoring, at every stage of the career path, is a vital component of what we do, and it is an essential part of what makes us go from strength to strength as individuals and as a firm.
What social media platforms do you prefer and why?
All of them. I use LinkedIn as a key peer to peer platform for my professional career. I also keep an eye on Twitter but much less these days. I am also on Instagram, my daughter Kt (@kt.musician) is a singer songwriter and I’ve learned a lot about social media as a powerful tool in developing her career.
What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?
I love tech – I was an early adopter of iPhone, Surface Pro, iPad. The whole development of AI is fascinating. At Evelyn Partners we’ve already adopted robotics and AI and we are looking at it carefully to see how we can further develop these tools to assist clients, deliver great service, and automate tasks. We can then focus on bringing clients higher value inputs by having really worked hard and thought hard about their core challenges.
Personally, I’m really excited to see how we can adapt AI and the opportunities it will bring for business.
Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self – knowing what you know now – what would it be?
Be more curious and be braver.