Developing future leaders

02/25/2021

Since 1 January, businesses on the island of Ireland and the accounting professionals working for them have been confronted with a starkly different trading landscape brought by Brexit. This is just one of several issues that Barry Dempsey, Chief Executive of Chartered Accountants Ireland, is focused on. He talks to Nicky Burridge from his Dublin office about his plans and vision for the organization – a fellow member of the Global Accounting Alliance – and its diverse membership

Photography by Mark Duggan



A background in managing a fashion business, a hairdressing chain and two health charities, may not seem like obvious preparation for taking the helm at Ireland’s largest accounting body. But Barry Dempsey, Chief Executive of Chartered Accountants Ireland (CAI), points out that these organizations actually have a lot in common.

From having an education mandate, to a need to deliver continually high-quality services across Ireland, Dempsey considers his experience in the private and non-governmental organization (NGO) sector to have set him up well for his current role.

Dempsey’s first management post was as managing director of Traffic Group, a fashion manufacturing and retail business in Ireland and the United Kingdom. He then spent five years as chief executive of the Irish Cancer Society, an NGO providing patient care, information and support, and conducting research into cancer. His next move was to become managing director of Peter Mark, the largest high street hairdressing chain in Ireland and one of the largest privately-owned hairdressing businesses in Europe.

After 10 years at Peter Mark, he took up the post of chief executive at the Irish Heart Foundation, which offers support to patients with heart problems and conducts research into heart conditions and strokes, before moving to CAI four years ago. “We are an all-Ireland entity, so our member services, our education, our support for members has to work in a town in Northern Ireland, as well as [rural locations like] Dingle in [the Republic of Ireland county] Kerry,” he says. 

“The trends that are common to all of the organizations I have managed is that there were numerous different stakeholders to be aligned. For three out of the four, there was also the need to deliver services of a consistently high quality with consistent volumes in remote locations around the country.”

Another common thread has been providing education. Dempsey explains that Peter Mark was the largest educator of professional hairdressers on the island of Ireland with its own training schools and academy, but when he took over as managing director, it did not offer any ongoing professional development. “Once people were qualified, it was down to them to develop their customer skills, marketing skills, and fundamental fashion and hairdressing skills on their own, which left a lot of variability in quality. 

“Continuing professional development (CPD) is a way of not only elevating standards, learning and understanding, but also of retaining consistency throughout your profession and not leaving a vacuum for variability to arise, which is the same reason we have it in CAI and also the Irish Heart Foundation and Irish Cancer Society, which both have education dimensions to them.”

Dempsey’s time at Peter Mark taught him about managing people. “It had 23,000 to 24,000 individual customers going through it every week, all very vocal and all with opinions.” He adds that he encountered more stoic resilience from people suffering physical illness while he was at the Irish Cancer Society than he did among those who had been given a bad haircut.

Alongside his work in the commercial and NGO sector, Dempsey also serves as a council member of the Irish Management Institute, which is where he first came into contact with CAI. Despite not being from an accounting background himself, the role of chief executive strongly appealed to him. “I was intrigued by chartered accountants’ involvement in almost every aspect of business and in most investment decisions. The different dimensions of the role, including education and the regulatory responsibilities – the operation of which were new to me – made it an exciting challenge. It is also an extraordinarily enjoyable profession to work with,” he says. 


A new strategic plan

CAI is more than 130 years old and has around 29,000 members in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, as well as overseas, including in Hong Kong. Its membership grows by around 900 people every year. Its work ranges from providing pre-qualification education to people entering the profession, to offering support and assistance to members, to providing opportunities for CPD.

Dempsey is currently overseeing the introduction of a new strategic plan, dubbed “Strategy24,” which aims to ensure the organization remains relevant to its members. He explains that a key challenge is keeping members close to CAI as their careers evolve, particularly as some members are no longer working as practising accountants, with many going on to become entrepreneurs, work in the not-for-profit sector, or in other walks of life. “These roles mostly have a leadership aspect. The CAI can support them with CPD and lifelong learning covering approaches to leadership, organizational management and other broader areas. Also, they have the exceptional member network to leverage,” he says.

At its core, the new strategy focuses on how to enhance the sense of belonging to the CAI among its members rather than products and services. Before creating the strategic plan, Dempsey led an extensive consultation among members and stakeholders, ensuring the views of different groups, including young members, women, members in business, and members in practice were heard. CAI also incorporated design thinking into its approach, with staff, members, stakeholders and external experts taking part in workshops together, leading to some highly collaborative suggestions and solutions. 

At the same time, it set out to define what the future it was planning for might look like over the next five to eight years, identifying four key focus areas. The first area is technology change, which it believes presents both threats and opportunities for chartered accountants. Dempsey explains: “One of the big drivers for the profession is technology change, such as artificial intelligence, automation, cryptocurrencies and big data analytics. Accountants are at the forefront in the adoption of technological innovations in organizations, with tools like advanced analytics and machine learning already driving efficiency and operational effectiveness. Our members also play a vital trusted role in making accurate, useful and reliable sense of the large volumes of data available – which makes strategic business decision-making possible.” CAI helps its members keep up to date with technology change through its structured education programme, which offer certificates or diplomas. “Each year we also convene a Technology Conference. Last month, over 1,200 participants gathered virtually to learn about the latest trends relevant to the profession,” Dempsey says.

The second area focuses on changes to the way education is delivered, shifting away from the traditional model of face-to-face lectures offered over three terms with an exam at the end, to embracing online delivery and continuous learning and reskilling. “Because of how jobs are changing, and the nature of work is changing, members need to be open to doing microlearning as they go through their careers, so we need to prepare people for that, as well as offering pre-qualification education,” Dempsey says.

The third area focuses on mobility and diversity in the workplace, looking at the fact that today’s graduates have more options, as well as the emphasis on having diversity and inclusion. The fourth area looks at the key trends impacting the profession, both in Ireland and other countries, namely increasing regulation and growing demand for audit and accounting quality, including in non-financial areas of reporting. 

Within these four areas, CAI has an overall vision to be a network of vibrant, diverse, digitally connected members worldwide. To help it achieve this aim, it has identified six strategic priorities, namely redesigning the member experience, amplifying its voice, educating members throughout their careers, building trust, elevating its brand and being a high-performance organization. “The vision is about how we can grow together and what we can do to support members and encourage a really activated network with a strong sense of belonging,” Dempsey says.

As part of this aim, CAI is encouraging more peer-to-peer communication between members, rather than members always having to go through the organization. It is also harnessing technology to understand members’ areas of interest better, monitoring how members use its website, and engage with it through email and its social media platforms, as well as using tools such as Google Analytics and PowerBI to gain insights enabling it to offer them more specific information and support tailored to their individual needs. It plans to implement Strategy24 in four phases, beginning with creating a new member experience.


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“We are an all-Ireland entity, so our member services, our education, our support for members has to work in a town in Northern Ireland.”

Responding to COVID-19

Dempsey has also been restructuring and renewing the skill profile of the senior directors at CAI, going from having a large, highly specialized team, to a smaller one with skills in different areas, such as digital first. 

He says around half of his week is spent working with his colleagues on the leadership team, with the rest divided between working with stakeholders, such as the 300 members who serve on its councils, committees and societies, and liaising with external stakeholders, such as government departments and other professional bodies. “We have good relationships with other accounting bodies, but also with other professional bodies involved in business, so we exist as part of that stakeholder ecosystem. It is busy but incredibly enjoyable,” he says.

Dempsey says the tempo of his work has changed as a result of COVID-19, as he is no longer travelling to attend meetings. But he adds that the time he has saved through not travelling has been filled up with adapting to the pandemic. “It is like being the pilot of an aircraft. You are always adjusting to what is going to happen next and how you will deal with it. I think we are advantaged in CAI in that we were already in the strategic planning process before COVID-19 even had a name.”

He says the organization spent the time between March and June last year reviewing its internal costs and reducing spending. It also successfully advocated to the government for chartered accountants to be classed as essential workers, enabling them to continue to go to work during lockdowns.

Dempsey points out that many of the changes that were needed to cope with the pandemic were already underway at CAI as part of its Strategy24 plan, such as the shift to delivering its education services online. “We have been delivering our entire education programme online since last October for the first time. We were very fortunate that we were already 12 months into a pilot programme for e-assessment and online examinations.”

But he adds that the original plan had been to do just one exam in one subject for one year of students online during the first year. Instead, CAI has done all exams for all three years by e-assessment, including the final admitting exam. “For a small team, we couldn’t have been prouder,” Dempsey says.

He points out that if they had not been able to hold the exams, it would have caused a blockage in the career progression of all the trainees, as well as in the recruitment and training of new trainees. Instead, CAI has recruited as many new trainees for the 2020/21 academic year as it did in the 2019/20 one, despite the challenging economic backdrop.

Dempsey adds that CAI has received a lot of support from the Global Accounting Alliance (GAA), an international coalition of accounting organizations of which the Hong Kong Institute of CPAs is also a member, in responding to the pandemic. “It represents an important avenue for us to share information and learnings with our international partners. The challenge of COVID-19 is unique in that it is global and global networks like GAA really come into their own in such circumstances. We have never talked more and listened more to each other than we have since March last year, supporting each other and reinforcing whether we are doing the right thing, whether we are exaggerating the risks or underestimating them. It has been fantastic support,” he says.



Before joining CAI, Dempsey served at Traffic Group, an Irish fashion manufacturing and retail business, the Irish Cancer Society, Peter Mark, one of Europe’s largest privately-owned hairdressing businesses and the Irish Heart Foundation.


“It is like being the pilot of an aircraft. You are always adjusting to what is going to happen next and how you will deal with it.”

Preparing for Brexit

While COVID-19 has created significant challenges globally,  CAI has also had the added pressure of having to prepare for Brexit. The U.K. and the European Union only reached a Trade and Cooperation Agreement in late December, just days before the transition period for the U.K.’s exit from the E.U. ended. Dempsey says CAI has been engaging closely with its members since the referendum in 2016, supporting their Brexit preparations with the launch of a new fortnightly e-newsletter, and a dedicated working group to provide tax technical support to local and national governments. It also liaised with the Irish regulators and the Financial Reporting Council in the U.K. over the need for mutual recognition of qualifications.

Under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the Irish Associate Chartered Accountant (ACA) qualification will continue to be recognized by the U.K., and  CAI members will have the right to practice on both sides of the border, while students gaining an Irish qualification in Northern Ireland or the U.K. after Brexit will receive a European qualification awarded in a third country.

But members who are U.K. citizens who qualified in Northern Ireland or the U.K. before the transition period will no longer be able to access their rights under the E.U. qualifications directive, under which professional qualifications are recognized if they move from one E.U. state to another. However, only a small number of members are expected to be impacted by this change.

U.K.-based auditors can also remain on the Irish audit register, as long as they continue to meet the previous eligibility criteria, while auditors registered by CAI will also continue to be able to be registered in the U.K.

Another challenge caused by Brexit relates to customs issues, with borders being reimposed between the U.K. and E.U. countries, leading to concerns among members about the cost of customs administration post-Brexit. “Our biggest selling new product, which was made and launched entirely in 2020, is our Certificate in Customs and Trade,” he says.

The certificate equips members working in business and practice with the information and tools they need to navigate the new customs regime following the end of the transition period. “In addition, supply chain disruption and new tax rules also continue to be problems for members and businesses. This is something that we work closely with members to address, and it is also the subject of much of our advocacy activity,” Dempsey says.


When he is not working, Dempsey, who lives in Dublin, likes to spend time with his wife, Aileen, and their three children, two boys and a girl, aged between nine and 15. “They are involved in football and in sailing. I am the honorary secretary of The Optimist Dinghy Sailing Association of Ireland, so I have my dinghy sailing work to do as well.”  


Chartered Accountants Ireland is more than 130 years old and has around 29,000 members in both Ireland and Northern Ireland, as well as overseas, including in Hong Kong. Its membership grows by around 900 people every year. Its work ranges from providing pre-qualification education to people entering the profession, to offering support and assistance to members, to providing opportunities for continuing professional development.