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The Big Interview with Caroline Keenan: 'I'm proud of growing the team at ASM and I enjoy highlighting the selling points of Northern Ireland to firms who want to invest here'


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Caroline Keenan

Caroline Keenan

Caroline Keenan

Caroline Keenan

Caroline is keen to support counselling services for families who have experienced loss

Caroline is keen to support counselling services for families who have experienced loss

Caroline Keenan

ASM director Caroline Keenan always had an interest in engineering. It was a career shunned by her convent school teachers back in the 1980s when law, teaching and medicine were favoured above all else, but today, even though she is at the forefront of the financial sector here, she gets an engineering fix through her clients.

"I remember being told 'you will think about one of the professions' at Assumption Grammar School, but that's just the way it was then. The nun told me engineering was a dirty old job and that put me in my place," says Caroline, who went on to study economics at Queen's University.

The mother-of-three grew up in Crossgar, close to her home today. The eldest of four children (two sisters and one brother), Caroline says growing up with a stay-at-home mum was a "pleasure".

"Coming home to a meal cooking and the fire lit was a kind of special childhood. We were very lucky," she recalls.

Caroline's father worked in construction and came from a farming background. Later in his career he worked for the Roads Service with Caroline looking on admiringly.

"I just remember always thinking he was so hard-working and I had a lot of respect for him. I can still remember him working throughout the Troubles and during the holidays I would go around the various building sites with him, having a bit of a nosey and even today, with my own clients, I want to know all about that aspect of their business. It's like a nosiness. I like to know how everything works and I think that's why I had such an interest in engineering," she adds.

After her economic degree at Queen's Caroline, who always felt like she missed out on the English university experience, decided to work away from home. She was offered a role at Midland Bank in London where she worked for a year.

"It was during that post when I went up to Birmingham University as part of a milk round. I met a partner from Coopers and Lybrand there and she offered to meet for coffee," she continues.

An interview followed as well as a job offer at the firm, which is now PriceWaterhouseCoopers.

"I started in banking, moved into auditing and then onto tax. It was a great way to get away and work in London and Birmingham because I always felt like I missed out on that experience studying at home," she says.

"When I was in that role in Birmingham I remember being asked to write a paragraph for a recruitment brochure. In it I said I planned to go overseas too and I did, I then moved to New Zealand."

A new life in New Zealand with her husband Eugene followed and a post-recession landscape coupled with a skill shortage there saw Caroline fast-track her career.

"I got promoted through the ranks and although I was there for a two-year secondment I stayed for four," she explains.

The couple returned home to Northern Ireland when Caroline's parents became ill.

Caroline took up a post with ASM nine years ago.

"It was a good time for me to move to a local firm and I wanted an indigenous firm that was part of an international network and ASM is part of Crowe Global which is one of the largest accounting networks in the world, with offices in more than 130 countries.

"I also wanted somewhere I could put my mark. I think of myself as entrepreneurial and I've grown the team there," adds Caroline.

In a devastating turn of events Caroline's husband Eugene was diagnosed with lung cancer, passing away in 2015.

It was an event that has shaped how Caroline works and connects with her clients.

"He was a lifelong non-smoker," she says. "He was diagnosed after his 50th birthday and it was a devastating blow. It put things into perspective and it's made me realise that you have to be grateful."

Caroline said she continued to "self-motivate" for her sons Matthew (21) and Benjamin (13) and daughter Ella (17).

"I'm a great believer in staying positive," she says. "We were very lucky to have Eugene and I think we have got to be positive and I had to carry on with my career so the children could see that and my work colleagues could see that."

Twelve weeks after Eugene's passing Caroline lost her father, who was living with her at the time due to a liver condition.

"They were both very close and they were great company to each other before they passed," she says.

The experience has ignited a philanthropic desire in Caroline, who says she wants to support counselling services for families who have also experienced loss.

"We are okay, we had family counselling but I know there are ladies out there in a lesser position and I'd like to be able to help them by doing work in that area, any way I can," she points out.

"I'm always very passionate about promoting organ donation too, as I've seen first-hand what the gift of donating does."

On a professional level, Caroline says her losses have allowed her to be more "engaging and personable" with clients.

She says: "I look at it like everyone is given things to deal with in life and you deal with it. In my case I'm passionate about my job but I can bring another human element to it now, particularly with inheritance tax and that kind of thing."

ASM has been operating for 25 years and has 200 staff over six offices in Ireland, four of which are here.

Caroline says the firm's USP is its "holistic offering". One of her areas of expertise is advising some of the top multinational firms with a home in Northern Ireland.

"Signposting" companies to funding is another area she works in.

"I believe we provide a holistic offering of services, predominantly for family-managed firms on succession planning. We talk about expansion, acquisition and mergers. I suppose you could say we are a one-stop-shop of financial services. We're also very hands on and all our clients get a lot of senior time."

Looking at the financial landscape here, Caroline says Brexit is high up the worry agenda for many firms. She advises: "It's a case of hold your nerve. The lack of an Executive was a big issue but now we're back we have certainty.

"I think it will be those businesses who are innovative and exporting during this time, those who are looking outside of Northern Ireland for business are going to do well too. There is still concern over what Brexit will mean and how it's going to play out and economists are concerned about a potential recession but I think we need to keep going, keep doing the good things we're doing."

Caroline is heavily involved in foreign direct investment (FDI) projects. She's played a role in welcoming some of the world's biggest tech firms here, as well as other global organisations.

She says "the people agenda" in Northern Ireland is what draws the outsiders in, adding: "For a long time I've been involved in helping where I can when Invest NI hosts businesses here. I explain the tax, finance side of things. They are predominantly US firms but there are also some names from Hong Kong and I enjoy meeting those companies to talk about Northern Ireland and highlighting the selling points because these firms are creating jobs here, high value jobs, and creating the entrepreneurs of the future.

"The quality of people we have here is the main thing that appeals to these companies and that's pleasing to see. And when we have big names here growing and being successful that sends out a message. Many people who come to work and live here are also enjoying the lifestyle and the smaller commute times and those are the really good messages going out."

Looking at individual sectors suffering most in the uncertain climate, Caroline says retail has been hit hard. She attributes changing consumer trends to the demise of many retail firms, while more positively hotel and leisure clients are reaping the rewards of a burgeoning tourism scene here.

Looking to her own future, Caroline has many goals that she's keen to achieve, not all of which are in the financial world.

A member on numerous boards, including the Aerospace Defence and Security and Space (ADS), she enjoys shaping decisions and influencing plans but there is one area she is still keen to dig her heels into and that's media commentary.

"I do enjoy keeping up to date with what's happening in the economy," she adds. "Some of the plans in government and strategies, health sector reform, the budget and its impact etc, that's the kind of thing I like to interpret and to be able to do that for the lay person is something I'm interested in.

"I also like debates, listening to views and sharing my own," she adds.

In her current role, Caroline says she loves nothing more than to get out and visit clients where she gets a buzz. Concluding she adds: "In your career you always tend to think, what next. For me that will be in the charity side of things. From counselling to cancer charities when I do have the time, when the children need me less I plan to give back.

"Both Eugene and my mother died of cancer and we were lucky to get the support we received, so to help offer that to more people would be a gift."

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