Over the last couple of decades, Northern Ireland businesswoman Clare Guinness has been in the thick of the transformation of several different companies, across very different areas of industry.
The daughter of a fruit and vegetable trader, a former pupil of St Dominic’s Grammar School on the Falls Road in Belfast, Clare has traversed the worlds of agri-business, banking and harbours, before directing attention to her current role in high-end residential property, with Montreaux in London.
Her career began with a finance degree at Loughborough, starting off with NatWest and then moving on to work with Bank of Ireland in Dublin, before a five-year stint in London as regional business manager for Northern Ireland.
“It was 2014 and I just wanted to try something different,” she told Ulster Business. “I was approaching 40, and some people have a bit of a mid-life crisis. I went to Fane Valley as director of corporate services. That was terrific thing to do – it was a big agri-food group and they needed someone to come in and help.”
During her time there, Clare was involved in some major changes within the farm supply giant, including selling off its dairy business to Lakeland.
“At that stage I realised I didn’t do much in terms of external qualifications,” Clare says. “I realised I need to support the move into the industry with some experience.” That led Clare to undertake the Institute of Directors’ (IoD) diploma in company direction.
Clare also achieved qualifications in areas such as health and safety. “You can lead, but with something like that it’s important to lead by example. Rather than just encourage people across Fane Valley, I thought I should do it myself.”
She’s carried out her senior roles alongside a young family, with her husband, Gary, a stay-at-home dad for the couple’s two children.
“That was one of the toughest parts of my career – two young kids, studying and a massive work pressure,” she says.
But perhaps her highest profile role to date was when she took over at the helm of Warrenpoint Harbour – a job she took on at the start of 2018. During that time, the port recorded its highest ever level of activity.
“The job came up in harbour as we had just completed the deal with Linden Foods. I thought it was maybe time to move on. By that time I was a bit more seasoned. No matter what the sector, the key fundamentals are the same.
“The challenges including the large level of modernisation required. That was right up my street. It was changing and progressing. Any role that improves that sort of thing makes me sit up – it’s fulfilling and rewarding work.”
That included a masterplan and strategic review of the business, and a modernisation of the port in the run-up to Brexit.
“I had to get media training – I was dealing with people like Leo Varadkar, Dominic Raab and Michael Gove. I was over in Downing Street, lobbying with the Prime Minister and supporting being within the customs union and trying to avoid borders in the sea, or the land. It was a tremendously challenging and rewarding role.”
But just a year or so later, it was time for another role, and another sector. This time, real estate and property.
“I had kept in touch with David Burke, who owns Montreaux and he wanted someone to come in run the company. I had loved working in London so thought it was a good opportunity. I left the port with a heavy heart.”
But what started off in October 2019 as a long back-and-forth commute from Belfast to London, soon was transformed into remote-working, as the pandemic hit.
“The commute was exhausting, and much harder than I thought. I wouldn’t see the kids much Monday to Thursday.
“Then the wheels stopped. From March 12 I was working from home and the business was hit hard.” She says that included some stalling initially in works and sales being on hold in the initial months.
But as far as Clare’s approach to leading a team and a business, she says her style is “transformational”. “I like giving people responsibilities and collaborating. I like bringing about change,” she says. “And empathy. It wouldn’t have been a core value 10 years ago but over time and experience you learn.”