An interview with Claire Byrne

Claire Byrne joined Checkatrade in 2008, when the business was relatively small, turning over just over £1m with around 25 employees. With hard work and the right senior management team the business grew quickly, growing in revenue and membership base. In 2013 the company started attracting interest from other businesses and conversations began around bringing in external investment. In 2014 Checkatrade won the Queens Award for innovation. Later in 2014 Checkatrade was recognised by The Times in their “Britain’s Best Small Companies to Work For” awards. What Claire came to understand was that the business that had been cultivated and developed, still had huge growth potential, and to realise that growth sooner, investment was an option.

Where previously the finance focus had been to strengthen core business to generate the capital to sustain growth, the focus shifted toward ensuring the business was attractive to potential investors. With that Claire said “The business reviewed and updated it’s KPI’s, streamlined and added to reporting. The need for increased management information, analysis and reporting on top of being responsible for the company’s finance function and team of around 25 meant I was working long hours, with key deadlines.” She went on to say, “I was thriving on the challenge, and as the business entered this new development phase I recognised that to continue to deliver to the high standard expected of me, additional support would be helpful. I also recognised that the consistent growth had led to challenges I hadn’t experienced before. Being a senior manager means there isn’t always the right skillset and experience above you, so when that couldn’t be provided internally, I decided to look externally.”

So how did Claire choose the right person?

“What I was looking for in a Mentor was someone quick thinking, smart, with proven track record of successfully mentoring senior business leaders, as well as hands on experience in business growth and development. Although the experience and expertise were important, it was also important that I found someone who I had rapport with. Mentoring really comes into its own when it isn’t restricted to simply what happens at work. I also wanted someone who I could trust with all aspects of my life and with a view to supporting my role as Head of Finance.”

By a stroke of luck, Claire met Chris Gibbons, who was her mentor at a learning event set up by CIMA. She had a few conversations with him that day and after to get to know him, his approach to coaching, and what he had to offer. They went on to work together for 2 years until just before Checkatrade was sold in 2016.

I asked Claire what she and her mentor worked on together, she said “Chris and I spent a couple of days together at the beginning, clearly defining the outcomes required by the business, and my personal outcomes in relation to achieving those overall goals. We agreed a strategy of how to work together, with these outcomes as our ‘big picture’ to drive my personal development and design a strategy to get there. I set out 30 day, 60 day and 90 day plans for us to work toward and the overall business objectives. Further exploring the conversations I asked Claire what their mentoring sessions consisted of, she continued,

“Although I chose to work with a mentor to support me in my part of the business development, nothing was ‘off the table’. It’s impossible for life and work to be entirely separate, especially when, for me, I was travelling 90 miles away and staying away from home during the week. This put huge pressure on my home life, which needed care and attention, to allow me the head space and focus needed to excel at my duties as Head of Finance. I had weekly or fortnightly sessions with the mentor, where I talked openly about what was going well for me, and what wasn’t; in all areas of my life. As challenges presented themselves I raised them, and was guided toward the best solutions or answers to overcome them.” 

Claire said that there were times when she struggled to see a resolution, but there were times she knew exactly what needed to be done. The mentor offered a sounding board and acknowledgement for her ideas. The underlying thread was always the continuous development toward the bigger picture outcomes, and week by week Claire built momentum, smashing through obstacles and overcoming challenges as they appeared.

Overall Claire said that in the 9 years she headed up the finance function of they grew the business from £1m to £25m, and the work put into strengthening the core business, finances and reporting paid off. During 2016 she managed due diligence for potential investors, as they sought to find the best fit for the business. At the end of 2016 Homeserve showed interest in buying shares in the company.

Homeserve acquired a 40% stake in Checkatrade, holding an option to extend that to 75% within the following 2 years. By November 2017 Homeserve had acquired the remaining 60% for a further £54m.

Claire closed by saying “I’m confident that my role in the growth and development of Checkatrade, and then the part I played in the due diligence and share sale was big part of the overall business success, and that my achievements were hugely supported by having a mentor during that time. Would I have still achieved my goals, and delivered my role effectively without a coach? I believe I would. Having a mentor however, sped up the process, and made it much more efficient, as well as enjoyable. Simply having a sounding board, and someone totally behind me, supporting me, played part not only in my achievements but my overall wellbeing.”

Since leaving Checkatrade Claire has undertaken many interim Finance Director roles, and she now provide a business coaching service to provide the level of support and success to small business owners that she had experienced myself. 

Claire’s closing comment was “It’s lonely at the head of your company, without a mentor, it’s important to have ‘your’ someone to help consolidate your thoughts!”

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