Her father was a plasterer for most of his working life and her mother a housewife. She was one of five siblings and the only child to attend university, in her case the local National University of Ireland . Her ambition when she started her studies was to be a chemist, not an accountant so that is where she started as an undergraduate. Exactly how she would do this she was not sure. All the women that she knew then, if not housewives were teachers or nurses and certainly not the likes of scientists.
It was an immensely happy time and she made friends with whom she is still close today. As her course progressed, however, she came to realise that “being in a lab in a white coat” was not what she wanted to do for the rest of her life. Mary was inspired by chemistry as a subject but did not wish to be incarcerated in it. She expanded her degree to include Maths and took other modules such as one in geology. Having completed her undergraduate degree, she promptly undertook a Postgraduate diploma in Business Studies, as much to offer her more options than with a particular outcome in mind. At this stage it could have been accountancy, business or HR as a career choice.
In the short-term, though, it would be none of them. Entering the labour market in Ireland in the early 1990s was, to put it mildly, not a triumph of timing. There were no opportunities open. By then, her father had decided to open a sweet shop as part of his retirement plan and Mary spent some time there serving behind the counter. She eventually managed to land another role in Cork with a software house which was part of a construction company. She was a receptionist. When it was quiet behind the front desk, she would help out with the accounting administration.
The company must have recognised that it had an underutilised asset. The UK office was based in Sunbury-on-Thames and had a problem with its paperwork. She was sent to England supposedly for five days to help fix matters and has worked here ever since! She started the process of qualifying as an accountant while working her way up in a business which, alas, went into receivership.
In something of a switch her next port of call was wine specialist, Oddbins where she was initially a financial analyst but she would charge through the ranks to become the FD by the time that she was about thirty. It was a big company, with a turnover of £200 million and a staff of 1,500 people. It was also a very familiar brand. At its peak it was opening new outlets on a weekly basis. Her remit extended to include health and safety, HR and the property portfolio. It was a huge responsibility.
It was also a very challenging one. This was a rather less glamorous sector than one might imagine. These were tough times for the traditional wine industry as the supermarkets started to undercut them like never before. Margins were tight to the point of being barely visible. The offices were not in Mayfair or the City, but next to their warehouse in Wimbledon. Cost control was absolutely vital. This was a firm which was potentially very badly exposed on price and changing consumer habits.
Despite this, there was still a lot of enjoyment at the enterprise. She had by now fully qualified as an accountant, had married and had a first child. In large part because she had never known of the notion at home herself and no one in her social circle had one, it did not occur to her to have a nanny. She and her husband divided up the childcare duties between them (this was an omission that she would rectify by the time that further children arrived on the scene). So, life was hectic.
Oddbins was sold by its existing owner but the process was prolonged, erratic and destabilising. Mary took some time out to contemplate which direction would be taken next. In a complete contrast to Oddbins, she settled on Thermocare Medical, a pre-revenue start-up led by a dynamic entrepreneur. She was on the board in a business where money was again very tight. She learnt a lot about fundraising in a very difficult environment. Changes in ownership led to sudden switches in strategy. She was largely working from home and increasingly focused on saving the business, a task which, after she had left, would unfortunately turn out to be impossible.
In another quite dramatic shift in sector, she moved on in 2010 to Hedgestart. It provided an array of accounting, compliance and tax services to hedge funds and private equity. Glancing at the website before the interview she saw pictures of seven middle aged white men and wondered why she was bothering to make an application. It turned out that their uniformity of appearance masked a truly striking diversity of thinking within those individuals. She was the de facto CFO in a partnership, the first time that she had operated in such a structure, which was itself revealing. She was able to have a big impact swiftly. It transpired that the business, while it was making money, needed more clarity bought to it on what aspects of its services were the most profitable and which others were a drain on overall resources. Knocking the business into shape was very rewarding.
She was destined to have a front-row seat at an acquisition. Hedgestart was bought by Cordium in 2014. Cordium was backed by private equity at the time, although it would change hands not long after. It was a bigger company and more focused on compliance. She became the COO for EMEA. While this was a very substantial role, she was technically number two in finance and wanted to be a number one again in a business which she could really drive forward. She left and looked about.
The end result was her present position as CFO at Crossword Cybersecurity. It was a small firm when she arrived in 2018 (turnover was about £1 million although it has increased significantly and listed on the AIM since then). She was immediately impressed by the impact of the values of the company and how they shaped internal expectations. It has an unusually diverse range of products and customers. It also has a strong international component to it, with a product development team in Poland and an office in Oman. It has also made three acquisitions within the UK recently enlarging its footprint further. It is a high-growth company in what is an incredibly important space and so exciting to be a key part of.
All of which makes for a very different collection of companies, roles and industries. To get to where she is, nevertheless, has often meant doing it the hard way. She did not start out with a network or any notion of how to acquire one, so has had to develop one as she went along as best she could.
Nor has she ever really had a single mentor, the closest equivalent being now where she and two fellow women who meet up as paddleboarders each week take an interest in each others’ careers. Despite this she wanted to be a mentor herself, took a course and volunteers for a charity called Spear which organises coaching at practice interviews for NEETs, which she had found enjoyable. Having been on a leadership course in 2019 she has subsequently become a non-executive director of Groundwork South, a wide-ranging charity that aspires to build better communities. This too has added something to her personal and professional life and a sense of making a tangible difference. It has hardened her appreciation about the importance of business being part of a much wider society.
Much has changed since the would-be chemist became a cybersecurity FD via a sweet shop, the construction industry, the drinks sector, medical innovations and finance services. Some aspects of life remain all too familiar. She was very recently at a meeting of fifteen board-level people all of whom were from AIM-listed institutions but drawn from an extremely broad series of sectors. She was the only woman at the occasion. It was in that regard much how matters had been when she attended similar events of behalf of Oddbins except that, in fairness, the men were far more friendly today than then and there was probably mutual embarrassment at being in this situation. All the same, diversity and inclusion would appear to be a road with still many more miles yet to travel.