Interview Series - Darren Kelly

Sep 30, 2020

Darren Kelly – Vice President of Finance Applegreen USA

I am a Chartered Accountant and hold an MBA from Smurfit Business School. I started out training in a medium sized practice in Dublin and then moved to EY once qualified where I worked in both the audit and advisory practices. After EY I moved to Ardagh Group where I worked in a number of finance roles including IPO readiness senior manager, finance transformation projects lead, financial controller and corporate development director. Ardagh Group is an acquisitive and fast paced company and during my time there I learned that I would not be suited to a steady state environment.

In April 2019, I moved to Applegreen plc and took on the role of Corporate Finance Director. I successfully lead the Group’s acquisition of a 40% share in 23 Service Plazas in Connecticut and the subsequent integration of these assets. In July 2020, I took on the responsibility of leading the US finance function with the goal of creating one finance function out of a previously regionalised structure and being ready to integrate planned future growth projects.

Tell us a little bit about your current company in three sentences or less

Applegreen Plc is a roadside convenience retail business operating in Ireland, the United Kingdom and North America boasting significant growth through acquisitions and organic developments in the last five years. The Group has 556 sites, 660 quality brand offerings, 11,500+ employees, 109 service area sites, 2,090 hotel bedrooms and had €3.1bn of revenue in 2019 (an increase of 53% YoY). It is a very exciting time for Applegreen as we continue to grow significantly and focus our energy on developing further at pace in the US market. At Applegreen, our people and doing business with integrity are fundamental to the way we operate and the foundation of our long-term success.

What is the toughest decision you have had to make in your career to date?

I have always found the people dynamics to be the most challenging elements of my job, the more senior I have gotten over the years the focus has shifted such that the majority of time is now spent using my softer skillset. So, the real challenges that crop up regularly have been around continuing to develop and maintain high performing teams that remain motivated and feel valued for their contributions.

It is critical to find the right balance in the team through diversity, mix of skillsets, personalities, and ensuring work life balance, high quality coaching and feedback. Each individual contributor can have a massive impact on the overall team morale in either a positive or negative way and ensuring I am fully aware of the dynamics at any one time is probably the most important element of my role. 

In light of the above I place a significant focus on the recruitment process ensuring I only take on individuals I am 100% sure will fit into the existing team and offers something unique that will benefit the entire team.

What the best piece of career advice you have been given (or would give)?

Self-belief and confidence are key to success in business.

The key to success in any job is being proactive, responsible and ideally have a passion for what you do. My number one rule when I start a new job is to ask questions constantly, at the start of every meeting I call it out “I will be the one asking all the questions you will be sick of me”. I guarantee you even if the questions seem stupid someone else in the room is thinking the same thing and not willing to speak up.

Processes, procedures, excel workbooks all carry forward and never change because it’s rare someone steps back and asks a question. Organisations don’t change without someone asking Why? Or How can this be improved? Be that person. If the company doesn’t like it then it is not the right place to learn, develop and grow your career.

Who do you admire most and why?

I have the upmost admiration for the small/ medium sized Irish business owner in today’s COVID world. My father has been a sole trader for most of his life and continues to work very hard to ensure our family never wants or wanted for anything. I remember growing up with painted concrete floors for years while my parents saved for carpets and my neighbour whose dad was a sole trader builder taking their stairs out of their house to finish a job, so they lived with a ladder for stairs for a year. It’s not an easy path to go out on your own.

I really appreciate the pressure on these business owners having gone through the turmoil of the last six months in a PLC company environment and the pressures we were under with the backdrop for us of large-scale financial institutions supporting the company.

These business owners which represent the backbone of Ireland do not have these benefits of size and scale. It is definitely not an easy position to be in, but they will rise again, and it is times like this that the Irish come into their own and support local.

Tell us something people might not know about you

I am generally found hiking at the weekend to clear my head from the long week and numerous deadlines that seem to be on top of you before you finish the last. I am involved in establishing a charity in Ireland to support third level further education with a specific focus on women from disadvantaged backgrounds through developing a number of scholarship programmes which I am hopeful will be ready to launch in the next couple of years.

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