Pluck of the Irish
Ewan Dunbar CA has a talent for turning challenge into opportunity. The Dublin-based CEO tells Rachel Ingram how potential tragedy inspired his new career.
Ewan Dunbar CA is no stranger to challenge. An eternal optimist even in dark times, the former Group Finance Director of Virgin Media Ireland has had a life full of twists. But embracing change has led him to a fulfilling life, both personally and professionally. Ever since his youth, Dunbar has dreamt of travelling the globe and building a career in business, but his route there was far from planned. His journey from Glasgow student to founder of his own consultancy in Dublin is peppered with curveballs, but with each challenge came opportunity for growth, which Dunbar took to like a duck to water.
Dunbar’s decision to get into the financial industries was a carefully calculated one. “For me, finance was really a gateway into the business world,” he says. “I always wanted to be a businessman, but as a teenager you don’t really understand what that entails. I solicited a bit of advice and realised that a CA qualification was one of the top qualifications you could get in the business world. It’s opened a lot of doors for me ever since.”
His career began with a training contract at KPMG Glasgow. His path seemed set, but the first curveball was on its way. A keen traveller, before starting work, Dunbar took several months out to go backpacking. While exploring the South Pacific island of Fiji, he met and fell in love with an Irishwoman. The duo pursued a long-distance relationship between Glasgow and her home in Dublin until he qualified in 2001.
At this point Dunbar, who was keen to live abroad, opted to join his then fiancée in the Irish capital. “She was developing her career and there was a juncture in my career to broaden my horizons,” he says. “It was a great opportunity for me to pursue my desire to move into a different culture in a different city, but at the same time support my fiancée in terms of developing her career.”
Coming from Glasgow, life in Dublin wasn’t a major upheaval – “the cultures are very similar, so it didn’t take me long to integrate myself,” he says – but Dunbar’s strong Scottish accent posed a challenge at first. “I had to slow down my accent and pronunciation a bit more,” he says, recounting an anecdote from one of his early days when he arrived to meet a client and royally confused a receptionist.
“She couldn’t pronounce my name, so I said: ‘It’s said like Ewan McGregor’. She picked up the phone to the FD and said, ‘Hi, Simon, Ewan McGregor is here to see you.’ This guy came out laughing at me. That joke lasted a good few years.”
Dunbar’s first job in Dublin was as Audit Supervisor at EY. “In pursuing auditing, I thought that would expose me to different businesses, industries and cultures which would allow me to decide my ultimate path,” he says. His aim was always to work in industry, however, so when the opportunity arose to move to global supply chain solutions and e-commerce provider ModusLink, assuming the role of Treasurer and Financial Accountant, he took it. A year later, he was offered a job at Virgin Media Ireland (formerly NTL) and took another leap.
Here, he stayed for 15 years, working his way up from Finance Manager to Group Finance Director. “My role was diverse,” he says. “Virgin was always expanding and acquiring small and medium-size companies so there was a lot of organic growth and growth by acquisition. It made it an extremely fast-moving, dynamic and interesting company to work for.”
One of his proudest moments was working on TV3’s rebranding to Virgin Media: “That was a big move in the Irish market, changing what had been a household name for over 20 years. I’ve still got the legal documentation I signed to sign that over.”
He also had the opportunity to complete a global management programme called Fast Forward. “It was the inaugural year and I was selected to represent Ireland with one other guy. That was a great moment – I got to meet Mike Fries, the worldwide CEO, and John Malone the media mogul. Going to Denver and meeting all the European management was a real highlight for me,” he says.
Count on it
Dunbar is now a recognised figure in Ireland’s finance industry – he was named Accountant of the Year for Industry at the Irish Accountancy Awards in 2016 and one of the Top 100 CFOs in Ireland by Business & Finance magazine the following year. But as an expat, he has often called on the support of the ICAS network and remains in touch with many CAs. “A lot of the folk I trained with are now business partners or very good friends,” he says. “I definitely think it’s one of the real benefits of chartered accountancy – it is a great community.”
The network stepped up again to help Dunbar during what would become his toughest challenge yet. In June 2019, he was diagnosed with stage-three bowel cancer. He underwent radiotherapy and chemotherapy and had an operation to remove the remainder of the tumour. After another successful round of chemo leading up to April 2020, he was placed on the at-risk list and has spent much of the past year shielding from Covid-19. This year began more promisingly, however, when he received the all-clear in February.
Dunbar says the ICAS network was a “lifeline” during the darker times of his treatment. “Some of the biggest support I got was from the CAs I trained with through ICAS. We’re all on a WhatsApp group and I celebrated every week of treatment completion by sending them a picture of me with a different Hawaiian shirt on,” he says.
It’s an example of Dunbar’s permanently upbeat outlook. “There were some tough times, but at the same time I was able to spend a lot of time with my family and pursue a lot of things I was interested in,” he adds.
One of the latter is a podcast series called Positive People, in which he interviews the likes of productivity coach Ciara Conlon, author of Productivity for Dummies, accountant-turned-football manager Padraig Smith, and even Richard Branson’s tennis coach, James Cluskey. “I had time on my hands and there was so much negativity out there, so I decided to try to spread a bit of positivity with these interviews,” he says.
During his year off work for treatment, Dunbar stepped down from his role at Virgin and, inspired by coaching sessions he’d received in the past, completed a life coach training course. “Coaching caused me to reflect on my values as an individual and I realised that I’m passionate about growing businesses commercially and strategically,” he says. “I’m also passionate about helping people to expand and become a better version of themselves.”
Earlier this year, he launched xPotential, a consultancy and coaching business offering support and mentoring to both companies and their staff. Finally, Dunbar is his own CEO. His path to this life goal may have been extremely rocky at times, but he insists he wouldn’t change a thing. He advises all his fellow CAs to embrace what life throws at them and make the most of every opportunity: “Follow your passion, switch off and have fun in whatever you do. You only get one shot at life. It’s not a dress rehearsal, it’s the real thing, so make sure you enjoy it.”