‘Feel free to ‘date’ companies!’

March 1, 2024 in Featured News, News

Fr Niall Leahy SJ, Parish Priest of St Francis Xavier parish in Gardiner Street, visited the National College of Ireland in Dublin’s IFSC on Thursday 22nd February 2024 as part of the ‘Critical Perspectives in Accounting Guest Speaker Series’. He was invited by NCI lecturer Desmond Gibney to talk to students on NCI’s Masters in Accounting degree, on the topic of ‘It all started with a Professional Qualification in Accounting’.

After being welcomed by NCI lecturer Theresa Mulcahy, Fr Niall, a qualified Chartered Accountant, spoke about his time in university, his subsequent accounting career with KPMG, and his decision to follow his vocation and become a Jesuit priest.

In the course of a wide-ranging and reflective discussion, Fr Niall said that he valued the culture of hard work in the accountancy profession: “Are you a hard-worker or not? Because if you’re not a hard-worker, then you are just making work for your colleagues! There is a selflessness involved in being willing to roll up your sleeves.”

Reflecting on his time in university and subsequently in the corporate world, Fr Niall said that the worst advice he was ever given by a lecturer was to “Work hard and play hard”. That attitude was very prevalent in the corporate world during the Celtic Tiger years. Instead, Fr Niall encouraged the NCI students to “Work well and play well!; let your recreation or your down-time be fulfilling. It’s not about mindless activity–it’s about doing something that really engages you and gives you life. Then you will go back into the office on a Monday morning, knowing that you have had meaningful down-time.”

Turning to the accounting profession, Fr Niall said that accounting is a way of telling a story: “I’m interested in organisations. I’m part of many organisations, the Church, the Jesuits, Gardiner St Parish etc. Accounting is a way of telling the financial story of an organisation. It is a language, and like any language, it takes a long time to learn it, to understand the terms, and how to use them in the right way. But at a certain point, the numbers become meaningful.”

In response to a question about whether he uses accounting in his current role, Fr Niall said “There is a skill in zooming in and generating the right numbers, and there is another skill in zooming out, and seeing how the story of your organisation is reflected in the story that is being told by the financial statements.” (Fr Niall with NCI lecturer Desmond Gibney)

Making the point that the numbers only matter to you as much as the organisation matters to you, Fr Niall told a story about teaching Business Studies in Clongowes Wood College SJ : “I was teaching accounting to 13-year-old boys in a boarding school and I knew I needed to make a good impression from Day One. I picked an organisation that I knew the boys would care about, so I showed them the accounts of Manchester United plc. We talked about the transfer fees, buying and selling players, the cost of assembling a team of professional footballers, and the cost of interest on the debt that the new owners had loaded onto the club. And the boys realised that accounting can be interesting, and more importantly, can be relevant to an organisation they may be passionate about”.

When asked about what he considered to be the most important contemporary issues, Fr Niall discussed his studies of Philosophy, Theology and Ecology during his Jesuit training. Fr Niall said that his decision to study Ecology caused him to “zoom out even more”. He said: “What is the bigger story that all organisations are part of at present? The answer is perpetual economic growth on a finite planet. I’m starting to think that this is unsustainable and a fantasy. There is a kind of a ‘bet’ being placed by business interests at the moment: if we continue to produce and buy more and more goods and services but in a less environmentally invasive way, the planet will continue to provide all the necessary conditions and materials for this to happen. This is essentially is an act of faith,” he said, adding, “and one that I am feeling increasingly nervous about.”

Fr Niall stated that we have to ask the question -“Does the survival of human society now require the economy to contract rather than expand?” He believes that a major contraction is going to happen anyway, when the natural resources and stable conditions are no longer available So he concludes, “It would be better that we de-grow the economy on our own terms rather than in a crisis situation. But nobody really wants to talk about this.”

Fr Niall argued that at present the real cost of things is not reflected in the financial statements of many commercial organisations: “When goods or services are underpriced, that just means that someone else will pay for it, probably future generations. For example, airlines may offer ‘cheap’ flights now, but someone will eventually have to pay a price for that ‘cheap’ flight! Price should reflect the actual cost, not simply what somebody is willing to pay for it. The costs which are not accounted for are called ‘externalities’. A carbon tax is a way of putting a price on that. It is important that our economy creates things of real value and of real necessity, rather than cheap luxuries which are actually destroying value for the sake of keeping the coffers full.”

Turning to his work as Parish Priest in Gardiner Street, Fr Niall said that COVID-19 affected the finances of the parish in a big way. Income from important sources such as people paying for lighting candles in the church dropped significantly. “The goal is to break even, but the answer is not simply more money, it’s more people. I would much rather see more people coming into the church than for those who are currently there to put more money in the box.”

At the conclusion of the talk, Fr Niall was asked what advice he would offer to the students present, about how they should choose the right job or the right employer. Fr Niall’s advice was practical and down-to-earth: “Feel free to ‘date’ companies! You date someone before you marry them, so do the same when choosing a company to work for. But when you feel that it is a good fit, go all in; don’t have one foot in and one foot out, because that doesn’t work.”

The recent visit by Fr Niall Leahy to National College of Ireland was in some respects a return to the roots of NCI, because the College was founded by the Irish Province of the Society of Jesus on 6th February 1951. Originally called the Catholic Workers College (and later the College of Industrial Relations), it was based in Sandford Road, Ranelagh until it moved to its IFSC campus in 2002. It has a long and distinguished record of providing accounting education, and the first full-time students in NCI’s history were enrolled on its courses for trainee Chartered Accountants in 1972.

According to the authors of a history of the college, NCI took this opportunity to enter the full-time education market because “it offered an opportunity to broaden the formation of an influential profession by introducing the human sciences and philosophy” (Source: ‘National College of Ireland: Past, Present, Future’ by Duncan, Kinsella & Rouse, The Liffey Press, 2007, page 30).

Main photo : Fr Niall Leahy SJ with NCI lecturer Desmond Gibney and students from NCI’s Masters in Accounting class
Inserted Photo: Fr Niall Leahy SJ with NCI lecturer Desmond Gibney