“When you go from being a lawyer to working in a commercial role, you are no longer giving people the tools and information to make decisions – you are making the decisions yourself.
“That can be very exciting and very scary – that transition from being an advisor to being an actor.
“I had always been interested in market regulation and compliance, so the opportunity to work in that area more – and in a commercial setting – was too good to pass up.”
Before moving back to Kerry, Ruth spent a year in Japan, worked in funds administration, did a stage with the European Commission in Brussels, and completed a Master’s at the London School of Economics, all before qualifying as a solicitor.
She compares the culture and business approach in Japan with that of Germany.
Decisions are never made off the cuff, and there’s a significant amount of careful planning and collective decision-making before any move is executed.
Fexco does a lot of business in Japan, and Ruth notes the same pattern in a lot of preliminary work, but matters proceed quickly once a project gets under way.
“They are a nation of planners,” she remarks.
Ruth now heads up Fexco Corporate Payments, which is a licensed payments institution regulated by the Central Bank, with several thousand clients.
She delivers the corporate payments business out to the market in Ireland and Britain. Her role covers the financials, customer service, and business-development aspects.
“I think my legal training has prepared me very well for this role. As a solicitor, you learn to work under time pressure and to deliver to a high standard. The same principles apply in business,” she says.
All over the world
The Fexco Group serves the global market, with staff on the ground in 16 countries, and provides services to most countries in the world.
The company has formal governance structures. A small Kerry-based management team drives the business, with Ruth reporting to the head of the payments and foreign-exchange division who, in turn, reports to the chief executive Denis McCarthy – Ruth’s brother.
Her father Brian retains the chairmanship role. Another brother, John, operates a local tax compliance start-up, while one sister is a teacher, and another works for a start-up hub that serves the tech community in Dublin.
Finding challenging, professional work with opportunities for advancement is always trickier in rural locations, Ruth agrees, but Fexco has been the beneficiary of the abundance of local talent in the area.
The company has been blessed with high-calibre people who desire to work in Kerry, she says.
“The negative of being from the countryside is that you may feel that the employment opportunities in your area are limited. The positive, from an employer’s perspective, is that you have such a wealth of talent available and people who are really committed to the area.”
Fexco has 2,300 staff located all over the world, including Ireland, the Middle East, Asia, North America, Latin America and Australia.
Approximately 1,000 staff are based in Kerry. Killorglin has three Fexco offices, and the business is now expanding with a purpose-built facility on the Killarney Road.
The town has the highest net in-work figures for any urban centre in Ireland as a proportion of employable people in the population.
Fexco is just one of several big employers in the town, with others including medical and pharma companies Promed, Temmler Ireland, and Astellas Ireland. Just 40km down the road, Cahersiveen is the base for another Fexco office.
As Ruth says: “If you back the region, the region will deliver.”
The trend towards remote working and the growth in services means that ‘working clever’ has allowed many staff to base themselves closer to home, and away from large urban locations. This is probably truer with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fexco has many employees working in foreign locations, with several highly-skilled developers working full-time for the company.
“You can never get enough IT skills – I think everybody in business would say that. It’s a huge trend, and people with such skills are always in demand,” Ruth says.
“It’s no longer the case that you can divide people into technical and non-technical people. When you look at your staff, everybody needs to have a certain level of competence in technology to fulfil their role,” she says.
Ruth’s main message is that it’s possible to deliver very complex, high-quality services from the regions: “There are many regional businesses like ours, including Pramerica in Letterkenny, delivering complex, highly technical services to the market. We are based out in the regions, but the services we are delivering are of a global standard,” she says.
Just over 30% of financial services jobs are now located in rural locations around Ireland. “Dublin was predominant for a period, but things are really balancing out now,” Ruth comments.
The issue of rural broadband, though, is a real challenge.
Large businesses like Fexco have sorted out the problem, with fibre long since laid to the door.
“We’ve already got the fibre laid and are talking about the next generation of telephony, rather than worrying about our current connection,” she said.
But delivering fibre to every single rural home is extremely challenging. Bringing it to towns is a lot more feasible. “It’s a very tricky problem, and I don’t think anyone has a great solution that doesn’t cost a lot of money.”
“Accessibility is not only a practical concern, it’s a concern in the minds of our partners. If you want to sell your services and to build relationships, if you’re viewed as being in a remote location or a very isolated place, that makes the sell a little bit harder.
“Having good connectivity doesn’t just help us do business, it helps people have confidence in us.”
On the benefits of rural living, Ruth is drawn to the quality of life in her native Kerry, which, she says, makes a huge difference in terms of lifestyle: “You can get so much more done if you’re not under pressure. You can get more involved in your home and community when you have that free time not spent sitting in traffic.”
That said, the downside of doing business in a remote location is that it comes with a lot of business travel.
Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, Ruth typically travelled to Dublin approximately every second week, often using flights from Kerry Airport, which, she says, were always packed.
Meetings are being carried out remotely now, which has its advantages, but she misses the face-to-face contact.
Has the pandemic affected demand for Fexco services?
“Fexco staff have really risen to the challenge by moving to remote working and by adjusting our offices to make them safe,” says Ruth.
“From a business perspective, the pandemic has stopped most international travel, which is a driver for a lot of our foreign-exchange business. We are really keen to see a return to normality, but we know we cannot have ‘business as usual’ while lives are at risk from the virus.”
Look before you leap
How have her legal skills benefited her in fulfilling her commercial role at the company?
“The skills you develop as a solicitor are so valuable in business,” she says. “Sometimes, when we are training and developing as lawyers, we fail to see the other applications of the knowledge we’re developing.
“But it’s such a helpful background to have in business. Lawyers’ understanding of risk is so valuable because, nowadays in business, we all have to put in a lot more planning before we take action.
“Everyone has to look before they leap now, so having good analytical skills, good planning skills and a background in law – it just applies in everything we do, because everything we do now is regulated.”
Ruth concludes that most good lawyers are already in the habit of coming up with solutions rather than focusing solely on the problems – even if they’re not the ones necessarily implementing the solutions.
“Good lawyers are very pragmatic and very commercial in their approach. All of that works perfectly when you go into a business role. It’s a change in mindset, but we are well-positioned to make it.
“As a lawyer, you interpret the law – and that’s finite and correct. You don’t have the benefit of being right in business, however. It’s much more nuanced.
“Success and failure are both part of doing business. But you need to make sure your successes are bigger than your failures.”