She was raised in the North-East of Scotland, near Aberdeen where she would “ski, play hockey and volleyball, Highland dance and play the piano.” In academic as well in social terms she was “an all-rounder”. Her choice of degree course, Economics and Politics at the University of Edinburgh, was a deliberate device for keeping her career options thereafter open. She knew that “I didn’t know what I wanted to do” but quickly appreciated that if she dedicated herself almost exclusively to her studies then she had a decent chance of obtaining a first-class degree or could adopt a more balanced approach and maintain her commitment to sport (volleyball in particular) and acquire a 2:1 instead. She went for the second option (in more sense than one) and had an enjoyable time as a student.
As that period drew towards a close, she was still unsure what she wanted to do with herself next but had a strong sense that it would involve business. A stint involved with the Young Enterprise Scheme “had been stimulating”. Accountancy appeared to be the means of continuing her training while shutting very few ultimate routes down and the right strategy in the absence of a clear plan. On that basis, she signed up with PwC in 1998.
It was “an interesting experience”. The first three years were in assurance which was straightforward. After that came corporate finance and business recovery. This involved some truly “tough lessons” as despite the name quite a lot of the businesses concerned could not and did not enjoy a recovery. There were difficult moments as she had to implement redundancies in the attempt to save a firm. This would sometimes lead to the full formal insolvency of a company. Among the more prominent with which she worked was an iconic Edinburgh bookseller, which was, alas, swept away by the coming tide that was and is Amazon. In other instances, she would organise the sale of businesses which while not strictly speaking deceased, were certainly “on life support”. She would also have to undertake multiple business reviews of companies which looked to be troubled.
Although it might sound a little macabre, this was intellectually stretching and certainly added to her skill set. It also brought her, for the first time really, into contact with the infrastructure sector which was atypical in that the consequence of outright failure was catastrophic and so salvation essential. In the longer-term, this would prove to be a genuine turning point in her career, if not obvious then.
Not many people, however, want to devote the entirety of their career to being the accountancy equivalent of an undertaker or a mortician. Clare was no exception to this rule. After close to ten years with PwC it was “time to move on”. The only question was what would be the right direction?
A fortunate break occurred in that an ex-PwC colleague had moved on to Quayle Munro and urged Clare to contemplate the same transition. It was a welcome change in scene in that it involved a lot of buying or funding new assets rather than selling them (or shutting them down).
As fate would have it, in her first year Quayle Munro would complete the diligence on and then the investment in a large number of new assets. This increased the prominence of the business which then was itself acquired. Meanwhile Quayle Munro was undergoing a great deal of internal change and Clare’s expanding responsibilities reflected this. Under a new CEO the company was edging away from infrastructure towards corporate finance. The opportunity emerged for there to be a further restructuring via a management buy-out and Quayle Munro Project Finance was created.
This was a different kind of challenge. Clare was now the “overall FD” and as such was at the heart of “really running the business”. While the number of employees was small, the scale of projects that they would contemplate undertaking was not, ranging from £10 million to £500 million. There were four partners who had to cover a lot of territory between them. The energy market aspect of the firm lacked a leader, so on the basis that she had done precisely one deal in that area before, she put up her hand and declared “I will do energy” and found herself having to acquire instant expertise in renewable energy, and in particular onshore wind, an area that was a possible political hot potato.
Just how hot became self-evident. While she was on maternity leave, the Government announced a major change in policy with little notice meaning that “all wind projects needing debt financing would need to be sold”. This change forced a refocusing of her efforts leading to a wider renewable energy work mix. This was dominating Clare’s in-tray until unexpectedly, although her mind had been moving towards it, but for a later date, she found herself pivoting as the world of non-executive directors started to open for her. It would have a sizeable gravitational pull.
What NXD positions do you hold?
“Three public interest directorship roles, NYOP Education since 2021, Scots Roads Partnership Project and Woodland View Project Company since 2022, together with AIM listed Nexus Infrastructure at the start of that year.”
What prompted you to explore non-exec roles?
“It was a slow burn. I did not have a lightbulb moment when it suddenly became clear to me that it was what I should do. I was in a senior role at a busy company and had assumed that if I were to be an NXD it would be when I was older but when the Public Interest Directorship portfolio emerged, I thought again.”
How did you get your first such role and what attracted you to that organisation?
“I was encouraged to look at the Public Interest Directors roles which the Scottish Futures Trust were seeking to fill. These Special Purpose Companies started life similar to PFI but where the objective is to act in the interest of, and accumulate any, relevant surpluses (akin to equity dividends) for, the public sector or a charity.
This means exercising oversight of some sizable and varied projects. I have three of them. One is a schools project. Another involves roads. A further one is a mental health facility and community hospital. The prospect of operating across this spectrum of infrastructure projects had huge appeal to me.”
In non-exec roles what has been the most useful part of your prior management career?
“These are early days, but my sense is that I am helpful because I have had serious sector specialisation (especially infrastructure and more lately energy) and I have had to operate across a very diverse range of companies and institutions. I believe that is valuable.
I am also comfortable with change, indeed excited and interested by it. In the example of Nexus Infrastructure, it was obvious from the brief that it would be a hands-on role. I did not think that I would be appointed. When Cindy approached me for it, I agreed to be put forward just for the experience of doing so. I am very glad that I did.”
What makes a business appealing to you as an NXD?
“I am now very much committed to this path, but it is too soon to say how many roles I will take on. It took over a year to move out of QMPF in a manner that made sense in terms of succession there and I have maintained (for the time being) one remaining client relationship with and for them.
The allure of being a non-executive director is, for me personally, considerable. I like to be in a place where I can see that I can make a real difference, which is plainly so for both the public interest directorship roles and at Nexus Infrastructure and there would need to be a similar mission to anything else that I did. I also believe passionately that energy transition is an absolutely massive issue, that Net Zero is a total imperative for our society and that the intelligent application of new technology is a vital tool. I would like to work with organisations where I can assess the overall nature of the market in which they aspire to have an impact as well as to reach a view about specific projects in themselves.”
If not, strictly speaking, an accidental non-executive director, in that she had thought about taking this route but probably not until after the age of fifty, Clare finds herself an intriguing case study in how to make the moves from, initially, a major accountancy firm into a business that evolves in short order as to its own character and then, entering some very demanding NXD responsibilities. At a minimum, this will make for a further fascinating “In Conversation” as her new career entrenches.