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News > Alumni > An Interview With Gareth Kirk - CEO of Action Cancer

An Interview With Gareth Kirk - CEO of Action Cancer

As head of Action Cancer, Sullivan alum Gareth Kirk oversees the delivery of services to detect, support and prevent the disease.
1 Dec 2021
Alumni

Action Cancer is one of Northern Ireland’s leading charities with a mission to save lives and support local people through cancer awareness, prevention, detection and support. At the helm of the organisation for the past 11 years has been Gareth Kirk (Class of 1978).

As CEO Gareth has one of the most high profile third sector jobs locally, but his career path leading up to it has been full of twists and turns with experience in accountancy and finance, corporate governance, tourism and property development.

Gareth and his older brother Stephen both attended Sullivan and Gareth has very fond memories of school life at Sullivan, particularly of his Lower and Upper Sixth years.  

He was heavily involved with rugby, playing on the 1st XV for a couple of years, as well as the debating society and the Scripture Union. Through the course of our chat there were special mentions for PE teacher Joe McKinney, who he later played rugby with at Civil Service, History teacher Tommy Hooks, Jim Robinson and Noel Lowden from Geography and the veritable Stanley Mills in English.

Despite the exodus of young people in the late 70s and early 80s, keen to leave a troubled Northern Ireland behind, Gareth was bound for Queens where he studied economics, ‘ a sensible degree option’ in the eyes of his parents. Leaving Queens with no fixed idea of what he wanted to do next, Gareth’s strong Christian faith drew him towards the Church.

“I really wanted to be a Minister for Religion but I knew, even at that stage that I would have struggled in a pastoral role, I just don’t think that I had the right personality, certainly at not at that time.”

After the briefest flirtation with teaching when he secured a place to do a PGCE with economic focus at Stranmillis only to find the funding withdrawn just weeks before the start of term, Gareth entered the accountancy profession, spending seven years in private practice with a Belfast firm before a move to Ulsterbus.

Gareth joined Ulsterbus as the company accountant but after three years in that role changed course and while remaining with the company, moved into a senior role as Commercial Manager, looking after the tours and parcels business. In 1995 when Translink was formed as a result of the merger between Ulsterbus and NI Railways, Gareth was promoted to be the Head of Corporate Governance.

“I did the job and was reasonably good at it but having had a taste of the commercial and marketing side of business with Ulsterbus I found it a bit dull and frustrating. After nearly nine years at Ulsterbus/Translink I was ready for a change.”

Change is a recurring theme. 

It was 1997, post cease-fire in Northern Ireland and with a renewed sense of optimism and the country beginning to open up, Gareth applied for and got a job as the Director of Development for the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.

“I had two main areas of responsibility at the Tourist Board. The first was around policy development and the second was the administration of around £40 million worth of grant funding for tourism development. It was a terrific job.”

We were working to develop the tourism product through capacity - by giving grants to build more – but as time passed, capital grants were drying up as a result of changes to funding and market forces were beginning to operate, so there wasn’t the same need for government subvention.

Where the sector was weak however was around the softer skills of employment practices, operations and marketing. Invest NI had been formed in 2002 to support these areas and I felt strongly that my area of activity within the Tourist Board should move into Invest NI, and that’s what happened.”

Gareth, his staff of around 15 and his portfolio moved to Invest NI, an organisation he describes as ‘terrifically well run and organised’, but despite this he didn’t feel that it was quite right for him.

“In the Tourist Board I’d been used to running projects from inception, right through to realisation but that’s not how a large government body work, and rightly so. It’s all about managing risk. But I didn’t want to be involved in one aspect of a project and then have to hand it off to another team”.

What comes is next is something that many may describes as his ‘moment of madness’, he left the Public Sector to enter the Privatae Sector again, this time as Chief Executive of Andras House Limited, a Property Development and hotel company owned by the very well-known entrepreneur Lord Diljit Rana.  Staying only for 15 months Gareth describes the period as being "challenging but also one of the best learning experiences of my entire career, a career move that I have never never regretted or forgotten”.  

Twelve months into the position however an offer was made to head up a newly established development company specialising in hotels, a joint venture company between two successful Northern Irish property development and construction entrepreneurs.

“It was 2005, pre-economic crash and the plan was to develop and build a number of hotels with the intention of selling them on”.  Financially, it was a crazy time. Hotel valuations were being based on twenty-five times the cash generation figures, instead of eight or ten times, there was a lot of money being made and, eventually lost”.

As CEO Gareth oversaw the development of the Ramada Encore Hotel at St Anne’s Square in Belfast as well as a Holiday Inn Express in Antrim.

“We were just about to begin the development of a Marriott Hotel in Belfast and a Holiday Inn at the George Best Belfast City Airport when the bubble burst with the 2008 economic crash. Funding was no longer available, and certainly not at the loan to value rates on which the model was predicated on. It was great while it lasted”.

At this stage Gareth took some time out. He did some consultancy work but having always been in the cut and thrust of a company life, didn’t particularly enjoy the solo type of working and then he spotted the job for Chief Executive of Action Cancer. He applied, but with no charitable or third sector experience whatsoever, he nearly didn’t go to the interview.

“As part of the interview there was to be a 10-minute unseen presentation. What I knew about cancer I could have written on the back of a postage stamp and I nearly withdrew from the process.

However, on the other hand I had a lot of experience in how to run an organisation so I prepared for the presentation and interview on the basis that I hoped they may ask the fairly standard question of 'what would you do during your first 100 or 180 days?' They did, and the rest is history, as they say “.

Having been in post now for nearly 11 years, this is the longest stint in a career with huge variety that highlights how opportunities can open up with some experience and connections.

“Absolutely none of my career path was planned but I can truly say that I have enjoyed every job and organisation I have worked for. The other big advantage is that moving and opening myself up to different challenges and experiences has, I think made me less risk averse and kept me young and fresh in mind, at least.

There is no doubt that making money for others can be financially rewarding, developing and delivering government policy well can be meaningful, but the most satisfying of job comes when you make a significant impact on the lives of others.  So, without doubt the “best” job of all has been as CEO of Action Cancer".

And what of his work at Action Cancer?

"Running a charity is actually more challenging than a private sector company of similar size or a comparable public sector organisation or department.  The idea that charities are still run by volunteers sitting around a kitchen table is long gone, off course the sector couldn’t operate without volunteers to which we are all highly indebted but equally they can’t be successfully run without highly skilled and professional staff and with a level of governance and accountability rarely seen in the Public or Private Sector. As a sector, the “Third Sector” is the most regulated and controlled sectors of all".

Action Cancer has circa 75 paid staff and around 150 regular volunteers and needs to generate circa £4.0m per annum to enable it to deliver its life saving serves and programs, such as breast cancer screening, counselling, complementary therapies, health checks and, school and workplace cancer programs free of charge to the end user.  Some of that income comes from its 15 shops on the High Streets across Northern Ireland and from legacies, donations and fundraising events etc.

Challenge and change is certainly not something Gareth has ever shied away from.

And what about the future?

Typically, Gareth answers, "Who knows? Certainly not retirement!

Hopefully it will be with Action Cancer for some time yet as we have a number of very exciting new services being planned including a unique skin cancer assessment service on board the charity’s iconic health mobile “The Big Bus”.  Ultimately it’s not in my hands but in a Sovereign Lord and that’s the excitement of it all!".    

For more information on Action Cancer please visit actioncancer.org

 

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