How they made it Deena Mattar is one of the industry’s only female finance directors. She tells Lydia Stockdale how keeping her temper and her head down got her to the top

Was becoming a chartered accountant hard work?

The first three years after I graduated, I was working at KPMG during the day and studying at night. It was difficult and I did have moments of self-doubt when I first joined. I thought: “Why am I doing this? It’s dominating my life.” Back then, you really did start from the bottom. Graduates aren’t prepared to make tea and do the photocopying these days, but we had to do all of that.

How did you cope with the pressure?

I got through by looking forward only three months, keeping my head down and getting on with it. When I was about 26, there were times I’d be thrown in the deep end and I was terrified I’d get it wrong. I’ve always been diligent and I’d stay until the work was done, through fear of failure more than anything else.

What’s the most difficult decision you’ve ever made?

Deciding I didn’t want to be a partner at KPMG. I’d already gone through the rigorous interviews and tests when Colin Busby, who was the chairman of Kier, called and offered me the position of finance director at Kier National – the group’s building and civil engineering wing. They’d been one of my clients for years so I knew them well and they knew me.

If I hadn’t received that phone call, I’d probably have left anyway. I’d been at KPMG for 12 years and was supposed to advise people on their businesses, but I’d never done business myself and I felt there was something lacking. I handed my notice in to KPMG three days before my final interview. My boss sat me down and told me it was the worst career decision of my life, but for me it wasn’t a difficult move and I’m glad I did it. Being a junior partner in a big firm like KPMG is tough. In my job at Kier, I’ve always got something different to do.

What does a finance director actually do?

It’s quite difficult to say, as it varies from company to company. It includes establishing financial and reporting systems in the group and making sure the information is accurate and not misleading.

Part of my job is dealing with investors, shareholders, analysts, but that might not be part of a finance director’s role in another business.

In partnership with the chief executive or the managing director, you help run the business with a financial head on to make sure things are happening as they should.

What do you consider your greatest achievement at Kier?

The business has performed well and we’re very cautious in how we report our profits – I think that’s recognised. We’ve got a good track record and we under-promise and over-deliver. I’m proud of that. Also, making sure that we’re investing in the right places and that we’ve got the right systems and procedures so people don’t do things we wouldn’t want them to do.

What do you bring to the board?

I have a lot of experience in corporate transactions, and I can present complex financial issues in a straightforward way. I think people can talk to me if they’ve got issues. As a board, we seem to gel, there are no confrontations or arguments – that does go on, we all have to challenge each other.

As the only woman, sometimes I bring a different dimension.

How long should you stay in a job?

A lot of people get through their accountancy exams and then leave their firms as they know not everyone can make partner. I stayed and progressed to a senior position, which meant I could join Kier at a senior level. I think it would have taken me longer to climb the ladder if I’d left KPMG earlier.

The days when people stay for years at an organisation have gone, but when I look at the CVs of people who haven’t stayed in any job for more than three years, I do ask “why?”.

It takes a year to establish yourself in a job and you need a couple of years on top of that. I suppose five years is about the right amount of time to stay, as long as you’re gaining experience and have promotion prospects.

When I took the job at Kier, I knew the group finance director was due to retire and I had that promotion in mind.

You’re one of only a handful of senior women in construction. How does that affect you?

I think it helps. I can get people to explain what’s going on because they’re not threatened by me. Being female has never been an issue at Kier. I noticed more of a reaction when I was younger at KPMG.

Sometimes I could sense that clients didn’t want to deal with a woman. I handled it by just getting on with my work. I’ve always preferred to work for men because they are more straightforward, whereas women are so emotional all the time. I had one female boss at KPMG who absolutely lost it, screaming at a junior. I had to shout: “Pull yourself together, woman” at her.

The only other person I’ve ever shouted at was my secretary at KPMG. The computer crashed and we lost an important document. I’m not proud of it and she forgave me and we’re still friends. I don’t tend to be angry with people and I think it is a weakness if you show you are cross.

Was the possibility of you going on maternity leave ever an issue?

Colin Busby thought about it when he first appointed me. He asked me whether I was planning to have children, and I said: “If I do, I do.” As it happens, I haven’t and the longest break I’ve had in 20 years is three weeks.

Any regrets?

My only regret is not taking a break between university and KPMG. I think it would have done me good. I could have sat back and tried to understand myself a bit. I’ve done thatnow – I know where I’m coming from – but back then I was intense. I just wanted to go on and earn money.

How do you maintain a work/life balance?

You have to be disciplined. I could stay at work until 11 every night, but I usually start at 8am and get home by 7.30 or 8pm. I went through a stage at KPMG when I worked practically every weekend. These days, I don’t work at the weekends, but I always have some reading to do and my phone is constantly on. It doesn’t bother me. I enjoy what I do; work is a huge part of my life.

Give us some advice

Be clear about what you want and where you’re going, work hard and do the job you’re doing properly. If your bosses aren’t silly, you will be recognised for it.

Portray yourself clearly. I’m quite a shy person and it did involve putting on an act, at least at first. In meetings, if you’ve got firm views on something, you have to raise your voice and say something, otherwise you’ll be overlooked.

Always look the part. I’ve always tried to look smart – I was the first woman at KPMG to wear trousers, in the early nineties. In interviews, I’ve always tried to be open and not over-embellish things.

Women tend to underestimate themselves, whereas blokes will rabbit on about their achievements. My advice to female readers is to push themselves forward.

CV - Deena Mattar, 41

1969-1975 Brought up in Beirut, went to British Community School, but returned to grandmother in Swansea when war broke out in 1975

1977-81 Howells boarding school in Cardiff

1983-86 Economics degree at University
College London

1986 Joined KPMG (then Peat Marwick Mitchell)

1989 Started working with Beazer as a client

1990  Became a member of the Institute of Chartered Accountants

1992 Helped construction arm of Beazer – Kier – perform an employee buy-out

1992 KPMG formed divisions specialising in property and construction with clients such as Bovis, Crest Homes and Trafalgar House (Ideal Homes)

1995 Became senior manager at KPMG, on path to becoming a partner

1998 Begin process to become partner, but then offered the role of finance director of Kier National. Joined Kier

2001 Took over as Kier Group’s finance director, aged 36