Director of Harvard University’s Global Support Services Joe O’Regan FCCA recounts how his international career took him from his roots in Ireland to Massachusetts
This article was first published in the July/August 2020 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.
Joe O’Regan FCCA is a busy man at the best of times, but as for so many people across the world, Covid-19 has pushed the demands on him to another level entirely.
He is the director of Harvard University’s Global Support Services (GSS), a relatively new organisation in the university that supports students, faculty and staff overseas. GSS does everything from responding to overseas emergencies to repatriating university affiliates in times of crisis. Yet even for an organisation used to crisis response, the pandemic has been ‘a complete game-changer’, says O’Regan.
In January of this year, GSS began monitoring the coronavirus outbreak in China, working closely with the university’s departments to assess the potential impact on Harvard’s international operations. By March, the university had decided to suspend on-campus classes, asked students to leave campus, and advised those abroad to return home. O’Regan and his team at GSS collaborated with Harvard officials on repatriating thousands of students residing in the US university’s dormitories, many of whom needed to return to overseas homes, while helping bring back Harvard faculty, staff and students from their foreign outposts.
‘We engaged our crisis management team early on,’ explains O’Regan, who even in the midst of a pandemic remains measured and affable, and still speaks with a soft Irish accent. ‘Within a matter of days, students left campus, education went online, staff started working remotely, and many research projects were wound down.’ All was done, of course, while maintaining the university’s mission of teaching and scholarship.
Agility, flexibility and even spontaneity have defined O’Regan’s international career. He would have probably become a scientist, perhaps even a meteorologist like his father, but for a chance encounter when he was 17. One summer at a local swimming hole in his home town of Kilkenny, before heading off to study science at University College Dublin, his path crossed with an accountant who told him about ACCA.
‘He talked about this programme where you could actually work and study at the same time,’ O’Regan recalls. ‘I found that really inviting.’ Overnight, science and Dublin were out, and accounting was in.
O’Regan began his accounting career as a trainee auditor in Ireland while studying with ACCA. That first year, he was entering figures manually into detailed ledgers, working with businesses as diverse as pubs and consulting practices. ‘In the second year I moved all manual accounting records onto computers,’ he says. But he admits the manual approach made a lasting imprint on his accounting brain.
With his ACCA Qualification in hand, O’Regan graduated from a finance programme offered by the Irish Industrial Development Authority, and was placed in the Dublin-based fashion company LS Ramsay, which was then looking to ‘go international’. O’Regan’s task was figuring out how to make that happen. ‘That seeded my drive for international work,’ he says.
O’Regan’s career advanced while working for US corporations with operations in Ireland, including AT&T and IT business Amdahl, before he eventually crossed the Atlantic to work for fire protection systems manufacturer SimplexGrinnell.
Here he managed all the accounting and reporting for the US$2bn company, while developing business practice guidelines and financial reporting systems worldwide. It was one of the busiest times of his life.
‘I was travelling a lot and not seeing my family much,’ he recalls. But when returning from one long overseas trip, O’Regan found that his son barely recognised him. He decided that a career change was essential.
In 2002, he landed a new role as the director of finance and administration of the Waldorf School in Lexington, Massachusetts, where he still lives today. Over the course of a decade, O’Regan helped transform the private school, first by restructuring its finances and administrative resources, and by helping set up an emergency response plan.
Milk and honey
Life was good – and less hectic – in the non-profit sector. O’Regan even enrolled in a course on biodynamic farming and took up beekeeping. At one point, he had more than 100,000 bees. But by this point his kids had grown up, ‘and I wanted to get back into what I was used to doing’, he says.
He spotted a position at Harvard that piqued his interest. ‘They were looking for someone with a non-profit background and international finance experience. A big part of me being qualified for the job was my ACCA credentials,’ says O’Regan. ‘The biggest benefit I’ve received from my ACCA training is the international component, which prepared me for operating and managing very complex operations in diverse environments. To me this was the dream job – and I got it.’
That dream job was launching Harvard Global. Back then, the organisation was just a non-profit startup; now, it helps Harvard schools and centres run research projects worldwide.
‘That first year was crazy,’ O’Regan says. He helped set up research centres in London, Johannesburg, Mumbai, Dubai and elsewhere, and was instrumental in developing multinational and multicurrency systems that integrated with Harvard’s financial structure.
‘Reliable accounting and financial services are extremely important for higher education, which can be very complicated, with different rules and regulations for different streams of income – grants, donations, investments, tuition and business,’ he says. ‘Some large institutions like Harvard have very complicated business models, and the financial systems must be able and nimble enough for accounting and financial services that are meaningful in each area of operation.’
O’Regan’s breadth of experience soon earned him a promotion to director of the organisation, where he added the international safety and security component to his portfolio for Harvard.
Data protection challenge
The past couple of years have introduced new and complicated international challenges to the GSS remit, including the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and compliance with the EU’s data protection requirements. To accommodate the need for GSS’s European operations to remain located within the EU, O’Regan and his team are currently in the process of relocating the university’s representative for the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation from London to Ireland.
Despite the shake-ups, O’Regan has managed to remain resilient – and humble. ‘I’m very fortunate to have an extremely talented team that is very committed to our mission and vision,’ he stresses. ‘This team is innovative, diverse, dedicated and fun to work with. Together, we have travelled the world over the past few years, and it has been great to see the fruits of our labour in the field.’
The emergence of Covid-19 has also forced O’Regan and the university to look at the implications of an ongoing global crisis. ‘Everyone pulled together and operationalised key decisions very quickly,’ he says, ‘but financial planning and management will be key to the long-term health of our university, community, and the higher education sector in general.’
In 2016, O’Regan and the GSS team were tasked with helping to meet a set of challenges posed by the newly installed Harvard president Larry Bacow. The university, said Bacow, needs ‘to use the immense resources entrusted to us – our assets, ideas and people – to address difficult problems and painful divisions… It is up to us to leave our country and our world a better place tomorrow than it is today.’
To that end, O’Regan and his team set out to make GSS and its services as visible and known across campus as possible, through effective marketing and partnerships with departments, centres and schools right across the university. Keeping Harvard’s students, academics and other staff safe is GSS’s paramount concern, and the organisation works closely with them on trip consultations and travel-risk mitigation, including support for sexual assault and gender violence, incident assessments, advisories and alerts, and emergency response management.
The other component of O’Regan’s work is providing Harvard’s overseas researchers with hiring options, the university’s policies, country immigration and residency requirements. He and his GSS team also manage third-party vendors and coordinate with Harvard’s human resources and finance departments, including help with budgeting, banking and country-specific tax considerations.
‘What I love about finance is that the numbers tell a story about an organisation and the history of the organisation, and you can also take that story into the future,’ O’Regan says. ‘Accountants need to be able to translate numbers into stories and what they really mean, so people can make decisions and influence the direction of the organisation, both short term and long term.
‘That’s why my accountancy training has truly stood the test of time. No matter what job I’ve been in, there’s always been accounting. That’s where I come from. It’s second nature to me.’
Speaking of nature, O’Regan has recently returned to beekeeping and installed a new hive in his garden. ‘Now that I’m working from home,’ he says, ‘maybe I’ll have more time for it.’
Sarah Sweeney, journalist
"My accountancy training has truly stood the test of time. Whatever job I’ve been in, there’s always been accounting. It’s second nature"