From Tipp to Bupa CEO and beyond, Evelyn is an asset

For the outgoing chief executive of British health giant, Bupa, growing up on the family farm in Tipperary went a long way towards preparing her for the boardroom.

“You learn the importance of hard work. You get responsibility young,” said Evelyn Bourke, who is now stepping down from her role to focus on non-executive positions.

As kids growing up, we brought in the cows; fed calves; helped with the milking; assisted with rounding up cattle and sheep; and fed and walked greyhounds.

The 100ac farm at the foot of the Devil’s Bit, in the village of Drom, was bought by her mother’s father in the 1920s. “He was in another part of the parish and his elder brother inherited his home place,” said Evelyn.

“My father took over the running of the farm when he married my mother in 1964. Dad was born on another farm in the parish, the second oldest of five boys. My brother, Michael, farms the land now,” she said.

The oldest of six children – five girls and a boy – Evelyn was used to rolling up her sleeves and lending a helping hand when she wasn’t attending Drom National School and then St. Mary’s in Templemore.

She took a job as a trainee actuary with New Ireland Assurance in 1982. “At that time 80% plus of actuaries in Ireland were taken on from school. That year New Ireland took on four trainees, two school leavers and two graduates from Trinity College, three of whom were women which was a bit unusual at that time.

“Now all actuaries go to college before starting to work for insurance companies or professional advisory firms,” said Evelyn. “I finished the exams in five years in 1987. Yvonne Lynch and I were the first two Irish women to complete all the exams when we did so in 1987. We were admitted as Fellows of the Institute of Actuaries in 1988.”

‘Our people stood up amazingly across the whole world’

Having joined Bupa as chief financial officer (CFO) in 2012, Evelyn, who has an MBA from the London Business School, went on in 2016 to become group CEO of the global healthcare business which employs approximately 83,000 people. Bupa’s revenue for the year ended 2019 was £12.3 billion.

She was appointed a non-executive director of Bank of Ireland in 2018 and will chair the audit committee from January 1.

Living in south London, she enjoys three to four trips back home annually in normal times.

All my family are there. My dad is retired but lives in the home place and all my siblings are in the locality. Two of my sisters married two farmers in Drom and one sister married a farmer in Loughmore, a neighbouring parish and fierce rival in GAA.

Her husband, Seamus Creedon, while from Dublin, has agricultural connections as his late father, Donal Creedon, was secretary of the Department of Agriculture until he retired in 1991.

To say the last year has been a demanding one would be an understatement. “Bupa has activities in 23 countries. We were first affected by the coronavirus pandemic when our 150 customer service people in China had to work from home,” Evelyn said.

“It then hit us in Hong Kong where we have an insurance company and clinics, then Spain where we have hospitals, clinics, care homes and an insurance company. After that, we were affected in the UK, Australia and elsewhere.

“We had to move all office-based staff to working from home at the end of March. We did that in a week. The executive moved into crisis management mode in March, with daily calls, sharing what was happening real time around the world and leaning into how we could help each other.

“Bupa has come through the first wave really well and we are well set to deal with subsequent waves. Our people stood up amazingly across the whole world, putting our customers first and looking after each other. We also co-operated actively with governments and public health systems across the world.

At times it has been exhausting. We have had to change, to adapt to working via video conference and we have accelerated all sorts of digital services to our customers when they couldn’t access healthcare in person. I’m very proud of how Bupa has come through it all.

Although she is now moving on from Bupa, the Tipperary woman won’t be sitting back any time soon. “I’m now going plural. I’m starting my new plural career by joining the Marks & Spencer board at the beginning of February. I’m also keen to work with insurtech start-ups in an advisory capacity,” she said.

As she reflects on the beauty of a photograph of her brother’s cows with the Devil’s Bit in the background, the question arises: Does she ever see a return to Ireland and indeed Tipperary, as being on the cards?

“Not for now, but possibly at some stage. The roots are strong.”