Episode 9: Distilled's Communication Shapes the Way they Work

Cathal Divilly

In the ninth episode of the Red Cube Podcast, Great Place to Work CEO Cathal Divilly is joined by Laura Doyle, the Chief People Officer at Distilled. Laura shares her journey of guiding Distilled as they embarked on the demanding yet exciting task of combining three of Ireland’s most successful internet brands, Daft.ie, DoneDeal.ie and Adverts.ie, and with that combining three different cultures and three different ways of working. Drawing on her years of expertise in Human Resources, Laura also gives us an insight into the importance of effective leadership, and how dealing with feedback (both positive and negative!) and encouraging employee engagement can propel a business from good to great.



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Laura Doyle
Chief People Officer


Cathal Divilly
Great Place to Work Ireland



Cathal Divilly: Hello, Red Cube listeners, you’re very welcome to the latest episode of the Red Cube Podcast that covers all things people and culture. We are delighted to be joined by the CPO of Distilled Laura Doyle. Laura, you are very welcome. 

Laura Doyle: Hey Cathal, thanks a million. 

Cathal Divilly: How are you keeping Laura? 

Laura Doyle: Good yeah yeah, good, it’s a bit wet out there now today but other than that I’m keeping well thank you. 

Cathal Divilly: It’s lashing rain out there, isn't it? Now where it wasn't raining is in Venice a couple of weeks ago where Distilled were announced as a Best Workplace in Europe, congratulations. 

Laura Doyle: Thanks a million yeah, it was slightly different over there, sun was shining. We were looking for shade as opposed to umbrellas! 

Cathal Divilly: Yeah, typical Irish isn't it, when the sun shines, we kind of look for the shade don't we? 

Laura Doyle: There's no keeping us happy! 

Cathal Divilly: Listen congratulations to Distilled on that achievement, a Best Workplace in Europe which is fantastic. I suppose by way of introduction Laura for the listeners you might give everyone a sense as to who Distilled are? 

Laura Doyle: Yeah, so basically I'm sure you're aware of the brands Daft.ie, DoneDeal.ie and Adverts.ie, essentially Distilled is the parent company. Distilled is the company that employs everybody that works across the three brands and people will work across multiple brands as well. So put together Daft, DoneDeal and Adverts, and the company that glues it all together is basically Distilled. 

Cathal Divilly: Fantastic and one of the people that glue it all together as well Laura is yourself currently CPO, what about your career to date, how does that look? 

Laura Doyle: So basically I'm in Distilled about seven years. I joined Daft, I thought I was taking a nice easy job. I joined as a HR Business Partner and the role I'd been in prior to that was more senior. I decided I was just going to, you know, go into a business partner role, take a bit of a step back and maybe look at work life balance, that kind of thing. But I got into the role in Daft and Daft very quickly became Daft, Adverts and DoneDeal …  

There was a huge challenge there – I love a great challenge! So yeah, keeping me in my nice role in Daft didn't last very long and I've been with Distilled on the journey of becoming a single company. We had 3 different companies, 3 different cultures, 3 different ways of working … 5 different physical locations, even if you think of the practicalities of compensation and benefits, 3 companies paid completely different, benchmarked completely different, performance management was completely different, annual leave, benefits and they were probably the easier things to change! But I think bringing 3 cultures together as one was probably the biggest challenge of them all. 

Cathal Divilly: Wow Laura, so not an easy task to bring 3 cultures together as one and of course the journey is ongoing right? But could you give people a sense as to where did you even start on that journey of 3 to 1 and some of the key moments? 

Laura Doyle: We had three of every department, if you can imagine so I think the first part of it was looking at organisation, organisation structures … Basically the first step Eamonn our CEO took was to put a leadership team in place, so to put a team of people in place who were going to live and breathe this and figure it all out. So that was probably the first and the most pivotal step to take in the journey to get there. So we started off there was Eamonn, there was myself, we had a CFO and we had somebody looking at strategy as well. Obviously that leadership team has evolved over time, but myself and Eamonn have been kind of on it from the start to where we've got to today. 

Cathal Divilly: So, having a good leadership team in place that's committed to the work that needs to be done …  

Laura Doyle: Yeah. And for me, I think what was key was the relationship with Eamonn, or the relationship between HR and the CEO, because if there isn't buy-in from the CEO on the importance of the HR function, I think anyone will tell you, you know, you may as well bang your head off a wall, it's too difficult. And it has to be the number one priority of the business to get there. 

Cathal Divilly: And I've seen that connection in action between yourself and Eamonn, and kind of how you work through different problems and data and work towards solutions … For the HR people listening Laura, any key things you feel the CEO needs to hear from HR to bring them on the journey, is it data, is there something else that they need, do you feel? 

Laura Doyle: I think it's absolutely data. But in addition to data, it can be that sense from the HR person of where things are. I mean myself, I've over 25 years HR experience, there won't always be data to back up my sense of things, and it's that trust that, you know, I've been around long enough to know and to recognise different things. Sometimes HR would bring one skillset, a CEO will bring another skillset, and rather than one being better than the other they actually complement each other and they should complement each other, and it's really to work with the strengths of both parties. 

Cathal Divilly: I know Laura, it's been a long journey, right and three into one … Sounds like a song, three becomes one – is that the Spice Girls?  

Laura Doyle: It is actually, yeah jeepers! Don’t sing Cathal.

Cathal Divilly: Don’t worry I won’t sing we’re okay. So I know there's a lot behind that, so different compensation structures and offerings and you know everything that goes with that, obviously the three cultures, the different leadership, things like that. Was there ever a moment where you felt, you know what, I'm not sure we'll get this one over the line or we'll figure this particular piece out? 

Laura Doyle: Plenty of moments, Cathal. I mean I'm not going to lie, like we ran engagement surveys where I would read the comments and it was just being like, knocked over. We would get Glassdoor reviews and you know, I was just looking at some of them back in 2016/2017 yesterday for a presentation that I'm pulling together and I remember the impact of each and every one of those reviews, you know you'd get it, you’d open it and you'd be like “what I'm doing isn't working, why are people still thinking this”, “do they not realize we've done XYZ?” So yeah, it was. It was absolutely tough. 

We would have a monthly company meeting, we call it a huddle, some people call it an all hands, and we have anonymous questions and answers in there and I can remember 2016, 2017 some of the questions we had to answer … We committed to answering any question, unless it was, you know, overly negative or inappropriate. So we answered some really really tough questions but we said we would do it and we committed to transparency, so we did it and they were tough days.

And you know there were days where you were thinking are we ever going to turn this around, is it ever going to work? But you know, looking back on it now, I learned so much from all of that, and we persevered through it, there was days where it really got to me, there was days where it got to the team, there was days where it got to Eamonn but, you know, when it might get to me one day it mightn’t get to Eamonn, he picked me up and vice versa … There was chocolate, lots of chocolate involved as well! Cups of tea and stuff like that. But yeah, I mean definitely it wasn't plain sailing. 

Cathal Divilly: Of course, yeah, now what I loved about that Laura is the sense of vulnerability that you had to show as part of the leadership team, like it's not easy to put yourself in front of people and yeah, “let's go through the questions”, not an easy place to be, you know? So that was a great sense of vulnerability.

We nearly got through the chat Laura without mentioning COVID, but here I go. So right, the last couple of years or more, even COVID and all the challenges that that threw up for us, right, within workplaces … Any sense of key learnings or lessons that you or Distilled have taken away from that COVID period in terms of how you worked? 

Laura Doyle: Yeah, I think it's funny, I don't know if there's many places that would say it, but I actually think COVID has helped Distilled go from good to great, bizarrely enough, even though it was one of the most challenging times in the business. And the reason I would say that was, you know, we went through it together. Very early on in COVID our CEO made a commitment to employees to protect, no matter what the future of COVID brought, that Distilled’s aim was to protect the jobs of its employees and the businesses of its customers. We made that commitment to employees.

We did not know what COVID was going to bring. This was probably a month or two months into working from home, so making that commitment and everyone in Distilled kind of pulling together to get through it, I think was massive for Distilled. Even employees in Distilled we all took a pay cut – there was different levels, leadership team would have been the biggest pay cut and then through the business. Two months after taking the pay cut we realised that actually it was going, you know, business would be OK. This was two or three months into it and we gave every employee back the money that had come out of the pay cut and I think that was something that employees really really appreciated.  

And you know it was tough for employees. I was lucky, I had a spare room in my house I could convert it into an office, not everybody was the same. But we looked after employees, employee by employee, because no two situations were the same. We did a lot around well-being, mental health, physical health, just to try and boost morale, and you know to help employees and their families through it. We showed flexibility, I mean, you know we were all at home, suddenly you’re homeschooling. I don't know about you but I wasn't a natural when it came to homeschooling and I wouldn't like to do it again!

But you know, we realised that that was tough for our employees as well so gave them the flexibility that they needed around that as well. And then just sent out pick me ups and different perks when we could and we were just open, transparent and kept people informed as to where the business was, what was going on, what the future held. 

Cathal Divilly: How did Eamonn make that promise? Was that at one of the all hands? 

Laura Doyle: Yeah it was at one of the company’s all hands. I think what it was was there was just so much uncertainty if you remember, you know we all left the office, I thought I was packing up my desk for two weeks and thought I'd be back in. Then two weeks became four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks and then we realised OK this is going to go on. And he always had a good handle on COVID 'cause he would follow a lot of what was going on in other countries, so we discussed it as a leadership team and we decided at that point what our priority was.  

We have an amazing set of employees who've always given 110% and I guess we just wanted to take that worry away from employees because a lot of employees, their other halves were affected by this, some losing their jobs, some on the COVID payment, different things.

So we just wanted to put some stability for our employees in a very unstable environment, so for him I think it felt like a very natural thing to do, and I don't think even when he made the decision he realised kind of the impact and how well received it would be by every employee at Distilled, myself included. 

Cathal Divilly: It's amazing Laura and there's lots of fascination post-COVID about the future way of working and less on the now way of working right, because we’re working now right? We can't wait for the future. Would you give people a sense Laura, as to how Distilled are choosing to work now? 

Laura Doyle: OK, so at the moment, I suppose hybrid would describe the way we’re working. But in reality probably 90% of our employees are working from home. So we have an office in Dublin City Centre and we have one in Wexford, both offices have fully reopened, however, if employees want to continue working from home, they can. If they want to go into the office, they can.

They can make their own decision on that. They don't need approval from their manager for either option, for example this week I think I was due into work, I said I'd go into the office on Tuesday, just myself I wanted to get out of the house. Then I looked at my calendar, I realised I’d 4 hours of meetings, so I said, sure, what's the point in traveling to sit in another meeting room? So I said I'll work from home … So everyone just makes up their own mind and if you want to go in, the office is there, if you want to work from home, work from home.  

We do have days we do a monthly breakfast in each office and we do encourage employees to go into the office on that day, not to work, but to connect with their colleagues and to connect with each other. Like I know when we started doing that, I was hearing feedback like “when I go into the office, I get nothing done because I'm just chatting all day and then I go home and I've all this work to do”.

So what we said to employees is look, if you're going into the office on that day, deprioritise your work and prioritise making connections. If you spend the day talking to different colleagues about different things, that's absolutely fine, because they're the kind of water cooler moments, you know, that we're missing. 

And like we'd also do a monthly hike as well, so we have one in each location, it's a half-day and again, we encourage all employees to go to those so you know, it's not like they have to make up work missing, the monthly hike is the work that morning or the afternoon! We really try our best to stay connected, we’ve had one full company day this year, we’ve another one now coming up in October where everyone’s kinda getting together offsite.

Managers have budgets for team meetups, so we'd encourage them to do them whenever possible. But look, if it doesn't suit an employee to go along or you know, the distance is too far, that's fine as well. It's just if you can make it and you can go, it's a really good thing and we’d encourage it.  

And then just in relation to working very early on kind of post-COVID we said what we were trying to do was equality for those working from home and those in the office. So if you're in the office, you still work like you're working at home; it’s one laptop per person, one screen per person, so that if there are a few people in the office that you don't feel, as somebody from home, that you're missing out, or that you're not part of the conversation or anything like that, and that's worked really well for us, because the first two or three weeks after reopening the office, we got lots of feedback from people saying, “I couldn't hear,” “I just felt out of it” … so we very quickly said, look, we just want equality of experience, whether you're working from home or working in the office. 

Cathal Divilly: That's really interesting, I'm going to delve into that in a second Laura. And I know it feels natural for yourselves in terms of how you're currently working. Was there much discussion about how this is going to be? Did it just naturally come out of COVID? And how did that kind of play out? 

Laura Doyle: When we started seeing light at the end of COVID, obviously I had employees asking us “what's going to happen” and “do we all have to go into the office” and you know lots of questions as I'm sure most companies had … So we did the usual, sent out a survey and got information. I think we needed some clarification on some points, sent out a second survey and it was really clear from the surveys that around 90% of our employees wanted to keep working from home.

But there was still the 10%, you know, who didn’t have a good setup at home or who just wanted to be in the office and get out of the house and go to work. So what we said was, we'll go into the remote working or the hybrid model I should say, where you can stay at home if you want, or go into the office as you want, kind of as a six-month trial.  

I think when we say a trial, the trial was to make any improvements we needed to make to make it work, not that we were going to reverse it and say “oh everyone has to come into the office”. So during that six months we gathered I think it was weekly feedback from people to see, you know, what can we improve, what pain points did you notice? Because what might seem like a small thing for us is a big thing for someone else.

Like for example, people were coming into the office, we only had one monitor on each desk and they were used to having two monitors and their laptops at home, so look, let's equip the desks, like let’s make this easy for people if they do want to go into the office. So we got lots of feedback and acted on anything that we could act on. 

Cathal Divilly: And that equality of experience whether you're in the office, whether you're at home is certainly a thing, and I think it's great that that intel is coming back to you, it’s being said. Is that just the trust facilitates that to come back to you 'cause you know sometimes these things go unsaid as well. How has that sort of feedback made its way back to you Laura? 

Laura Doyle: I suppose we've got loads of different feedback channels, like we do three engagement surveys with our employees every year and look, you know you get great feedback in relation to specific questions, but you get great comments as well. We'll send out pulse surveys on different things throughout the year, so there would have been plenty of pulse surveys on the ways of working for Distilled, so we would have got very specific feedback there.

We have a people champs network, so that's kind of people who would champion, you know, our culture, our vision, our values, we would get feedback from them. We’ve a group called the Distillers who look after organising social connection and fun things for Distilled – they would give us feedback as well.

And we do, every manager does a 1-to-1 with everyone in their team, so we would get the feedback from managers and we would have done training with managers as well to talk to them about, you know, “we want this to work, but we need the feedback, we need you to be asking the questions” and then the managers would come back to us with feedback.

And look, in addition to that, I'd have messages from employees saying “look, I noticed this” and members of my team would as well, so I think it's just that the communication channels are there. We asked for the feedback and we got it and the great thing about that is we were able to act on it. I'm not saying everything is 100% perfect, you know, there's always things that we need to keep doing and different things that will pose challenges but we continue to work on it. 

Cathal Divilly: There's lots of investment in the listening practices that are there. One of the things we're hearing Laura from many organisations who are operating in a hybrid setting is that they're struggling to figure out the connection piece, or maybe they're doing things, but people aren't getting involved or things like that. Any tips for people as to what you believe are the key components if you're trying to drive that connection? 

Laura Doyle: I think it has to be from the top down and I think the leaders in the business have to lead by example. I mean, there's absolutely no sense in us saying “go into the office for the monthly breakfast, don't worry about your workload” if the leadership team are all working from home sending multiple emails and messages during that time. You absolutely have to encourage it and lead by example.

You have to give people the space to participate, so like if you're putting a hike out there or, you know, a monthly breakfast out there, you have to encourage your team to go, no matter how busy they are, this is really important. Go along, make the time because plenty of times I've asked people just to go and afterwards they've said to me “thanks for encouraging me to go, I know I was up to my eyes, but I am so glad that I went”. So it's doing that and I think I'm guilty of it myself, we all get into our comfort zones at home and you look out the window, it's wet or it's cold, "ah no I’ll just leave it for today", but it's really, you know, encouraging it.  

And I think the same thing doesn't suit everybody. Like even though I mentioned there, we're doing hikes, sometimes participation is amazing, sometimes it's not amazing. We talked to our employees and some of the feedback that we got is, look, not everyone likes to hike, and, you know, the outdoors isn't for everyone. So now our group called the Distillers and our people champs are getting some ideas from employees about other things that they would like to do to keep that connection.

I think the full company meetups, I mean we've had one, we have a second one coming up … The first one was just a massive success. I mean, the goodwill from everybody and just the sense of being together was, yeah, I just couldn't describe it, I didn't expect it to be, you know, half as great as it was. 

And I think just working with your management team, I mean, this is something that we got from Great Place to Work very early on in our journey is working with our managers and making sure they realise the importance of this and that they're ensuring that their teams stay connected as teams, but also connected to other teams and then the wider Distilled as well.

Because I mean we can all think of times in our career maybe where you weren’t happy in a job and you might go for a night out with your colleagues and then you'll go into work the next day and think “God I actually love working here, what am I thinking about moving for?” I mean it's amazing that power that that has and just having you know, a laugh and not talking about something work, it has a big impact on people, so I think it's really important to encourage it, lead by example and give people the time and space to engage in whatever it is you're trying to do. 

Cathal Divilly: Yeah, it's a great way of connecting and getting to know people, not talking about work, just actually getting to know who they are, what their interests are … So for people you might see the Distillers on Howth mountain or Howth hill or various places so say hello!

But it's great as well that the feedback is coming in, that maybe we need to try some different things as well and to encourage that connection, which is great. In terms of onboarding new talent Laura into a sort of hybrid model if you like, is there any changes you've had to make from the traditional way of onboarding new talent? 

Laura Doyle: Yeah, there's probably a few and funny when everywhere reopened we had originally scheduled our first onboarding to happen in person and then we actually switched it, no, let's leave it remote because we just had, I think one person in a different location who couldn't make it to the office and we just thought it would be a really bad experience for that person.

We haven't changed it massively. I mean, it's still the same kind of introduction from the CEO and myself day one, then each of the members of the leadership team would do a presentation into their areas and we've group exercises that we get people to do …  We probably had to, you know, jig that around a little bit so it could be done remotely. The role of the buddy has probably changed a little bit and we have to be more conscious of telling people about everything that's going on in Distilled because I think previously, if you were sitting in the office, you'd hear about this or that or the other, whereas now we've had to, I’d say improve our documented onboarding pack so that people are getting every piece of information that they need.

And probably instead of, you know, people go into the kitchen and have a coffee and maybe meet their colleagues, what we're doing now is just arranging meetups and just five minutes here, five minutes there with different people across the business. 

And we do get them to go into the office as well so that they can see the physical office, so that they know what people are talking about, or you know, when they hear about the office that they've actually been there, but they're under no requirement to go in after that. I know I've recently had a new hire into the HR team and that person is based in Galway and kind of as part of the recruitment process, I said look, I'd like you to come to the office once every quarter just so that the team can work together for you know, a day, and that was absolutely no issue or no problem, but just to spell it out first so that the expectation is clear.  

Cathal Divilly: Brilliant, and you know when you've been on a journey like you've been on in Distilled right, inevitably you end up with lots of practices, lots of ways of doing things, and people practices. This is a tough one Laura, but is there any practice you feel you couldn't do without in terms of the Distilled culture? 

Laura Doyle: Is there any practice we couldn't do without … So I said we do three engagement surveys a year, so we do Great Place to Work, and then we do another one twice a year and the surveys absolutely complement each other. And I absolutely would not, for any money in the world, let anyone take away my engagement surveys, because I think they've been key and core to us getting from where we were then to where we are now by listening to the feedback, the good and the bad! I mean, some of it, first time you hear it you get defensive and then you start, you know, listening to it with open ears and properly and like the key things that we've implemented in Distilled have all been off the back of feedback from employees. 

Cathal Divilly: One of the things I hear from many companies Laura is how impressed they are of how Distilled give the outside world, if you like, or outside talent, a sneak preview or a look inside the Distilled culture. So if anyone is interested you check out Distilled on LinkedIn and you'll see the postings that you do and things like that. How do you structure that piece? Because I think you're really good at just giving that outside world that inside look at Distilled culture. 

Laura Doyle: We haven't always been good at it, and I think one of the things when Daft, DoneDeal and Adverts came together as one culture we had to find out what our culture was, like what is Distilled? So we did an employee value proposition, we got a group of employees together, hired an external company and basically for two days solid, that group of employees – who were a completely diverse group of employees, so there was great representation across the business, nobody from the leadership team, nobody from HR – discussed what they loved about Distilled, what made Distilled unique to them. So if they got a phone call in the morning from Google, Workday, whoever, why they would say no and stay at Distilled over that.  

So from that EVP we kind of went, OK this is our identity. And then we kind of looked at our brand, if you like, that we had in place then and it didn't represent, you know, what had come out of that and our employees feeling. So look, we did a complete rebrand … new website, we redid the offices, all the swag and all of that.

But we kind of felt in conjunction with that we needed to sell that to people who were looking for a job or just so that people know what it's like to work in Distilled because I mean, look, I'm CPO, I'll say to you, I think there's something unique there, but our employees genuinely feel it and we have people now who seek us out, who are asking us, “are there any open roles?” you know, people know who we are. We get new followers every single week, so it's not that we're showing anything we're not doing, we're just showing what we're doing and giving a bit of an insight into it because we know it's special, we know it's unique and we just wanted to share that with other people. 

And it helps with, you know, attracting new talent, but it also gives our current employees a great sense of pride because the number of people that have said to me “my friend saw this post and she wants to know is there a job there” or “is this really what happens or are you making it up for social media?” and we're like no, no this is what it is! And it's somebody in my team, Linda, who would look after all of the social media postings and she just does an amazing job at it.

So she owned the EVP, she owned the rebrand and she owns this and works out at it with other people across the business. And I think it's just, you know, we just wanted to give people an insight into our culture, 'cause I think because we've gone on this journey, you know, where we had to build it up, we had to get there, and a good few of us have been there since the start. We're just so happy to have gotten it to where it is now and we want to share that! 

Cathal Divilly: And it’s great when talent is seeking you out right, we're not photoshopping Distillers onto the top of a hill, it's actually happening, right. But that's a wonderful thing when you're hearing that and talent are seeking you out based on what they've seen. And I remember a few years ago in Distilled, we were a little shy to sell ourselves and the good things we were doing and look it's great to see that we're doing that.  

Lots of great insights there Laura and maybe a sort of a rapid fire question round. Just two quick questions for you, are you a Netflix or a Disney+ or a TV person … I know there's lots of platforms out there, I probably missed loads. 

Laura Doyle: I’d say Netflix when I get time, but there isn't a lot of that! 

Cathal Divilly: Any particular Netflix show that you've liked or? 

Laura Doyle: Gosh, I'm trying to think now what was the last few things … I started watching one called Mo yesterday, but I’m not even through the first episode, a friend of mine recommended it. Selling Sunset of course, have to watch that being Daft and all that you know … 

Cathal Divilly: Oh absolutely yeah. And Selling Sunset, it’s the OC now as well is it? 

Laura Doyle: Oh the OC, yeah yeah, absolutely! 

Cathal Divilly: Absolutely gotta check that out. And Laura, any favourite movies? 

Laura Doyle: Top Gun is my absolute favorite movie of all time very shamefully Cathal. 

Cathal Divilly: Really, the first one or the latest one? 

Laura Doyle: Oh, the first one, the first one definitely! But I did go to the latest one and I did enjoy it, it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. 

Cathal Divilly: I haven't seen it. It's good though is it? The first movie has stood the test of time, hasn’t it? 

Laura Doyle: Yeah, yeah, I love it. I'd still now if I was flicking around and it was on I’d sit down and watch it, much to my husband's dismay, like not again, not again! 

Cathal Divilly: Here we go again, more Tom Cruise!  

Laura, really appreciate you joining us. I just want to congratulate you on the journey that you and everyone in Distilled has been on over the last number of years, it's been a pleasure to watch how you listen to the data and kind of move then into action from the data. Of course, congratulations on recently being announced as a Best Workplace in Europe and I really appreciate you taking the time to join us today. Thank you very much. 

Laura Doyle: No problem. Thank you Cathal, and look, you know, Great Place to Work have been on that journey with us as well and this time it was funny, normally when we'd get the feedback from yourselves, we'd sit down and there was plenty of feedback, and I remember this year when we got the results you went through them with us, we were like “right, so what action?” and you said “well there isn’t a lot I could say with these results!” But to go from that to full on conversations a good few year back … Hopefully we can sustain it, and that's kind of what we're really working hard on at the moment, protecting that culture and with everyone just behind it. 

Cathal Divilly: Thanks Laura. We appreciate your partnership. 

Laura Doyle: No problem, thanks a million, Cathal.