Sometimes it is the spontaneous decisions that can change the course of a life.
When arriving into University College Cork with the plan to register for an Arts degree, Owen Curtin found that he had no patience to wait in the long queue for his chosen course, and instead decided to opt for a nearby line that was much shorter.
The result was a Commerce degree, rather than his original inclination to pursue acting.
“It was a random act, but one that worked out quite well and I eventually came away with a BComm.”
Blessed with good numeracy skills, Owen grew up in Cork city’s Prosperity Square. His mother — “an incredible woman with a phenomenal brain” — enrolled him in extra curricular activities like elocution and drama classes. That led, in turn, to him taking the title role in Oliver! at Dublin’s Gaiety
Theatre, and a period of his life deeply involved in local politics.
In an era when the word ‘entrepreneur’ was as rare as it was a respected calling, the man who would later drive the fortunes of a profitable pan-European company got his first break in a summer job as a porter at the South Infirmary Hospital.
“I was working nights, 84 hours a week, doing everything from answering the plug-in switchboard to filling the coal boilers in every ward three times a night, assisting with the ambulance arrivals, alerting appropriate medical staff, plus the constant opening and closing of doors and gates throughout the night. Learning how to deal with people in extremely traumatic moments, it was the ultimate experience for life,” he adds.
Utilising his numeracy skills in college poker schools, the emerging entrepreneur was compounding hospital earnings into larger gambling winnings between lectures and night work. Eventually graduating from porter to stores assistant, he unexpectedly found himself appointed manager of that post when his boss died suddenly — a transition that brought him directly into the area of hospital supplies — which many years later would turn out to be the acorn of inspiration from which grew HC21, the largest privately-owned sales and marketing specialist in Ireland and the UK.
“People often talk about spotting or taking the big opportunity, but in my experience, it is, more often than not, about not taking the big opportunity. If you keep waiting for big opportunities, you’ll be waiting. You take whatever the small opportunities that come along and work at them — that is my advice to those starting out or on the early path. Luck and good fortune will sometimes play a part — but it’s generally ‘the harder you work the luckier you get’ scenario that succeeds.”
One of four boys born into humble beginnings in Cork’s Prosperity Square, Owen Curtin is unlikely to allow himself ever forget the educational lifelines hard won for him by his father, who worked in a bacon factory and a mother who had several jobs.
“Education gives you choices, and in today’s world it is very much about having a Masters to best progress a career. Irish Masters graduates who travel to the UK and other countries find they are immediately well up the ladder through that accreditation alone. Classical education was always deemed to be better because it gave you bandwidth in your thinking.
“This is a phenomenal time for people to be graduating, because the world really is a village today. The employment opportunities are myriad for people who want to give of themselves and be passionate about the jobs they are going for. That said, graduates need to guard against expectation and to be realistic in their ambitions.”
HC21 employs more than 450 staff in Ireland, Britain, Germany, and Austria, with a turnover of €150 million. Staff numbers are expected to grow to 600 over the next 24 months, with turnover on a similar upward graph to €250m by the end of 2020.
“This is a company built on the strengths of its people. The mission is to utilise the best bits of every single person, and give them work with responsibility.
“This allows for development of skills, which always benefits the customer. The mission of every manager is to allow people to grow and evolve within their roles, and in their growth, they will create further growth.
“Everybody deserves an opportunity to be as good as they can be,” he says. “That’s our culture, I live it.”
The recent takeover of Aquilant, a medical distribution business owned by the quoted UDG Healthcare, has doubled the size of HC21’s business, and ensured that the company is well placed to deal with any future challenges from Brexit. Aquilant, which is mainly focused on the UK, had revenues of €84m to the end of September 2017, with a €5.6m operating profit.
With the prospect of further expansion across the EU, HC21’s operations in Germany and Austria are “a work in progress”, followed by likely expansion elsewhere in Europe.
“There is a huge consolidation opportunity in European healthcare, and a company wanting to distribute in the EU has to do deals with about 19 distributors. We have plans for expansion, both organic and by acquisition.”
While the recent acquisition gives HC21 a reasonable hedge against impending economic turbulence, he sees Brexit as a huge issue for business, irrespective of whether it is hard or soft.
“European and UK markets are an integral part of our business. It looks likely if there is indeed a Brexit there will be some restrictions. It is hard to see anything other than customs queues between the UK and Europe and this would be of huge consequence to the Republic.”