Pointing the way for Irish entrepreneurs

IS THIS THE WAY FOR AMARENCO: John Mullins of solar energy firm Amarenco beside a solar test rig on the land at Inniscarra where solar panels will be located. Picture: Gavin Browne
IS THIS THE WAY FOR AMARENCO: John Mullins of solar energy firm Amarenco beside a solar test rig on the land at Inniscarra where solar panels will be located. Picture: Gavin Browne

For would-be business owners in Cork and beyond, even a cursory look at the finalists in EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year Ireland Awards over the years would be a worthwhile exercise in self-motivation.

Some of the region’s most well-regarded and famed names in the world of business have found themselves in the spotlight at the annual event, a rolodex of entrepreneurs who started life in the humblest of beginnings, only to rise to the top of their fields through a combination of hard work, persistence, dedication and — what all would freely acknowledge — good fortune.

Dan and Linda Kiely, of Voxpro, were EY Entrepreneur Of The Year finalists in 2013; Colette Twomey, of Clonakilty Food Company, in 2010; Marian O’Gorman, of the Kilkenny Group, in 2014; and Sean O’Sullivan, of SOSV, in 2015, and the winner of a special award in 2018.

Last year’s overall winners of the Entrepreneur of the Year Awards were two of Cork’s most prominent businessmen, Peter Coppinger and Dan Mackey of Teamwork, the Blackpool-headquartered software-as-a-service (SaaS) firm that has shaken up the tech industry in a way that an indigenous Irish firm has not done previously.

While it may seem like the two men became overnight sensations in the business world, they are quick to point out that the hard work and long hours began in earnest in 2007, with plenty speedbumps and recoveries along the way — a familiar tale among their peers in Cork who have their tales of triumph over adversity and slow-but-sure momentum gained over a long period.

Mr Coppinger and Mr Mackey will now bring one of Cork’s and Ireland’s most celebrated business stories to the world stage next month, when they go to Monte Carlo for the World Entrepreneur of the Year Awards.

This year, the 24 finalists of the 2019 EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Ireland programme employ more than 13,000 people and generate annual revenues of almost €1.2bn.

The finalists will compete across three categories: Emerging, Industry and International, with one winner being named the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year.

The 24 finalists have been shortlisted from more than 120 nominations by an independent judging panel of previous winners, chaired by Anne Heraty, CEO of CPL Resources and winner of the 2006 EY Entrepreneur Of The Year award.

Ms Heraty said:

It’s wonderful to see so many thriving companies driven by entrepreneurs who are boldly pushing themselves and the teams to the forefront of their industries.

“This year’s finalists are at the start of what will be a very exciting journey, not just this year but as they become part of the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year community.”

Since its inception, the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year community has grown to more than 500 alumni who harness each other’s wealth of experience, with 77% now doing business with one another.

This year’s finalists will join more than 60 EY Entrepreneur Of The Year alumni for a week of executive education and exclusive corporate insights in Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Macau.

The CEO Retreat is the island’s largest unofficial trade mission, specifically focused on fostering entrepreneurship. The retreat will focus on developing the entrepreneurs, and facilitating an environment for networking and problem-solving.

Of the 24 finalists from around the country, the three nominees from Cork bring a combined heavyweight package of experience and innovation.

JOHN MULLINS

In the emerging category is John Mullins of Amarenco, one of Cork’s best-known business leaders. He is executive chairman of the firm, which is focused on renewable assets in Europe, the Caribbean French territories and the Middle East.

Mr Mullins was CEO of Bord Gáis from 2007 to 2012 and has held senior management positions with ESB, ESB International, PricewaterhouseCoopers (UK) and NTR plc. The chairman of the Port of Cork Company is also a director of Mainline Group and Wisetek.

According to Mr Mullins, Amarenco is committed to playing its part in helping the transition to clean and renewable energy in its chosen markets. Amarenco says its senior executive team has delivered over €5bn of renewable energy investments over the last 20 years.

Since its first project investment in 2014, Amarenco is now the leading solar rooftop player in France, with over 100 MWp of operating solar projects across France, and a further 1GW of development asset pipeline in France, Ireland and the Middle East. In October last year, Amarenco was named as France’s number one in the highly competitive rooftop solar sector.

This reaffirms our international footprint in Europe and clearly the work we have undertaken in France, where we are recognised as a credible and significant contributor to that nation’s demand for renewable energy.

“The team based in France has been working in close partnership with agricultural landowners, local authorities and businesses.

“We strive to undertake innovative, collaborative and participative approaches that meet environmental requirements, which also appealed to local farmers and businesses,” Mr Mullins said on the recognition.

Mr Mullins was awarded the honour of Chevalier dela Légion d’Honneur by the French Government in 2016.

A director of several charities, he is a Fellow of Engineers Ireland and the Irish Academy of Engineering.

MARK WHITAKER

In the industry category is Mark Whitaker of Johnson & Perrott. Mr Whitaker was appointed CEO of Johnson & Perrott Motor Group in 2001, having previously held the post of general manager at the group’s fleet division.

Mr Whitaker studied law at UCC and qualified as a chartered accountant working with the firm EY in 1990. In 2008, he completed the Owner Presidents Management Programme at Harvard Business School.

In his 18 years as CEO, Mark led a broad investment program in all aspects of the business including the acquisition of units in Opera Lane in 2009.

Mark Whitaker
Mark Whitaker

In 2012, he led the disposal of the group’s Avis car rental operation and the re-focus of the group’s operation into three core areas of motor dealerships, fleet management and commercial vehicle rental.

This included the acquisition of three companies, including National Truck Rental in 2018.

Mr Whitaker currently sits on the board of Cork Chamber of Commerce and on the advisory board at the National Maritime College of Ireland.

He was previously a member of the governing body of Cork Institute of Technology, together with being a board member of St Luke’s Home Cork and the UCC Family Business Partnership Board.

SHANE EVANS

In the international category is Shane Evans, the CEO of Scrapinghub, which he co-founded in 2010.

Scrapinghub is a self-funded web data extraction company headquartered in Cork. The company provides data for business intelligence such as product, pricing, and competitive research, alternative financial data, sentiment analysis, and news and content monitoring.

Mr Evans has been involved with startups since joining lastminute.com in 1999, where he led the engineering team. He was on the founding team for other companies, always seeking out interesting challenges at the leading edge of technology.

Frustrated with the lack of a scalable web scraping technology, he developed an open source framework, Scrapy, used by over one million developers.

Since then, Scrapinghub has developed a suite of software services to address a variety of data extraction needs, which has allowed the company to grow to service over 2,000 companies, including Fortune 100, with almost 200 remote workers in 28 countries.

Scrapinghub’s vision is to provide open access to the world’s web data, allowing businesses to extract the data they need to grow their business. Innovation is at the heart of Shane’s vision, and Scrapinghub is constantly enhancing its products, including developing patent-pending machine learning technology to further solidify its market leading position.

The calibre of competition nationally that the Cork finalists face is fierce, but that didn’t phase Teamwork — who is to say Cork lightning cannot strike twice with another winner when the awards are held in November?

Before that, there is the small matter of Monte Carlo. Given Teamwork’s astonishing rise, it is not beyond the realm of possibility they take home the World Entrepreneur of the Year title to add to their domestic accolade next month.

Partner lead for the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Ireland, Kevin McLoughlin, said: “Daniel Mackey and Peter Coppinger are shining examples for Ireland’s young people to follow. They have built an incredible company, founded on a genuine culture of excellence. I hope we see the company to go on to achieve the global potential that it has.”

Chair of the judging panel, Ms Heraty, is in agreement: “From the days when they were competing against one another to build websites for pubs and restaurants in Cork, Peter and Daniel’s ingenuity and innovation really impressed the judging panel.

“Their ambition has shone through in what they have created at Teamwork. The company has huge global potential, and I am sure it will go on to be a world leader.”

The winner will be announced at the prestigious awards gala held in Dublin in November — there’s no reason Leeside cannot be celebrating a two-in-a-row with John Mullins, Mark Whitaker or Shane Evans.

COLETTE TWOMEY: We wanted everyone who loved our black pudding to be able to buy it in a shop near them

Colette and the late Edward Twomey bought and operated a butcher shop in Clonakilty town when they were married in 1976. Included with the deeds of the butcher shop was the recipe to make blackpudding.

The business expanded significantly after 1980 when Colette attended the Department of Food Sciences at UCC, where the recipe for Clonakilty whitepudding was developed.

It proved to be a significant turning point for the company, and Clonakilty is today acclaimed nationally and internationally for its range of products.

Here she shares some of the secrets of their success.

Colette Twomey, managing director of Clonakilty Blackpudding. Picture: Denis Minihane
Colette Twomey, managing director of Clonakilty Blackpudding. Picture: Denis Minihane

What vision or lightbulb moment did you have to start your business?

>> Our vision when we first set-out was simple, we wanted everyone who loved our black pudding to be able to buy it in a shop near them.

That was it. It seems simple enough, but when you realise that at the time we were a small butcher shop in a West Cork town with a product that only locals knew of, it was a big vision.

What is the best thing about being located in Cork?

>> Without a doubt, it’s the people. The ‘can-do’ attitude and the pride that Corkonians have in their own have been the core drivers of our success — both in terms of our staff and our customers.

What is the biggest obstacle you have faced on your journey?

>> When Eddie died in 2005, I was faced with taking on the reigns of the business. It was a big moment in my life, do I step away and sell the business, or do I face into my fears and go for it? Thankfully my decision was to stick with it and I haven’t looked back.

What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

>> I would say the best and worst advice was bundled into one ‘it can’t be done’. Whether it was in the early years when we were told that you couldn’t make a successful business out of ‘humble black pudding’ or more recently that we couldn’t get our pudding to Australia. There is nothing like the motivation to succeed when others believe you can’t!

How important is a supportive business environment to your success?

>> I can’t stress enough the important role that the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year programme has played in my journey and the fantastic support network of business owners and leaders that it has given me. Being able to step out of my day to day and hear the challenges and success stories of my peers is so energising.

If you could give the Government one piece of advice to help improve Cork for businesses based there what would it be?

>> Key infrastructure investments — road and air in particular. For food producers up and down the county that are supporting local economies, traffic and access due to poor road infrastructure makes business difficult.

We need to make it easier for SMEs to do business so they can afford to stay local. I’d also love to see an increase in flight frequency from Cork Airport to key trade destinations. This would help international trade both in terms of attracting international businesses into Cork but also supporting Cork businesses to grow internationally.

What is the one thing readers might not know about you?

>> Clonakilty Blackpudding contains a secret spice mix and I am the only one that knows it!

MARIAN O’GORMAN: I know our people are core to the success of our business

Marian O’Gorman is CEO of Kilkenny Group, Ireland’s largest emporium of Irish designed-products, supporting Irish craft and design for over five decades. The entrepreneur has worked in retail since the age of 16, when she began working with her father Christy Kelleher, founder of the Blarney Woollen Mills Group. She was heavily involved in the family business and in 1999, took over as CEO of the Kilkenny Group.

What vision/ lightbulb moment prompted you to start your business?

>> I can’t say it was a lightbulb moment. I was born into a family with a father who was a true entrepreneur, Christy Kelleher. I believe I was born with retail in my blood. From the age of 16, I worked alongside my father selling Aran sweaters to tourists in Blarney from a thatch cottage at the side of the road. From him I learned the negotiating skills of buying and selling and from that point I knew I was always going to run my own retail business.

What is the best thing about being located in Cork?

>> I was born and reared in Cork, and I live here surrounded by my family and friends which is very important to me. I think the people and the culture are the best things about Cork. We have such a strong identity and are truly proud of our city.

Marian O’Gorman: Kilkenny shop owner.
Marian O’Gorman: Kilkenny shop owner.

As a business, we are privileged to have three successful stores in Cork, and I am so proud of my hardworking and committed team who are part of this thriving and relevant culture who take care of our most valued Cork customers that are loyal to Irish designers and craft-makers. Cork people know the value of giving a special Irish gift to their loved ones.

What is the biggest obstacle you have faced on your journey?

>> After the demerger with Blarney in 2000, I was leading the business forward and very quickly after we were hit with a number of major obstacles, the first being foot and mouth, followed by the impact of the 911 attacks, and then the Sars outbreak.

All professional and family advice given to me at the time was to close the company. However, I followed my gut and in 2004 we turned the corner and broke even and then went on to become a successful Irish family retail company.

What were the best and worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

>> Someone once told me to always surround yourself with the best people and I still live by this advice today. I know our people are core to the success of our business and we invest heavily in the training and development of our team. In terms of the worst advice, I would say advising me to close my business in 2002 stands out in my memory. I’m glad I didn’t take that advice.

How important is a supportive business environment to your success?

>> Essential. Local governments must collaborate with business and together find ways of bringing a new lease of life into cities and towns. Retail needs more footfall and this requires the right people to sit around a table and find the solutions that will work for everyone.

We also get great support from Tourism Ireland, Fáilte Ireland and Enterprise Ireland which is essential in driving our business forward.

If you could give the Government one piece of advice to help improve Cork for businesses based there, what would it be?

I believe it’s imperative for the Government to get the Cork Events Centre over the line. This will be a gamechanger for all businesses in the city and the wider Cork region, as it will attract a significant amount of visitors to the city, which in turn will have a knock on effect for all businesses in Cork.

What is one thing readers might not know about you?

>> I am very interested in supporting and mentoring young women as they develop in business. I am a mentor in ‘Going for Growth’, a governmentsponsored, entrepreneurial programme for young Irish women.

I am personally invested in coaching my Kilkenny team, who are predominantly female, including my two daughters, Michelle and Melissa. I am so proud of the talent of the people that are working for this business and I want to continue to cultivate their development. After all, I believe their success is my success.

SEAN O’SULLIVAN: Make life more affordable for the citizens of Cork

Sean O’Sullivan’s first company MapInfo, brought street mapping to personal computers and grew to be a public company with €179m in sales. Said to be one of the first people to use the term ‘cloud computing’, Mr O’Sullivan helps launch over 100 companies per year in his role as managing director of global venture capital operation SOSV. The Irish-American is well-known to Irish audiences for his role on Dragon’s Den.

What vision/ lightbulb moment prompted you to start your business?

>> I’d love to say that I had a grand masterplan beforehand, but it’s astonishing to me where I’ve ended up. Life led me, often kicking and screaming, to the opportunities that now define what we do at SOSV. I started SOSV because I was becoming a father for the first time and I needed to “get a real job”. I’d been investing as an angel for years and had done really well in it.

What is the best thing about being located in Cork?

>> It’s nice being located in the middle of the city, to have dozens of great places to go for a quick lunch, and being able to live in the city or in great outlying towns like  Kinsale, just 23 minutes away as long as you’re coming in the early hours that I like to commute.

Sean O’Sullivan: Helps launch over 100 companies a year.
Sean O’Sullivan: Helps launch over 100 companies a year.

What is the biggest obstacle you have faced on your journey?

>> Everything takes longer. And costs more. The biggest challenge is when you feel like your teammates don’t believe in you or what you’re doing. That is souldestroying, especially when you are giving it your all.

Over time, of course, as everything works out, you build a reservoir of trust. With integrity on all sides, that reservoir never gets drained, the longer you keep your core team together.

What were the best and worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

>> The best piece was from my mom to “finish what you start”. This is harder than it seems because you have to visualise what finishing looks like. But having outcomes in mind helps focus and provide a vision for everyone to get behind. The worst piece — from everyone — is “trust me”. I believe in people, but I also believe in having people perform to the best of their ability, and that means accountability. So, it’s now “trust, but verify”.

How important is a supportive business environment to your success?

>> It’s critical. But supportive business environments are a moveable feast. Everything is global. Take advantage of the strengths of each geography, in designing, producing, financing and selling.

If you could give the Government one piece of advice to help improve Cork for businesses based there, what would it be?

>> I can never just give one recommendation on policy. There is so much that needs to be done. Make life more affordable for the citizens of Cork — housing should be affordable, available and commutable.

Capital gains tax should be reduced to improve job creation and incentivise local reinvestment. And finally, ESOP (stock option) plans should be easy and inexpensive to create to allow all staff to benefit from their commitment and dedication.

What is one thing readers might not know about you?

>> I don’t know, do people know I’m a helicopter pilot? I also meditate in five to 15 minute snatches of time, up to three times a day.

DANIEL MACKEY & PETER COPPINGER: The best advice... you can be anything you want to be. We’ve never been afraid to dream big

Daniel Mackey and Peter Coppinger of Teamwork were named 2018 International and Overall EY Entrepreneur Of The Year.

The two men will represent Ireland at the World Entrepreneur Of The Year Awards in Monte Carlo in June, where they will compete with more than 60 leading entrepreneurs from around the world.

The software as a Service (SaaS) firm is headquartered in Blackpool and has more than 24,000 paying customers across 183 countries, employs 240 people, has a remote workforce in 18 countries, and lists some of the world’s most influential companies as clients, including Disney, Spotify and Netflix.

Here they offer some insights.

What vision/ lightbulb moment prompted you to start your business?

>> It was when we were running our own web development agency. We decided we needed a project management tool to help us become more organised.

When we looked at the market, the options were either too complex or so simple that they lacked basic features that any project management tool worth its salt would have had. That was when we decided to build our own.

Daniel Mackey and Peter Coppinger at the Teamwork.com offices in Blackpool.
Daniel Mackey and Peter Coppinger at the Teamwork.com offices in Blackpool.

What is the best thing about being located in Cork?

>> Cork has a lot to offer but work/life balance is probably the best thing about being located here.

We can run a successful business and at the same time we don’t have to spend three hours a day in traffic, which means we have more time to spend with our families as we both have young children.

We’re within driving distance to some really beautiful parts of the county/country and we’ve easy access to an airport. There’s always something happening here and there are some great little restaurants and bars to enjoy. It’s big enough to get that city vibe but small enough so you feel like you belong to a community.

What is the biggest obstacle you have faced on your journey?

>> In the early days of our web agency, we were struggling after one of our founding members left. We decided to take a brutally honest look at the business. Unfortunately, what we found, left us feeling dejected.

So, refusing to throw in the towel, we decided to give it one more year or get ‘real’ jobs. After making some changes, we got ourselves through the storm but that part of the journey taught us valuable lessons.

What were the best and worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

>> In the very early days, an adviser told us they wouldn’t help us because our idea would never work as there was too much competition.

They advised us to change tack — needless to say, we disagreed. The best advice was that you can be anything you want to be. As a result, we’ve never been afraid to dream big.

How important is a supportive business environment to your success?

>> Very. It helps to be surrounded by like-minded people where you can share information, give/get advice and learn from the environment around you.

If you could give the Government one piece of advice to help improve Cork for businesses based there, what would it be?

>> For businesses to do well in Cork, they need to be able to hire the best people. We’re competing with Dublin and other European cities for this type of talent. So the Government needs to consider how Cork can be a competitive city for people considering a move here. For example, the lack of housing is a huge problem at the moment and a solution needs to be found to that problem.

What is one thing readers might not know about you?

>> During our college days, we were rivals, we were both trying to sell the same thing to local businesses. It was through our mutual interest in gaming that we became friends and ultimately business partners.

VOXPRO CEO DAN KIELY: I’m like a broken record at this stage, but the Government needs to address the housing crisis

Voxpro is one of Cork’s bestknown modern business success stories. Founded by husband and wife Dan and Linda Kiely two decades ago, Voxpro has grown from a six-employee team above a Cork pub to a powerhouse employing almost thousands in Cork and Dublin, California and Georgia in the US; Bucharest in Romania; and Manila in the Philippines. Toronto-based Telus International bought a majority stake in the firm in 2017 worth around €40m.

Dan Kiely, CEO, Voxpro offers some insights.

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start your business?

>> My lightbulb moment came with the realisation that I could no longer ignore a burning desire to be in control of my own destiny — that is, to be my own boss and have the freedom to run my own company.

Having worked up to the role of general manager at wireless messaging company Pageboy, I had the belief that I could make the business even better than it was. A management buyout of the company soon followed and the rest, as they say, is history.

What is the best thing about being located in Cork?

>> There’s a real sense of togetherness among businesses and entrepreneurs in Cork and a willingness to help each other out. I’m sure  that’s something most people would say about the place in which they found business success, but I firmly believe that a true entrepreneurial spirit exists here. Cork is a place where people will continue to collaborate, innovate and give others a leg-up when needed.

Dan Kiely of Voxpro, the Cork-based firm that recently sold a €40m stake to a Canadian company
Dan Kiely of Voxpro, the Cork-based firm that recently sold a €40m stake to a Canadian company

What is the biggest obstacle you have faced on your journey?

>> We’ve had plenty of obstacles along the way but the one that always stands out is the time when we were merely a few hours away from closing our business due to financial pressures.

I see myself as quite the optimistic, however the outlook at the point looked very bleak. Luckily, we took some financial risks that paid off and got us out of that hole. It was a good lesson learned.

What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

>> In the early days of Voxpro, we were told to always hire the best and not to compromise on what you believe to be the right hire. Our people have always been our differentiator — their flexibility and skillsets have always set us apart as a different type of company.

In terms of the worst advice I’ve received, someone once told me never to mix business with personal relationships. Our success as a husband and wife team is proof that this is absolute rubbish! While it might be true for some, for others it’s an ingredient for success.

How important is a supportive business environment to success?

>> Hugely important. There’s only so far you can take a company when you haven’t got that local support behind you.

Business groups such as the American-Irish Chamber, the IDA, Enterprise Ireland, Cork Chamber and indeed, initiatives like the EY programme, have given us tremendous backing along the way and really helped us to connect with other companies and build a strong profile.

If you could give the Government one piece of advice to help improve Cork for businesses based there, what would it be?

>> I’m like a broken record at this stage, but the Government needs to address the housing crisis. We’ve felt it in both Dublin and Cork in recent years and have even had Voxpro staff resort to offering their own homes to new recruits in order to address their shortterm accommodation needs.

What is one thing readers might not know about you?

>> I was once offered a role in a movie. While I couldn’t avail of the opportunity at the time, I wouldn’t rule it out in the future — film directors take note!

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