Dec. 17, 2017, 6:08 p.m.
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December 17 2017 6:00 PM

What do the most successful people in corporate Ireland really think about where the country is at? A new book — Ireland Inc: A History of Irish Business — has gathered some fascinating interviews from some of the heaviest hitters in Irish business.

Carried out between 2013 and 2017, the interviews are a mixture of personal reflections and more general analysis of Ireland and its place in the volatile global economy. With Brexit a massive issue, what comes out strongly from many of the pieces is the importance that many of our most successful business people place on the positive impact EU membership has had on this country. Peter Sutherland’s observation that Ireland must continue to be “cautious and prudent” but should continue to have a positive view perhaps sums up the overall tone
Ireland Inc: A History of Irish Business, published by Ink Publishing, is in shops now.
Dermot Desmond has always had a quasi-public role in Ireland and has advised successive Irish governments on economic development issues. "The best contribution I've been involved in has definitely got to be the IFSC," he said in Ireland Inc. "In addition to direct employment we must consider what the IFSC has done for confidence, for identity, for the recognition of the country, for the auxiliary businesses it creates…"
Dermot Desmond has always had a quasi-public role in Ireland and has advised successive Irish governments on economic development issues. "The best contribution I've been involved in has definitely got to be the IFSC," he said in Ireland Inc. "In addition to direct employment we must consider what the IFSC has done for confidence, for identity, for the recognition of the country, for the auxiliary businesses it creates…"
If Desmond was to advise the government now, what would he say? "I don't believe that you can go along and say: what's the next big thing? The next big idea is happening at the present time without us knowing it. I think the next big idea is us creating our own Silicon Valley. Bringing that reservoir of knowledge from around the world, from the Googles, the Twitters, the Facebooks, all these tech companies that are in Ireland, and what they are going to throw out.
"That is of such value that I think we should recognise it and harness it. That is the next big idea, that's what is happening, and that is going to grow exponentially over the next few years and we should feed into that.
"We should recognise that those businesses are contiguous to all our lives in every single business, and we should embrace the knowledge and the advantage that they will give us. We should recognise that they are the fulcrum that will herald us into future success."
Desmond has little time for how Irish society treats success and failure in business. "We live in a world in Ireland where we are envious. We've come from a colonial history where everybody was hierarchical and everybody is watching each other's neighbour and how they've got on, so nobody ever likes to see anybody getting on,"
"People, in fact, like to see people down," he said. "I don't think people in Ireland like to see people coming back up, or coming up in the first place. Other people's success should not affect our own happiness. When we fully understand that, then a lot of people will have freedom."
He is positive about "the Irish entrepreneurial character and the creative team spirit. I work with some great Irish people. I'd prefer to have Irish people left and right of me going into battle in business than anybody else. I think they are supremely accomplished".
As Ireland Inc points out at the start of an entertaining and insightful interview, Peter Sutherland may well have the greatest CV on the planet: attorney general, European Commissioner, director general of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, director general of the World Trade Organisation (WTO), chairmanships of BP and Goldman Sachs.
With such vast experience it is therefore always worth listening when Sutherland delivers a warning. And although he says the Irish economy is in a good position, he believes that “we must be careful not to get carried away, because there are dangers still out there”.
Nevertheless, although Brexit will be bad for both Britain and the EU “it will not be a fatal blow to the Irish economy”, said Sutherland. Indeed, he predicts in the Ireland Inc interview that it could actually stimulate further foreign direct investment into the country.
He was part of a triumvirate of EU Commissioners who were responsible for the 1992 reforms, which included free movement of goods, persons, capital and services. “I had learned through my experience in government that this was nationally extremely important. We didn’t have enough of indigenous industry to present a future for our young people,” he said.
Sutherland also points to Ireland’s heavy debt burden as an issue that needs careful monitoring. “This is going to mean a continued need to be very cautious and prudent,” he said.
Yet he points out that in terms of the outlook for foreign direct investment, the future for Ireland is bright because of a number of advantages: an English-speaking country, being in the EU unlike the United Kingdom after Brexit, access to a vast market, and a demographic profile that is positive in terms of youth and education.
“Ireland should have a positive view of its own future,” said Sutherland. In relation to underpinning Ireland’s position as an open trading economy, he has a simple message: “Competitiveness will determine investment. We’re in an open market, and we absolutely need an open market in Europe to provide employment, so it is in our own hands to remain competitive.”
Sutherland recalls with pride his appointment as the first director general of the WTO: “It defined everything for me.”
As founder of CPL Recruitment, Anne Heraty has been at the coalface of the Irish economy since the 1980s. CPL has flourished since the economic recovery, with revenues up 10pc last year, not least because of Dublin’s vibrant tech and startup scene, she is quoted as saying in Ireland Inc.
“It’s a very exciting time, I would think, in the tech sector here in Ireland at the moment, both within the indigenous tech sector and also within the multinational sector. There’s a phenomenal startup ecosystem and it’s fantastic to see things like TechIreland and Startup Dublin and Startup Ireland ... that whole excitement around building businesses within the tech sector.
“The other thing that really strikes me about our young Irish graduates and entrepreneurs coming through is that they’re thinking global on day one now. They’re not thinking about a home market here, or whatever. They’re thinking about developing products for the global stage. I think it’s fantastic to see that. The combination of the global companies and the local indigenous entrepreneurial startup mindset here, and the skills and capabilities, is creating something quite special.”
Working with fast-growing FDI companies through the 90s was instructive, says Heraty. “Their thinking was different: it was more global, first of all. For us, in an island economy, that was important. They were very export-oriented. A lot of the time there was a big focus on learning and development, in terms of the quality and capability of their people.”
When she started out, it never occurred to Heraty that there were so few female entrepreneurs on the Irish business scene. “It really didn’t,” says Heraty. “It wasn’t something that crossed my mind at all — only when people pointed it out to me. Mind you, subsequently in the years that followed ... I had grown up in a family business; my mother had been quite a driver of that business so I suppose I had a good role model early on and I just never thought it would be any different.
“Like anyone, in the early years of growing the business, I was just very focused on building our own team and building our client relationships and all that — so I didn’t have much time to think about much else: just focused on the business. But as the business grew and developed it’s something that I became much more aware of, and indeed as I was growing my own team — the need for diversity within our own teams. That’s really when it came into focus for me.”
Businessman Denis O’Brien is enthusiastic about the prospects for the Irish economy and Ireland as a hub for new business ideas. However, over the past few decades this country has a lamentable record in developing small successful companies into much larger ones.
“The great difficulty we have is that people have great
business ideas, they set up the business, it makes €1m or €2m and goes on to make €5m,” said O’Brien,  who is the largest shareholder in Independent News & Media which publishes this newspaper.
“But they then get a tap on the shoulder from a big multinational saying ‘sell us your business’ and they then sell it. Instead of saying ‘maybe I should be the acquirer and become a big multinational’... Be the acquirer, not the person being acquired.”
He also argues that the Irish diaspora needs to be leveraged more effectively. “We need to be as strong as the Israeli lobby is in North America. It’s been haphazard. The Israelis have been very strategic and we need to be the same. We need to have a proper lobbying unit in Capitol Hill. At the moment we’ve a one-man lobbying effort in Niall O’Dowd — he’s on his own; he deserves a lot of support.
“The Australians can get a bill for their illegal immigrants, we can’t — I mean that’s ridiculous. We need government and the private sector putting money into hiring really smart people as lobbyists for the Irish cause. We need to create a deeper network effect.”
O’Brien also raised his concern that the Irish education system is not up to the standards needed to service a knowledge-based economy. “I think we have lost our way over the last five years in terms of education. I think there is ambition within the university sector, but to be ambitious you have to attract investment and philanthropy.
“When you read about Ireland’s falling rankings I’d say all the donors to all the universities are increasingly unhappy and saying: what is going on? I think the universities here need to do another divide-up — and UCD should specialise even more in some areas, and Trinity should do the same,” he said.
In the book, O’Brien recalled where he had received financial backing in his early career to assemble radio assets. “One of the reasons why I’m thankful to Anglo Irish Bank is because they lent me the money to do that — and that would never have happened without Anglo.
“The process they put me through in 1990 was a really rigorous credit process and we borrowed about IR£1.8m from them. I was interviewed by so many different people and they even brought me to dinner! I’d never had a banker bring me out to dinner.
“I remember [senior Anglo figure] Bill Barrett bringing me to the dogs to see if I had any vices, like did I own any greyhounds or was I a gambler.”
Padraig O hUiginn was one of the most prominent civil servants in recent Irish history. He spent five decades in the public sector before retirement in 1993, rising to serve as secretary general of the Department of an Taoiseach between 1982 and his retirement in 1993. There he played a prominent role in development of the International Financial Services Centre (IFSC) in Dublin’s Docklands in the late 1980s. In Ireland Inc, O hUiginn is quoted as saying that the problem with the Irish banking system over the past few decades was its inefficiency.
“The banking system was staffed by people who came in at the bottom of the rung a bit like the civil service — they had no real capacity; they just learned the business, they just knew the money came in and came out.” He believes that the recruitment process across the Irish banking system has to be reviewed.
He is also very critical of the 2008 State guarantee of the banking system, saying the government should have gone to the EU Commission and European Central Bank before introducing the wide-ranging guarantee that eventually undermined the sovereignty of the State, he says.
“They should have gone to Europe the next day and said ‘We have a problem and it’s your problem’. By the time they did go to Europe, the guarantee was already in place so it was too late.”
O hUiginn also said he would like to see a major reform to the institutions of government. “We have 15 government departments in a population of 4.4 million, and there are 15 sub-ministries and sub-departments and I am quite sure this is not necessary. I said this to Leo Varadkar before he became minister [for health, at the time]. I said you could run an empire with 15 government departments and he said the British did it with seven.”
He is perhaps best remembered for his close working relationship with the former Taoiseach Charles Haughey, who, he says, was a complex person with many different facets to his personality.
“He had that ability to make decisions: he was a different politician. Johnny Ronan [the property developer] tried to buy his estate, and he said to me it was terrible negotiating with Haughey. I said to him: “You forget you’re negotiating with three people — he was a politician, a lawyer and an accountant. You rarely meet that. ‘Jesus’, he said, ‘that’s what it was’. But when I would have one argument Haughey would come up with another.”
“If you’re worried about Europe, you have to be worried about Ireland in Europe ... there are big challenges for Europe unless we face up to some fundamental reform and start thinking about Europe’s competitiveness globally, rather than looking at how we compete with one another within Europe.”
Willie Walsh, chief executive IAG
“I think we’ve been very fortunate — I mean, luck has been on our side that an entity like the EEC evolved: that came at the right time when we realised we had to be competitive to make our way in the world ... I do believe it is time to refresh and judge again; things don’t stand still. The outer world is changing all the time. I’m not sure we follow every phase of that; take the lessons that we learn.”
TK Whitaker, Ireland’s most famous public servant, who died last January
The EU was “perhaps the single most important positive thing that happened ... because it lifted Ireland out from underneath the shadow of its bigger neighbour”.
On Ireland’s reliance on a low 12.5pc corporate taxation to attract a strong foreign direct investment base. “Would that still be the case if was a 40pc tax rate? If the reliance has been too great on continuing very aggressive tax regimes, that is a problem.”
Niall Fitzgerald, former ceo of Unilever
“Ireland held the mark on that and that took a lot of courage, because they desperately needed the funding ... they were right to do it, because that symbolised to people outside that the pro-business nature of Ireland was not going to change regardless of the economic situation that developed.”
Wilbur Ross, former Bank of Ireland investor and current US secretary of commerce, on resisting the pressure to raise corporation tax during the economic crash
“For me it was a gradual take-off. I was a member of the ITGWU [Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union] for a number of years. I don’t think a chief executive of any Irish listed company was ever a member of a trade union. I was a bit of a socialist; ‘up with the working man, down with the boss’.” But that socialist streak did not last long. “I ran my company a bit like a dictatorship. You had to do this to be successful.”
On 14-hour days and weekends spent travelling. “I hardly ever saw my family. I regret that now, but to achieve what I achieved the easiest thing to do was give up the home life.”
Michael Smurfit on leaving Clongowes Wood boarding school to join the family business at the age of 16
“For a long time I was of the view that you couldn’t teach entrepreneurship. I would have been convinced that if you wanted to make an entrepreneur you’d go to a certain part of Dublin, get a man who was selling cabbages and buy him a van. However, I spent some time at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), which convinced me that you may not be able to make entrepreneurs but that you could create a week-long boot-camp style course where people would learn to network, and be introduced to role models and international banks.”
Tony Ryan, founder of GPA and Ryanair
“As a small island on the periphery of Europe, we are constantly challenging ourselves as to what we believe we can do in the context of what is happening internationally. We don’t have the comfort of our larger European colleagues of a larger economy, and I think that has given us a resilience and a capability for change that many other countries do not have.”
Deirdre Somers, chief executive of the Irish Stock Exchange
“Six months into selling make-up, I knocked on a door. The woman of the house said she needed such-and-such so I went out to the car. The back seat was empty. All of the stock had been stolen. It was actually quite difficult to make a call, because there was no such thing as a mobile phone. I drove to the nearest telephone kiosk and I rang my boss. There and then I got my first P45!”
Leslie Buckley, INM chairman on a job he had while studying in UCC