Firing ahead through rose-tinted glasses


Norman Crowley is almost the textbook definition of an entrepreneur and his track record of successful start-ups suggests there’s more to come, writes FIONA REDDAN

IF YOU’VE never heard of him before, Norman Crowley gives a succinct summation of himself. “The famous thing about me is that I was two hours away from closing a deal for a billion dollars,” he says, still a hint of dismay in his voice that the deal went belly-up. But with his new energy efficiency company, Crowley is hoping to put the wrongs of the past to right – and this time, get that $1 billion deal across the finishing line.

A farmer’s son from Cork, Crowley is almost the textbook definition of an entrepreneur. With no third-level education, he has never worked for anyone else and started his first company, Trinity Commerce, in 1995 with just a “passion for technology and engineering”. It quickly became Ireland’s biggest internet provider, and in 1999, after growing it to 150 employees, he sold it, at the age of 29, to Eircom for £14 million (€17.8 million).

He retired for six months after the sale, but was soon back at work, looking out for his next big idea. In 2001, he was temporarily distracted from his path by the collapse of Trinity Commerce, which had become Ebeon under Eircom. “It was profitable when I sold it,” he asserts, adding that the experience was a “harsh lesson”. But if there was a lesson in Ebeon’s collapse, another one was on the way.

His new company, Inspired Gaming, was soon setting the standard globally for server-based gaming, and by late 2007 it was attracting the interest of Icelandic hedge fund FL Group. When FL launched a $1 billion bid for Inspired, it appeared that Crowley and his team had hit the big time. However, after months of due diligence, two hours before Crowley was due to sign on the dotted line, FL ran out of money as Iceland went bust.

“We were waiting for a car to take us to the lawyers,” recalls Crowley, adding that he found the experience “completely devastating”. “It affects you very, very deeply. We didn’t need the money, but I saw it as a huge coup. It was a rite of passage to be able to do that.”

But Crowley picked himself up – “fear motivates you” – and before long he left the company. This time, Crowley forgot about retirement and set straight to work looking for an idea for a new company. Unlike would-be entrepreneurs waiting to be struck by lightning with a world beating idea, for him, the idea doesn’t come first – the ambition does.

“We research a space and figure out an opportunity. It doesn’t just come to us,” he says. He looked into renewable energy first, but decided it wasn’t a great business model, so concentrated on energy efficiency. “Nobody else was really doing it,” he notes. As a result Crowley Carbon was born, to save companies “large amounts of money” by reducing their energy spend. With no global leader in the market, Crowley is keen to position his company in that space. To date, it’s been a “phenomenal success”, with revenues last year of about €16 million, and has been profitable for the past 12 months.

He’s also working on establishing Navitas, which will sell software to enable engineers to cut their company’s energy costs. “It’s not an app for 99c – it’s an app for $100,000,” he says, adding that he has also set up Capital-e, a €300 million fund to invest in energy projects. And he’s also working 16 hours a day, seven days a week to pull off that goal he still dreams of.

“I’m working harder on this one than I’ve ever worked before,” he says, adding that he has a four-year time frame to getting that $1 billion deal. To cope with these growth prospects, Crowley is hiring about one staff member a week, but his management style may not be for every potential recruit. Inspired by some of the great business leaders such as Jack Welch of General Electric, Crowley has his own take on how to boost company performance. “It involves firing people,” he laughs, pointing out that he aims to get rid of employees ranked in the bottom 20 per cent every quarter. But his current crop must be working out given that he hasn’t fired anyone in eight months.

“We’re very good bosses and at the same time, very scary,” he admits, adding: “This isn’t a polite organisation. I’m very clear about what we’re doing here.” But his tough approach to HR becomes more understandable when he explains some of the candidates he has encountered. “I asked one interviewee why he wanted to work with us. He said, ‘I don’t want to work here. I don’t want to work at all. My Dad made me come to this interview’.”

And while some employees might face the chop, others are amply rewarded. Many of his team have been with him since 1995 – he describes them as the “Ronaldos or the Brian O’Driscolls of engineering” – while one new recruit was promoted four times in one year.

Crowley is also crystal clear on the corporate culture he wants to develop. From his penthouse office suite in Powerscourt, Co Wicklow, Crowley views the world through rose-tinted lenses – and encourages his staff to do the same. In his world, there is no television news, no newspapers – and no negativity.

“It’s very important to stay positive. There is a lot of negativity around. Tune in to the things you want to tune into. We only talk about positive things,” he says. When a teacher at his childrens’ school started teaching them about the recession, he was moved to talk her out of doing so. “I see a lot more value in learning about how Richard Branson is such a success than in how Seanie Fitz f***ed up.”

He has little time for people complaining that there are no jobs in Ireland. “I was sitting a dinner party next to a conveyancing lawyer, who said business was tough. I asked him for how long – he said three years. It’s about change.” But perhaps his approach can be summed up in the acronym “DOTF”. It’s a phrase he first heard when touring India last year as part of the Ernst Young Entrepreneur of the Year. One of his peers in the competition coined it in his speech, but Crowley took it on board so much that it now emblazons the sleeves of his employees’ jackets when they’re out on client visits. So what does it mean? Well, Crowley’s interpretation is that when something looks like it’s not going to work out, you “Drive on to F***”. “Just move on,” he advises.

We’re very good bosses and at the same time, very scary. This isn’t a polite organisation

* This article was edited on 02/05/13 to correct an error.