Remembering Kevin Melia, a brilliant mentor for Iona
Without his wise understanding, Iona would never have been the success it became
Kevin Melia at an Iona AGM in 2007. Photograph: Matt Kavanagh
I hadn’t “seen the movie before”. None of us had. I was a rookie chief executive, straight out of academia with our spin-out company Iona. My co-founders, like me, were first-time executives. We were a small team of about a dozen people, almost all software engineers, based in Dublin. Our balance sheet was relatively weak, and we had to survive month by month by staying profitable. We had tried – and failed – to raise external investment from business angels and venture funds. We even tried to obtain bank loans.
It was the autumn of 1993. In June of that year, we bet pretty much most of our company’s cash reserves launching our first software product, Orbix, at a major trade show in San Francisco. We signed some of our first customers as a direct result of the show. More significantly, we had also attracted the attention of a major computer firm in Silicon Valley, Sun Microsystems (now a part of Oracle). Based on our new product, Sun was extremely interested in negotiating a commercial deal with us to license our technology, including taking an equity stake in our company.
I first met Kevin Melia during this period. From Ashford, Co Wicklow, he had risen through the ranks of Digital Equipment Corporation, first in Galway and then in their Massachusetts global headquarters. He next moved to Sun Microsystems in California where he became the chief financial officer. At the time I first met him, Kevin had already decided to resign his position as chief financial officer at Sun to found his own start-up in Boston, Manufacturers Services Ltd (MSL).
Kevin strongly believed the Irish indigenous technology sector could, and should, produce its own technology multinationals, and so offered to join our Iona board in Dublin as a non-executive. I was delighted and extremely grateful: frankly we needed all the experience we could find.
Unlike me, Kevin had “seen the movie before”, as he referred to how the story unfolds in a young growing company. He had considerable insights in nurturing a small organisation to global scale. He had the wisdom – and wounds – that result from the challenges of managing a fast international expansion in the cut-throat technology sector. He proved it again, as he went on to float MSL as a global corporation on the New York stock exchange in June 2000, with an ultimate sale to Celestica in 2004.
Kevin became our non-executive chairman. He played a strong role, not only guiding strategic discussions at board level but also steering us to clarity and timely decisions, especially where there was disagreement. However, he provided even higher personal value to me as he became the experienced mentor and coach to my CEO apprenticeship.
I felt comfortable in disclosing to Kevin, on a confidential basis, many of the concerns and issues that inevitably arose from our dramatic expansion. He guided me through some very delicate discussions with Sun a few years later, when they were keen to acquire the remaining equity of our company (they already owned just under 20 per cent).
We were equally adamant to float Iona on the Nasdaq exchange. At the end of a year of challenging negotiations, the Sun board of directors agreed to permit Iona to proceed to an IPO. Six different legal teams became involved, with both US and Irish counsel for each of Iona, for our underwriters, and for Sun. Kevin’s quiet reassurance was invaluable as I struggled through lengthy multi-party conference calls late into the Irish night with our Californian partners.
Apart from boardroom and investor issues, Kevin coached me on managing inevitable crises. One of his observations was “Chris, you do not do business with companies, but with people”. By that he meant that personal contact by me, as CEO, can both drive and also sustain business. Despite our internal processes and professionalism, from time to time errors inexorably found their way into our software products. My direct personal relationship with my counterparts in several of our customers helped calm otherwise fraught situations, as our technology occasionally temporarily impaired the operational business systems of some of our clients.
Kevin had high “emotional intelligence”. He memorably told me that many of our employees were giving me some of their best years of their working lives. I thus had an obligation to try and ensure that each improved their CV by the mere fact of working at Iona.
He observed that when each eventually and inevitably did move on from the company, that their career should have been enhanced. I thus tried to be proactive about skills development, training, career progression, opportunities via rotation of posts, and so on.
At our peak, we were 1,200 people in over 30 offices worldwide: Kevin’s advice on how to maintain corporate cohesion with a widely diverse cultural workforce was deep.
Kevin sadly passed on the June 17th last, in Massachusetts, at the relatively young age of 67. He was a wonderful coach, mentor and chairman for me.
Without his wise understanding, Iona would never have been the success it became.