INTERVIEW:Head of Paypal in Ireland, Louise Phelan is the woman who last month secured 1,000 new jobs in Ireland – and collared Taoiseach Enda Kenny to help her announce it. Now, all she has to do is fill them, she tells KATHY SHERIDAN
FORGET THE SMALL TALK. In a tailored black jacket and huge black shades, an iPad propped open on the table and a busy iPhone at her ear, Louise Phelan is all business. The Irish Times has been careful to turn up early. The original interview offer was for 30 minutes, later extended to a bare hour, so time is clearly at a premium here. Phelan still gets there before me.
Sipping sparkling water, she is hardly 10 minutes into her stride when a loudly demanding child takes up position nearby with his indifferent mammy. In one swift move, Phelan is up and gone, asking courteously for a quieter table. Decisive, no drama, job done.
As we move though the restaurant in her home village of Castleknock in Dublin, a few diners look twice. Don’t they know her from somewhere?
Indeed they do. This is the woman who dominated every front page and news bulletin in the Irish media on February 22nd, groomed and glowing in a blue suit, perfect blonde mane and dazzling white smile, the Taoiseach beside her, holding her hand in a death grip. Since Phelan – a vice president of PayPal, the online payments company owned by eBay – was there to announce a virtually miraculous 1,000 new jobs for a flat-lining Irish economy, Kenny’s wolfish grin was hardly surprising.
The new recruits, announced Phelan that morning, would be working on creating the “future of money . . . Our vision is to help people pay for things anytime, anywhere and on any type of electronic device.”
For the 46-year-old businesswoman, it was a personal triumph. “When I heard [we had the jobs for Ireland], I went home and had a glass of Champagne with my husband and said, ‘I’ve done it – and my team with me’.”
The media coverage was a big dollop of cream on the pie. “On Tuesday morning, very few people knew PayPal. On Wednesday morning, everyone was talking about PayPal. I wasn’t expecting that coverage, not in my wildest dreams.”
Yet she had engineered it just so. “I went into the Taoiseach’s office three weeks before that and said, ‘Hello, I’m going to give you 1,000 jobs, this is what I want from you . . .’ I said first of all, I wanted a full media briefing; second of all, I wanted his support; third of all, I wanted to make sure he was going to be there so I said ‘You need to be sure what day you’re going to be here’; and fourth, I wanted to make sure the press were there. So he said, ‘Sure’. His department did all the organising. He couldn’t have been more courteous, or more supportive.
“He’s a terribly nice man and has a hard job but he’s doing all the right things . . .” She certainly appears to be doing all the right things anyway. PayPal in Ireland already employs 1,600 people out of 10,000 worldwide (with 106 million active customers), so another 1,000 seems almost greedy.
Did Phelan plead a special case for us? In her answer – peppered with terms like “team-mates” (employees), “value props” (propositions), “support” (to describe almost every company operation), and EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa, her area of responsibility) – she says simply that business in Europe is growing, that the new facility had to happen somewhere in Europe to get the language support, and that after much research, she presented the value prop for Ireland to the board.
Didn’t they say, well, you would say that, wouldn’t you? “They might have. But my senior vice-president in the US, John McCabe, is of Irish extraction and knows Ireland. The reality is that it’s easy to bring the jobs to Ireland but I’m responsible for filling them so it’s not in my interests to sell him a pup either . . .”
Didn’t the old Irish bugbear of few to no other languages threaten to spoil the prop? She has nothing but good to say of the Irish work ethic, commitment, and “people focus”.
“A lot have very good common sense and a very good approach,” she says, but she does concede there is a “big problem here with languages”. The fact is the native workforce is not equipped to fill all those jobs. Half of PayPal’s current employees here are Irish and the majority of those do not have a second language.
Her biggest markets are the UK, Germany and France and she has nine other languages among the workforce. She has to go “in country” to hire people with languages.
“Of course we should continue to teach the Irish language but there should be teaching of a second language at primary level, when children are sponges and able to learn it. But equally, I see a lot of children learning languages today in college, to university standard, and they can’t speak them. That’s the challenge.”
Meanwhile, she is working with Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn and with DCU and UCD on incorporating a business module into students’ studies.
“The problem is students are going in, learning the theory, but have no critical thinking skills, no outside-the-box skills, no world view, no big-picture thinking. They have all the theory and none of the practice and then they come in and want my job. And they can have it” . . . there is a pregnant silence. “No, they can’t,” she laughs. Out of her cold dead hands.
Recruitment for the new Dundalk facility hasn’t even begun, yet the media coverage has ensured 1,600 CVs have already flooded in, many of them submitted by anxious mammies on behalf of offspring. While the average age in PayPal is 30, Phelan is introducing programmes for part-time workers, which should attract a more experienced demographic. The Leaving Cert is essential, though experience is not.
Sloppy spellers need not apply. “The amount of bad spelling mistakes in CVs is embarrassing; at least 20 per cent will have them. Grammar is an issue too . . . If you can’t write a CV, you certainly can’t work for me.
“The reality is I have to give every customer the best service we can give. If the best service is me having to teach you how to read and write, that’s not going to work for me. I need people who are presentable, who have passion, who have interest. There is a PayPal culture you have to fit into. We are a very fast-moving culture, with a very can-do attitude. My team is very focused on results, very focused on customer service.” And heavily dependent on achieving targets.
For those who can’t wait, the news is that PayPal is constantly hiring in Blanchardstown. Phelan has 54 places to fill this month and reckons there are plenty of jobs out there for those with the “skillset”.
“This week, we had four no-show/no-calls. That means four people who accepted the job, who were due to show up for training last Monday and didn’t – and did not communicate either.”
This is almost unfathomable to a woman like Phelan, whose parents drilled the work ethic into their 17 children. When there were just four children, her late father Patrick, a farmer, auctioneer and Fianna Fáil county councillor in Co Laois, and her mother Delia, bought an old rectory.
“It had 11 bedrooms and my parents filled it. That was their plan”. They also managed to put all 17 of their children through private boarding schools. Clearly a tight unit, they remain devastated by the death in 2010 of 60-year-old Kieran, a Senator described as “a lifelong friend” by Brian Cowen.
A brother, Brendan, is a Laois county councillor and has taken over the home farm, another is a senior executive in Glanbia and another a director of Veolia Water.
Her sisters include a senior accountant, a Montessori school owner, another who works part-time in Trinity, and another who works in the patents office in Kilkenny.
Phelan herself set a different course after leaving the Brigidine convent school in Mountrath by going into paediatric nursing. She dropped out in her final year, sensing she became too emotionally attached to her patients.
An eight-week commercial course followed, after which she landed a job with Mars Ireland. Two years later, she began a night degree course in law and economics in Rathmines, and a month after that, moved to Woodchester (which was taken over by General Electric), whose methodology and rigorous internal training, she reckons, were as good as any MBA. The company reimbursed her course costs when she graduated.
While her trajectory seems fairly seamless, she says glass ceilings “do exist, of course they do. But it’s not just about women. It’s a lack of diversity generally and organisations like that are missing out.
“You will see tables with no blue-collar males, or African-Americans, or people of different religion. All the cultures add value to organisations.”
After 16 years in GE, she was headhunted by PayPal, a company she had never heard of. Still, it took 14 interviews to land the job. Part of the attraction was the proximity of Paypal’s Blanchardstown base to Castleknock. Presumably, they also offered a lot more money?
“Of course,” she says emphatically, though sadly, she won’t say how much. “Plenty of money, plenty of what I needed.
“I’m not green behind the ears when it comes to looking for financial reward, I work very hard and I’m paid for the work I do. But I’m also a realist and I’m not greedy.”
The mid-2000s were obviously a busy time for her since she also met Noel Kelly, her husband-to-be in Doheny Nesbit’s, after a Leinster rugby match. They married in 2009.
Noel, a builder with a yard in Ballycullen, built housing estates in the bubble years. Now, like most in construction, he is doing renovations, conservatories and extensions.
“That’s life. Thankfully after his last estate, he didn’t buy anything and he’s been busy all along, touch wood. He’s a carpenter by trade, a very good one. He’s been through recessions before and he manages to keep himself afloat and supports the family.”
Her step-children, aged 14 and 16, are with them every weekend, she says, “fantastic kids, very good to their mom and dad . . . we have fun and a laugh . . . I’ve never had a cross word with either of them. I know children. I love them. I have 54 nieces and nephews.”
Despite her busy working life and travel, Noel and her family – her 87-year-old mother and her tight-knit siblings – are her priorities.
“I don’t need my work life to be balanced for me. I balance my own.” That means being in the gym in Castleknock village by 6am or 6.30am every day, lifting weights, for half an hour.
“That’s my time, it clears my head, gets me focused.” Several nights a week, she takes long walks in the Phoenix Park. “Every morning we’re both gone by 6.15am but I will always try to be home for dinner with him by seven.”
Noel is the cook in the household and a good one, happily making dinner every evening, factoring in her no-carbs eating policy. “I go through phases of trying to avoid bread and potatoes, though it’s harder if you’re travelling. I wouldn’t be religious about it. White wine is my weakness but if that’s the worst, I suppose I’m not doing too badly.”
She is relaxed about the calls that have to be taken and online matters that have to dealt with while watching Coronation Street. Whatever happens, she is in her bed by 10 or 10.30pm most nights.
Every Saturday is spent with her mother, who lives in Ballsbridge. “She’s just amazing and we all take it in turns. Saturday is my day and I’m at her door at 9am. We go off and have a laugh, get the nails done, go for lunch, do a bit of shopping.”
For her and Noel, golf lies somewhere in the future and perhaps an early retirement. “I definitely won’t go on till I’m 60,” she says firmly.
Mmmh. A revisit in 10 years could be interesting.