Computer whizz making sense of supply chain puzzles

Decade of disruption sees companies open to tapping Keelvar’s AI-driven software to get products and components to market in time

Perched at his kitchen table in an open-neck polo shirt, framed on the laptop screen by the floral print curtains hanging on his window, it is, on the surface at least, difficult to disagree with Alan Holland when he says he’s the “antithesis” of many tech start-up types. He doesn’t speak in the corporate gibberish of Silicon Valley, for one. Neither is the former academic inclined to bore with technobabble about his software company, Keelvar Systems’ capabilities.

Yet the Bandon native is the founder and chief executive of a business that appears poised to make a splash and counts household names — multinationals such as Coca-Cola and Siemens — among its customers. Fresh from a €24 million Series B funding round in May, Keelvar has raised more than €40 million since 2020 from investors who, like Holland, are convinced that it provides a vital service to large public and private buying organisations in an increasingly unpredictable world. It’s also set to unveil new products over the coming months and to “aggressively target” the US market.

There has, it is probably safe to say, never been such public interest in supply chains and how businesses acquire their components and products. The unassuming Holland is having to get used to being in demand.

“I was never expecting to have American news outlets [such as CNBC and the New York Times] asking me questions,” he says, after being thrust into the role of unlikely public commentator of sorts by global events in recent years.

READ MORE

Keelvar’s artificial intelligence-driven software products help businesses gain “richer information” from their suppliers so they can avoid waste, cut down on costs and make often opaque auction processes more efficient

“I wouldn’t ever have been expecting to talk about, let’s say, how our customers are sourcing grain in Ukraine and what the alternatives are. Or car producers in Germany — they were very dependent on steel from eastern Ukraine — so they had to change supply lines very quickly.”

But he says just had to “roll with it”.

Rolling with it is exactly what Irish businesses have had to do, with the global supply chain in a terrible “state of chassis” for the better part of three years now. What is beginning like a Homeric catalogue of unexpected events has roiled not just international freight transport, but production itself.

While these issues are mostly in Asia, ripples and shock waves are being felt across the globe. First it was Brexit, then the pandemic, the 2021 Suez Canal blockage, then the war in Ukraine, the return of Covid-19 lockdowns in China and now, more locally, port strikes in the United Kingdom.

Climate change, already leaving an unmistakable mark, is likely to heighten these challenges over the coming years, experts believe. Freight transport links may well be threatened by rising sea levels and supplies of components and commodities cut off or severely hampered by extreme weather.

Keelvar’s artificial intelligence-driven software products — oversimplifying it greatly — help businesses gain “richer information” from their suppliers, Holland says, so they can avoid waste, cut down on costs and make often opaque auction processes more efficient. “You can then start to piece together multiple suppliers” like “a big complex jigsaw puzzle,” he says, matching buyers with a supplier or multiple suppliers as an insurance policy against mishaps.

It is this puzzle that Holland has been piecing together since he was a teenager. Starting his career in a dairy company in west Cork, Holland’s father “went out on his own”, he says, setting up a small family chemicals company. “While we were in school, he set up that company so we kind of witnessed company formation, start-up days in the 1980s, an era where there was no such thing as venture capital,” he says.

“Myself and my brother’s bedroom would have served as an office. When I was 13 or 14, I would have been taking calls as a part-time receptionist, and around the dinner table would have been group discussions.”

Because of that upbringing, Holland and his siblings were “immersed in the business life” from a tender age. “Everyone had to pitch in. Everyone had their part to play whether it was designing a logo or acting as receptionist or helping with some of the accounts. Whatever it took, you made it work.”

Despite this hands-on experience, Holland says it was not always his ambition to be a businessman. A maths whizz, he says he “was actually more interested in getting on the Irish international Olympiad team for mathematics at that age. I didn’t make it in the end but I learned an awful lot along the way. And I think that that’s what gave me a taste for mathematics and computer science.”

Holland’s mother gave him his first computer when he was in second year at school. His family were the first on his road to get the internet in 1991 or 1992 “mainly to allow us to send invoices to customers through email”.

This confluence of interests led him down the academic route. He studied computer engineering at the University of Limerick before taking a job in the field for about 18 months, he says, until the company pulled a project he had been working on. “I was very frustrated by that and I had to get out”

Holland returned to the academic world, doing a PhD in computer science in University College Cork. It was here that the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle really started to come together for him.

“Luckily, there was an AI research lab in UCC just starting up, which Prof Eugene Freuder and Prof Barry O’Sullivan were getting off the ground, and I was one of the first PhD students in there.”

For money, he went back working for his parents’ chemicals company. “They gave me the job of responding to tenders and procurement teams in large multinationals they were buying from. I could see that procurement had huge problems — problems in how they ran the requests for tenders, how they requested quotes for auctions but also for their suppliers. They’re almost as blind to the problems as the buyers.”

Holland worked on several projects during his PhD attempting to meld artificial intelligence with ecommerce, a growing field of study at that time. He also wound up lecturing for seven years in the computer science department at UCC, designing courses and leading the university’s masters course in intelligent systems. Despite his love for academia, he insists he’s not an academic in businessman’s clothing, “quite the opposite”, he says.

When the Government finances were in terrible shape, we thought we could really help the HSE and other organisations, but they were just too slow. They required too many people to approve anything. We had to move on then because we had large enterprises telling us that enterprise procurement processes are somewhat different

—  Alan Holland

It was one of these research projects that morphed into what is now Keelvar, an anglicisation of the Irish word “ciallmhar”, which translates as “sensible” as béarla.

“I had some companies knocking on my door saying: ‘The problems you’re solving in procurement, we have them. We can identify with that and our suppliers can identify that’. So we did some one-off projects, and they were very successful. It kind of just showed up the fact that there was so much waste occurring inadvertently. Nobody was deliberately causing it but they just didn’t have the tools to do things efficiently.”

In 2012, with Keelvar beginning to shape, Holland left the relative security of academia for the decidedly less assured world of business. Those first few years were very difficult, he says. Initially, Keelvar’s software had been aimed at public procurement but the results were mixed, particularly in Ireland, where government departments and local authorities suddenly found themselves on a very tight leash in the years of fiscal austerity following the global financial crisis.

“When the Government finances were in terrible shape, we thought we could really help the HSE and other organisations, but they were just too slow. They required too many people to approve anything. We had to move on then because we had large enterprises telling us that enterprise procurement processes are somewhat different.”

That meant the company had to start rebuilding its software from scratch. “That was a hard decision because we would have been low on cash. But it was the right decision.”

After some difficult years, the puzzle was starting to come together properly in 2016. Employing fewer than 10 people at the time, Keelvar hired its first VP of sales which “really accelerated revenue growth” and attracted some heavy-hitting customers such as Siemens, Penneys’ owner Associated British Foods, Tesco and even Nestlé.

There were similar products on the market at the time, Holland acknowledges but he says they were not nearly as user friendly as Keelvar’s, which is what gave the company an edge. The only way to get these large buyers who frequently deal with “dozens or hundreds of suppliers” to look at you was to give them something easy to use.

The results speak for themselves. In 2020, Keelvar raised €18 million or so in Series A funding round led by Elephant and Mosaic Ventures with participation from Paua Ventures. “So now, for the first time in a long time, we had cash and we kind of started hiring more aggressively.”

If 2020 was the year that changed everything for Keelvar, as Holland says, 2022 has been another landmark. The company completed a €24 million Series B round, led by the UK-based venture capital firm 83 North, which Holland says will help it tackle the US market more aggressively, hiring more people. In fact, the company plans to double its headcount by the end of 2023, he says, and he is expecting annual revenue to double to €10 million this year.

At a time when tech companies globally are trying to reduce cash burn, there must have been some temptation for Keelvar to pump the brakes. Not at all, says Holland, because the company has moved at a very steady pace throughout its lifetime. “An American company wouldn’t have been as slow [to hire and start to spend cash] as we were. We’ve stayed in third and fourth gear where [other companies] have gone into fifth and had to go back into reverse.”

That sort of grounded approach has informed his management style, he says.

“I think that with our team, we’ve hired people who want to solve problems and who aren’t looking for CEO hero types who are going to come in all guns blazing. I would always be telling recruits when they’re joining, that we prefer to trust people to do the job and not be micromanaging. I like to delegate. I like to hire people who know more about a subject than I do.

I think companies need, in effect, to be buying insurance and not being overly reliant on individual suppliers or individuals. And that’s why sourcing dual supplies and alternative routes for movements, shipments of goods, is kind of central to mitigation of these risks

“I suppose I’m like the antithesis of many tech leaders who are very ego-driven. And I think that’s what I always tried to avoid is decision making based on ego.”

True to his academic background, Holland is firm in his opinions but without being rigid. He believes a lot of the issues with supply chains in recent years have been misdiagnosed. “The fiscal policy response to the pandemic [which propped up consumer demand in the world’s most advanced economies] caused global supply chain problems to a large extent. And I think it’s a lesson then that stimulus packages need to be more carefully thought through.”

But were supply chains not also shown up to be weaker than previously thought? Holland admits supply chains have proved “fragile” under strain but the problem is a lack of information, he says.

“Along the path of getting goods from China to stores in Europe and the United States, there are different actors, and they don’t have an incentive to necessarily think holistically about that entire chain ... the chain is only as strong as its weakest link.”

Are the shocks to the global economy and, in turn, supply chains becoming more frequent, as even figures such as Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe have suggested? They may well be, says Holland. “I think we just need to err on the side of expecting these black swan events,” Holland says. “But it’s all about being prepared.

“I think companies need, in effect, to be buying insurance and not being overly reliant on individual suppliers or individuals. And that’s why sourcing dual supplies and alternative routes for movements, shipments of goods, is kind of central to mitigation of these risks.

“That’s one of the reasons we’ve seen such pickup in business: companies are appreciating the importance of sourcing excellence”.

CV

Name: Alan Holland

Title: Founder & CEO, Keelvar

Age: 44

Lives: Cork

Family: Married to Anne Marie, who is involuntarily conscripted into Keelvar’s finance team. They have four children: Keelin, Jack, Amy and Shane — aka, the future conscripts.

Outside interests: GAA & running “but not with our VP of product, Chris Walsh or chief software engineer, Barry Hurley any more as they leave me behind”.

Something about him that might surprise: “I am the coach of Valley Rovers U13 and U9 GAA teams, widely known in GAA circles as the greatest underage teams to ever grace the hallowed turf of the world-renowned Bleach pitch in Innishannon village. Future All Ireland club champions.”

Ian Curran

Ian Curran

Ian Curran is a Business reporter with The Irish Times