The spider-cam plummeted from the ceiling, its bid for freedom leaving a slab of cabled audio equipment dangling above the fast-dispersing crowd. Nobody was hurt. Instead everyone inside Lisbon’s Altice Arena pointed their phones roof-ward and posted footage of the incident.
It doubled as the perfect visual metaphor for 2022.
Just as a one-time lending boss’s bid to escape an RTÉ journalist’s questions by trying to go up a down escalator came to represent the unravelling of the property boom, the sight of Web Summit attendees gazing upward at a honk of unmoored technology seemed symbolic of the present peril.
For the business world, 2022 was a year of uncertainty – uncertainties, plural. How bad will 2023 be? Will it be bad at all? It seemed the sensible thing to do was just clear the area, stand back and wait for further instruction.
Not everyone had a terrible 2022 – not in comparison to its two immediate predecessors anyway – but let’s start, as is tradition, with those for whom the year could have been better.
“Today we’re announcing the hardest change we have had to make at Stripe to date,” began a November email to employees from chief executive Patrick Collison and president John Collison. It was a month of carnage right across the tech sector, with Stripe’s “goodbye to many talented stripes” – as employees of the fintech company are known internally – coming on the eve of Elon Musk’s slashing-and-burning of the Twitter workforce.
The Irish brothers displayed a humility not exemplified by the Chief Twit, admitting that 1,000 stripes – 14 per cent of the total – were being made redundant because of “consequential mistakes” they had made: expanding too quickly and being “too optimistic”.
Such mistakes were not unique to Stripe. But the Collison brothers had such a phenomenal 2021, when their payments company was valued at $95 billion – giving it “decacorn”, even near “hectocorn” status – that the 28 per cent internal devaluation of the company in July to $74 billion came to represent the new realism.
For an Irish tech start-up like Wayflyer, the correction wiped the gloss off a shiny start to the year. In February, a funding round took its valuation to $1.6 billion, making it Ireland’s newest unicorn, and it announced plans to expand its global workforce from 250 people to 600 by the end of the year.
But by November, having reached a headcount of 500, the ecommerce financier was feeling the chill from “tech winter”, and it announced a 200-job retrenchment. “In hindsight we tried to do too much too soon,” said co-founder and chief executive Aidan Corbett.
For Altada Technology Solutions, 2022 was categorically bad. Led by married duo Allan Beechinor and Niamh Parker, the Cork-based data management and artificial intelligence company went into receivership after months of speculation about its future, which had seen it furlough a number of staff on a “temporary” basis due to “unforeseen market conditions”.
The company had unicorn aspirations before a delay to a planned funding round led to financing issues. “It’s no secret that we’ve had our difficulties,” said Beechinor, shortly before the appointment of the receiver. The pair were, at the time, still nominees for the EY award for emerging entrepreneurs – unsurprisingly, the trophy didn’t have their names on it. Before year-end, a provisional liquidator had been appointed.
But if tech winter proved an unsettling stifler of ambition, actual winter was dismal for thousands of small businesses – including cafes, restaurants and shops – struggling with labour shortages, inflation in ingredient costs and, the final straw for some, surging energy bills.
Energy prices were already swelling alarmingly in 2021, but at the start of 2022 the risk of further escalation was overshadowed by another, more immediate foe: Omicron. It is easy to forget that 2022 began under Covid curfew, with pubs and restaurants obliged to shoo customers out the door at 8pm.
Micheál Martin struck a hopeful tone as he lifted the regulations in mid-January. “Spring is coming, and I don’t know if I have ever looked forward to one as much as this one,” the then Taoiseach said.
The pandemic wasn’t over yet, however – there was still time for Covid to upend his St Patrick’s Day, a positive test wrecking his White House plans. Indeed, Martin didn’t have the best of luck with his American trips this year: his Aer Lingus flight to the UN General Assembly in New York in September had to make an emergency U-turn after a bird strike.
But even without unplanned ornithological interventions, air travel was a bumpy affair for many people in 2022. By June it was apparent that while we were ready to travel again, Dublin Airport and a certain airline – Aer Lingus – wasn’t ready for us to travel, and not just because they seemed to be constantly running out of toilet roll and Pringles respectively.
DAA chief executive Dalton Philips had already announced his departure to sandwich-seller Greencore by the Sunday when queues outside Dublin’s terminals snaked so long the airport was forced to tweet that those waiting would likely miss their flight. More than 1,000 did.
There was a new destination on the outgoing DAA boss’s itinerary: Leinster House’s Committee Room 2. Amusingly the blizzard of apologies to the Oireachtas Transport Committee was undone by the admission that he had availed of the DAA’s €295 Platinum Services facility for “VIP personalised treatment” on the weekend of the chaos. “I think it’s important to experience all our products,” he gamely suggested to Sinn Féin senator Lynn Boylan.
Alas, the Dublin Airport Experience was not a vintage one for many all summer and, come September, there was yet more havoc for Aer Lingus passengers when a “major incident” at its cloud-based network provider led to the breakdown of its check-in and boarding systems. This time some 11,000 people had their flights cancelled – many of them stranded abroad with little communication from the airline – and 21,000 had flights delayed. The collapse in service meant only one thing for Aer Lingus chief executive Lynne Embleton: a date in Committee Room 2.
Planes were involved in another sort of drama this year. That’s not a great sentence to hear in any context, but add the words “illegal war” and you get a sense of the stakes.
It’s true that when Vladimir Putin’s Russia began raining missiles down upon Kyiv and multiple other Ukrainian cities after its illegal invasion of the country, prompting the European Commission to issue sanctions, nobody had much bandwidth left to worry “but what about the aviation leasing companies?”
The fallout was nevertheless expensive for Irish aircraft leasing giant AerCap, led by chief executive Aengus Kelly, which had told its Russian airline clients that it was terminating their leases and asked them to return the planes. Instead they were simply re-registered in Russia.
Down 116 aircraft and 23 spare engines, it was time for AerCap to call its insurance companies. But with both its “all-risk” (excluding war) cover providers, led by US insurer AIG, and its war-risk providers, led by the Lloyd’s of London insurance market, insisting that the aircrafts’ seizure did not constitute a loss for insurance purposes, a €3.5 billion case at the High Court in London beckoned. Other Irish-based lessors – Avolon, BOC Aviation and CDB Aviation – were soon suing their insurers too.
The Biggest business stories of 2022
Meanwhile, Ukraine, entering winter with a severely damaged energy infrastructure and several cities reduced to rubble, continues to endure the brutal misery of Russian bombs.
Word of the year, according to the British-published Collins Dictionary, was “permacrisis” – a word describing the feeling of living through a period of war, inflation and political instability. But 2022 was not without its redeeming features for certain corners of Irish business.
Bank of Ireland might have been fined a record €100.5 million by the Central Bank in September for its role in the State’s tracker mortgage scandal, but two months later there was an early Christmas present. Not only were bonuses of up to €20,000 back at the bailed-out banks, but Bank of Ireland, by virtue of having returned to full private ownership, would no longer be subject to a €500,000 salary cap. Executive pay restrictions, it seemed, were just so 2009.
The proposals were brought to Cabinet by then minister for finance Paschal Donohoe, now Minister for Public Expenditure, NDP Delivery and Reform following the Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael handover.
While there have been less nightmarish years to be in charge of an economy, the year was not without its triumphs for Donohoe, who was re-elected as president of the Eurogroup – the informal collective for euro zone finance ministers – despite his move out of the finance job.
But he didn’t have to do much at all to achieve his biggest victory: not being ill-fated UK chancellor of the exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng. In October, economist Austin Hughes posited that the contrast between the Government’s Budget 2023 and the costly fallout from the UK’s mini-budget fiasco “may have had some small positive influence” on Irish consumer sentiment. As our nearest neighbours were busy demonstrating, things can always be worse.
If Donohoe was in contention for the “looking effortlessly better than his peers” award, so too was Michael O’Leary. As airports and airlines across Europe scrambled to staff up to meet the rebound in demand, Ryanair looked clever by comparison: it hadn’t used the pandemic as an opportunity for deep lay-offs. It also didn’t fly through Heathrow, one of the worst affected airports.
After reporting record profits of €1.4 billion for the first half, O’Leary was in ebullient form, bar the odd pop at Dublin Airport predicting it wouldn’t be able to cope with Christmas getaways. He has no plans to go anywhere himself, with the airline confirming he will remain as group CEO until 2028.
Also making a point of determining her own exit route this year was head of Twitter Ireland Sinéad McSweeney, the social media company’s vice-president of global public policy and philanthropy and a woman who knows her way around the Irish legal system.
Locked out of Twitter’s IT system and Cumberland Place office after not responding to a vague email ultimatum sent to all remaining employees by Musk, its capricious new owner, McSweeney secured a temporary High Court injunction preventing Twitter from terminating her employment. Within days Twitter told the High Court it had restored her to her position. A point of principle – and law – had been swiftly made.
To Clonakilty, aka SiliClon Valley, the site of one of the year’s key acquisitions, as banking giant JP Morgan announced a deal in March to buy expanding fintech company Global Shares for a whopping $730 million (€650m). Cue a windfall for its investors.
Led by chief executive Tim Houstoun, Global Shares manages employee share schemes for major multinationals. Appropriately enough, then, several hundred employees received a payout thanks to the now completed acquisition. On his LinkedIn, Houstoun says he is “a strong advocate of building business in the beautiful west Cork region”. Well, you would be, wouldn’t you?
Other deals this year included Glen Dimplex’s sale of its Morphy Richards home appliances brand to Chinese group Guangdong Xinbao Electrical Appliance Holdings for a reported €175 million-€200 million. The transaction represented “a remarkable milestone in value creation”, according to Fergal Leamy, chief executive of the Naughton family-owned electrical group. It also capped his first year in the CEO job.
After two winters of pandemic isolation, the need to leave the heat off to contain spiralling energy bills is a cold sting in the tail for many households. But if Europe’s realisation that it could not – and should not – rely on Russia for gas supply had one positive impact it was the acceleration of investment in renewable energy.
Mainstream Renewable Power, led by chief executive Mary Quaney, was among those riding the wave. In August the company announced that it was creating 100 jobs in Dublin as it seeks to develop three wind farms off the east, southeast and west coasts.
Founded in Ireland 14 years ago, Mainstream is now majority-owned by Norway’s Aker and operates in 20 countries – the three offshore farms will mark its re-entry to the Irish market after a three-year hiatus. Ireland remains “very much the engine room of our business”, said Quaney. The wind-powered engine room, presumably.
On to the dream factory now, with 2022 seeing Dublin-based film and television production company Element Pictures getting in a Room to have some Conversations With Friends, the result of which was the sale of a 51 per cent stake to production and distribution giant Fremantle, owned by RTL Group, a division of Bertelsmann. The deal brought an upfront cash payment of €45 million and €10 million in contingent consideration to Element and its founders Ed Guiney and Andrew Lowe, valuing their Oscar-bothering company at €109 million.
Speaking of awards, 2022′s EY Entrepreneur of the Year deservedly went to Martin McKay, founder of Antrim-based Texthelp. Since 1996, Texthelp has grown into a global assistive technology company that employs 350 people. Its literacy software helps dyslexic, neurodivergent and physically disabled students to express themselves in the classroom.
McKay thanked his investors for putting their faith in him and also his family: Texthelp was inspired by his father, who had a stroke when McKay was 12. His subsequent difficulties reading and communicating had a formative impact on the young McKay.
Whenever it seems like the world is a coarse place run by the cynical and the corrupt, it is nice to think about all the ingenious people out there whose motivation is to help other people. By doing so they make this wild, fragile planet seem like not such a bad place to be – for the moment, at least.