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Tension, a pay scandal and farewells: the business world’s winners and losers of 2023

A tech sector slowdown coupled with rising interest rates gave many a year to forget

Those of a nervous disposition will be glad to see the back of 2023, a year peppered with enough tension, scandal and dread to power an atomic bomb – or a Hollywood blockbuster for that matter. And although the global economy did not explode in Oppenheimer-like fashion – unlike a certain billionaire’s space rockets – there were one or two moments where it seemed like it might.

From banking crises to rising interest rates to the equally inexorable rise of artificial intelligence, the audience was kept firmly on the edge of its seat for much of the year. Geopolitical tension was again a major theme as Israel’s bombardment of Gaza created an unprecedented humanitarian crisis for the Palestinian civilian population, Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia ground to a halt and fresh conflicts cropped up in Sudan and elsewhere.

While perhaps not quite as dramatic as recent years, 2023 had its fair share of star turns and Razzie-worthy performances. Let’s start with those in the ensemble cast who could have prepared for their roles a bit better.

One performer who won’t be scooping any gongs come awards season is Paddy Cosgrave. The Web Summit founder and now-former chief executive faced a reckoning with his critics after finding himself on the receiving end of a deluge of corporate criticism following a series of tweets, criticising Israel for its response to Hamas’s October 7th attack. One after another, Web Summit saw big-name attendees like Intel, Siemens, Stripe and a host of famous venture capitalists pull out of its flagship event in Lisbon weeks before kick-off in the wake of Cosgrave’s comments.


To stanch the bleeding, the Web Summit founder stepped down as chief executive and director of the conference company “with immediate effect” on October 21st, although he remains the majority shareholder in Web Summit’s parent.

Meanwhile, Cosgrave’s High Court row with his erstwhile co-founders and Web Summit shareholders Daire Hickey and David Kelly is still rattling along in the background, promising more fireworks in the not-too-distant. The pair wrote to the company’s board requesting that the former chief executive sell his stake in the company or face putting more than 300 jobs at risk.

Fireworks, or perhaps they were exploding artillery shells, were clearly visible in the skies above Dublin 4 over the summer months as RTÉ fell under siege in the controversy over payments made to Ryan Tubridy. While the former Late Late Show host’s public image was arguably dented by the debacle – particularly after RTÉ director general Kevin Bakhurst pulled the plug on talks around Tubridy’s future on the radio as the mood in Montrose soured – he managed to land on his feet with a new gig in Virgin Radio UK.

Tubridy’s former boss and Bakhurst’s predecessor, Dee Forbes, took the most damage from falling debris. After being suspended and then resigning from the top job in June for allegedly greenlighting the secret payments to Tubridy through his management company, Forbes issued an apology, citing the “adverse publicity suffered by RTÉ, its staff and the unease created among the public”.

Since then, Forbes has been conspicuous by her silence and her absence from subsequent Oireachtas hearings into the matter, most recently sending a medical certificate to the Public Accounts Committee stating she was still unfit to appear. Committee members remain keen to hear from the former RTÉ executive and will be hoping 2024 brings some closure to the matter.

However, with the coming to light of various barter account-related payments – from free flip flops to Rugby World Cup trips and U2 concerts for clients – RTÉ has been badly bruised by the furore and its long-term financial future remains clouded. Licence fee collection collapsed by €16.4 million from the start of the saga in July to November, leaving the national broadcaster relying on an interim funding package from the Government to get through this year and next.

Equally, Denis O’Brien had a tough year, with his time in control of Digicel is drawing to its conclusion as the year reaches its end. At the time of writing, the telecoms billionaire was about to cede control of the empire he built up over more than two decades to a group of bondholders under a court-supervised $1.7 billion (€1.55 billion) debt-for-equity swap sanctioned by the supreme court of Bermuda in November.

Final approvals may have to wait until early next year. However, the process marks the end of an era for O’Brien who will see his stake in the group fall to 10 per cent after hammering out a deal to restructure Digicel’s considerable debt pile. He is set to be replaced as chairman by former Nokia and Inmarsat chief executive Rajeev Suri over the coming months.

Returning to the world of global tech, it is hard to think of a more apt metaphor for Tesla billionaire Elon Musk’s 2023 than two of his SpaceX rockets exploding shortly after launch, one in April and another in November. Once made of Teflon, the patina of failure seemed to stick to Musk more in 2023 than at any other time in his career.

His stewardship of the website formerly known as Twitter has been a particular source of bother as advertisers fled the platform, rebranded as X, after he was accused of boosting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Musk is also grappling a $13 billion (€11.8 billion) debt pile with interest having bought the platform for $44 billion just before central banks began hiking interest rates. Tesla, meanwhile, is facing stiffer competition in the EV space and losing market share in the process, forcing Musk to cut his vehicle prices in early 2023 and straining profitability.

Speaking of once-touted industries and companies, the hype train officially departed the crypto station as artificial intelligence supplanted decentralised finance and the blockchain as the buzziest of the tech buzzwords.

Sam Bankman-Fried, once the wunderkind of the crypto universe, was convicted on seven federal fraud and money-laundering charges in November for his role in the collapse of his FTX empire. The former crypto billionaire, who will find out what fate awaits him at his sentencing hearing in March, could face up to 110 years in prison if the judge really throws the book at him.

His erstwhile rival, Binance founder and former chief executive Changpeng Zhao, also flirted with disgrace in 2023. Amid a wide-ranging US crackdown on crypto, the Chinese-born billionaire pleaded guilty to a US federal charge relating to anti-money laundering rules. Dubai-based Zhao, known in the industry simply by the initials CZ, also agreed to resign from his role at the helm of Binance and to pay $4.3 billion in a settlement with federal regulators.

One Irish company that should have been poised to take advantage of the AI boom was Cork-based Altada. The business, founded by husband-and-wife duo Allan Beechinor and Niamh Parker, was once touted as Ireland’s next unicorn but instead collapsed into a knotty, ill-tempered receivership and liquidation in the latter months of 2022 after losing an estimated €20 million in just a couple of years.

Through a High Court process, Altada’s intellectual property was picked up for a relative song by Dublin tech entrepreneur Eoin Goulding in January while Parker and Beechinor have apparently departed for other pastures. Beechinor, meanwhile, reached a tax settlement with Revenue for €130,365 after an audit found he had underdeclared income tax liabilities.

With Corporate Enforcement Authority and Garda investigations still ongoing into Altada’s collapse, we might not have heard the last of this saga.

On the home front, the tech sector slowdown that began in 2022 hit full throttle this year as waves of employees were let go from some of the biggest companies in the world. Given its position of privilege within the European tech ecosystem, the Republic was particularly exposed to the fallout. It accounted for some 40 per cent of the total number of redundancies across the bloc, according to an analysis by EU agency Eurofound.

Mark Zuckerberg’s Meta announced another round of swingeing cuts in March. The Facebook and Instagram parent unveiled plans to shelve 10,000 roles globally, including close to around 500 in Dublin. It means that some 850 jobs at Meta’s European HQ in Ballsbridge, which officially opened in October, have evaporated since the group first launched its global fat-trimming initiative in late 2022.

The slowdown in tech hiring coupled with rising rates and the prevalence of hybrid working arrangements post Covid compounded to heap pressure on some of Ireland’s biggest commercial property players in 2023. WeWork’s collapse into Chapter 11 bankruptcy in the US in early November added to the general malaise.

One of the biggest individual tenants in Dublin, the troubled co-working company had agreed to take up eight floors at the former Central Bank headquarters (now branded as Central Plaza) on Dame Street as the anchor tenant of the Hines- and Peterson-delivered scheme. The developers still expect WeWork to fulfil its obligations and the fit-out of the space has proceeded on that basis in recent months, albeit at a slower pace than expected.

Even veteran players have struggled in the current commercial property environment. In November, a portion of Johnny Ronan’s Ronan Real Estate Group (RGRE) empire had receivers appointed to it by Bank of Ireland and AIB.

The colourful developer, whose commercial clients have included the likes of Facebook and Amazon, consented to the appointment of the receiver on foot of loans valued at about €130 million. The debts were secured against a number of properties understood to include the historic Bewley’s Café premises on Grafton Street and office developments including Connaught House on Burlington Road. Experts said it was likely the asset values had declined amid an ongoing slump in commercial property generally, although RGRE said the portfolio is “performing well”.

Farther afield, two Irish expat executives were forced to step down from high-profile corporate roles. In Australia, Alan Joyce, the Irish boss of domestic airline Qantas, left his job as chief executive two months earlier than planned amid a series of embarrassing revelations about the company, including allegations it sold tickets for flights that had already been cancelled. This brought an end to his 15 years in charge of the airline.

In Britain, BP earlier this month said its former chief executive, Kerryman Bernard Looney, would forfeit up to £32.4 million (€37.6 million) over “serious misconduct” related to failing to disclose past relationships with colleagues. Looney resigned in September after BP received allegations about his past relationships with colleagues, and he admitted he had not been “fully transparent” with the board.

“Following careful consideration, the board has concluded that, in providing inaccurate and incomplete assurances in July 2022, Mr Looney knowingly misled the board,” BP said in a statement on December 13th. “The board has determined that this amounts to serious misconduct, and as such Mr Looney has been dismissed without notice effective on 13 December 2023.”

One large, high-profile Irish hospitality group had something of a mixed year. Press Up group, the all-powerful hospitality empire founded by Paddy McKillen jnr and his partner Matt Ryan, has not been immune from the after-effects of Covid-19.

The group has been dealing with “general cost increases”, according to accounts filed for one group company, across its network of more than 100 businesses in Dublin and other cities. It eventually made 32 staff redundant in November, citing “tough trading conditions” among the main reasons for the cuts.

Press Up’s sister company, the separately managed property development vehicle Oakmount, has also grappled with the new trading environment. Work at the group’s Pinnacle apartment development in Mount Merrion was halted earlier this year, prompting complaints to the local authority from peeved residents living nearby. Construction started again after McKillen jnr and Ryan switched contractors and units are now on the market for sale.

More positively, the pair sold a majority stake in the Dean Hotel Group in October to British property group Lifestyle Hospitality Capital and Elliott Investment Management, the New York alternative investment giant founded by billionaire activist investor Paul Singer.

The new investors are acquiring more than 70 per cent of the business in a deal that values it at more than €350 million, according to sources. The dynamic duo also secured a €50 million debt facility with Cardinal Capital to help fuel further expansion.

So, who were the biggest box office smashes of the year?

It was certainly a good year for Dermot Crowley and Dalata with the hotel group going from strength to strength in 2023 and looking poised for further growth in 2024. The Maldron and Clayton brand operator announced in December that it expects revenues from its hotel operations to exceed €600 million this year, just a year after breaching the €500 million revenue mark for the first time.

Not that long ago, Dalata was – along with much of the rest of the sector – suffering as a consequence of the impact of pandemic-related lockdown restrictions. But the return of tourists to Irish shores coupled with the progression of Dalata’s expansion into the UK and Europe, where it added four hotels to its stable this year with four more to follow in 2024, has fuelled the rebound, pushing the group’s shares up more than 20 per cent this year.

Speaking of Iseq superstars, this was the year in which we said a goodbye of sorts to one Irish screen icon in CRH. In June, the construction materials giant won shareholder approval to move its main stock listing from London to New York, eventually bidding farewell to the Dublin bourse, too, upon which it had long been the most valuable company.

In advance of the listing, CRH chief executive Albert Manifold, whose €12.16 million payout made him the third highest paid chief executive on the FTSE 100 in 2022, cashed in. In early September, just weeks before the cancellation of the Dublin listing, he “exercised 1,293 options at a strike price of €23.39 and then sold more than 58,000 shares at a price of €51.48 per share, earning around €3 million in the process”, the Financial Times reported. It will be interesting to see what his pay packet looks like if and when CRH is included in the S&P or Russell stock indices next year.

Tony Smurfit, who is following CRH’s lead to some extent, was another big winner. In September, Dublin-based Smurfit Kappa agreed a deal to acquire WestRock in the US to form what will become the world’s biggest packaging group, Smurfit WestRock, with $34 billion (€31.7 billion) in annual revenues. It means Smurfit is set to exit its Euronext Dublin listing in favour of Wall Street, also downgrading its London listing as it seeks a primary quotation on the New York Stock Exchange.

Tony Smurfit will remain in situ as chief executive of the enlarged packaging giant when the largely share-based deal concludes some time in 2024, likely in the second quarter. The agreement also adds a consumer packaging business to Smurfit’s portfolio of companies, a key development at a time when companies are shifting away from plastic towards sustainable packaging.

Paddy Power owner Flutter will cancel its secondary listing in Dublin in January in favour of Wall Street as it seeks a more liquid markets for its shares, something to keep an eye on in 2024.

Glanbia, under the stewardship of departing managing director Siobhán Talbot, also had a bumper 2023. In November, the nutrition group, which Talbot helped navigate from its traditional dairy roots after taking the reins in 2013, upgraded its full-year forecasts and now expects its adjusted earnings per share to grow by between 17 per cent and 20 per cent.

The group, the biggest sports nutrition product seller in the US, said it has seen “strong revenue growth” across its performance nutrition division in the year so far and looks set to capitalise further next year. Glanbia recently completed a €100 million share buyback, repurchasing 7,215,827 ordinary shares at an average price of €13.86.

Moving away from the listed companies for a moment, one Irish businessman who also engineered some US success this year was former journalist Rory Godson. The one-time editor of the Sunday Times Ireland sold Powerscourt Group, the public relations agency he founded in 2004, to US firm Morrow Sodali in October for a reported £50 million (€57.86 million).

Godson’s firm boasts a coterie of high-profile clients in the UK and Ireland including former BP chief executive Bernard Looney and companies such as Eir, DCC and Airbus. Under the terms of the deal, Powerscourt will join the strategic advisory group, backed by former Ryanair chairman David Bonderman’s private equity group TPG, which will use it as a platform for European expansion. Godson is expected to remain with the business to assist with the transition.

There were also some genuine award winners in 2023. Sam Moffet, an entrant in the emerging category of this year’s EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards, also scooped the top award at a ceremony in the Powerscourt Hotel in Co Wicklow last month. The Monaghan-based businessman is chief executive of Moffett Automated Storage, which provides pallet storage and warehousing solutions for its clients. Moffett has the distinction of being only the second-ever emerging category winner to secure the overall prize in the 26-year history of the awards.

Other winners on the night included Tom Walsh, the founder of Staycity, who won the international category, and Ciaran Marron, chief executive and founder of Monaghan-based Activ8 Solar Energies, who won in the established category.

Another bona fide success story was businessman Barry Connolly, who won Irish Times Business Person of the Year in February, an award sponsored by Bank of Ireland. His nutrition bar maker Fulfil, went from strength to strength from its foundation in 2016 until its eventual sale to Swiss confectionery giant Ferrero for a reported €160 million in 2022. The Richmond Marketing founder has maintained control of the business in North America where he has partnered with local confectionery giant Hershey’s to distribute his protein bar.

Finally, in keeping with a sports and performance theme, data company Orreco won The Irish Times Innovation of the Year award in November for its combination machine learning and software model that helps athletes avoid injuries. The company has clients in the English Premier League and even the NFL and NBA in the US where its products are used to help sports franchises with player recruitment and to manage player load.

A year of success and celebration for some and for others, a year to forget, 2023 gave us plenty to chew on as the new year dawns.