A taste for the exotic

 

Michael Boyd has not yet practised as a barrister, though he is mindful of his legal training. "What they say is that barristers are thought to think in numbered paragraphs," he says. "And that's actually quite helpful in business. You're obliged to order your material in a logical sequence."

A commerce graduate who also qualified for the Bar, Mr Boyd is managing director of Dublin consulting group, Development Consultants International. Fortunately, he does not talk in numbered paragraphs, but there appears to have been a strong logic to the growth of the firm which he helped set up in 1987.

With turnover last year estimated at £20 million (€25 million) and further acquisitions planned early this year, DCI has worked in 157 countries throughout the world - everywhere from Azerbaijan to Zanzibar. The group, which specialises in economic and natural resources consulting in developing economies, has made strong gains on the back of the demise of communism and the advent of globalisation.

Clients of the group are chiefly government ministries and agencies, which receive assistance from development agencies such as the World Bank, the EU, and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. Mr Boyd is keen to leverage this experience to develop the group's private sector business, where margins are higher. "We see ourselves as not just consultants to developing countries but also strategic consultants with a lot of experience in developing markets."

Mr Boyd's interest in economic development dates from his early career when he worked from 1975-1980 with Devco, a development co-operation organisation run by the State agencies. These early years of the State's membership of the EU - then the EEC - were characterised by a new interest in development issues. The State's development programme and the Agency for Personnel Services Overseas were also set up in this period.

Mr Boyd followed his time at Devco with a stint at the technical assistance programme run by the Irish Trade Board. It was at this time that he developed his taste for the exotic - though he had travelled widely before this, thanks to concessions available to his father who worked for the US airline TWA. "[The Trade Board] had just won a job in the Dutch Antilles in Curacao and I left Devco. I spent two very fascinating years on the ground on an assignment that was designed to help a small island to promote their exports and to promote foreign investment."

Seven years later, having managed several projects, Mr Boyd and some colleagues established their own firm. "In 1987 a number of us left the Irish Export Board, with their support, and we set up TDI, the Trade Development Institute of Ireland. It was a private firm but we kept this rather public name because we were operating in a very public market.

"In the 1980s there were no venture capitalists in Ireland. There was some limited State support - we got employment grants from the IDA which we greatly appreciated. Their primary additional benefit was that they triggered eligibility for the Business Expansion Scheme (BES) and we were able to invest this money.

"BES meant that we got relief - and in fact the State more than doubled the amount that we had put in. There's been a lot of criticism of BES over the last number of years but it was hugely important in enabling us to get our firm established. I'd like to think that ours was exactly the type of company that BES was designed for."

The firm started by gaining sub-contract work in Zimbabwe from the Export Board, work which continued for three years. "We felt that we were in a very narrow field and we felt that we should expand into other sectors, while still concentrating on these developing countries. Thus we set up a rural development firm, we bought a small industrial design company and we also started an environmental consulting company."

The demise of communism was a crucial boon to the business. "What also happened at this time was that the Berlin Wall fell down and now all of a sudden we had a large number of new countries in Eastern Europe, in the former Soviet Union, which were in receipt of funding from the European Commission system. We were very well positioned to win some of those substantial contracts."

Developing economies faced many problems, though Mr Boyd points out the difference in that east European countries - some of whom now expect to join the EU - were in a different phase of development than those in Africa.

"Those [east European] countries needed to participate in the international economy," he says. "They needed help with export development, investment promotion, they needed to have a banking sector, they needed to change their agriculture, they needed to improve their environment. This gave a great boost to consulting firms like ourselves who traditionally worked with the European Commission but in other parts of the world."

Since 1997, the group has focussed on expansion through acquisition. "We had a conservative retention policy. Every year we would set aside at least half of what we earned and that gave a war chest to build through buying other firms." Acquisitions to date include Trade Development Ireland, acquired for £1.7 million in 1997, which was owned by five of the State agencies. DCI spent £700,000 buying out another Irish firm, TMS International. It has also acquired a British firm, Landell Mills, and Devco, where Mr Boyd started his career in development. DCI group currently employs 300, made up of HQ staff, who "win" contracts, long- and short-term contract personnel and support staff on projects.

Mr Boyd is keen to acquire further firms. "We have a number of prospects on our long list at the moment, principally in the UK. Since we've started buying other companies firms have approached us to see if we would invest in them and our acquisitions have worked very well so far. I think we'll be able to put a couple of them to bed early in 2000."

Asked where these firms are based, Mr Boyd says they are primarily, but not exclusively, in the UK.

On development issues, Mr Boyd's ideas are clear. "The common theme is how these institutions, companies and countries can participate in the international economy because they suffer from considerable disadvantages," he says.

"A lot of their economies are commodity-based or they've had a state-managed system for a long period. They suffer from braindrain and they don't have adequate skills of their own. Where a company like us comes in is that international donors are prepared to finance the skills gap through using suppliers of advice and training for fixed periods moving from six months to four or five years to help train and develop local people so they are self-sufficient."

What of those who say that "development" can be equated with "cultural imperialism"? "Those issues are certainly there - in some countries more than in others. I've seen a significant change in the past few years with globalisation - it seems that everybody wants to be like the rest. Communism has failed and as a consequence the state-run systems in many developing countries in Africa and in Asia have also failed. It seems that virtually every country now wants to be part of the global economy, encouraging foreign investment, encouraging exports. "Now you may say that this is a bad thing and I think people are exporting from the West many unattractive aspects of our culture - greed, for example. And a lot of our project people are indeed sensitive about people who want to Westernise obsessively or who are colonial. At least in an Irish company, it helps greatly."

Another issue is corruption. "Some developing countries have a very poor reputation on this issue. As most of our work is paid for by a third party and their rules and procedure are very strict, and the award of contract is closely supervised, we have developed guidelines where [staff] encounter these ethical issues. We tell them unequivocally that we operate these very strict rules and that they must follow them in their work. In fact we are pioneers in the industry in introducing a code to our staff. Now that may mean that we don't win certain projects or that some of our payments may be slower than they should be, but that's the price that we're willing to pay."

Is the work gratifying? "Some of the countries we've worked in have more than graduated and are now our competitors. We find places like Singapore or Malaysia are producing firms or institutions that compete with us. We're very pleased about that because it's an indication of how well we and others have been. Once those countries graduate we're no longer needed. That means we must work on getting other countries and that's why it's important for us to be close to some of these newly emerging countries."