Business winner lessons: ‘I would have taken the business international sooner’

Top 1000: Eight of Ireland’s business leaders tell us about their lives at the top

Eight of Ireland's pace-setters, all winners of The Irish Times Business Person of the Month Award, talk to us about their life at the top; what they're most proud of, what they would change - and how they spend their down time when they're not driving growth at their companies.

‘It’s impossible to anticipate everything’

Dr Nora Khaldi, founder, Nuritas

What I’m most proud of: The team we have here. We’ve gone from just myself, with an idea and my computer, to over 50 people, covering areas such as machine learning, bioinformatics, molecular biology, finance, legal, business development and many more. This diverse mix allows us to achieve a lot and makes for a fantastic working environment.

If I could change one thing: While my mathematical and scientific background has trained me to foresee future roadblocks and solve them as soon as possible, it’s impossible to anticipate everything. However, many of the mistakes I, or we, have made are what I have learned most from. For me this is the most critical thing to know- everyone makes mistakes but it’s how you react and move forward with it that is important.

I’ll know when I’m finished: We have a huge amount achieved already – from very significant funding, some of the world’s leading companies as customers, a great team from 16 different countries and launching the world’s first healthcare product discovered completely through artificial intelligence.


And yet, this is very much just the beginning. When we achieve our mission of improving the lives of billions of people worldwide, perhaps then I might begin considering what a finish line might look like!

What keeps me up at night: As founder of an innovative company pushing the boundaries of science, of course there’s always something to worry about. But that’s exactly why I spend my days solving these problems and my evenings are spent unwinding, relaxing and recharging for the next day.

This year I was surprised by: How aligned global healthcare companies are becoming in accepting that they must harness new technology such as AI to drive innovation and efficiency within their organisations. For example, six or seven of the top ten pharma companies have recently employed a “chief digital officer” at the main board level to internally drive, and externally embrace, new technology. Thankfully Nuritas is in the right place for this, but also we are ready at the right time. These are two very powerful factors in our favour as we move forward.

My typical day: Is always a very busy and varied one. Although every day is different, the foundations are usually the same and I split my time between a number of areas.

I’m an inventor at heart so most of my time is spent advancing the different scientific projects by troubleshooting, inventing new ideas, understanding global trends in our industry and seeing how we can fit in and develop solutions around them.

I spend a lot of my time strategising and defining the next building blocks for Nuritas on all fronts, be it commercial, scientific, economic, and social.

Part of my day also includes talking to our commercial and academic collaborators and working on bringing new ones on board. As we are growing at an incredible rate, I dedicate a lot of time to interviewing, developing and managing our team. I’m always trying to increase efficiency so that nobody gets stuck on trivial things.

When I’m not working: I love drawing and painting although I don’t get to do it as much anymore. I love the outdoors and hiking, but first and foremost I love dancing and rollerblading (a very hard hobby to maintain with our Irish weather!).

‘I don’t yet have a defined finish line’

Tony Smurfit, chief executive, Smurfit Kappa

What I'm most proud of: The team of professionals that work in Smurfit Kappa who embrace our mission statement of being a globally admired company dynamically delivering secure and superior returns. Our people also reflect our core values, which I cherish. These include: loyalty, integrity and respect.

If I could change one thing: In an ideal world, I would like each of our 400 operations to operate at their optimal level at all times. Obviously that is not realistic but it is a goal that I strive towards.

I’ll know when I’m finished: I am almost four years into my current role, I don’t yet have a defined finish line - when I feel that there is a better candidate to take the company forward then obviously it will be time to do something different. That said, I serve at the request of the board, so it is up to them to decide whether or not I am the right guy to lead the company.

What keeps me up at night: When you have a work force of over 45,000 people, safety is always on your mind. The fact that people in the company do not always embrace our core values would also be a source of concern. I believe our values define us.

This year I was surprised by: What I have learned is not to take for granted the fact that excellent results will not necessarily translate into an appreciation of our companies’ efforts.

My typical day involves: Continual dialogue with the people that matter in our business - starting early, finishing late with a dinner with customers or our own internal people

When I'm not working: I watch Wigan Football Club occasionally win, walk the family dog, and spend time with family and friends. Taking time to think.

‘Always up at 7 - at work by 8’

Eddie O’Connor

Executive chairman, Mainstream Renewable Power

What I’m most proud of at Mainstream: Surviving through the years 2010 to 2015 while Europe languished under German lead indolence. There were delays to payments and offshore wind developments were very long in gestation.

If I could change one thing: I am pretty happy with the company - going forward we need to deepen the management and governance capability

I’ll know I’m finished when: Supergrid is built and the European electricity supply is completely decarbonised.

What keeps me up at night: Now nothing, but during the bad times the fact that we could have been out of business in the morning.

This year I was surprised by: The fact that the teenage generation will not condone our behaviour in destroying the atmosphere. Starting with Greta in Sweden, kids in UK, US, Ireland are saying “cure the release of the energy equivalent of four Hiroshima atomic bombs every second”.

My typical day is: Always up at 7 - at work by 8. Lunch at 11.45am of bread and Dubliner cheddar cheese and home by 6.30pm. Much travel to South Africa, Philippines, Chile, and Brussels.

When I’m not working I like: Golfing, fishing, reading, studying wine, training in gym.

‘I would love if we could develop treatments at a faster rate’

Dr Elaine Sullivan

CEO, Carrick Therapeutics

I'm most proud of: The creation of Carrick Therapeutics. The company launched in October 2016 with $95 million in initial funding, with the aim of becoming a global leader in oncology science. We have already developed a sustainable, multi-asset pipeline which has the potential to potential to deliver major patient impact.

These include CT7001 which we took from pre-clinical candidate to first patient dosed stage in less than two years, and CT900 which we licensed in October 2018.

If I could change one thing: Carrick is still a young company and we’ve been ablto mould the business to our vision and needs. I would love if we could develop treatments at a faster rate in order to have a major impact on patients’ lives even more rapidly. However, therapy development takes time and our capital-efficient approach - harnessing expertise to support R&D, from target identification through to clinical trials - allows us to select the best compounds rapidly and achieve clinical proof of concept at a lower cost.

I’ll know I’m finished when: Carrick’s aim is to become a global leader in oncology science, underpinned by our three core principles. We are building a business with a strong foundation that we can scale. We’ve made excellent progress but there is still work to do, and that is my focus.

What keeps me up at night: Making sure we have the right focus. Carrick is the right company at the right time. I want to make sure that the great team and collaborators we have all work together successfully to obtain maximum benefit from our portfolio for cancer patients.

This year I was surprised by: How much can be achieved by people pulling together with passion to get transformational new treatments to patients.

My typical day is: It’s a cliché but, genuinely, every day is different. Everything from reviewing patient data relating to treatments under development, meeting with partners and investors, and speaking with the board and advisers.

When I’m not working: I enjoy spending time with my husband and three children, as well as walking the dogs – a border terrier and a Welsh springer.

‘I’d love if we were based in my native Clare’

Dómhnal Slattery

Chief executive, Avolon

I'm most proud of what we have built at Avolon and I'm proud of how we have done it. There is great satisfaction in building a business from a start-up in the middle of the worst recession in living memory to a $30 billion company in just nine years. I'm so proud that Avolon can act as a pathfinder for other start-ups in Ireland; we have demonstrated that it can be done.

If I could change one thing: I’d love if we were based in my native Clare. I’d like to wake up every morning and walk the beach at Clahane in Liscannor on my way into the office.

I’ll know I’m finished when: I’m having too much fun with Avolon. It is a gift to have this opportunity, long may it continue.

Nothing keeps me up: I tend to be early to bed, early to rise, so I am a sound sleeper. Only a good sing song keeps me from my bed!

This year I was surprised that life without an iPhone or internet connection is not as frightening as it might first appear. Back in January I spent twelve days without electronic devices of any kind as I trekked to the South Pole. It was a personal journey, also a cathartic and unforgettable experience, one which reminded me to value life and central heating.

My typical day is: Avolon has over 160 airline customers in more than 60 countries. As a result I am probably abroad for half the year, so there is no real typical day for me.

When I’m home I’m lucky that I can walk to work if the weather allows. I’ve eaten breakfast in the same restaurant beside our offices for well over a decade. It’s familiar and reminiscent of Cheers, so we welcome each other, chat about the world over coffee and eggs, no mention of work.

The other constant when I’m in Dublin is the daily briefing at Avolon. We all gather for that at 9.15am every morning except Mondays. On that day I host a CEO’s Briefing at 1pm. This is a global gathering that will include our offices in New York, Florida, Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai who join via video link. The briefing is designed to provide the entire Avolon team with an update of business strategies for the week and beyond. The briefing allows me to feel connected to all levels of the organisation and I consider it an essential part of any working week.

When at home, a couple of times a week I will go to the gym usually around midday. Elsewhere my day is the usual mix of meetings, phonecalls and the constant reviewing of emails and reports. My office door is always open and there is a steady flow of people throughout the day. I believe in constant and open communication. I like to leave the office around 6ish to be home for dinner with my wife Elaine and whichever of our four daughters might be free from their even busier schedules to join us! During the summer months we encourage our team to leave the office early on Fridays and come in a little later on Monday mornings. This is a work-life balance initiative and it is designed to enable people to get away for the weekend with their families. I’m a beneficiary. I like nothing more than jumping in the car early on a Friday afternoon, being home in Clare that evening in time for a swim in the bracing Atlantic.

When I'm not working: I'm a regular at Munster and Irish rugby matches, I play a little golf and as a proud Clareman, I follow our hurlers. However as I have gotten older, and this was reinforced during my time in Antarctic, I have realised that nothing matters more than family and friends. I am so lucky in my wife Elaine and my daughters Amelia, Isabel, Grace and Juliet. The same is true of my friends. One of our core values in Avolon is ebullience. We often describe it as thus: 'we take what we do seriously, but we do not take ourselves seriously'. I have wonderful family and friends around me, they keep me grounded and we all need that. That's where my time away from work is best spent.

‘I would have taken the business international sooner’

David Walsh

CEO, Netwatch

What I’m most proud of at Netwatch: The excellent people we have working for Netwatch. Each and every one of our staff is wholly committed to our mission to create a fearless environment for our clients, where they can feel safe and secure in their business and in their homes. We have spent a lot of time building the Netwatch culture where we respect each other and where everyone knows their role in meeting our global ambition. I’m regularly regaled with stories from clients about employees who have gone above and beyond the call of duty. Our people and our technology has led us to become the world’s largest proactive remote monitoring company. I’m very proud of all we have achieved together.

If I could change one thing: I would have taken the business international sooner. Taking the first flight to a new market is daunting and we were slow to capitalise on the unique technology we have. Enterprise Ireland supported us in our entry to the US market in 2012 but we should have been brave enough to enter it sooner. Had we done so, it would have transformed our company. Generally, Irish companies are too slow to look for opportunities outside of the Irish and UK markets. Brexit may finally force us to think bigger.

I'll know I'm finished when: In April last year I led an investment in our company by Riverside Company and the acquisition of three companies in the US and the UK to form Netwatch Group. We've now begun an exciting new chapter of growth, including creating 350 new positions in our US operations. We have ambitious targets to grow our business including doubling our turnover in the next two years , expanding into new markets and launching new products, so the finish line isn't in sight just yet. A priority is to appoint a deputy CEO who can lead the company operationally and allow me to focus on the strategic direction and growth of the business.

What keeps me up at night: In the early days of the business I did worry and had some sleepless nights. But as the business has grown and I’ve put in place a strong management team, I rarely, if ever, have a sleepless night because of the business. It’s important to surround yourself with good people who you trust to do their job well.

This year I was most surprised by: Netwatch has had a presence in the United States since 2012. Our technology, developed in Carlow, is far superior to anything on the market. Yet it is only in the past year that we are really seeing businesses recognising the benefits of proactive, real time security monitoring. What has surprised me is the speed at which the switch is happening. We expected a wave and have been hit by a tsunami but with 17 years’ experience, monitoring client sites across three continents we are well positioned to meet this fundamental shift in the US security market.

My typical day is: I’m in the office by 7.00am and will catch up on any emails that may have come in overnight from our US operations. I’ll generally have a call with our UK managing director and at 9.00am I meet with the operations team to review any serious incidents that may have arisen during the night. The day passes quickly with calls and meetings and at least once a week I try to visit a client site. It’s important to maintain close contact with the customer. When I’m in Carlow I’ll be home by 7 and if, due to the time difference, calls need to be done with the team in California or Texas, I’ll do these at home.

When I’m not working: I spend a lot of time travelling between Ireland, the US and the UK so time spent in Carlow with my wife, Beatrice and children is precious. Being from Kerry, supporting Kerry football is in the blood, and, as proud sponsors of Carlow GAA and Carlow Rugby, I closely follow their progress too.

‘My top priority is safety’

Denis O’Sullivan

Managing director

Gas Networks Ireland

What I’m most proud of: Gas Networks Ireland is focused on delivering the innovation which will underpin the energy system of 2050 with a fully decarbonised network by 2050. Our ambition is to have 20 per cent renewable gas on the network by 2030.

Dedicated and hardworking teams across the business are working on projects such as renewable gas, gas for transport and carbon capture and storage (CCS) that will bring great benefits to Ireland in the form of lower emissions, increased security of supply and a sustainable indigenous energy solution for Ireland. This is what I am most proud of.

If I could change one thing: Every day, over 700,000 customers receive a safe and reliable supply of energy through our network. Over half of Ireland’s electricity comes from gas. And so I would like us as a business to be out there more, advocating for ourselves and the great work we do. We have got better at this in the last few years but we need to do more.

I’ll know when I’m finished: I am focused on driving the business forward and working on the challenges and opportunities we face. At Gas Networks Ireland we are looking to deliver a wholly decarbonised gas network by 2050. It’s a large task, but it is where we need to be, and it’s where I plan to lead Gas Networks Ireland, if not to the end, certainly a good start down the road.

What keeps me up at night: My top priority is safety, ensuring that the network is resilient and always available, and this is never far from mind. Running a gas network is the work of many hundreds of people. I trust my team and I trust the systems that we have put in place. On that basis I generally sleep well.

This year I was surprised by: The level of interest from many sectors of our economy in our current strategy, to have 20 per cent renewable gas on our network by 2030, surprised me. The level of support and engagement from people in the industry and beyond has highlighted the real demand in the marketplace for this indigenous renewable energy.

My typical day is: Living in Lissarda near Macroom I have an early start. I split my week between our headquarters in Cork, about two days a week, and our offices in Dublin about three days a week. When I am in Dublin I tend to work on late in the evenings, although if the weather is good I might go for a long walk to recharge. There is no typical day that I can describe in my role - every day is immensely varied and fast-paced. I am fortunate to work with a talented management team who provide invaluable support in ensuring we deliver every day for our customers.

When I’m not working: I like to spend time at home with my family. Weather permitting I like to get out on the water and go kayaking. I follow Munster Rugby and I have a long-time close knit group of friends that I enjoy spending time with.

‘Once the transformation is bedded in it will probably be time to go’

David McRedmond

CEO, An Post

I am most proud that the transformation of An Post is being delivered by all the stakeholders, a collaborative effort through breakthrough agreements with the Communications Workers' Union and with the Irish Postmasters' Union.

If I could change one thing about An Post it would be to have a fully digitised centre . . . we’ll get there!

I’ll know I’m finished when: My contract ends in four years, but once the transformation is bedded in it will probably be time to go.

What keeps me up at night is a frustration at the lack of pace with changes that are obviously good for all. Otherwise there are too many things that can go wrong to worry about them.

This year I was most surprised to learn that the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar still has his Post Office savings book . . . with money in it!

My typical day: I am increasingly adapting to postman hours . . . up early, finish early! Usually I leave the house at about 6am and I’m home at about 6pm. I try not to do evening events: breakfast is better for meetings.

When I’m not working: I used to love running but a torn meniscus means it’s gym time most evenings. Books are a constant.

Fiona Reddan

Fiona Reddan

Fiona Reddan is a writer specialising in personal finance and is the Home & Design Editor of The Irish Times