The Irish making it big in global business

Caveat: They are to be found all over the world, and today they will be donning the green

Ideally, green neckties would be banned. They rarely look good; slime-coloured fashion crimes slithering down the front of their wearers’ shirts. St Patrick’s Day is one of the few times it is acceptable to wear one with a straight face.

So, in offices across the globe today, hordes of expatriate Irish businessmen will swan in to work donning a green tie. Plenty of expatriate Irish women will wear the equivalent.

The upper echelons of many of the world’s top companies are as littered as ever with the men and women of our business diaspora. Forget the parlour. If you’re Irish, come into the C-suite.

What is it about Irish emigrants that gives them such a conspicuous presence at senior levels in global business? Clusters of senior Irish executives tend to gather in particular industries. Aviation, for example, is a proper paddy party.


There is Willie Walsh running IAG, one of the world's largest airline groups, while Declan Collier oversees London City Airport. Former Aer Lingus chief Dermot Mannion has recently worked as a top executive at Emirates and Royal Brunei Airlines.

Meanwhile, Tallaght man Alan Joyce is on course this year for a decade at the helm of Australian national airline, Qantas. Joyce is an openly gay man and, as such, has had to grapple with the blokey culture of corporate Australia.

Irish humour

He recently spoke at a dinner for female executives. “Sometimes I just feel like one of the girls,” Joyce quipped. Perhaps it is the Irish sense of humour and national penchant for self-deprecation that helps our emigrants to get along.

Demonstrating an ability to innovate, Irish executives roam all over the praries of the tech industry, including Silicon Valley. For example, Niall O'Connor, the media-shy chief information officer of Apple, has been in charge of delivering the cult company's technology since the 1990s.

Macroom woman Ann Kelleher has risen to corporate vice president in charge of manufacturing at chip behemoth, Intel. In Texas, Ballina man Liam Quinn is now the chief technology officer of Dell.

Finance and banking remain warm houses for the global Irish, which is remarkable considering our banking crisis was, proportionally, the biggest ever.

Top of the tree right now is Colm Kelleher, president and number two at Morgan Stanley, the Wall Street giant. He hails from a large family in Cork. Kelleher is known for his ruthless dispatch of internal rivals, so friendly banter musn't be the only thing the ambitious global Irish have up their sleeves.

Another Corkman, Gerry Murphy, is the London-based chairman of Blackstone International. Other Irish-born corporate dealmakers include Dubliner Conor Hillery of JP Morgan and Morgan Stanley's Colm Donlon, who the British media once dubbed "the Harry Potter of mergers and acquisitions".

Former AIB chief executive David Duffy, who now runs Clydesdale Bank in the US, hardly yet qualifies as an emigrant – he only left Ireland last year. Then again, he previously held senior positions in London with Goldman Sachs and in Amsterdam and New York with ING. So he has been around.

Predominant clan

Telecoms has another prominent clan of Irish. The chief executive of Vodafone Turkey, Colman Deegan, is a Trinity graduate. Blackrock boy Ronan Dunne, who previously ran Telefonica UK, has in recent months decamped to New Jersey to run the mobile arm of Verizon.

Meanwhile, Paul O'Sullivan, the chairman of Australia's second-biggest telco, Optus, is also a Dubliner. After Joyce, O'Sullivan is probably the next most high-profile gay figure in corporate Australia. The two men were recently feted in the Australian Financial Review's LGBTI leaders list.

Perhaps the Irish really do survive and thrive in challenging environments. The male-dominated world of Premier League football, for example, would seem an odd place for a small cluster of Irish women in senior positions.

Yet the reigning league champion, Leicester City, is run by Susan Whelan from Howth, while Armagh woman Margaret Byrne ran Sunderland until she quit last year. She now runs a players' agency. Meanwhile, West Ham vice-chairperson Karren Brady, a baroness, isn't Irish. But her father, Terry, is.

Even if some of them start off as outsiders, the ability to eventually integrate appears to be many Irish business emigrants’ best trick.

Avril Conroy is head of retail at Russian energy giant, Rosneft. Moscow is renowned as a difficult city for foreigners to crack, but Athlone native Conroy has emerged as one of the most senior foreign businesswomen in the city.

Orna Ní Chionna is the senior independent director of that most British of institutions, the Royal Mail. She is also married to the former head of the UK's Financial Services Authority, Lord Adair Turner, or Baron Turner of Ecchinswell, to give him his full British title.

When she isn’t rubbing shoulders with the UK establishment, Ní Chionna remains a committed gaeilgeoir, which has in the past appeared to fascinate some British journalists.

They adapt and integrate, but some of the most successful Irish executives abroad show an ability to make a virtue of their Irish heritage.

Footnotes ...

The State's second-largest mobile operator, Three, wasn't impressed with some opportunistic advertising from its next placed rival in the mobile market, the Eir-owned Meteor. It is suing Eir in the High Court.

Three recently changed the contracts of its pay monthly customers, giving them 30 days to cancel without penalty if they didn’t agree with the changes.

The exit loophole appeared to go viral in recent weeks, with online forums and message boards full of chatter about how to get out of contracts while still keeping the subsidised handset.

Two weeks ago, Eir took advantage of the situation with a series of advertisements in Sunday newspapers extolling the virtues of its mobile plans, while comparing some of them favourably with its rival’s offerings.

Three thought the ads were inaccurate and unfair and it also complained about the use of its logo in the Eir ad.

The case is listed for next Monday, when Three will attempt to get it moved onto the High Court’s Commercial list.

To do this, the claim must be for above €1 million. So Three obviously isn’t taking the needling from its commercial rival too kindly.

The Dublin Airport Authority is almost a workers' paradise. Trade unionists are within grasp of a majority on its board of directors.

Economist Colm McCarthy, who is most definitely not a comrade, and leasing executive John Lynch both stepped down from the board this month as their terms came to an end. Both served initial three-year terms, with reappointment for a further two years.

That leaves a 10-person board, including the chief executive Kevin Toland. Of the 10, there are four worker directors – Des Mullally, Barry Nevin, Eric Nolan and Denis Smyth. Siptu vice president, Patricia King, is not a worker director, but as one of the top trade unionists in the State, she may as well be.

So half of the DAA board is now comprised of trade unionists. Some of the other directors' terms appear to be nearing an end in July. Surely the trade unionists couldn't gain overall control of the board?

With Minister for Transport Shane Ross’s aversion to making State board appointments, who knows. Given his bleating about the DAA and unions in the past, wouldn’t that be ironic?