‘Everyone thinks guards and teachers can retire but no one else’
Gerry Concannon stepped back from the day-to-day running of Mayo software business CBE but he remains as busy as ever
Gerry Concannon, founder and chairman of CBE. His entrepreneurial spirit was apparent when he was a child and his mother told him later that he used to wander around with a “little case with books in it and a calculator”. Photograph: Keith Heneghan
When Gerry Concannon was a “young whippersnapper” aged 23, he used to tell people he would be retired within 10 years.
After almost 40 years in business during which he endured three recessions, the founder and now chairman of CBE, the Mayo-based software provider to the retail sector, finally pulled it off two years ago, relinquishing the title that comes with the corner office, although he has held on to the real estate.
“I think you should do an article on retirement because everyone in Ireland thinks guards and teachers can retire but no one else,” he suggests as we sit in the same corner office he occupied for years, leading an organisation that has become the biggest employer in Claremorris.
Concannon is still involved in CBE in that he gets weekly reports and attends a series of board meetings but, on the whole, his life is now at an altogether slower pace.
“People think you’re doing nothing but I’m as busy as ever, just in a different way,” he says, noting his early rises to pursue his impressionist painting hobby, his love of hill-walking and his extensive travels.
CBE, which employs almost 150 staff, might not be a household name but Concannon has built a sizeable company that started out its life as a cash register hardware business before growing it into a significant player specialising in software and systems creation with hardware very much the ancillary focus.
Concannon founded CBE in 1980 and started with just two other staff. He was effectively a travelling salesman with tills in the boot of his car, working “morning, noon and night”, six days a week.
While the business was progressing, particularly among Connacht’s publicans, the issue for Concannon was that if a customer wanted any modification to their cash register that would have to be done through the company’s UK software supplier. That was costing a fortune, he says.
His father had also previously asked him: “What do you do when everyone has one?”
Concannon knew that software would provide longevity and he made the decision to move the company into systems, subsequently set up his own software division – “one of the best moves we ever made”.
Significant recent projects include a new loyalty programme for BP’s forecourts in the UK, and new order terminals for Denmark’s KFC master franchisee – a deal that has prompted other KFC franchisees to scope out the system for inclusion in their own restaurants.
The group has also engaged with the SaaS (software as a service) model of doing business whereby customers pay on a monthly basis. This appeals to new, young business owners with little by way of cash reserves, Concannon says.
With a research and development budget in excess of €1 million a year, CBE is also ensuring it’s on top of emerging trends.
One of these is Amazon Go, the US company’s move into retail where no checkout is required. It touts this system – where customers sign in with their mobile and simply walk out of the store – as “the world’s most advanced shopping technology”.
“We’ve looked at it and it’s not difficult to replicate,” Concannon remarks casually. “If Spar said to us tomorrow ‘we want that’, it wouldn’t take us long to replicate.”
CBE has plenty on its plate having just integrated lottery sales into cash registers across 40 SuperValu stores in the Republic, a move that required interaction with the financial regulator among others. They’re also working on “one major American franchise”, although he will not be drawn on its identity.
Originally from Kilconly, just outside Tuam in Co Galway, Concannon comes from farming stock. As children, he and his siblings had strong work ethics instilled in them by their parents.
He freely admits he would have been “the worst farmer”, much worse than his brother John, the founder of JFC Manufacturing who formerly featured on RTÉ’s “secret millionaire” programme.
We could tell the weight of a lamb just by feeling it
“I liked walking through the fields looking at the birds,” he says with a chuckle. His entrepreneurial spirit was apparent from a young age and his mother told him later about how he used to wander around with a “little case with books in it and a calculator”.
As a teenager, his father, who was in the lamb trade supplying Dublin Meat Packers and Slaney Foods, would drop him and John off in separate locations to pick up lambs at marts. “We could tell the weight of a lamb just by feeling it,” he recalls.
After his secondary education in St Jarlath’s College in Tuam, he went on to what is now the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology to take business studies.
Was he academic as a child?
“I was alright but I was no brain-head,” he says. After college, Concannon moved to London for a fleeting career in accountancy. Then it was back to Tuam to work for a company selling tills before he ultimately left to pursue his own business.
Despite those strong Galway links, the self-confessed “big GAA head” is very much a Mayo supporter and CBE sponsored the Mayo ladies team for a number of years. This causes sibling rivalry, he jokes, noting that John supports Galway.
The move to Claremorris came after he took out a map – to decide where would be best to set up in a position to gain business across Connacht – before ultimately creating an exporter that now has operations across eight countries with grocery retail, hospitality, fashion retail, forecourt operators and restaurants among the sectors it serves.
While he is now retired from the day-to-day operations of CBE, he had planned to be in this position some time ago, before the onset of the last recession a decade ago.
“When the recession came I got retirement out of my head until we were running [again],” he says, adding that the business went off a cliff, although it remained profitable throughout those troublesome years.
Concannon was lucky, or wise, to avoid property development despite tempting opportunities
“You couldn’t get finance for customers – they were closing down, they weren’t making their payments . . . [and] some good customers blew their money on property development.”
He and his co-directors decided to retain all of the company’s staff throughout those years, a decision that paid dividends when the economy started to turn.
And Concannon was lucky, or perhaps wise, to avoid property development despite tempting opportunities crossing his desk.
One such opportunity was for a development in Sixmilebridge, Co Clare. Concannon went so far as to get architect drawings and costing on building residential property and had plans to borrow a “rake of money”. He figured he could make about €4,000 per house in that development and although he was initially eager, he ultimately decided against it. The person who did develop it went on to make about €15,000 per house.
“I’d say if we did the Sixmilebridge project and made the money, we’d have been one of the boys. We’d have made millions for about three years and then we would have been frigged.
“Thank God we kept out of it and stuck with what we knew,” he says, recalling that “everyone with a shovel was a developer” at that time.
Sticking with what he knew served him well, allowing him to realise the long-held retirement ambition at the age of 60. This year CBE will turn over between €25 million and €30 million.
He’s become far more serious about his painting, spending considerable time in a studio at his home. Additionally, he and his wife have gone on extensive travels, last year embarking upon a long US tour and spending more time in their long-time south Kerry bolthole.
He sits on diocesan boards but while his faith is important to him, he’s `definitely not holier than thou'
Concannon has also devoted time and funds to a series of charitable causes that culminated in him receiving a papal knighthood and becoming a knighted member of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem. Both of these are awarded to individuals who have done charitable work.
This has included working with a charity founded by a Claremorris woman called Protect the Children of the World. He also sits on diocesan boards but while his faith is important to him, he’s “definitely not holier than thou”.
“I suppose the charity came from home,” he says, adding that “there would have been a stream of Travellers coming to our house and my mother knew them all and she’d always have something for them.”
Does he miss the buzz of running a business? “Eh, no. I don’t, I’d have to be honest with you.”
Nevertheless, with CBE firmly in growth mode, he’s kept abreast of the company’s newly-found acquisitive streak to pursue a traditional type of growth.
And has has no interest in selling the business. “We’ve been approached a few times,” he notes.
In any event, he’s now planning on putting together an art exhibition in an effort to force himself to put a body of work together. Although he’s yet to sell a painting, he’s given a few away as gifts.
“I’m like Van Gogh, I’ll probably sell one. He only ever sold one painting.”
Perhaps he is like Van Gogh, although hopefully he’ll hold on to both of his ears. Van Gogh struggled to make a living, something Concannon does not have to worry about given the success of his Mayo business.
Name: Gerry Concannon
Position: Founder and chairman of CBE
From: Kilconly, Co Galway
Lives: Claremorris, Co Mayo
Family: Married to Catherine with two children: Gearóid and Laurie
Something you might expect: Having previously sponsored the Mayo Ladies GAA team, Concannon is a “big GAA head”.
Something that might surprise: Concannon has a papal knighthood and is a knighted member of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem.