Having played a key role in making Paddy Power an online success, there were raised eyebrows when it emerged that Cormac Barry was leaving the group's Australian subsidiary Sportsbet and returning to Dublin to take up the reins at CarTrawler, an Irish travel software group.
Such was the furore that the then clunkily named Paddy Power-Betfair saw its shares slump by nearly 4 per cent on the day the announcement was made in early 2018. His departure was announced on the same day that Breon Corcoran's successor Peter Jackson was named to lead the group, which has since rebranded as Flutter Entertainment.
As chief executive of Sportsbet, Barry helped to more than double its share of the Australian online market following its acquisition by the Irish betting giant in 2009.
Sitting in CarTrawler's boardroom in Dundrum Business Park nearly two years on, Barry plays down the fuss made over departure from a company he had joined at the start of the millennium.
“I’d been in my role as chief executive at Sportsbet for seven years and didn’t want to become CEO of a large global company so that meant there wasn’t a next step for me in the group. I also felt like it was time to test myself in a different environment,” he says.
“I was absolutely ready for a new challenge and CarTrawler was perfect. I like companies of this size that are growing but aren’t too big that you can’t get to know people or have a real influence on their future direction,” Barry adds.
CarTrawler recently scored its biggest deal in some time with a multimillion euro, four-year contract to become the exclusive online car rental provider for Easyjet. It also forecast a quick return to double-digit growth after losing ground in 2018, on the back of heavy investment in its technology platform, and amid a challenging environment.
“After years of strong growth, 2018 was a reset year for the business. Last year was when we started to execute our new strategy and it is already paying dividends,” he says.
Barry's wife hails from Australia and their move down under coincided with Paddy Power looking to expand beyond its core markets. "My wife and I had an agreement that we'd do five years in Ireland and then five in Australia and then pick a country to settle in. We ended up doing seven years here and nine over there and we are now back in Ireland and still haven't worked out where we should be," he says.
“We wanted to make sure the kids feel equally as comfortable in Ireland and Australia so it was important to move back for them.”
As compliments go, a recommendation on Barry’s LinkedIn profile seems to sum him up well. “Cormac loves managing s**t. Let him manage your s**t – he’ll do a great job,” it says.
Friendly but reserved, the businessman comes across as someone who would rather be plotting strategy than leading the troops into battle. He may lead a technology company, but Barry is no tech bro.
He cringes slightly when the LinkedIn comment is brought up, before acknowledging his nerdy nature and admitting that from a young age all he ever really wanted to do was be in business.
"Business is in my DNA," he says. "My wife sometimes jokes about how when I was young, I must have been been like that kid played by Michael J Fox in the TV show Family Ties who always wore a suit, carried a briefcase and continually checked his stocks in the paper. I think I possibly was a little bit like that."
That may not be totally surprising given his upbringing. His father Kevin was a well-known economist who worked at both NCB Stockbrokers and the Central Bank before he and his wife Gemma acquired a Bray-based bookshop from her mother. This eventually grew into the independent bookstore chain known as Dubray, which now has eight stores in Ireland.
Despite having his hands full with the day job, Barry continues to retain his ties with that company, serving as a non-executive director of the group, which remains in the family.
“When I was in primary school, the teacher used to get me to take the class through the business pages of The Irish Times once a week because it was something of huge interest to me,” he says, chuckling at the memory. “I also remember being hugely excited when Ireland had a positive balance of trade for the first time.”
Such excitement over numbers should serve Barry well at CarTrawler. The company, which develops car-hire software for airlines and travel agencies, was founded by brothers Greg and Niall Turley in 2004, who grew it out of their family business, Argus Car Hire. CarTrawler is now owned by BC Partners and Insight Venture Partners.
It is headquartered in Dublin with additional offices in New York and Melbourne, employing more than 500 people, most of them in Ireland.
CarTrawler recorded profits of €6.6 million on revenues of €164 million for the nine months to the end of September 2018, versus €19.9 million and €201 million respectively for the full year in 2017.
CarTrawler currently has about 100 airlines and 2,500 online travel brand partners on its books. It provides services for a quarter of the top 100 airlines globally, with clients including Alaska Airlines, Jetstar, Swiss, KLM and Emirates.
It recently introduced a new travel mobility platform that allows carriers to offer airport transfer services, including ride-hailing options such as FreeNow or Lyft for customers.
“Transport to and from airports is forecast to be a $1.75 trillion industry by 2030 so that is an enormous market for us to be part of,” Barry says. “There is a big opportunity for airlines to own the first and last mile of customer journeys with our help.”
He adds that while consumers may be thinking about their carbon footprint more, that doesn’t mean they are ready to ditch car hire anytime soon.
“Car hire remains strong and continues to grow faster than the economy with online car hire forecast to grow at between 6-10 per cent over the next five years,” he says.
“There has been a big media focus on changes in transportation, but the fact remains that 2018 was the highest year ever for car sales in the US and the biggest in Europe for 15 years. People are still very attached to them.”
He also says there is still plenty of opportunities in mobile. “There is this amazing dynamic whereby 75 per cent of traffic is mobile but only 25 to 30 per cent of bookings in the industry are done through it. Clearly the audience is there, but it is still a big challenge for the sector to convert consumers.”
Under Barry’s direction, CarTrawler is looking to grow turnover in other geographic locations. It derives only about 15 per cent of revenues from the US but he is looking to grow this to 25 per cent. However, while the company is eyeing North America, Barry is insistent that Dublin will remain at the centre of the company’s operations.
"It's important to us that the tech remains here. All the world's leading companies, such as Google and Amazon, outsource some bits of their business but they always keep the core tech stuff in-house and we're no different," he says.
Barry might be working in a predominantly online environment, but it is worlds away from when he helped Paddy Power as it looked to shift away from betting shops.
“It was all incredibly basic at the start. We were in an office known as the bunker and there were just nine of us when we first went live. If you turned on the kettle and the microwave at the same time, you’d take the site down,” says Barry, who had little knowledge of betting before joining the company.
Leaving Trinity College with a degree in economics and politics in 1996, he'd worked in sales and operations at Iona Technologies before jacking in that job two years later to go backpacking. He returned to Ireland around the start of the new century, thinking he'd like to work either in sports or online. Coincidently, he saw an ad in The Irish Times looking for people to help set up paddypower.com and decided to apply.
“I thought it was perfect even though I did have to buy the Channel 4 guide to horseracing and speed read it before my interview, which was with [former Paddy Power group chief executive] John O’Reilly who sat with his feet up on the desk smoking Rothmans.”
Barry went on to serve as head of online for nearly 10 years, a period in which it went from being the runt of the family to its prized child.
"I have to say it was a visionary bet by the board to take a chance on online betting and we weren't very popular early on internally. A line that was often used was that the internet brought in less money than the shop we had in the Northside shopping centre, so it was tough and required a big cultural change for it to work. The leadership of Stewart Kenny and John O'Reilly deserve a huge amount of credit for how they brought it all together."
Now at CarTrawler, Barry is reunited with Patrick Kennedy, the former Paddy Power chief executive, who is the tech company's chairman.
“Obviously knowing the chair and having a strong relationship with him was attractive when it came to considering joining CarTrawler, and we work well together,” says Barry.
When he first joined the company in April 2018, there was talk of him being lured back to prepare it for an initial public offering (IPO). He insists that isn’t the reason why he’s in the hotseat even if it is something that may happen at some point.
“CarTrawler is owned by private equity so at some point they will look to get a return on their investment. There is no immediate plan for them to sell the business but when they do there are three possibilities in terms of an exit, an IPO, a strategic trade sale, or a large financial buyer. All those options are on the table,” says Barry.
As for the man himself, he insists there is no plan for him to leave the business any time soon, even with the family unsure of where it might eventually settle.
“I think that within five years CarTrawler could be radically different from what it is now and that we’ll be the global leader in provision of mobility services,” he says.
“I’m less than two years here and I plan to still be leading the company as we make that transition.”
Name: Cormac Barry
Position: Chief executive CarTrawler
Lives: Monkstown, Co Dublin
Family: Married to Ruth with two young daughters aged 9 and 7.
Something you might expect: Barry wanted to be in business from a very young age.
Something you might not expect: He might be a successful businessman but he prefers to read fiction rather than business books.