Wild Geese: Travelling the world with the World Cup
Keeva O’Connor’s career has led her to be a project manager for Russia 2018
Keeva O’Connor: “There was a very small Irish expat community in Korea but together with the Irish consulate we managed to organise a St Patrick’s Day parade in Seoul”
As a child growing up in Skerries, Co Dublin, Keeva O’Connor used to sit with her father watching David Attenborough programmes, knowing that one day she would travel.
After finishing a business degree at the College of Commerce, Rathmines, she went to London to study the CIMA accounting exams and then spent three years working primarily for Freemans mail order company. She then landed a work visa for the US.
“I had no job to go to, I was told the US was going through a recession with New England being hit hard and I was going to be sleeping on the floor of a cousin’s apartment in Boston,” she says. “I was going anyway.”
Her first job interview was with an estate agency . . . while wearing an Ireland soccer supporter’s shirt after the Ireland v USA soccer match in Foxboro Stadium. She didn’t have time to go home to change, but she got the job.
A year later, she was working at the stadium as the assistant management accountant. So began a career in events and sports management.
“I spent four great years with the Kraft family and saw the development of Foxboro Stadium and the New England Patriots go from a season-ticket membership of about 14,000 fans to sell out games and waiting lists for season tickets.”
In 1994, she became the management accountant for the stadium. Her first major settlement was for a Pink Floyd concert.
“The concerts were shortly before we were due to host some of the Fifa World Cup 1994 games and everybody was stressed about keeping the grass in pristine condition,” she says.
“I remember going down on to the field during the Floyd show and their finance guy asking me how much the plywood was costing that we were putting down. I didn’t know so I made sure that in future I knew how much everything cost down to the last nail.”
She went on to work on many concerts, including the Rolling Stones and Elton John and then, of course, World Cup ’94.
Great opportunityEarly the following year, O’Connor applied to do an MBA in Trinity but before she could start the course, she was offered a job at the Olympic Games in Atlanta in 1996.
“It was a great opportunity to move from pure finance. I was responsible for staffing for the event services team. It was learning by doing, but we created a service/product that would be replicated across many Olympic events to come,” O’Connor says.
After eventually completing her MBA in Dublin, the small team she had been working with in Atlanta got a foot in the door at the Sydney Olympics.
“We were four people who went to Sydney in 1998. We cut our teeth running the Royal Easter Show at Homebush in Sydney, which was under construction to become Sydney Olympic Park,” she says.
O’Connor’s role was staff services director. She may have started with four people but two years later she was organising 12,000 volunteers, 2,000 contract staff and 150 management staff.
“It was during this phase that I met my husband. I interviewed him in his first job interview: four years later we got together,” she says.
During the Sydney project, O’Connor was seconded to a small IT firm to develop an application for scheduling staff. “The existing Olympic IT sponsor realised they needed to develop some applications internally to support the Olympics business so they asked me.”
Expat communityWhile working for Sema (now Atos), she moved to Seoul in Korea and led the application project team onsite for the World Cup in Korea/Japan in 2002.
“There was a very small Irish expat community in Korea but together with the Irish consulate we managed to organise a St Patrick’s Day parade in Seoul which has gotten bigger each year. I introduced my Korean colleagues to drink Guinness for the first time,” she says.
While in Korea, O’Connor worked with a Swiss company called Eurotech Global Sports (EGS) which had worked on the World Cup in France in 1998.
“At the end of the event, they asked if I would be interested in working with them and, in 2004, I joined them for the World Cup in Germany in 2006.
O’Connor has continued to work with EGS through the World Cup in South Africa, living in Johannesburg, and the World Cup in Brazil living in Rio. She is now the IT operations project manager for World Cup Russia. There she will run the IT command centre during the World Cup itself in 2018 with a team of 40 IT personnel.
“For my role in Russia 2018, we could base ourselves in Europe so I suggested Sitges after a visit there in 2001. So I’m now back by the sea, the airport is 20 minutes away we are 40 minutes by train from Barcelona,” she says.
“In a way it’s like a Spanish Skerries – a cosmopolitan city but still maintaining its traditional heritage and artistic culture which makes for an interesting place to live.”
O’Connor’s advice to fellow Wild Geese? “Get to know the culture you will be working in. That was of great value to me when I started in Korea and Russia, where there are strict business protocols. Try to learn a few words of the language – at least please and thank you – and this will go far.”