Brian Conlon obituary: Started £1bn business from bedroom in Newry
Co Down entrepreneur whose success with First Derivatives was widely recognised
Brian Conlon: In 2010 he won the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Ireland and in 2015 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Queen’s University Belfast. File photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
The successful entrepreneur, Brian Conlon, who has died aged 53, could well have been remembered simply as a member of a very good Co Down senior Gaelic football team of the mid-1980s, when he joined it, aged just 19, while playing also for Queen’s University Belfast’s senior squad. A severe knee injury sustained during a Sigerson Cup match for Queen’s in 1987, however, ended his football-playing career. That Down team formed the core of what was to be the foundation for the winning by the county of two All-Ireland senior titles, in 1991 and 1994.
However, fate had great glories of a different kind in store for Conlon. From an initially tiny base in his home town of Newry, he established in 1996 what became the First Derivatives Group. Initially the company provided trading and risk-management software to banks but diversified into rapid data analysis for a wide variety of industries. Its clients include Airbus Defence and Space, and Red Bull Formula 1. Today, the group employs more than 2,000 people in 15 offices all over the world.
In his native Newry, where Conlon kept the group’s global headquarters, more than 400 highly-qualified staff, mostly young graduates, are based.
In 2002, with 26 employees and a turnover of £2 million, First Derivatives (FD) went public on the Aim market in London. Today, its turnover is £217 million, its profit before tax is some £17 million and the group is valued at about £1 billion.
Shane Mulholland, FD’s head of marketing, says this week that while Conlon had been working with Morgan Stanley in London – having worked with accountants KPMG for a year after graduating with a degree in finance from Queen’s in 1988 – he spotted a “niche” in the market.
“Brian joined Morgan Stanley’s derivatives desk as an analyst. In those days, there were two types of analyst: one who ascertained the rationale for a particular trade and another technical analyst who supported the technology underpinning the trade, or trader. He created a resource which could do both.
“Part of our training course for new graduates … is to teach them how to price a bond, and value swaps, and how to calculate risk, and then how to understand the technical needs. The uniqueness [of Brian’s idea] was that the traders and the technical analysts were able to have a genuine conversation. Previously, the software didn’t deliver what both needed. Our guys were able to go in and deliver both… Brian was a visionary.”
Conlon moved to Sun-Gard, a US multinational provider of software supports and, before making what seems now to have been an extraordinarily brave, even foolhardy, decision: to move back from an apparently stellar career path in London to his mother’s spare bedroom in Newry in 1996 to set up FD with a starting capital of just £5,000, borrowed from the local credit union.
As Mulholland recalls: “The banks he went to at first for capital didn’t understand what he was trying to do. It was the Credit Union in Newry which took a leap of faith and backed him.”
With the advent of the Good Friday agreement and the ongoing peace process, Conlon demonstrated more flair by realising that, at last, Northern Ireland was becoming a credible place for major financial institutions to consider using as a base for some of their activities. He successfully sold the idea of “nearshoring” – the transferring of some business operations of these multinationals from expensive locations such as London, to Newry, and later Belfast and Dublin.
Conlon spotted another important opportunity by becoming a global sales partner of Kx Systems of Palo Alto, California, which had the fastest technology in the market for big data analytics. Kx is now part of FD, the group having taken a controlling interest in 2014, and buying out the remaining minority shareholders as recently as June of this year.
Conlon’s success was widely recognised. In 2010, he won the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year Award for Ireland, and in 2015 was awarded an honorary doctorate by Queen’s. The chairperson of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year panel in 2010, Senator Pádraig Ó Céidigh, says he was struck by two things about Conlon. “Firstly the modest start of his business and secondly his modesty as a person, although resilient, focused, determined. He did not fear failure.
“The simplicity of his approach to his life and business struck me… he was an absolutely wonderful man, he had a beautiful energy about him. He treated people with the utmost respect, and expected to get respect back. You could sense it. He would look at you and you could sense that he would draw out the best in you.”
Brian Conlon was the son of a local couple in Newry, Gerry and Josephine (nee Carroll), and was educated at the Abbey CBS grammar school in the town. He is survived by his wife, Julie (nee O’Hare), his son, Fionn, and daughter, Danu, his mother and his siblings Kathy and Ciaran, who both work for FD. He was predeceased by his brother Ronan.