After 17 years at Microsoft, Paul Rellis has spent the past four years heading up the Viatel Technology Group. He sat down with Ann O’Dea to discuss leading through a pandemic, digital transformation and the future of business.
The last time I sat down to interview Paul Rellis, he was country manager for Microsoft in Ireland. So I was keen to catch up on his latest adventure as CEO of the Viatel Technology Group, where he has seen the indigenous company’s team triple in size and expand, including through the acquisition of Digiweb and ActionPoint.
We started our conversation by looking back at his 17 years he spent at Microsoft, both in Ireland and overseas. “Microsoft was an absolutely fantastic experience, a brilliant company and great people,” he says. “I learned and developed so much, and I think we really underestimate what companies like that have done in Ireland for so many people. They’ve invested in people, employed so many, grown so many people and it’s been, for me personally, a fantastic journey.”
Rellis joined Microsoft in 2000 from Coca-Cola in Germany, where he was living with his wife Lisa, because, he says, he wanted to join a “leader in the technology industry”.
Ireland was a very different country then, and the ‘born on the internet’ giants like Google and Facebook had not yet arrived. “If you go back 20 years it was very much Intel, IBM, Dell, Microsoft, a couple of big global companies. Of course, now that has exploded into lots of companies providing lots of services and many of them are housed here in Dublin,” says Rellis.
“It’s fantastic, the opportunities people have today to choose company X or company Y. It means you can focus on trying to find the right fit for yourself and it forces companies to be better organised too, and to be much more open to all kinds of people, all kinds of talents, because if they don’t, they just won’t get the people.”
Rellis believes Ireland and Dublin are really well positioned now in the global economy. “The thing I’d love to see more of is people moving out of the bigger organisations over time and into Irish companies, and taking all the learnings they have from there and kind of bringing it to life in other companies. And that is happening more and more.”
And of course it is not just Dublin, as Rellis can testify. Viatel Technology Group has teams in Dublin, Dundalk and Limerick these days, with business predominantly focused in Ireland, but its sights are set on moving further afield in coming five years, he says.
Given Viatel’s business in telecoms, data centres and infrastructure, it was of course designated a ‘key industry’ during the pandemic, so while so much of the world switched off, much of Rellis’s team were hard at work. “A lot of our people, our team, were out there keeping the lights on over the last two years in the toughest of times for our business customers and consumers, so we really feel like we’ve played a big role in doing that,” he says.
Viatel started life as a telecoms company 20-odd years ago and was brought together through acquisition and growth of businesses. “It has a very successful consumer brand called Digiweb, a very successful business brand called Viatel, and we acquired Action Point, a very successful managed services and cloud computing partner in Limerick last year,” explains Rellis. “So we’re growing extremely well, which is great.”
Today, Rellis oversees a team of some 300, a trebling from 100 when he first joined. “It sounds like it was all plain sailing and all very easy, and of course it wasn’t,” he says. “The first two years of my time there, we really had to focus on getting ourselves right, getting the team right, the products right, customer service, all those things.”
It was a process that was successful, he says, and today he believes the business has the right products and solutions for the time we are in. “There’s very few times in business where you have that really good feeling of momentum behind you, and that’s the feeling we have right now.”
Lessons in leadership
With several decades in leadership roles, the interview is well worth a watch for some top leadership lessons he has learned, but one is about taking a hard look at yourself as a leader.
“I’d be strongly encouraging every leader to understand their own strengths and weaknesses and really take those to heart and try and improve on those over time, so that they’re walking the talk,” says Rellis. “Because when people see more senior people or leaders focusing on themselves, trying to improve themselves, taking all their holidays, being energised, doing all the right things, it actually really makes a difference.”
It’s one of several positives that might come of out of the tough pandemic years, he tells me. “I think, ironically, it could be really good for business. Maybe we had kind of reached peak productivity and leaders being so focused and kind of forgetting about themselves. So it’s going to be interesting to see the effect in the coming years,” he says.
Watch the full interview above. Paul Rellis has met his fair share of good and bad leaders in his various roles over the years, so he has plenty of invaluable learnings to share.
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