Limerick leader: Ray Downes continues to champion his home county

28 May 2018

Ray Downes. Image: Kemp Technologies

Kemp CEO Ray Downes may have packed his bags for New York, but he still helps his homestead strike the right balance for business.

When I get a call from Ray Downes, he says it’s the first call he’s made on an analogue phone in years. He’s calling me in Dublin from his home turf of Limerick, though that’s no longer his usual base. Downes has been CEO of Kemp Technologies since January 2012, which brought him to the company’s HQ in New York City.

Those in the know in Ireland’s tech scene know that Downes represents one of its greatest success stories. He’s not, however, a household name, preferring to work quietly in the background rather than court media attention. It’s a bit like Kemp itself – the company may not be known to the average online consumer, but it’s its load balancing and application delivery technology that keeps sites such as ASOS ticking over.

‘US companies see Ireland as a safe pair of hands to hand over the running of their branch office or their entity. They like the fact that we’re easy to do business with’

Downes’ career trajectory has been greatly aligned with Ireland’s own development as an international tech hub. “I came into the workforce in the early ’90s, which is dating myself a bit, but I was lucky enough that in the Limerick region – and, I guess, the mid-west in general – there were a lot of US multinational companies that were using Ireland as their base for low-cost manufacturing at the time,” he said.

Even then, the idea of this mid-west city as the technology “epicentre” for Ireland was taking hold. It had Analog Devices, Wang, ASP Computers and, of course, Dell “hiring thousands of grads into their factories”.

Downes started out at the “fantastic learning ground” of Cabletron, a New Hampshire networking company and competitor of Cisco at the time. After a decade at that, he established a consultancy to help early-stage US technology companies build their business to Europe.

“They were coming in cold with a technology or an idea and they hadn’t really much local knowledge and, the company I established, we were that local knowledge,” he said.

This role lasted another 10 years, mostly working in continental Europe and constantly learning. Downes said he helped about 20 different companies build and manage their sales operations across Europe and he might have continued on this track indefinitely if he hadn’t promised his wife they would eventually move back to Limerick.

In 2010, that opportunity came via IDA Ireland, which put Downes in touch with a small company out of New York looking to establish a European presence from Ireland.

Native attraction

Though Downes came to Kemp because of his desire to return to Limerick, exactly 12 months later, he was relocating to New York to take on the role as the company’s global lead.

“My wife knew that I always fancied the opportunity of working in the States. And the only struggle was whether I would go alone and try the commute or whether it would be [that we] pack bags and go together, and that’s how it worked out,” he said.

From his comprehensive experience of international business and Ireland’s unique position therein, Downes finds Ireland’s advantage is more than just a common language with the US. He also believes much of the Irish-US business relationship is built on “good will”.

“I think that they see [Ireland] as a safe pair of hands to hand over the running of their branch office or their entity. They like the fact that we’re easy to do business with,” he said.

“There isn’t anywhere near the same level of bureaucracy in Ireland,” he added, making the comparison with other European countries.

‘I would not try to justify moves to Limerick if the performance didn’t merit it. Voices come to me and say they want to put jobs in Limerick for their own reasons’

A rainbow is seen in the clouds above Limerick city

Image: aaabbbccc/Shutterstock

Downes acknowledged that most companies come to set up in Ireland “through the gate of Dublin”, but the challenges of cost and competition lead them to farther-flung cities. There are teams on the ground in Limerick, as well as in bordering Clare and Tipperary, working to ensure the region’s attractiveness to those businesses. They’re moving away from “parochial politics” and joining together to bid for better infrastructure for the region as a whole. At the same time, these advocates have noted their pain points – housing and available workspace, for example – and are working on them, too.

A good pitch also comes with successful case studies and, in this, Downes and Kemp play the role of ambassador. Over the years, they have welcomed Gilt, WP Engine and Stats on visits arranged by the IDA as they scoped out the area before eventually taking root there.

Even in New York, Downes finds himself at events mingling with CEOs of similarly sized companies, and the opportunities in Limerick and Ireland’s mid-west are bound to be mentioned. In fact, one security company he recently advised has made a move to Ireland – but to Cork. “I think I owe Limerick one after that,” he joked.

Downes is careful, however, not to let his hometown love cloud his business decisions. For him, any further commitment from Kemp in Limerick comes because he lets “the results speak for themselves”.

“I would not try to justify moves to Limerick if the performance didn’t merit it. That would be bias,” he said. “The most encouraging thing is, the voices come to me and say they want to put jobs in Limerick for their own reasons.”

Local jobs for local students

The efforts of Downes and others in developing high-tech business in the mid-west means more highly skilled roles coming to the region, but there’s a network of influencers that need to heed that message more so than others: the Irish mammy.

“We’ve got to convince the mammies that there will be jobs there at the end for their sons or daughters,” said Downes. When these businesses announce their commitment with numbers of jobs over a number of years, it enforces the idea of a stable job worth aiming for.

It helps, too, that Limerick has a legacy of a strong IT presence in the region. It’s this breeding ground that Downes himself came from, along with some of the core developers now at Kemp. There are currently team leads at Kemp who started out as interns five or six years ago, and that retention is part of Kemp’s strategy.

The trick, Downes explained, is getting the experienced hires to work with students and graduates coming through the pipeline, creating cells of “old wise heads guiding the younger guys”. Kemp offers this co-operative start to those still in education and keeps in touch for opportunities to assist in their professional development, say with part-time work or assistance on projects or coursework.

“We’ll support and facilitate that and then get job offers out to the cream of the crop as early as we can,” Downes explained. “That’s been our formula for building a centre of excellence here.”

Elaine Burke is the host of For Tech’s Sake, a co-production from Silicon Republic and The HeadStuff Podcast Network. She was previously the editor of Silicon Republic.