Stephen Brewer interview: ‘I was on the board of Apple when I was a kid, really’ (video)

12 Feb 2016

Not only was Stephen Brewer a founding father of the Irish mobile market, he also brought the first Apple computers to Europe

In the 1990s as CEO of Eircell (now Vodafone) Stephen Brewer masterminded the country’s love affair with mobile phones. Ireland was one of the first countries in the world to launch prepay and Brewer competed aggressively with Denis O’Brien’s Esat Digifone. Today, he is back in Ireland to help the next wave of entrepreneurs take on the world.

Speaking to Stephen Brewer ahead of Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2016, where 18 Irish mobile technology start-ups will form part of the Enterprise Ireland presence, it is hard not to be in awe of the fact that Brewer has been part of the mobile revolution from the very start.

In fact, it goes back further than that. Brewer and his late brother Michael also played a part in kickstarting the personal computer revolution by showing the entrepreneurial chutzpah and zeal that saw the first Apple computers arrive in Europe in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

In Ireland, Brewer could be considered one of the founding fathers of the mobile industry, and he was a colourful presence in the marketing battles and customer grabs that characterised mobile in turn-of-the-century Ireland.

In the late 1990s, Brewer, as CEO of Eircell, sparked an intense battle with Denis O’Brien’s Esat Digifone and, in the process, Ireland’s mobile economy was born. Despite their intense rivalry at that pivotal time in Irish communications history, Brewer and O’Brien grew to become friends and Brewer later went on to work at O’Brien’s Digicel empire in the Caribbean.

The dawn of Ireland’s mobile revolution

At Eircell, then a Telecom Eireann (now Eir) subsidiary, Brewer grew the network from 100,000 mostly analogue 088 users to more than 1m digital GSM users on 087 before the company was sold to Vodafone in late 2000. In 1997, he scored a major coup by launching one of the world’s first prepay services, Ready to Go.

Recalling his arrival in Ireland, he said the timing was perfect because the Celtic Tiger economy was about to explode, young people had money in their pockets and people were about to purchase their first mobile phones. “It was a great opportunity and I came here open-eyed.

“I came here because I’d already worked for BT in the UK as part of Cellnet, which became O2, which became Telefonica and which is now Three, and then I went to France. Again, [in Ireland] the incumbent telco was going to face competition, so it was natural to come to Ireland, which was about to face competition from Digifone.”

Recalling the market in Ireland at the time, Brewer said it was initially a business-focused market with only SME managing directors and corporate salespeople sporting mobile phones. “But the next market was coming. Prepay South Africa and Eircell in Ireland were the first two launches in the world through Ericsson, which helped get it done, and when we launched it we had run out of Ready to Go handsets. At the same time, text messaging was about to take off. We couldn’t bill for it at first but then we gave it away and, of course, everybody went mad, got into the habit of texting and, when we started charging for it, they didn’t stop texting and it grew hundreds, millions to what it is today.”

Bringing the first Apple computers to Europe

A little-known fact about Brewer is that before his role in the mobile revolution in Ireland in the late 1990s, he played a definitive role in bringing Europe into the personal computing revolution in the 1980s.

After learning about the first Macintosh computers, Brewer and his brother Michael sold everything they had, raised £400,000 and flew to a computer trade show in New York to meet Steve Jobs. After convincing Jobs to give them the first distributorship for Apple Computer in the UK, the Brewer brothers built up a thriving computer business called Microsense that, at its zenith, had a turnover of more than £20m before Apple acquired the company, and Brewer joined the board of Apple during its pivotal early growth years.

‘Steve Jobs was already famous for what he was doing and when you met him with his jeans and his bare feet, sandals and t-shirt, he was a human being. You could even see then he had a vision then for where the thing was going’

“PCs were just starting to come in, the Commodore PET was one of the first. None of the big players like IBM or Compaq were in the market yet, but these two guys Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak came up with the Apple I and then the Apple II and they set up an organisation at a big computer exhibition in New York called Eur-Apple to find distributors in the European countries.

“My brother and I went there. We had to pay lots of money so it was a matter of mortgaging the house, putting it all on the plate there and saying we want to be the UK distributor.”

Brewer said that Steve Jobs recognised his passion for computers and a partnership was born.

“We got the deal. The first 60 Apples arrived and we advertised for all these dealers because there weren’t any people really reselling computers at that stage.”

It was around this time that Brewer’s marketing nous began to show itself and he recruited British airline entrepreneur Freddie Laker to be the face of Apple in the UK in the early 1980s.

“We wanted to advertise, find a figurehead. At the time, Freddie Laker was the Richard Branson of the era, so we got on to him and said ‘we want to use you in ads’. He said fine, so we got this picture of Freddie Laker using an Apple on his desk with all the dealers listed in the The Sunday Times and said ‘The decision-makers use Apple’ and it went like a bomb. Within a couple of years, we had a £20m business and Apple came along and bought that from us. I was on the board of Apple when I was a kid, really.”

The traits of leaders

Brewer speaks with heartfelt affection for Steve Jobs, a man about whom opinions can sometimes be divided.

“He was already famous for what he was doing and when you met him with his jeans and his bare feet, sandals and t-shirt, he was a human being. You could even see then he had a vision for where the thing was going and, despite the people who came in and tried to destroy his business, it grew to become the most valuable company in the world. But he was a good guy. I remember June 1979 I arrived in Cupertino and he said ‘Stephen, I hope you haven’t got any plans for tonight because we are having a barbeque for your birthday’. So, he was that sort of guy. And I feel that successful people are often like that. They care about the individual.”

After Eircell was sold to Vodafone in late 2000, Brewer went on to enjoy an international career with the company before finding himself in the Caribbean working at former rival Denis O’Brien’s Digicel international mobile empire.

Time for the individual is a trait that Brewer believes successful entrepreneurs have in common and he believes O’Brien, a figure who has been involved in much controversy in Ireland in recent times, has that quality.

“He has terrific vision. He has terrific drive and a passion to try and deliver things and win the competition. And always again, he has time for the individual and I always respected him and liked him for that.

“Working for Denis, you are part of a very, very enthusiastic team. Therefore, that is encouraging because that’s exactly who I am, passionate about getting there, winning, being there first, making that grow and I admire Denis an awful lot for other businesses he has done that for.”

Brewer’s law: how to win at mobile

Brewer’s time in Ireland made him many friends and contacts and, in this way, he became a useful contact for Enterprise Ireland companies trying to crack the UK market.

Brewer eventually returned to Ireland, where he lives today, and he now advises and mentors mobile start-ups on behalf of Enterprise Ireland.

“Well, I’ve been working with Enterprise Ireland for the last three or four years, both in the UK and here, and trying to expand markets there. It seemed a natural step to come here and I am pleased to be a mentor and work with the Enterprise Ireland organisation. They want Irish companies to export.

“The technology and the software developments here in Ireland are world class and they deserve a bigger audience. I’m really proud that two of my clients are down at MWC and they both have good products and lots of other good Irish companies being represented.

“I understand that 90,000 to 100,000 people are coming to Barcelona for that exhibition. It’s a great platform for those companies. I remember when I was starting out, even if it was a company like Apple, it was still starting out, unloading the truck yourself and getting it out like that. And I share the passion of the people who are doing those things in Ireland and I want to help them to go forward.”

Brewer is chairman of Imob Media, an Irish start-up that has developed a unique technology that enables high street retailers to use geo-fencing to cleverly engineer customers of brands to enter the store to make a purchase.

“It is about context in terms of the right sort of customer, the relevant customer, the ones that the mobile network operators want to keep. And when they are close to a point of purchase, whether a Three shop or an Audi garage or a Guinness pub, we can deliver digital marketing messages to them at that moment in time to encourage them to purchase the client’s product or the brand’s product.

“This really helps with what I call CVM – customer value management – which is about loyalty of your customers. It cost so much and takes so much effort to win a customer and you’ve got to look after them in this day and age and that’s what Imob Media really does, brings those three together. In fact, what it does, it follows the money.”

Brewer’s law for start-ups is: learn how to sell.

“Have a product which is stable and learn how to sell. And if you can’t do that you might get the first order, but you won’t get lots more, however good the product is.

“Nothing happens in a business until you sell something and that’s what I try to help people to do.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years