The road ahead: David O’Meara, managing director, Havok

24 Dec 2008

David O’Meara is managing director of Havok, the Emmy-award-winning Irish company that provides interactive software and services to digital creators in the global games and movie industries.

Q. In a very short space of time, both Ireland and the world’s economic fortunes have changed. In your opinion, what are the priorities that need to be addressed to steer this country back to a sound economic footing?

A. Fortunately there are many things Government and individuals can do to improve matters to make us a fairer and stronger economy and society in what will be a very competitive global market. Most importantly for all of us, whether Government or individuals, is to face up to challenges and to do so quickly.

Firstly, the Government should address the patently obvious issues in the public sector now. These are cost, flexibility, performance and talent challenges that have become progressively worse, not better, over the past decade. There are good public-sector bodies, but there are also terrible ones. Tenure should go. We will never be a fair or competitive country as long as there is guaranteed security of tenure in the public sector. Morale among good public servants will be poor regardless of pay, as long as there is security of tenure and guaranteed pay for those who don’t perform.

The urgency of now also applies to the private sector. Leaders of companies who destroy value should go, and go without fat payoffs. Boards should require this. The manner in which some of our private companies are run is awful. The way in which board appointments in the public and private sectors are made is generally flawed. As long as this is the case, we cannot be competitive or fair. In Havok, we have always addressed issues up front whether at board or management level. There are no sacred cows. Everyone is accountable, and that is made clear to everyone.

Q. More than ever, Ireland needs breakthrough science and technology business stories, with local companies reaching global markets. What’s missing and what areas of technology could deliver rewards?

A. There are plenty of ideas. The most important missing ingredient is top-notch management and business talent. If one wants to be a global success, it is no different to managing Manchester United. You must be at the top of your game. This is a bigger issue than the lack of science graduates or shortage of ideas. The second challenge is the shortage of top-notch science graduates coming out of western universities, including Ireland.

Havok has overcome this by attracting world-class talent to Ireland, and by opening development centres in Germany, Japan, India and the US. In my view, putting more money into education is not really worthwhile until the right foundations are in place, including removing the security of tenure of teachers and civil servants and holding education establishments accountable for performance

Q. Ireland is continuing to win its share of foreign direct investment (FDI). Why is this and how sustainable is this going forward?

A. It is sustainable, to a lesser degree than in the past, if we have the talent and right competitive environment. Indigenous companies are probably more important, going forward. Irish-headquartered companies with a world-leading position, such as Havok, are very important for the Irish economy. Havok shows it can be done. Frankly, we are committed and we do a lot as a role model, and for the image of Ireland abroad.

Q. Education was the bedrock of the economy that was known as the Celtic tiger. But the evidence is Irish schools are not receiving the same level of investment as counterparts in neighbouring and competing economies. What can and should be done about this?

A. The issue of security of tenure and holding schools accountable are the most basic of issues. Teachers who do not perform have not been let go over the past five years. Good teachers engage students and attract their interest. The better the teacher, the more engagement one gets. The more accountable the school, the better the performance of students. That goes to the heart of the issue. Morale amongst good teachers must be awful if they can see poor or lazy teachers getting away with it, while they have to cover.

Q. In terms of infrastructure, is Ireland, in your opinion, adequately equipped to perform as an agile economy in 2009, and do you think it could emerge stronger as the economic storm clouds clear?

A. Accountability is the core issue. Infrastructure improves on an ongoing basis, if everyone is accountable for what they do. No accountability results in poor infrastructure. Look at the countries with the best infrastructure and personal responsibility and accountability and you will find that pride is there. It does not matter who is providing the infrastructure, whether private or public, if personal accountability is not there. Without it, we can not be competitive in the more competitive global economy that is on the way. It is also a matter of basic fairness.

By John Kennedy

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