The Wild Geese

31 Jan 2008

From the Flight of the Earls in 1607 to the brain drain of the Eighties and Nineties, Irish history has been marked by exile. The end of exile has now been replaced by the choice of exile and high-powered Irish executives hold the reins of power in Silicon Valley.

In 1607 members of the Irish aristocracy stood shivering on the shore of Lough Swilly in Co Donegal, waiting to board ships that took them to Spain, France and Italy. They never returned. This event, known as the Flight of the Earls, was a watershed moment in Irish history. It was to be the first of many exiles that would punctuate Irish history to this day.

Forced exiles that followed ranged from Cromwell’s plantation of Ireland, the Flight of the Wild Geese, the mass migration brought about by the Irish Famine in 1845 right up to the ‘brain drain’ of the Eighties and early Nineties as Ireland’s best and brightest sought economic refuge around the globe.

Understandably, the Ireland of 2008 would be unrecognisable to these generations. An economy the envy of the world is now attracting the world’s best and brightest to achieve the sought-after accolade of the Silicon Valley of Europe.

The end of exile has been replaced by the choice of exile and, in the technology world in particular, Irish business people are carving a global reputation whether as entrepreneurs building global empires or ambitious executives who have climbed the corporate ladder to hold the reins of power in Silicon Valley.

This is their story.

Entrepreneur in America

Wicklow native Kevin Melia left Ireland in 1976 to take up a promotion at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) in the US after being based at the company’s Galway operations.

Melia rose through the ranks at DEC’s Boston headquarters to become corporate vice-president of its supply chain operations. “It was a US$100m company in 1973. When I left Digital in 1989 it had grown to become a US$13bn company employing 125,000 people.”

He then accepted a job with Sun Microsystems where he eventually became Sun’s chief financial officer. “You could say that my move from Boston to California in 1989 was a bigger change than my move from Ireland to Boston over a decade earlier. There was a heavy Irish concentration in the Boston area whereas culturally the west coast of America looks more to Asia and Latin America. When I left Sun in 1994, the company had grown to become a US$6bn company.”

It was around 1994 that the entrepreneurial bug bit Melia. He decided to establish a global contract electronics outsourcing business called Manufacturers’ Services Limited (MSL) which he floated on the New York Stock Exchange and which went on to establish factories in the US and Asia as well as plants in Athlone and Galway.

At its peak around 2001, MSL employed 9,000 people and reported revenues of close to US$2bn. In 2003 Melia sold MSL to Canadian electronics manufacturer Celestica for US$275m. Celestica’s Galway operation is still operational with 400 people employed and in November announced a 120-job expansion plan.

Today Melia and his family are based in Acton, Massachusetts and he is chairman of Irish software company Iona Technologies as well as being a director of Horizon Technologies and Radisys Corporation.

“My heart is still very much in Ireland and I have extended family there. However, it’s only a five-hour flight to Shannon and technology has made it easier for me to keep up with the GAA reports. The thing I enjoy most is working with small companies. I have entrepreneurial DNA in me and where I live is very close to the Route 128 hi-tech cluster near Boston.”

Ireland’s position in the global tech world is very close to Melia’s heart. “The policy makers in the Fifties and Sixties did a great job creating an environment to attract industry into Ireland with low tax rates, a well-qualified young workforce and a business-friendly environment.

“The country has more than 30 years of world-class operational expertise in manufacturing and supply chain. The challenge over the next 25 years will be attracting the next phase of inward investment, particularly R&D and finance operations. Ireland also needs to build the right entrepreneurial environment where indigenous companies can develop and access global markets.

“Key to this will be developing the right sales and marketing expertise. The biggest challenge for Ireland over the next 25 years will be developing the customer-facing skills to complement operational skills. I know the Government is investing in R&D but for Ireland to develop a strong indigenous hi-tech sector commercialisation is key to building global companies. Encouraging schoolchildren to do maths and science is also vital.

Melia says he has no intention of ever retiring. “Retirement is not in my vocabulary. As long as I can breathe in some way I will always be engaged in business.”

The Cisco kid

After graduating from electrical engineering in UCC in 1983, Barry O’Sullivan sent straight to work in Nortel’s Galway operation as an R&D engineer. Today, O’Sullivan is senior vice-president of Cisco’s Voice Technology Group.

O’Sullivan, who probably has one of the most important and most exciting jobs in the technology industry today, moved to California in 1987 as a senior engineer at Nortel.

He moved back to Europe in 1993 and after a variety of European marketing roles he set up the applications lab at Nortel’s Galway plant which he went on to head up by 2000.

“By 2001 the opportunity came for me to move to New York with Nortel and head up a new company acquired by the company called Periphonics. I moved there in September 2001, 10 days before 9/11 occurred. I was at a meeting in Canada when the attacks occurred and I had to endure a 24-hour train-ride back to New York to be with my wife and kids who were in a strange country. I discovered how helpful the American people could be and really warmed to them then.”

By 2002, after 18 years with Nortel, O’Sullivan accepted a job with Cisco. “I asked myself was I going to be with Nortel for the rest of my life. I got a call from Cisco, which led the development of the internet as we know it, and met CEO John Chambers as part of the interview process.

“The division I currently head is a US$2bn business and I’m in charge of more than 3,000 engineers.”

In the past year, O’Sullivan has become painfully aware how when the subject of R&D is brought up in technology boardrooms in the US, Ireland rarely gets a mention.

Together with other senior Irish executives in Silicon Valley O’Sullivan has established the Irish Technology Leadership Group (ITLG), which includes John Gilmore, chief operations officer of Sling Media, Brian Fitzgerald, former vice-president of operations at Intuit Inc, Niall O’Connor, chief information officer at Apple, Rory McInerney, director of engineering at Intel and Tony Redmond, chief technology officer at HP Services.

The aim of the group is to address this anomaly. “In Silicon Valley, R&D chats tend to focus on India and China, and Ireland rarely gets mentioned. Ireland has a great story to tell but we need to tell it better,” O’Sullivan explains.

“If Ireland is intent on becoming a location for global R&D then it would need to change the structure radically. This would be like turning on a light switch and it would be great for indigenous companies as well,” he adds.

In the Palm of the gods

Limerick man John Hartnett, senior vice-president of global markets at US phone maker Palm, has worked in US companies all his life.

He is an expert not only on the US culture of doing business but also of bettering one’s self. “I didn’t go to university initially. I went to work for Wang in Limerick when I was 18 and started to realise the importance of the technology industry and started studies at night. I built up my education over eight or nine years, spending a lot of time in the library at University of Limerick.” He now sits on the university’s board.

Hartnett, who lives full-time in California, is noted for the highly successful global launch of the US$28m Treo 750 with Vodafone and Microsoft, the largest launch in Palm’s history and for the establishment of Palm’s R&D facility in Dublin.

Asked about his role in establishing an R&D centre for Palm in Swords, Hartnett says it was a case of making Palm’s management team aware of what Ireland has to offer. “Ultimately I was an executive presenting the facts on all countries being considered. I made sure IDA Ireland came to the table and let it do the selling. I was very impressed with how it did that – it was very professional and skilful.”

Along with Cisco’s Barry O’Sullivan, Hartnett is involved in the ITLG and he is anxious to bring Ireland to the fore of the technology world.

“The Irish guys sitting around the table are a who’s who of technology in Silicon Valley and therefore we’ve got our finger on the pulse of what’s happening in areas like semiconductors, Web 2.0 and social networking. What we see on a day-to-day basis will be invaluable in helping the Irish education system gear up for future opportunities.”

A Napoleonic IT campaign

While the US is largely the spiritual home of most Irish business people operating and living abroad, businessman Noel Meaney saw his path to riches amidst the smouldering embers of the dotcom meltdown in 2001. Since then he has managed to capture more territory in Europe in a shorter space of time than Napoleon did 200 years ago.

It all began when Meaney decided to lead a management buyout of a struggling data centre company Metromedia, for which he worked as its Irish country manager.

Metromedia was amongst many data centre companies fighting for survival after the dotcom bust and prior to Meaney’s buyout had invested US$650m in a pan-European fibre network and chain of data centres, including US$110m in a massive data centre in Citywest and a 100km fibre ring that circled Dublin.

Trading as Global Voice, Meaney had the company listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange in October 2004 through a reverse takeover of Horizon Education and Technologies.

Meaney’s company now has fibre networks that stretch across 14 European countries, which provide access to key locations within major cities, including business and industrial parks, education centres, financial centres, government buildings and internet exchanges.

Meaney says Global Voice, which counts ABN Amro as a major investor, is considering expanding from a single to dual stock exchange listing and that London is the likely target.

“We went to Singapore because we couldn’t raise money in Europe at the time. We now have euNetworks operational and are looking at other subsidiaries and opportunities to expand,” Meaney says, adding that a capital expenditure of €30m is planned for the fibre carrier this year.

As a place to do business, Meaney believes businesses in Ireland need to think globally. “There is a tendency to conform to historical practices for traditional businesses. As an international businessman I enjoy the opportunities that different cultures bring. But for Irish firms, if you have parochial business views, then you’re doomed.”

Television kingpin

New York-based Dermot McCormack has just completed a six-year role as senior vice-president of interactive products at Cablevision, the US cable company that controls Madison Square Garden and the New York Knicks basketball team.

Prior to that he was chief technology officer with an e-commerce start-up called

McCormack, who hails from Rathfarnham, after graduating with an electronic engineering degree went to work in bars and restaurants in the US before joining the tech sector and rising to the role of CIO of iVillage, a popular web portal for women.

He then joined start-up e-commerce and online currency provider, which succumbed to the dotcom bust of 2001.

“Although the company failed, the technology worked and I was fairly in demand at the time. After I took my time and evaluated what direction technology was headed and decided the next logical step was broadband and interactive TV. Serendipitously, a job offer came in from Cablevision, which is the fifth largest cable operator in the US.

“I decided it was a great place to be to take advantage of the next wave of the internet,” says McCormack, who is also the author a number of books including Web 2.0 and 10 Technologies Every Executive Must Know, which he wrote with IIA chief executive Fergal O’Byrne.

McCormack, who now lives in Oyster Bay, New York with his wife and three kids, is philosophical about the evolution of the internet and TV business. “This is how I look at my career: I’ve always gone where the internet has gone. It’s now making money and so am I.”

From a clever vantage point

Businessman Leo Corcoran set up the US operations for Irish technology companies Allfinanz and Fineos in 1997 and 1999 respectively, commuting back and forth between the US and Ireland on a regular basis.

He decided he liked America so much that he moved there full-time in 2004, setting up home and a software business called ClaimVantage in Portland, Maine. The company focuses primarily on the claims management segment of the life and health insurance market.

“I loved working in the US. The opportunities were tremendous. If you wanted to work in a niche market it was a great place to be and I decided to focus on the life and health insurance markets.”

With a former Fineos colleague, Corcoran established ClaimVantage. “We decided that it would be better to set up a company in the market we are targeting as opposed to trying to start up in Ireland and target the market from there.”

ClaimVantage is an unusual example of an Irish start-up, having been established in the US but with the development work being conducted in Dublin.

ClaimVantage scored its first major deal in October with Canadian health insurance giant Canassurance Blue, which trades in the Ontario and Quebec regions of Canada as Croix Bleue du Quebec and has a 70-year track record in travel and health insurance.

Corcoran’s company – being a hybrid US-Irish enterprise – has received support funding from both Enterprise Ireland and Maine Technology Institute.

He said locating development back in Ireland was a crucial decision. “The cost of software development in Ireland is still competitive. In the US you have to pay for benefits, which adds on average 15pc to the cost.”

Taking Manhattan by storm

Thirty-eight-year-old Una O’Neill joined the then Pricewaterhouse in Dublin in 1994 as a Trinity College graduate. Two years later she took up a job with enterprise software firm Computer Associates (CA) as a consultant. By 2002 she was managing CA’s global technical teams.

She left Ireland in 2002 to work from the company’s London office and for the past few years has been based in CA’s New York headquarters. Just before Christmas O’Neill was promoted to vice-president and general manager of CA Services and to CA’s executive leadership team.

“The transition and move to New York wasn’t as traumatic as I anticipated,” O’Neill explains. “My biggest consideration was moving my young family but through it all the kids adapted incredibly well.”

O’Neill says the fact that she had run a European operation gave her distinct advantages in terms of handling diversity and cultures.

From the boardroom of a US technology giant, O’Neill says Ireland is perceived positively. “But the country is under competitive threat. Wage inflation and the euro-dollar exchange rate will make it challenging for Ireland to compete.

“Ireland is largely viewed as attractive from US technology boardrooms, but realities around the exchange rate, the cost of living and wage inflation are being noted,” O’Neill warns.

By John Kennedy