Time for tough talking at Iona

27 May 2003

Sometimes, if you want a job done well, you had better do it yourself. In the case of Iona Technologies, self-control rather than remote control became the order of the day as founder and chairman Chris Horn led a management reshuffle that saw the departure of CEO Barry Morris.

The move is suggestive of a growing resurgence of original stakeholders in Irish tech firms that fell sway to the rigours of Wall Street. Whilst players such as Riverdeep and Alphyra have opted for management buyouts (MBOs) and complete delistings from the stock markets, Iona’s move echoes a similar return of a founding father in the late Nineties to a troubled tech firm. It echoes the return of Steve Jobs to Apple, to sweep aside the debris of failing technology vision, stem losses and reinspire shareholder confidence.

The Apple analogy is no accident. Like Apple, Iona is faced with a technology that was once hot, but is losing ground to newer systems – its Corba middleware technology set, which once wowed Sun Microsystems and Boeing, is considered dated and numerous re-brandings have failed to inspire a market that has succumbed to the charms of new server technologies such as J2EE.

As a result the company has been battling to stem rising losses as the order books fail to be filled. Plunging revenues amidst a major industry downturn recently resulted in the company axing over 150 jobs as part of a US$14m restructuring plan.

A spokesman told siliconrepublic.com that the senior management reshuffle was aimed at strengthening the company going forward. “The company has US$75m in cash and investments and is very much determined to drive the business forward,” he said.

Horn, who established the company in 1991 as part of an EU research project at Trinity College Dublin’s Distributed Systems Group, stepped down as CEO in 2000 and his return to the role takes place with immediate effect. For many of its formative years the company was considered beneath the vaunted noses of financial journalists; a mere tech firm not worth covering. Landmark deals with Boeing and an IPO (initial public offering) in 1996 that was the fifth largest IPO in Nasdaq history suddenly hurled the company and its founders into the limelight and the rest is certainly history.
To many indigenous software companies Iona is still considered something of an inspiration, and no less than 20 young Irish software firms have been spun out of the company, including players such as Rococo and Cape Clear Technologies.

In keeping with the fighting, get-tough image of the reshuffle, Iona has placed shareholder and board member Kevin Melia, something of a tech titan amongst those in the know, as chairman of the company. As a senior figure in the technology industry it is envisaged Melia’s reputation will strengthen the company’s perception as well as boost investor confidence. Wicklow native Melia was a Celtic Tiger long before opportunistic pundits coined the phrase. He is the founder of global contract electronics manufacturer Manufacturing Services Limited, which is listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Prior to this, Melia held a number of major positions at Digital Equipment Corporation and Sun Microsystems, where he was chief financial officer and an executive vice-president.

Along with the departure of Morris as CEO, the management cull also saw the departures of two other senior management members: chief operating officer Steven Fisch and the executive vice-president of corporate development David James.

In a statement, Horn said that the aim of the management reshuffle is to re-energise the company. He added that Iona “is responding to the challenges and opportunities of the changed marketplace, to position the company for profitable growth and to take advantage of market opportunities through business and new product development.” The last two words of that statement — product development — are a clear indication of what Iona needs to be concentrating on going forward. Its Corba technology set was ground-breaking at the time, enabling disparate computer systems to talk to each other. In an age when web services is the new buzz-phrase that does exactly that, the company needs to come up with some fresh new ideas, and quick. If Horn’s return to the helm results in a re-energised, dynamic Iona, then the company’s role as a doyen, or inspiration, behind the relatively young Irish indigenous software sector could become all the more poignant and special. However, the word on the street is that the company could be an attractive acquisition target. As it stands, there have been indications that there could be more job losses and office closures at the company as Horn enters the most challenging phase of his dazzling career to date.

By John Kennedy