Gary: Brian, to get us started, give us a quick rundown of your career, how you got to where you are now.
Brian: I started out by going to Queens University to study Maths. And I didn’t really know much about computers at that point in time, but I took Computer Science as a subsidiary…liked it…found it easier than Maths, so I did a full honours degree in it. As part of that I did a year out at Gallaghers and worked for their EDP department – Electronic Data Processing – run by Fred Thompson, and that was my first introduction to the way industry used programming…mainly COBOL and Fortran, but it was a good introduction. I came back and finished the degree and…one of the best training environments at that time was ICL; they put you through the interpersonal skills training as well as the engineering training, so…I went through ICL’s full training programme for two years, run in London.
During that time, I did some pre-sales consultancy, but most of it was software development. Then after two years…most of the big activity was coming in from the Stateside companies, so I joined Honeywell Information Systems, which of course became Bull, then more recently Steria. So I joined it and…fantastic time there for about 7 years. At the start it was a very small company in Northern Ireland – they had a presence in Gallaghers but very little else. But we ended up doing some very big sites here – we put the central computer into Northern Bank, the RUC, the Belfast Co-Op, the Gallaghers set-up. And I started focusing on their one of their big operating systems – Multix – we tried to sell it to Queens, but unfortunately a company called ICL got in the way!
At that time, I moved from engineering through pre-sales to sales and I was selling for Honeywell by the time I finished. I was then approached by ICL and I saw the chance to go in and get re-skilled on the marketing side – so in the mid 80s I joined ICL in a marketing role. And one of the first things we did was to a joint development with Queens University. We jointly invested in a company called Kainos…and we found an excellent chief executive – Frank Graham, who was working for Software Ireland. And from that point onwards I worked very closely with Frank.
Then at the beginning of the 90s I moved from marketing into sales and marketing, so I was challenged with putting the marketing actions into generating numbers. That led to some good activity, some results in the market and at the beginning of the 90s I took over the ICL business in Northern Ireland and I joined the Board of ICL Ireland, as Sales & Marketing Director.
Gary: How important or otherwise, Brian, was your technical background to what you moved into, first marketing, then sales and then into management? Could you have come from some other industry and did what you did?
Brian: Actually, in those days, the knowledge of what was being sold, the complexity was very important. It wasn’t possible to come from a non-technical background and be able to sell the large systems we were putting into NIE, Queens, Dublin City, Irish Revenue Commissioners and so on. You needed to have a technical background to be able to discuss what you were selling to them, the support contracts and so on. I think, as we moved through the 90s, that changed, so that sales skills could be divorced from technical skills, but not in those days.
Gary: So, you were on the Board of ICL Ireland…
Brian: Yes, and my responsibility was for driving sales and marketing in the 32 counties. It was an excellent time, we grew the business…Unix was starting to become the prevalent operating system and ICL championed it…and Open Systems was a good theme to sell behind. It was very enjoyable, but of course. after a while, one year became like the last… you’ve got your targets at the beginning of the year, you work through them, etcetera. So I took the opportunity to follow a particular passion of mine, which is understanding different cultures, and took a job looking after the sales and marketing side of ICL International – which was really Europe, Middle East and Africa. Portfolio management really. That was fascinating and I did that for a few years in the mid 90s. That was all about understanding the skills and the culture and the capability to do business in each of the individual countries…seeing what support they needed from the mother-ship, but seeing if the people there were a good enough team to form a profitable business in their own right.
So the ICL teams were left to independently run their business in each country, but supported by 4 or 5 themes run by ICL. And it was a super time – although it was hard being away Monday morning to Friday evening and we didn’t move as a family across to Europe, we stayed in Northern Ireland. So that was quite difficult. But…very, very rewarding in terms of the business.
Gary: Although you gained this international experience, Brian, in the context of a large international company, has that experience been of value to you as you’ve moved into smaller businesses and start-ups?
Brian: Very much so. We had a number of country operations, but also we had a number of software businesses, and we did a lot of listing of our businesses on the European stock exchanges. If it made sense, we bought software businesses; we sold them off, if they were no longer relevant…so we had to understand transfer pricing, use of international tax regimes and so on. So a lot of that was my first introduction to it…learning on the job. Of course you’d read the books, but you didn’t know what worked and what didn’t work…and truly understanding cultural nuances and who would buy from who and why…was fascinating to me. Up until then, I thought you just applied a formula! You put in the right ingredients, applied the formula and then you got the right stuff coming out the other end! But doing this international business helped me understand markets a lot more. And so when it came to running a smaller business, I knew you really have to understand the processes in different parts of the world.
Gary: So you took out of that both the cultural aspects of doing business in different places, but also the financial know-how about funding businesses, floating businesses and so on?
Brian: Yeah. The M&A (mergers & acquisitions) aspects were fascinating, especially when an acquisition is done. When a company is performing really well and it is acquired – we felt that when you put pure capability on top of the capability that was already there, you must get a formula for more success. But actually, small businesses often work by enthusiasm and a culture that is killed by large organizations; and in most cases where you have a large company buying a small company, you don’t see the synergies you’d expect. You generally get a degradation for at least a period of time. And I found that out on a couple of occasions. But actually, I found out that multinationals acting as a funding capability for small businesses is often very, very good, provided it’s done right.
Gary: So what happened after that time in the international space with ICL?
Brian: Well, I was asked by the chief executive of ICL, Keith Todd to do a couple of things. We were going to list the ICL company on the NY and London stock exchanges and they wanted someone to come & coordinate all the businesses inside ICL, in a synergistic portfolio that could be represented to the market as something that was really worth investing in. And also to run ICL Ireland, which was about a £60m company at that time. This is late 90s.
That work in preparing to list the company on the stock exchange I found fascinating. Now, as you probably know, Fujitsu decided that it did not want that to happen at the end of the day. So Fujitsu kept it and re-branded it and it became Fujitsu rather than ICL. But I learned at lot from the flotation exercise.
So I’ve always put myself into positions where, when I get comfortable and I know how to do something, I then try to do something that’s a bit less comfortable and where I learn new things. And that listing experience certainly did that.
Gary: So has that been the pattern of your career… the various jobs and roles you’ve described – do you get a bit bored after a while in a job?
Brian: Well, maybe not bored. But I get to the point where if I had to do the same thing again and again I’d get less efficient at it. And…maybe that is boredom! Doing the same thing time & time again just isn’t interesting!
Gary: So that brings us up to the Meridio stage?
Brian: Yes; at that stage I had the opportunity to do some very nice things within the new Fujitsu company – but – I’d gone through the experience of having a lot of share options, believing that I had a share in the new listed company, and I was very disappointed not to go through with that. Doing others things within Fujitsu would have felt like a step back. So, I decided to leave and there were a number of opportunities.
I had represented ICL on the board of Kainos and we had had a discussion about a product that Kainos was developing – a document management product. So we discussed the possibility of forming a company to take that to the international market. And in 2001 we formed Meridio. We got the first part of our funding in place from ACT and IDB (now Invest NI) to get the company properly structured and spun out of Kainos. I joined the company at its formation in June but when we went to the market for the second round of funding, it was just before 9/11 happened. And after that, we just couldn’t raise funds – even with 12 interested VCs! Three of them actually went out of business shortly after that. So we saw this wasn’t the time for investing, and we decided we’d have to make do with the funding we already had – so we had to do some rationalization of the business at that time.
And…it was difficult for a year or two, but when we got to 2003, 2004, we’d got the company profitable, growing quarter on quarter, cash-generative and going well. And that was mainly because of the strategy we followed at the start – partnering with Microsoft. At that point Microsoft’s SharePoint couldn’t do records and document management, so there was a gap and their marketing engine was so good, we decided to exploit that. So we became one of their 13 world-wide partners for technology.
Gary: Pretty good achievement for a company working out of Northern Ireland.
Brian: Yes it was. We were able to put the Meridio brand beside Microsoft, which gave us a lot of reach into the market. We got a lot of very big companies signed up – oil & gas companies, Deloittes, Home Office, Department of Defence…some fantastic orders worldwide. So we then thought it was time to take the company worldwide. We took an $8m investment from a Boston VC, Polaris, and we set up an American, co-headquartered operation just outside Boston…an interesting time…and – another learning experience!
The way that we did business quite conservatively in Europe is very, very different to the way the Americans believe you’ve got to hit a market to gain market share. So our calculation on how much we’d need to spend and how we’d spend it was just wrong for the US. We forgot that every part of the States is like a different country… and we found it very difficult to cover the States without a lot of cost. So we never really got the States profitable – despite signing up some big names.
Gary: Cracking the States is much more difficult than a lot of Northern Ireland companies think. You think because there’s a common language that there’s a common business culture…
Brian: Yes. And they are so skilled at sales and marketing that just being able to have a good proposition is not enough. You have to put the money behind the marketing, you have to be number one in product and number one in marketing. And so, we found the US to be quite difficult. But we were beginning to make progress. When we went into the US in 2005, we did some work with MIT’s iLabs. They took us on as a research project in 2005 to study Meridio’s entry into the US. And they warned us that once Microsoft became capable of doing what our product could, they’d either buy us quickly or they’d take us out. But we thought it’d take at least a couple of years for that to happen if we kept our eyes open and it would be OK.
But of course, Microsoft always markets products well before they’ve finished developing them! So around 2007, they announced SharePoint’s capability to do the things our product did. Now…SharePoint still cannot do what we were doing! But it didn’t change the fact that when they began to market this, a lot of the big customers – our pipeline – started drifting away. So we had to start selling against Microsoft rather than with them…and that was a very hard proposition.
So the board, logically, decided it was time that we were in a bigger camp, part of a bigger organization with more muscle, more cash, to fight Microsoft properly. And so, in late 2007 we sold to Autonomy.
Gary: Looking back to the point at which you joined the newly spinning-out Meridio, you’d spent your career to date with large, international companies, doing very different things, gaining a lot of experience, but suddenly now you’re away from the large company with lots of resources into a small organization fighting for its life, with very few resources. How did that feel?
Brian: Very mixed emotions. The fact that we couldn’t make the round of funding we were looking for to fund our original plan was very disappointing. The quickness of decision to execution inside a small company is incredible compared with a large company. When you get consensus among the senior executives you just went and did it, with no repercussions from another part of the organization. So that was fantastically invigorating. The learning point was – cash is king. We were doing some fantastic deals in ICL – PFI deals and so on, where we were investing up front, maybe, £10m cash. P&L was everything, not cash. But burning cash in a small organisation is a different matter.
It sounds trivial – but I had not really figured that up until the Meridio time. Knowing exactly how long your cash will last and all the actions you need to take if it isn’t going to last. This is a very key part of a small organization’s business plan.
Gary: So what’s the most difficult pressure you’ve felt along the way?You had pressure as a corporate sales person with targets to make, same when you were an MD of a large corporate division; pressure you’ve talked about around cash when you’re in a small business – what’s the worst type of pressure?
Brian: The worst thing is when you know the logical course of action you need to take and you can’t take it for some reason. For example, in a corporate, you know there’s a logical way to enter a market and gain market share and your superiors or peers don’t allow you to do that – it’s very, very frustrating. And frustration I think is the worst pressure. It eats your energy and stops you from being positive on a day-to-day basis.
Gary: What about vision – how important is that and how do you communicate that to others?
Brian: Well, I don’t think I’ve been particularly good at entrepreneurial vision. The thing I’ve been best at is really sitting down with other fabulous people – engineers, market visionaries – and getting an overall picture, gaining consensus and then getting a good plan and taking it forward.
Some of the best entrepreneurs have great vision – that’s not where I’m coming from. I’ve sat down with some great people and got consensus on what is possible; then where I’m strong is getting a business plan around that and getting everybody to buy into that. If an organization can see a number of people all aligned at the top, that is very invigorating and people can buy into that very easily. I really believe that everybody in the organization has to do that. Shares, e.g. should be given to everyone so they can really buy into what the company’s trying to achieve.
So I guess I’m an enterpriser, rather than an entrepreneur.
Gary: After having done the Meridio thing, you’ve now decided to do it all over again with Replify? Is this all about the new challenge, putting yourself on the edge again?
Brian: I’ve got a real desire to see product companies coming out of Northern Ireland. They can be wealth generating and can generate a great reputation for this part of the world. Yes, it’s good to have service companies doing great work with great skills and they can make a lot of profit…but I love to see product companies coming up. So, after the transition period after Autonomy, I was working with a few of the VCs here and Replify was already started by a good team and it just needed kickers to get it going in the market. So I got the opportunity to bring some fantastic people in that I’d worked with in Meridio and ICL and we got a team that can take the company forward. It’s a pure product company, and it’s got a great product for the market. The biggest attraction is the developing world – the BRIC (Note: Brazil, Russia, India, China) countries and so on – but it’s very, very difficult for a Northern Ireland company to work there without a lot of cost. So we’re going through some of the same things – very constrained cash, brilliant engineering, trying to make the breakthroughs. And hopefully we will do that.
But this is a slightly different strategy where the brand is slightly less important to us than the functionality. So…OEM partners…putting our technology as a component part of other people’s technology is the big breakthrough possibility for Replify.
Gary: Building product companies out of Northern Ireland has always been pretty difficult. We don’t have a huge internal home market, access to funding is difficult and we’re not, typically, as good at some of the sales and marketing things as in some other parts of the world. So – what are the possibilities for us in the product space?
Brian: Well, this in interesting, because conventional wisdom says, if you’re not on Route 128 or the Valley and you want to start a
product company, it’s almost…forget it. Israeli companies have broken through and brought a number of good product companies to market. There’s almost a different language used in the Valley, they socialize together and if you don’t fit in the right clique, it’s almost impossible to make it, even with good technology.
I think all this is going to change. I don’t think the States is going to dominate the software/network product space over the next period of time. Slowly you’ll start seeing Asia coming into play. There’s going to be a lot of power in the BRIC countries – India’s starting to come up. So being outside the Valley or Route 128 (Note: Boston’s Route 128 is a technology concentration like Silicon Valley in California) actually, may be an advantage – but we’re maybe a little bit early for that yet.
But there has to be a very, very strong will and, as you say, good funding. You can’t start a product company and get it profitable year in one or year two. For it to be worth anything, it’s got to have real differentiating technology within it and…just having a good idea doesn’t get you there. With application companies maybe it does, but with infrastructure, networking products and so on, you can’t do without a lot of investment. So…funding is a big thing.
But nobody’s stopping funding coming in here from Boston of the West Coast or mainland Europe. But we don’t have the connections that other parts of the world do…so we need to grow the funding options. There’s some good work being done by Invest NI, but we need more if we’re going to get some of our technology to come good.
Gary: In your experience, Brian, what are the most important qualities of a business leader?
Brian: John Daly (Note: previous Chairman of ICL Ireland) always used to say to me, you’ve got two ears and one mouth, so use them in that proportion! And so listening, understanding before you make decisions, being empathetic and collegiate and taking good opinion into play is important before you take any action.
Gary: So can you learn to be a good business leader?
Brian: Well, I think your character comes into play. If you’re a person that people like to work with, do business with, you stand a better chance of being a good leader, than if you’re dogmatic, hard to get along with. So character matters. When I started out, you probably could succeed with a seat of the pants approach along with good talking and presentation skills. Now you have to really know business techniques. You need much more advanced skills now than we needed back then.
Gary: As you look round Northern Ireland, do you see good business leadership?
Brian: Yes, I do. We have good people here and we need just a slight shift to the more entrepreneurial, positive thinking and people believing in themselves more – our skills are good, but maybe we don’t have the sales and marketing skills as the States. I don’t think we ever will have – we’re much more critical of ourselves and told to be that way. But, to be quiet honest, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing!
Gary: Better sometimes to over-deliver rather than over-sell.
Brian: Absolutely. You know, when I interviewed sales people in the US, I was useless! Everyone looked brilliant. Their capability to sell themselves was just phenomenal! So I thought fantastic, I’m getting all the best people. And I took some of them on. Unfortunately delivery wasn’t matched by the initial presentation!
Gary: So, what’s left on the agenda for you Brian? What do you want to achieve?
Brian: Well, I don’t think personal achievement is big for me. I would love to see the Northern Ireland ICT industry getting recognized as having flair and capability. Northern Ireland, Ireland being a world-class innovation and development environment for networked and software products. I do think if we concentrated on that we could get a reputation here. There are some fantastic initiatives happening – down at the Science Park; Invest are doing some good things, like Propel and this is bringing great ideas through. There are good mature mentors around and so on. But… there needs to be a real will to get there. And what I would love to see is Northern Ireland gaining that reputation. We do have the potential of being very successful.