Gary: Give us a rundown of your career to date, Ed.
Ed: I started in Queen’s (University Belfast) in electronic design. It was tremendous time, really exciting, working with early microprocessor design and so on. Then the PC came along, and this thing was amazing because it could be a CAD system or it could be a word-processor. And then I had this compelling need to set a business up. And this seemed to be the right thing to base a business on. So we set up BIC Systems and rode the wave of the PC for 20 years!
Gary: So – you started that business right out of university? Because that was pretty unusual at that time.[early 80s] Most people were going to the careers fairs and getting a job with a big company and trying to get some experience under their belt. It was pretty unusual in those days to go straight out and start a business.
Ed: I never thought of like that! But you’re probably right. For me, it was a need, I just had to do it. And I what you might call confident expectation! But of course later on I found out that businesses can in fact fail, and that that might be pretty negative. And of course, if I’d known at the time all the things that could go wrong, I probably wouldn’t have done it!
Gary: So did you have people saying to you – oh no, don’t be doing that, get yourself a proper job, son?
Ed: No – and I wouldn’t have listened anyway!
Gary: So you started up this business, you were going out into the market to try & sell…nobody had told you how to do that…that must have been…interesting!
Ed: I’ve said many times – I wouldn’t have backed it! No experience, no product, no customers. Just a tiny amount of money from our parents – myself and Desi McGlade. But what that did was to create a focus on the customer which created a culture of innovation – we had to think with our brains, not our cheque-books. And that really stayed with us during the next couple of decades. We never thought that anything was ours by right – the only way to make progress was to look after your customers and bring ideas in that other people weren’t.
Gary: Looking back on those early days, what was the hardest thing about what you did?
Ed: The hardest thing was…everything! You had to take care of everything. I remember one St Patrick’s day, this phone call came in and somebody said, “could I speak to someone about your “bought ledger”. And I didn’t know what a bought ledger was. It was just Desi and me and a part-time person. And then you had to know about technology and how to sell…And for many years at the start I kept thinking “I wish I knew a lot more”. So you had to do things ten times before you did it right. So it was a lot of hard work.
But against that, with our engineering backgrounds, we did know about networks. A lot of PC companies at the time went down the route of accounts systems – we didn’t know it at the time, but we went down the corporate computing route. So we put the first PC network in Northern Ireland into Shorts [now Bombardier]. And so that gave us a bit of a difference in the marketplace.
Gary: And you started doing some business in the south of Ireland at this time too, didn’t you?
Ed: Yes. As well as the PC side of the business was this other mad side, which was about electronic design systems – which was really our background. That was quite lucrative and profitable. It was about in-circuit emulation. Back in those days Ireland was attracting a lot of hardware and electronics companies in as inward investors. So we supplied those companies with systems to de-bug hardware in real-time. But we really kept these two parts of the business quiet separate.
Gary: What did BIC eventually grow to?
Ed: From incorporation in ’84 to exit in 2004 – 20 years – we grew to over £30m turnover and about 180 full-time staff and about 40 contractors. And the business had become very successful. So at that stage we were thinking what do we do, where do we go? And we were thinking about expanding into the south of England, into niche areas.
But BT came in and made an offer. Truth is, given the profitability of the business, it was a good offer, but not as amazing as some people thought. But the shareholders thought it was worth going for.
Gary: So you stayed with BT for a while after that?
Ed: I stayed for about a year and a half. It was the right thing to do. I said to Alastair Hamilton who was running BT at that time – “I’ll do the best job I can, to help grow the business, but for a limited time”. So I came up with the idea of merging the BT business, both south and north. So Alastair and Bill Murphy, myself and others set about making that happen.
Gary: So after 20 years of running your own business, building it up from scratch, and into – in Northern Ireland terms – a sizable organization, that was your first taste of working in the corporate environment. How did that feel?
Ed: Well, I’d worked with the public sector as a supplier for many years, and with larger entities, so it wasn’t such a cold bath. And, over 20 years at BIC, you were used to dealing with big challenges and you just got on with it. So my attitude was – what can I usefully do here? The thing I really wanted to do was to see if some of the management thinking and systems that we’d developed in BIC would scale into a bigger entity like BT. And as it turned out, they could. So we brought those techniques in about how you develop positive constructive transformational change.
Gary: So describe these management techniques you felt you had learned and you felt were transferable.
Ed: The big thing is that there are two components in any business. There’s today and the future. Business as usual and change. If you’re looking too much at the future, you run out of money in the present; but if its all live for today and forget about tomorrow, then you limit your growth. So you’ve got to get a balance between these two.
Gary: Should these two things always be present in the thinking of any management team – at all times?
Ed: Yes, they should. You have to do both. Or else you’re sub-optimal or the business fails.
Gary: What I see is, particularly with smaller organizations, that the focus is on the day-to-day stuff and they either don’t think about the future, or else they just do it periodically.
Ed: Well, it took us about 10 years to evolve this. It started with a trip to America where I saw all these Baldrige award winners and their change programmes. But it ended up that in our board meetings we had two sections of the agenda – one was on today, KPIs, margins, costs and so on; the other was the change programme. And the change programme was there every month.
Gary: So looking back, Ed, what is it that you’ve proved good at along the way?
Ed: Strategy, but above all else, execution. I mean, everybody’s got a strategy. Strategy is easy, but as the old adage says – an OK strategy brilliantly executed wins every time over a brilliant strategy poorly executed. So I’m good at the execution part. ExEx we call it in BIC – excellent execution. So that was our culture – and it came down to the little things – if a meeting was at 1030, it started at 1030, not 1031. And using collective intelligence has been a strength. In any business there are usually a lot of clever people – you just have to give them the opportunity to be involved in the change. And invariably they know a lot more about the business than you do. And in a lot of organizations, the chief exec or the management team feel they have to have all the answers, or else it’s a sign of corporate weakness. The opposite is true, actually – it’s a sign of corporate weakness not to ask people.
Gary: A lot of business have found it really tough recently, Ed – have you any views on what business need to do at this difficult moment?
Ed: I think with what’s happened to the world economy – I think there’ll be a wave of innovation now. The simple thing in a downturn is to cut costs and the accountants take over. And of course that’s the right thing to do – you’ve got to cut once and cut deep – but then eventually there’s nowhere else to cut. And if you’re going to create value, which is usually linked to profit growth, you have to grow the business. So now you have to be innovative about how you grow a business. So I think we’ll see a wave of innovation – in everything from recruitment businesses to telecoms providers.
Gary: So what about innovation and Northern Ireland? Because in these last few years, with being on the Board of Invest NI, you’ve had the chance to look at what’s happening to business and the technology sector in Northern Ireland. Where are we in terms of being innovative?
Ed: Well, firstly, we can’t deny we are a little micro-region. We’re small, on the periphery of everything. Over the past 50 years, all the strategies for the economy here have basically said the same things – we have to move up the value chain, we have to get better skills. The problem is all these strategies didn’t say anything about the execute side of things – how’re we going to do it? Now I think that Invest NI has begun to think seriously about this. First of all they’ve acknowledged that we do have to execute better. And then some of the big things we’ve done recently have widened the customer base significantly and made programmes and support much more easy to access –the ‘Boosting Business’ programme would be an example of this. And suddenly you’ve got some of the highest rates of application for R&D support that Invest NI has ever had, from a much wider base of companies than ever. There are all these brilliant companies out there that people don’t know about and Invest NI is now in a position to help them export. Because of course export is the only way forward.
If we were to do it in the perfect way, you would pick your winners – now of course that’s extremely controversial, because if you’re not one of the winners people aren’t happy. But as a small region we should pick a few areas and say we’re going to be brilliant at these, we’re going to succeed there and put the resources behind them. And we are starting to do that – with some of the financial services, legal services that are coming through. We’re very good at those back office things, because Northern Irish people are very good at making good on what they’ve said they would do.
For me, if I had a magic wand, I would develop Northern Ireland into most responsive and adaptive skills delivery system in Europe – so if an investor comes in we’re able to say – yes you can have 12 of those and 20 of those and 82 of those, no problem. If we could do that, the world would beat a path to our door. The only thing we have is people and the only advantage we can give people is skills.
The Northern Ireland economy is in a difficult spot – it’s in transition. We all understand the over-reliance we have on the public sector. Overall we probably need a 20 year plan – it’s not a 3 year or a 5 year plan. We need a long term plan of renewal. And it’s got to be around the sorts of thing Invest NI talks about – exports and niches. So we’ve got to pick our winners and be response and adaptive.
Gary: To date we’ve had our problems in matching the thinking about the opportunity facing us and what we need to be and do with having the right sorts of skills available. Do you see that changing?
Ed: I think the politicians well know that bringing together DETI and DEL is the smart thing to do and that’s all caught up in the review of public administration. I think that’ll be settled sooner rather than later. So that’s one good thing. We’ll be basically taking our implementation organization, Invest NI and our skills delivery owner, which is DEL and making those two work much closer together.
But it’s a point of frustration to everyone that in Northern Ireland we have what you might call the cancer of fragmentation. People know this is an issue that stops us from getting things done more quickly. We have a multi-decade legacy with this and we need to continue to work at it.
Gary: So, finally Ed – tell us what you’re up to at the moment.
Ed: Well, I’ve got a very varied portfolio. I’ve a non-exec role BT, which I’m very happy about, because it’s my only connection with technology now. Then I’ve an asset management advisory role with the Northern Ireland Executive and work very closely with ministers and senior officials on that. I’ve just been appointed onto the board of Belfast Harbour Commissioners, which I’m very proud to be associated with. And then we have our recruitment business in EastMidlands, and that has gone through the economic cycle, but now is in a very strong position. We were delighted in February that the Sunday Times announced that we were in their Top 100 small businesses in the UK to work for – actually we were number 7. Macildowie is the name of the business. It’s a specialist recruitment business in finance, HR, Supply Chain and procurement.
And then finally I’m on the Foundation Board at Queens and I led the campaign to raise funds for the new leadership institute at Riddell Hall, and a legacy of that is that I chair the Founders’ Club at Riddell Hall. So it’s very varied, very busy, enjoyable. And of course, you make of it what you can. I’ve just finished six years, two terms on the board of Invest NI and I’ll be sorry not to be associated with Invest NI. And it’s worth just noting that in the last Audit Office report which came out just a couple of weeks ago, Invest NI got what was probably the most positive report since it’s formation 8 years ago.
Ed Vernon has been a major figure in the IT industry in Ireland for many years. He was CEO of BIC Systems for 20 years and recently has served on the boards of a variety of organizations, including Invest NI.
Gary Burnett runs a small consultancy organizations called Fabrio which helps technology companies change and grow.