Herb Allen (former president of Allen & Co) is famous for returning a cheque of $1m for a deal which never made it and on which Allen had been advising. He sent it back, saying: “We didn’t deliver, there will be other times.” That client became a huge fee generator. So the ability to look beyond the short term matters. conference, which attracts the likes of Tim Cook, John Malone and Rupert Murdoch.
Allen & Co heavyweights Walter O’hara and Paul Gould joined Merrion’s board.
“We were very privileged, this tiny little start-up in Ireland getting these power players from the US and guys whose reputations stood above a lot of global players.
“Allen didn’t want to own us,” says Conroy of the minority stake. “Their attitude was, ‘you do well and we’ll do well’. That suited our entrepreneurial spirit at the time.
“The question was whether or not there was room for another stockbroker. We had to make room. So for us, it was very important to differentiate ourselves and we did that by being independent and objective.”
It was not without its challenges, however. Merrion launched in 2000 and the tech bubble burst soon afterwards. There were also other headwinds, like the Enron scandal and 9/11.
“It wasn’t a good time to be setting up a business. But we came through it,” says Conroy.
“By the mid-2000s, from a standing start, we were making €25m-€26m a year,” he says.
“Any time we looked to make a very significant move, I would ask how would this sit with the reputation of Merrion, because I don’t want to damage it. And it was a good discipline and we minded the brand really well.”
In November 2005, they started talking about a possible sale to Iceland’s Landsbanki and a deal was done by December. Under the deal, 50pc of the sale price was paid up front, with the remaining 50pc sold over three tranches and linked to performance. The 2008 payment never happened as the Iceland economy felt the bite of the recession ahead of Ireland and others in Europe.
“We could see it, they were distracted,” he says. “What happened in Iceland was a harbinger of what happened here.”
Merrion, once again backed by Allen, bought the business back. “It wasn’t as easy as people think. The public sentiment turned against the banks and asset sales. Landsbanki had gone on a shopping spree across Europe. In London, Paris.. a lot of it was rubbish.”
However, Merrion had been a prized asset bringing the Icelanders into the high-profile deals, such as the Aer Lingus IPO, for example.
In 2014, there was again a change of ownership at Merrion, with Conroy exiting and taking some time out. Looking back on Merrion, Conroy counts his exposure to the US through Allen & Co’s involvement as a huge positive. By nature, he is hugely interested in world politics and business.
“I have been observing the US for a while and I have great admiration for the might of the economy and their military force and all of that. However, what I’m seeing is that the US is losing itself.
“What has sustained the US is the entrepreneurial culture they had and still have and the technology lead.”
Conroy also believes that the US has benefited from strong leadership. “This has all allowed the US to be the dominant force in our lives anyway.
“Looking at it now, the entrepreneurial culture is still there. On leadership, I’m not a fan of Trump; he is divisive and will only become more divisive.”
He says that the election of Donald Trump as president may be a reaction to the lack of leadership on both sides over the past two decades.
A Democrat by nature, he says recent presidents have been ‘nothing to write home about’.
“The few recent presidents have pursued their own agenda, which has tended to be narrow.”
However, from an Irish perspective, this presents an opportunity. “There is a great opportunity for us because there is a dearth of leadership in the US and the UK where not alone is there not a governing party, there is no opposition.
“Having said that, we don’t do plans in Ireland, we do forecasts. There is no sense of where we need to be, which areas of the economy we need to be promoting, etc.”
He believes there are many creative and entrepreneurial Irish companies out there. “But we have a natural disadvantage due to our small population and so a lot of these good ideas never make it.
“If you were in the US, you would be much more inclined to hold on for the bigger pay cheque.
“I would contend that we could help companies in terms of managing and mentoring, commercialisation, getting what I would call the shelf space and that means getting products accepted by some of the big players.”
His hope is that several investments backed by the fund will become “national champions and international success stories”.