BUSI­NESS LESSONS

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Business & Appointments - - FRONT PAGE -

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”.

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