THREE years ago, John Conroy walked away from Merrion Capital, the firm he founded with six of the country’s leading brokers in 1999, taking with him a key lesson on building up a successful business. Finding the right people is as important as identifying an opportunity in the market. Having kept a low profile since then, Conroy has this month launched his new venture, the Acton Health and Wellness Fund, again bringing on board an impressive team.
The fund, which has been gestating for some time, brought in Olympian Eamonn Coghlan and former Eircom vice-chairman Con Scanlon at an early stage. Several leaders from business, the food sector and medical world have also now come on board, including: Niall Fitzgerald, the former chairman of Unilever; Paul Finnerty, the former chief executive of ABP Food Group; and renowned US investment banker John Duffy.
For Conroy, he wanted to mark his new project out by the calibre of the people involved.
“There are a huge amount of investment ideas coming through any family office now. I think we have an advantage because a lot of people have a personal interest in what we are doing,” he says. “It gets us in the door. After that, it is down to the quality of the product and the people.”
The new fund seeks to ride the growing wave of interest in wellness and the opportunity which technology might bring in terms of making us healthier.
Conroy explains: “What are the issues today? From a governmental perspective, the very high spending on health worldwide and an increasing burden on the budget as people are living longer.
“You have this dichotomy, a section of the population is fitter than ever and another section has major health issues.”
There are several opportunities for businesses delivering solutions, such as “trying to reduce the reliance on primary care and other trends are that more people want to take control of their own health and more people are using more technology.
“The two silos we are focusing on are consumer-focused digital health and also functional foods. We feel that the opportunity is big in these areas,” he says. “So we are looking to invest in companies operating in those sectors, mainly in Ireland.”
Conroy believes that Ireland also has an advantage in these areas, with 18 of the world’s leading medtech companies having operations here. In addition to this, Ireland has produced Kerry and Glanbia, two world leaders in the food sector.
He says that in the area of functional food “not many people have made money out of it yet but I think we are at an inflection point”.
Conroy, originally from Portlaoise, started his career by studying civil engineering in UCD, before joining Dublin County Council and being seconded out to Mccarthy & Partners. With an innate interest in business, he took an MBA in the evenings at Trinity College, Dublin.
Conroy was then recruited into NCB stockbrokers in 1986, which was at the time breaking the mould in Dublin’s cosy stockbroking world.
He impressed people with his appetite for hard work, his intellect and ability to read world politics and business and understand its implications for Irish business. Starting off as an equity analyst, he soon moved into managerial roles, eventually becoming head of equities.
NCB was later bought by Ulster Bank and in the late 1990s after a new ceo had taken the reins at the broker, Conroy decided to break away from NCB and set up a new firm with several of his colleagues. The team included Adrian O’carroll, who Conroy says was “the best stockbroker in Dublin”.
“Merrion was an exciting enough adventure,” recalls Conroy. “The critical thing for us was at the outset to get a good partner on board. We talked to many, many people, both domestically, in the UK and one or two in New York.”
He was introduced by the Smurfits to Allen & Co, a renowned but low-key boutique investment bank, which went on to take a 30pc stake.
As far as Conroy knows, Merrion has been its only investment outside of US.
Allen & Co has tremendous business links in the US and is behind the annual Sun Valley