Interviews

A St Patrick's Day celebration of the best Irish entrepreneurs

5 min read

17 March 2015

With it being St Patricks's Day, Real Business decided to relax with a pint of black stuff and take a look at some of the leading entrepreneurs to emerge from the Emerald Isle. What can other aspiring bosses learn from these Celtic tigers?

Eddie Jordan: Founder of Jordan Grand Prix

According to his own website, Jordan is known for his “irrepressible optimism” and “joie de vivre” – and those qualities have put his career in pole-position.

Jordan was a Dublin bank clerk when he moved to Jersey in 1970 because of a bank strike. There he discovered a love of kart-racing.

When he returned to Dublin he notched up kart-racing and Formula Ford race wins. He moved up the Formula level – 3, 2 and became a F1 McLaren tester in 1979.

After retiring he set up his own racing team in 1980 and was known for giving young talent a chance such as future F1 Word Champion Ayrton Senna’s, who he gave his first Formula 3 drive in 1982. He set up Jordan Grand Prix in 1990, again putting faith in young talent such as Eddie Irvine. He sold the team in 2005.

Lessons: Jordan has used his natural passion for motor racing, drive and charm to build great success. Also known for giving youth an opportunity.

Denis O’Brien: Founder and chairman of mobile operator Digicel Group 

The company began in 2001 with the launch of a GSM mobile phone service in the Caribbean. It now operates in 33 markets throughout the Caribbean, Central America and the Pacific and has over 13m subscribers.

O’Brien had earlier success when he sold his Esat Telecom Group to BT for €2.4bn in 2000. He also founded Communicorp Group and owns and manages a portfolio of media and broadcasting firms in Ireland and eight other European countries.

Lessons: O’Brien was one of the first to see the potential of emerging markets and its demand for new technology. He has built a diversified portfolio taking on challenges in unfamiliar sectors.

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Tony Ryan: Founder of budget airline Ryanair

In 1974 Ryan set up air leasing firm Guinness Peat Aviation. It was a great success until the recession of the early 1990s led to a lack of liquidity and an eventual sale to US giant GE in 1993.

Ryan turned his attentions to airline Ryanair, which had been founded in 1985.
It started with a 15-seater aircraft flying from Waterford to Gatwick, with the first cabin crew having to be less than 5ft2 inches in height because of lack of space.

He promoted Michael O’Leary to chief operating officer in 1993. O’Leary became chief executive and has transformed the airline which now operates more than 1,600 daily flights from 72 bases.

Lessons: Ryan was a visionary, challenging British Airways and Aer Lingus with its use of low fares. He anticipated customer demand for discounted travel years ahead of its time.
He was clearly also a great talent-spotter identifying O’Leary as the man to power the airline higher.

Moya Doherty: Co-founder of Riverdance

A former RTE television producer, she came up with the idea of Riverdance as an interval act during the 1994 Eurovision Song Contest. With husband John McColgan, they mortgaged their home to help finance the stage show – which has now been seen by over 22m people worldwide.

Lessons: Doherty shows the power of creativity, of identifying an aspect of Irish culture which will have mass popular appeal worldwide. She took a financial risk to launch the first stage show and has kept the group successful now for 20 years.

Arthur Guinness: Founder of St James’s Gate Brewery

Born in 1725, Arthur Guinness founded his first brewery in Leixlip helped by £100 from the will of his godfather. He bought a small, disused brewery at St James’s Gate in Dublin in 1759 with a 9,000 year lease.

The group started brewing ale, but in the 1770s a new drink called porter was being exported from London to Dublin and proving very popular. Guinness thought he could do better and the black stuff was born.

Lessons: Guinness took a known and successful concept – porter – and improved on it. He quickly identified successful trends and changing customer tastes.