Belfast Telegraph Business Awards: GAA player with empire stretching from US to Dubai wins top prize
An aspiring GAA player who started up a business in a spare bedroom in his mother's house and who is now a financial software tycoon with a company turnover of nearly £80m has been named our Business Personality of the Year.
Brian Conlon's hopes of becoming a Down county footballer were dashed by injury, but he has achieved his goals in the business world instead.
The honorary award for Mr Conlon (48), who collected it in person at the Culloden Hotel, was the crowning moment in last night's glittering Belfast Telegraph Business Awards, held in association with British Airways.
His First Derivatives company, which provides consultancy services and financial software around the world, is now a truly international firm, but throughout it all Mr Conlon has remained true to Newry, his home city, retaining the business's headquarters in Canal Quay.
In its last results, the firm had pre-tax profits of £6.9m on a turnover of £69.9m.
Economist John Simpson, the chairman of the eight-strong panel of judges for last night's awards, said Mr Conlon was a more than worthy winner of the accolade.
"He has made a succession of investments and acquisitions in order to build his firm and has now become a transatlantic businessman," he added.
Adding a dash of glamour to proceedings was awards host Wendy Austin, while entertainment was provided by mesmerising mentalist David Meade. Stephen Humphreys, British Airways' head of UK and Ireland sales, was the speaker.
Other award winners included Howard Hastings, managing director of the Hastings Hotels Group, who received a Special Recognition Award for Outstanding Contribution to the Tourism Sector following his six-year tenure as chairman of the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.
Mr Conlon started up First Derivatives from the spare room of his mother's house on Newry's Fullerton Road in the 1990s. In a rare interview with the Belfast Telegraph, he talked about his early love of Gaelic football in his native Co Down. But a bad knee injury forced him to give up the sport, and while receiving treatment in London, he started working for Morgan Stanley.
He trained in accountancy at the firm but was underwhelmed by the bread and butter of auditing in Northern Ireland.
"I spent the first year counting concrete and pick-up trucks and wanted something more challenging," he said.
From Morgan Stanley, he progressed to writing trading systems as a financial engineer for software company SunGard, and travelling between Silicon Valley, Germany, France and other parts of Europe.
The lack of similar work in Northern Ireland prompted him to set up First Derivatives.
The company, which is one of just two PLCs here, has since grown dramatically and now employs nearly 1,000 people.
It has also been on an ambitious acquisition trail in recent months, announcing three acquisitions in the first four months of this year - of companies Prelytix, Affinity Systems and ActivateClients.
First Derivatives' clients include large investment banks, asset managers, exchanges and regulators in the capital markets.
The extent of Mr Conlon's empire now reaches 13 offices, stretching from Philadelphia to Singapore and Dubai.
But in the early days, he relied on the goodwill of his mother to answer calls. As legend has it, one Dutch banking client was told by Mrs Conlon when her son was starting out: "You can't talk to Brian. He's in the bath."
Brenda Morgan, British Airways partnership manager for Northern Ireland, said the firm was "delighted" to sponsor the awards for the third year running.
"Last night's awards were a great success and they provided the perfect opportunity for British Airways to acknowledge local companies who have excelled in major areas of business life across Northern Ireland," she said.
"We would like to say a warm congratulations to all the winners and runners-up. These accolades are testament to your hard work and success in the local and international business arena."
A photographic supplement celebrating the winners will be free with the newspaper on Thursday May 7