Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 30 July 2014

Meteoric rise of Newry man on a mission

The phenomenal success story of Brian Conlon's First Derivatives is a tale with humble beginnings

Five new employees began work at First Derivatives' Newry headquarters as part of the second intake of the company's 'Options' programme.
Brian Conlon showing Mr Robinson and Mr McGuiness around company headquarters in Newry.
First Derivatives' award-winner Brian Conlon

High-powered jobs in financial markets of the sort Brian Conlon was used to were thin on the ground in Newry when he came home in the mid-1990s after working in London and travelling wherever his work brought him.

So he decided to start his own business called First Derivatives from a spare bedroom in the family home with his mum acting as his secretary.

"You can't talk to Brian. He's in the bath," one Dutch banking client was told by Mrs Conlon in one of those early days.

Or so legend has it.

Now the firm employs 550 people in providing software services to capital markets in North America, Europe and parts of Asia and Australia.

Clients include Dresdner Kleinwort Benson, ABN Amro, General Mortors and Wells Fargo.

And now its workforce is set to grow to 900 following an investment announcement last week.

But its 44-year-old founder and chief executive is a shy and private man who seldom gives interviews -though he is known to be a passionate fan of Co Down's Gaelic football team.

He even had a place on the team in the late 1980s but a knee injury put paid to his personal Gaelic football ambitions, and he took up cycling with the Newry Wheelers instead.

Now Mr Conlon's profile is rapidly growing as First Derivatives is hailed as an exemplary company which has created hundreds of jobs in the town where it was founded.

Mr Conlon also won the coveted title of Ernst -amp; Young Entrepreneur of the Year, and will go forward to compete against other entrepreneurs at a world final in Monte Carlo in June.

Orla Jackson, the chief executive of the Newry Chamber of Commerce, is one of many people in the area to shower him with praise. "The contribution that he has made through First Derivatives to the people of greater Newry area has been enormous.

"He has brought significant levels of employment - and highly paid employment, at that.

"He has put the global focus on Newry for being the centre of financial service activity. It's a fantastic success story.

"We were delighted that he received the recognition of all his hard work when he won the Ernst -amp; Young Entrepreneur of the Year.

"It's great to see someone like Brian do so well because he is very proud of Newry and has established such a major presence. Many Newry people work for the company and have done since it was set up."

While Newry's name has often been in lights as a retail centre which benefited from cross-border trade when sterling was particularly weak, First Derivatives' example signals its potential in other areas.

Indeed, the family of the firm's chief financial officer, Adrian Toner, is well-known for its furniture store in the city.

Mr Conlon studied at the Abbey Grammar School in Newry, and went on to read accountancy at Queen's University.

He trained in accountancy at KPMG, but revealed in a rare interview that he 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 had said.

The truck and concrete world's loss was the gain of Morgan Stanley, for which the young Conlon ending up running a fixed-income trading desk in London.

From there 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.

Ask anyone in Newry and they're likely to know at least one person who works for the firm. But ex-employee Danny Moore, who went on to become chief executive of Wombat and now heads up a 'super angel' investment fund, casts an interesting light on the business.

"Brian gave me a break. I set up a field office in New York for FD and partner Kx Systems and that's how I got started.

"At that stage we were just coming out of the tech bust and the recession of the early 2000s," said Mr Moore.

"One of the reasons for the success that followed is that the company was very aggressive during that period at trying to get new businesses as well as taking action on the costs side to keep costs down. It was a very forward-looking strategy, so they ended up being in a good position when things picked up.

"I'm not surprised in the least by its success. If you look at it year on year from when it was founded to today it has grown by between 20% to 40% a year every year and it has been profitable consistently.

"It's a really tightly-run, cash-positive technology business.

"I have been telling people for the last five or six years that, in terms of consistent and organic growth, it has been in the top one or two percent of companies.

"The way they played the recession in the last three years was genius as they did a number of key acquisitions, taking advantage of being in a strong cash position.

"It was clever to get listed on the AIM, as they were able to make a couple of cash calls to shore up the balance sheet after the acquisitions.

"It's some really brilliant generalship and it's an exceptional story. They may have some work to do on costs and integration but they have engineered a very strong position," he added.

Mr Conlon doesn't like the limelight. But he has many admirers - not least Mr Moore.

"He is extremely talented, very pragmatic, hard working and quite intense.

"He had quite an exceptional career even before he set up FD," Mr Moore said.

And while admitting to an audience in Belfast at the launch of this year's Ernst -amp; Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards that he hadn't spoken in public for around 15 years, he spoke with panache and with his tongue firmly implanted in his cheek.

The Ernst -amp; Young prog- ramme entailed a chief executives' retreat in Shanghai. He revealed: "China is a market that's been on our radar for a few years.

"We've had some doubts about that market and any of you who own a fake Louis Vuitton bag will know where those doubts come from, especially from a software side," added Mr Conlon.

He was refreshingly honest about much of the routine surrounding business awards, but said the year-long advice and training involved in Ernst -amp; Young's scheme set it apart. "It's unlikely he'll have much time for cycling in the near future," he added.

Yet blowing his own trumpet doesn't come naturally to him.

"It's something which at first I wasn't comfortable with," he said. "People in this part of the world can be very self-effacing and terms like success in business and entrepreneurialism don't sit well on their shoulders.

"It's like at school you might have gotten a bit of grief if you put your head above the parapet and tried to make a name for yourself."

Now he has certainly made a name for himself, but what does the future hold?

At last month's event, he gave an intriguing glimpse into the future. The programme had enabled him to meet many of the "movers and shakers" in the Irish business world, "people who had successfully built up businesses and sold them and were role models for people like me who at some point want to step off the treadmill".

Just how far he brings the company remains to be seen but it's unlikely he'll be back in the cycling saddle in the very near future.

Factfile

First Derivatives is fast becoming one of Newry's best-known employers. Others include Lord Ballyedmond's Norbrook pharmaceutical medicine group, which employs 1,500 people.

Brothers Eamon O'Hare and Dr Gerard O'Hare have also made their mark on the city.

Dr O'Hare set up property company Parker Green and built the Quay's shopping centre, home to Sainsbury's and dozens of other retailers. In total, 2,000 people work on the Quays site. Brother Eamon set up O'Hare and McGovern.

Background

Newry's border location has ensured that its supermarkets and shopping centres are choc-full of southern shoppers when sterling is weak. While the last cross-border retail boom drew to a close last year, Orla Jackson of Newry Chamber of Commerce said there are others to pick up the slack.

"This area is renowned for having a can-do attitude and the private sector is mostly made up of entrepreneurs and indigenous businesses. The 'Go For It' programme in Newry and Mourne has one of the highest participation rates of anywhere in the UK. They put their money where their mouth is and have strong business acumen."

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