'So long as you make more money on the winners than you lose on the losers, it works out okay'
Colin Walsh tells Margaret Canning how he’s managed to put his skills as a ‘disruptor’ to good use in his career, from the civil service to venture capital
He's fresh from intermittent summer breaks on his motorboat moored in Soller on the island of Majorca - and good job that he is, with a full in-tray at both CBI, where he is chairman, and his venture capital business Crescent Capital. Colin Walsh says it's "frustrating" that the economic capital of six months ago has arguably been squandered. And things are as busy as ever at Crescent Capital, which he established in Belfast in 1995 with Hambros, later buying out their share.
Showing a taste for culinary adventure, Colin orders one of the day's specials - crown of Down pigeon with girolles, pearl barley and truffle jus. With less flamboyance, I order green herb risotto with shallots.
It's been an eventful morning at Crescent, with interest peaking around one of its portfolio companies. "We are structuring our response… and how we will want to manage that process," he says.
Crescent has invested mainly but not exclusively in technology companies. The first Crescent fund opened in 1995, with investments in firms like Lagan Technology, APT and Andor, all of which Crescent has now exited. In subsequent funds, it's invested in NiSoft, Biznet, Datactics, Fusion, Replify, and in its most recent fund in 2013, Analytics Engines, B9 Energy Controls, Ampliphae, NiSoft (again) and Flowlens.
He adds: "Not all work out but so long as you make more money on the winners than you lose on the losers, it works out okay."
He followed an interesting and not totally conventional path to become a venture capitalist - Colin explains that university wasn't an option after disappointing (though he uses a more colourful but shorter adjective) A-levels so he joined the civil service. "I was a disruptor, and always wanting to change things all the time. But instead of throwing me out they sent me to the services division to make use of that and I learnt how to disrupt in an orderly way." He duly revolutionised the Hansard system for recording proceedings up at Stormont, installing English graduates who tidied up the work of word processors. "It meant Stormont was the first parliament in the world to go to new technology. The editor of Hansard in London told me technology would never work so we sent him a copy of our first report."
He subsequently landed in the Industrial Development Board (IDB) before being seconded to Top Technology Limited, the London-based manager of the Hambros Advanced Technology Trust family of venture funds - where he stayed for six years.
Colin returned home in 1995 and established Crescent with Hambros. "I looked out of the window of our office at Crescent Gardens and came up with the name - though it's now meant we can't move anywhere else, so we're now in Upper Crescent."
He has a recurring bone to pick with the lack of flotations among Northern Ireland companies. Andor, one of the very first companies which Crescent supported, floated on the AIM but was delisted after being bought over last year by Oxford Instruments.
"I did invest in Andor back when it was literally 20 people in the back of the physics department at Queen's and £1m sales… then it became an employer of 400 people with nearly £60m in sales."
Whether his enthusiasm for flotation is catching or not, his Upper Crescent neighbour Kainos floated this summer. "I was very glad they did it as it's 10 years since the last one, which was Andor," he says.
"Kainos is a very good ambassador for going public. But Kainos did it at a much later stage and got a fantastic valuation for that reason. I'm sorry I was never an investor but won't hold that against them. I wish I had invested in them."
He has enjoyed leading the CBI and has just four months left before handing over to ex-Titanic Quarter chief executive David Gavaghan. "It's been privilege to lead an organisation like that. I go all around the north visiting businesses and I love where that takes me. The CBI has been a great buzz."
Next week, Margaret Canning meets Delta Print and Packaging chairman Terry Cross