Belfast Telegraph

'Everyone needs a reason to go to work. My mother's difficult past was my incentive...'

The Big Interview: John Lillywhite

John Lillywhite is looking forward to reflecting on a successful business career
John Lillywhite is looking forward to reflecting on a successful business career
John Lillywhite
Dr Lillywhite with software engineer Brendan Mooney, who received the honorary degree of Doctor of Science (DSc) in recognition of his services to business development in Northern Ireland
John with his wife, Sylvia, and daughter, Sarah, at his recent retirement event
An artist’s impression of One Bankmore Square on Belfast’s Dublin Road
Emma Deighan

By Emma Deighan

John Lillywhite's life reads like a classic rags to riches story. Brought up in London's East End by his single mother, having lost his father at an early age, the former chairman of Kainos, and one of Northern Ireland's longest serving figures in the tech industry, knows a thing or two about hard work.

He credits his mother for doing her utmost to ensure he got opportunities that led him to a successful career in tech.

"I watched my mother struggle to keep a roof over our heads for several years and learned from her that the most important thing going forward was a strong work ethic and caring for other people," he says.

"She worked on the telephone exchanges when my father died and then she got on to them for more work.

"It meant she did shift work and left at 7am in the morning, when I got myself breakfast and ready for school, and when I got back, she would be home and then out again on the late shift.

"If it was in these days, social services would have been called," smiles John.

"And so, when I saw how hard she worked, it drove me to ensure that I would provide for my wife and daughter.

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"Everybody has to have some reason to go to work and I didn't choose a 9-5, I worked ridiculously hard," he adds.

John studied accountancy at night school, then enrolled on an apprenticeship with ICL (now Fujitsu Services), paid for by his mother for the hefty price of £150 in 1959.

"My first wage was £5.11 a week and I thought I was rich," John says. "Then I changed jobs from finance into management and I was never more than four years in one role there.

"The job took me all around the UK, US, Germany and India, all over."

While working with ICL, John became finance director, "the only apprentice to ever reach the board". He first came to Northern Ireland in 1969. "Then it was okay, but come the mid-Seventies, it got different," he says.

"There were many times when I would stand outside the Europa Hotel in my pyjamas after a bombscare.

"I couldn't understand why I was there creating jobs and people were trying to set my trousers on fire.

"But I have always had a great respect for the people of Northern Ireland. I always did. You have a great work ethic and a modesty.

"Whenever ICL came up with a plan, I found out without exception that all the NI people would do better than even they thought they would.

"That's the thing, Northern Ireland people are a bit modest and risk adverse.

"I think after all this time, I nearly am a native."

It was a love for Northern Ireland that saw John invest here when he left ICL after 30 years service in 1997.

Then he became chairman of seven start-up companies, including SpeechStorm, Lagan Technologies, APT and Meridio. Meridio was sold in 2007 for $25m to ACT.

He is best known here as chairman of Kainos, the only FTSE 250 company ever in NI.

The company provides digital transformation services and products to the public and private sector.

In its latest results, Kainos reported a 56% rise in revenue to £151.3m for 2019, with pre-tax profits surging by 52% to £23.3m.

And it's sealed a £7m deal to buy the former Movie House Cinema in Belfast for its new flagship headquarters. Paris and Toronto in 2019, joining its portfolio of offices in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, Gdansk and Atlanta.

His involvement in the IT firm stems back to its set up in 1986 as a joint venture between Fujitsu and Queen's University Belfast.

He took up the chairman role in 1998, leading the company when it went public in July, 2015 and today, Kainos has over 1,500 people across 13 offices in Europe and North America.

He attributes the success of the firm to its team, adding: "It's harder to get into Kainos than it is Harvard.

"We give out good packages and treat our staff well and what you get is massive commitment from them to the company and that's what it's all about; treating people well.

"I've never known a business where that philosophy doesn't work.

"Kainos is what I would describe as solid. It's a good company and it's growing and developing fast. It has a great culture and some of the best people in the industry. We treat them properly and they're always open minded to new ideas."

The team at Kainos and John's business peers attended an event celebrating his role in business here at a black tie retirement dinner in Belfast.

John's wife, Sylvia, and his daughter, Sarah, both attended. The event reflected on John's contribution to the Northern Ireland economy over the years. Quantified, it amounts to an investment of £70m and the creation of around 4,000 jobs to date.

"When you sit back and think about that, it made the retirement dinner a bit emotional," he admits. "My wife described it as never seeing a room so full of love and that was something that I will never forget."

But John isn't done yet with his contribution to the tech scene, or the world of work.

His pace might slow, but there is no question of him stopping.

"I'm not a person to paint rooms and play golf," he continues. "There is not the remotest possibility that I will stop. I work voluntary for a prison reform charity and a pension fund.

"There's no hurry. I'll probably be a chairman of an IT ethics committee and mentor at Kainos, things like that."

Keeping abreast with the latest goings on in the world of tech will always be part of John's life, he says.

With a focus on using tech for the greater good, he plans to contribute to the more ethical use of the fast-evolving sector.

"Like everything in life, technology can be abused - it can be used to make atomic energy to either blow people up or have electricity, or like with genetics, that can be used to build a master race or help people overcome sickness.

"I think technology is in that same category and it can be used for good and bad, but potentially it can do a lot of good.

"The wrong people will always distort things."

John believes his eldest grandson will follow in his footsteps. His daughter, Sarah, while in the same field for now, most definitely won't, he says.

"Sarah is the big traitor in the family," he jokes. "She joined IBM and when I told them that at the retirement dinner, there was a lot of people hissing and booing, but two months ago, she was given a holiday to Bali from the company because she is one of their top 100 performers.

"She's done very well and given us two brilliant grandsons."

John says leisurely pursuits will most definitely work their way into his life now he's retired.

He adds: "A little while ago when I was thinking about packing up work, my wife thought about renting an allotment and that's fascinating for me.

"I used to fly to America twice a week and now I can just go there when there's no one around and think about life.

"We've had incredible stuff form the allotment. I just chuck stuff into the ground and see what its does and I approach it like I do everything in my life, talk to other people to get tips."

Spending time with his family is high up the agenda, too, as well as "eating and drinking and going to the gym".

"My wife would say it would be nice to see me more, but right now the house is full of people playing bridge.

"Maybe that's why she got me the allotment."

Belfast Telegraph