The head of the Newry-based data analytics firm talks to Ellie Donnelly about expanding its scope beyond financial world and succeeding founder Brian Conlon after his untimely death from cancer last year
The rapid shift to a digital economy has created a world that is totally connected, moves at lightning speed and which is both fuelled by and generates vast volumes of complex information.
"I think of data today almost being the equivalent of what steel was in the industrial revolution, it was the core that underpinned everything that happened and changed, and that developed how the world was built," says Seamus Keating, the recently appointed CEO of Newry-headquartered First Derivatives.
As the name suggests, First Derivatives started out providing services to financial markets firms - in particular big investment banks.
Its customers are increasingly drawn from a range of sectors, from Formula One to satellite operators. What they have in common is a requirement to find precise answers from masses and masses of information.
"Our technology, at its core, is a data analytics platform that's able to process data, whether it's from the past or that's happening right now, [be it] coming off a financial trading system, coming off a sensor into a manufacturing plant or whatever," the Tipperary native says.
"And to do that at unmatched speed, to [enable people] make decisions in the moment, create some level of insight that leads to action, what we do is at the core of that."
Founded by the late Brian Conlon in 1996, from the spare bedroom in his mother's house with a £5,000 a loan from his local credit union, First Derivatives now has offices across North America, Europe and Asia-Pacific.
The Red Bull F1 team use First Derivatives Kx technology in their wind tunnel to do simulations of all the potential conditions it may encounter in a race.
"That literally helps to make the car faster than other cars."
In addition, the company is helping businesses become more sustainable.
"Our technology operates on a very small hardware footprint, much smaller than any competing technology. That means that we've got much lower power consumption. We can reduce the energy consumption and the carbon footprints of businesses in quite a significant way," Mr Keating says.
It sometimes occurs that a chief executive will move into the role of company chairman, often in the twilight of his or her career.
It is less common to move the other way. However, due to the untimely passing of Brian Conlon last year, Mr Keating took over the reins as CEO in January. He had joined the board of First Derivatives in 2012.
"As the founder, Brian had been intrinsically involved in the detail of every aspect of the business - building it, growing it and he recruited so many of the people over 20 years, it was a big shock and a great personal sadness for a lot of people,"Mr Keating says.
"In addition to losing your boss, it was losing someone who had been a colleague and very often a friend."
The response from employees at the time, Mr Keating says, was "very much 'we have built a great business together we are going to make sure it continues to be successful and doesn't lose momentum'.
"As a very straightforward, pragmatic man, that's what he would have wanted, rather than for people to feel that it was about self-pity, it was actually about getting on with it and continuing to build on the success of First Derivatives."
There was also "a great sense of goodwill" from customers.
An accountant by profession, Mr Keating studied at what is now the University of Limerick, then want abroad in search of opportunities.
"It was before the Celtic Tiger, so I moved to London and I have been in technology ever since," the avid Munster fan says.
Mr Keating initially worked for an Italian technology company, Olivetti Solutions, where he eventually spent two years working and living in Italy.
"At the time I was in my mid-30s, it was a stunning opportunity at that age to go figure something out, work in a different culture, learn some of the language and truly operate internationally."
Heading the company's bigger, global operations, Mr Keating believes gave him the "step up" to be able to come back to London, where he became the deputy chief financial officer (CFO) in Logica, another big international technology firm.
Just over a year later he became group CFO, before taking on the role of chief operating officer, working out of Amsterdam.
By the end of his time at Logica the company was sold to Canadian competitor CGI for £1.7bn.
Following the sale, Mr Keating had to figure out what he was going to do next.
"I started to build a portfolio of different and interesting activities rather than do one thing. It wasn't about doing less work, it was about doing different work, building another stage in my career," he says.
Keating engaged in a mix of non-executive director and chairman work, both in public and private businesses, and "got to know the private equity world reasonable well".
He also joined the board of First Derivatives.
"It was a really interesting time to join the company, they were growing, and had a lot of opportunity, a lot of potential.
"I became chairman in 2013, and I did that as one of a number of different activities. Most of what I did was at the intersection of technology and financial services. I [also] joined the board of a private equity-based business, [it was] an interesting mix of things that meant I worked full-time on different things rather than one executive role," Mr Keating says.
Now settled into the CEO position, he says there is potential to expand "everywhere" for First Derivatives, which last year saw its profit before tax increase 9% to £18.3m.
"We have opportunity everywhere, which is a great place to be. Obviously, you've got to focus on where you think the biggest ones are - sometimes having too much opportunity is a risk," he says.
"We have the opportunity to continue to grow in the places where we've proven that our technology is really able to deliver good value, a competitive edge, and change the game for some of our customers. And so there's still a lot of scope in the financial markets for us. We're a very significant player there, but there's opportunity to grow more quickly and to become a bigger part of that," Mr Keating adds.
The company is also seeing "significant" potential in high- tech manufacturing, to make processes more efficient.
In addition, he feels there is space to grow in the telecoms world, where operators are looking to make their networks more efficient.
Growing organically, rather than through M&A, is the main priority for the company.
"[It's] probably the best way for us to create value, for the downstream customers and for shareholders," Mr Keating says.
No conversation at the moment can take place without discussing Covid-19. The global pandemic has caused havoc to the world's economies. For First Derivatives it has brought mixed fortunes.
"Obviously [it] has an impact on buying decisions," he says.
"And what we see is that new projects will probably take a bit longer, but actually there's also been opportunity, where existing customers wanted to expand their software licence capacity with us."
Like thousands of other businesses, First Derivatives had to get its 2,500 people working from home in the space of weeks.
"Some of those are in London, [some] in New York, signing on to customer systems, continuing to do the same work that they've always done. I think we've proven to be very agile, very adaptable, in being able to do that and I'm really grateful to all our people," Mr Keating says.
Going forwards, he expects working from home to become more common for firms.
"I can see us and many other businesses thinking about how we use offices slightly differently, having people come to the office when it's useful and important to be with your colleagues, when you want to do your team meetings, work through problems that you can do more effectively by being in the same place," he says.
A balance between working from the office and home will, he feels, give employees "maybe even greater work satisfaction; a better work-life balance, time to focus on exercise, health, family, all those things."
The pandemic, Keating says, has accelerated change in the workplace environment.
"We've probably seen more evolution and more change in the world of digitalisation in two months than we would normally see in two years," he adds.
One thing First Derivatives is most famous for in Ireland is its graduate programme, which, at up to 300 places a year, has made it one of the biggest and most attractive employers of college-leavers in the country.
Covid-19 means the intake "this year will be a bit slower," Mr Keating says. "But as we say in our hashtag, 'we're always hiring'."
Last week an intake of graduate trainees started with the company. Normally they would begin in Newry for the first few months of their career. They are currently in a virtual training room.
The business "had to adapt that so that we can continue to bring in the skills and the talent," Mr Keating says.