Ernst & Young's World Entrepreneur of the Year brought together a wide range of global success stories, including a Newry financial software firm, as they all sought to lift the main prize
We sell happiness and everyone wants to buy happiness." That upbeat mission statement from Alexandre Costa, confectionery genius and chairman of Brazilian chocolate company Cacau Show, summed up the celebratory atmosphere as 49 of the world's best business innovators met at Ernst & Young's World Entrepreneur of the Year contest in Monte Carlo.
Attending the event gave the Belfast Telegraph access to some of the world's brightest and best in business, from a German baby food tycoon to the head of investment bank Cantor Fitzgerald.
The annual event sees five eminent international judges use a rigorous interview process to select a global best-in-class from the winners of the firm's Entrepreneur of the Year competition in countries around the world. Ireland was represented by Newry's Brian Conlon, chief executive of First Derivatives and winner of the Ireland competition. The country was also represented on the judging panel by Brian Long of technology fund Atlantic Bridge Ventures.
Inspiring stories of luck, business acumen and timing abounded all weekend.
Mr Costa started in business at the age of 17, producing 2,000 chocolate eggs to order using $500 borrowed from his uncle.
Now Cacau Show has over 1,000 franchises around Brazil - and Mr Costa is contemplating an assault on the European market by joining up with a small Belgium operator.
It's safe to say Mr Costa's uncle is glad he parted with that $500. For the record, the millionaire Mr Costa said he had repaid the sum and has his sights on world domination. "I need to conquer the world and sell chocolate in Europe, the US and China - why not?"
The tale of Cacau Show and those of the 43 other country winners did not impress the judges quite as much as the awe-inspiring narrative of Singaporean winner Olivia Lum, group chief executive and president of water purification company Hyflux and now the first female World Entrepreneur of the Year.
Her coronation at a lavish ceremony in the tax haven of Monte Carlo, where interval entertainment came from Cirque de Soleil, was a far cry from Ms Lum's poverty-stricken origins.
"For me, this reinforces there are no difficulties you can't overcome when you have faced the challenges of hunger and poverty," Ms Lum said.
She was adopted by an elderly woman in Malaysia who instilled a strong work ethic in her children. At a Press conference in Monte Carlo's Salle des Etoiles, Ms Olivia described growing up in poverty - she couldn't afford to use a phone until she was 18 - and being forced to choose between continuing her schooling and working in a fac-tory at the age of eight.
Ms Lum chose to continue to go to school but decided to earn her keep at home by selling bread and fruit to classmates. That set her on a path to running Hyflux, a public company and one of the world's leading desalination suppliers.
Her inspiring tale was one of many doing the rounds at the weekend. Professor Dr Claus Hipp, founder and chief executive of the German baby food company, described how he transformed his grandfather's organic farm into the world's best-selling brand of higher priced baby food.
A twinkly-eyed businessman, this 73-year-old had no intention of retiring: "I'll keep going until my children tell me to go."
Perhaps knowing babies would be few and far between at a high-profile business event in l'Hermi-tage, one of Monte Carlo's plushest hotels, Dr Hipp has no samples with him - but that approach was not adapted by Japanese winner Hitoshi Tanaka and his entourage. He has made his name in cheap-but-trendy specs - and he and his team showcased their merchandise by sporting different-coloured frames every day.
Aliza Jabes, the owner of Nuxe skincare and winner of the France EOY, revealed that she's already broken into Northern Ireland by having her products distributed into Gordons and Medicare chemists - and acknowledged her admiration for Nicky Kinnaird, the Belfast-born founder of skincare retailer Space NK. Heads were turned by the marketing flair of Jucy, the brainchild of New Zealander Tim Alpe. Transforming Japanese vans into camper vans has made him New Zealand's answer to easyJet man Stelios Haji-Ionnaou while the green and purple livery of a Jucy camper van raised plenty of delighted 'toots' from passers-by as it made its way across Europe on the road to Monte Carlo.
Meanwhile, Cantor Fitzgerald chairman Howard Lutnick found himself at the mercy of global events after 658 of his 960 New York workforce died in the World Trade Center attacks of 9/11.
He recalled how he came under fire for stopping the pay rolls of the missing staff but believed he had atoned for that by giving a share of his profits to the families of the dead for five years, amounting to a total sum of $180m (£109m).
Mr Lutnick escaped injury or worse in 9/11 as he had to take his son to his first day in kindergarten that day. A friend and fellow employee whose son was due to start on 9/12 was not so lucky. His funeral was among the 20 which Mr Lutnick or his wife attended - every day for 35 days. The death of al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden had given him some peace but he said his mood was not "celebratory".
There seemed to be no limits to Mr Lutnick's plans for world domination - including a plan to open up a Cantor Fitzgerald office in Dublin. "We're talent-based, not economy-based," he said, when asked if the Republic's economic difficulties did not put him off.
Another entrepreneur for whom recent economic times have not been a problem is Brian Conlon, the Newry man who set up financial software and consulting company First Derivatives in 1996. Six years later and with just 27 employees it was listed on the AIM and has grown in revenues and profits every year since, with its latest results showing pre-tax profits of £6.5m -up from £5.6m a year earlier.
The one-time KPMG trainee admitted it had been a "winding road' which took him to First Derivatives, which is now on course to employ 1,000 people.
A knee injury incurred on the Gaelic football field was so grave that he had to go to London to seek treatment. He got a job on the fixed income desk of Morgan Stanley, which led him to Nasdaq-quoted SunGard. A desire to come home saw him set up FD in his mother's house.
He said he would stand by Newry as the headquarters for FD. There was no temptation to up sticks to the other side of the border to avail of a lower corporation tax rate though he did point out that after acquiring Cognotec out of administration last year, the company already has a tax base in the Republic. Mr Conlon said it would be "absolutely fantastic" if the rate was to be lowered.
Many of the entrepreneurs agreed that EU countries should have autonomy over their tax regimes.
The entrepreneur said his knee still pains him but the success of this company certainly isn't.
Winning Ireland’s Entrepreneur of the Year award made Brian Conlon a well-known face in Newry and beyond, but the former Gaelic footballer owes it all to a credit union loan of £3,000. Speaking in Monte Carlo, he said: “In 1996 the banks didn’t understand what I wanted to do, so I started the company with a credit union loan and other capital.” He said the company had grown by “bootstrapping”, with the second recruit training the third and so on, and many departing to work on site for clients around the world. While many early employees moved on — including Danny Moore, who became chief executive of Wombat and now runs Lough Shore Investments — the third First Derivatives employee still works on site for a client firm in London.
As one world Entrepreneur of the Year competition reached a climax in Monte Carlo, 2011’s Ireland event started. Around 24 finalists will take part in a CEOs’ retreat in India, where they will visit Indian universities. Seven of the finalists are from Northern Ireland — Pete Boyle of jewellery retailer Argento, Brian McConville of Newry firm MJM, Adrian McCutcheon of Telestack, Munster Simms’ Patrick Hurst, Mark McCusker of Texthelp, Mairead Mackle of Homecare Independent Living and Grainne Kelly who developed the Bubblebum inflatable car booster seat.