A stint under the wing of Michael O’Leary, selling off companies and rolling out broadband across an island has certainly helped pave the way for Conal Henry’s current venture, and it securing a huge £165m deal for Northern Ireland connectivity.
The Fibrus co-founder and chairman has been working across industry, with a focus on telecoms, for decades. And the firm, which has only been in existence for little over two years, has just been awarded the Department for the Economy’s Project Stratum contract – a four-year build to improve regional broadband connectivity to almost 80,000 homes here.
But Conal says Fibrus is improving broadband connectivity to as many as 300,000 homes and businesses here, as part of its roll-out and rapid growth.
“I have worked in telecoms, airlines, banks and soap powder markets,” Conal tells Ulster Business. “I did a law degree at Queen’s University and qualified as an accountant. I was going to be a barrister and took a year out… I’m still on it.”
He worked for Proctor and Gamble, before moving to Asda’s head office at the age of 26 – a time when he said the grocery giant went from almost going to the wall, to being sold to US-giant Wallmart for almost £7bn in 1999.
“I was commercial director of George clothing in my 20s, and then moved back to Ireland, working at one of the banks, before becoming commercial director at Ryanair.”
He spent two years working with Michael O’Leary, and in that time the company grew from handling 6.5 million passengers, to 22 million. “It became a serious player… and that’s something I have in my head for Fibrus. Taking something from niche to mainstream,” he said.
Following that, he ended up as chief executive of Enet, taking it from start up to its £200m acquisition by the Irish Infrastructure Fund in 2017. He also led what is now known as National Broadband Ireland (NBI) to become the winning bidder for the €2bn Irish National Broadband Plan.
“That takes me up until 2018,” he said. Fibrus is now his focus, rolling out full-fibre broadband across the vast majority of homes outside Belfast and Derry.
“We are up to 116 people, with around 136 by Christmas, and close to 200 by March,” he says. There’s also a further significant workforce at its subcontractor Charles Brand, which it has begun a five-year partnership with.
And having secured the huge long-awaited £165m Project Stratum deal here, how does a firm only operating for a couple of years land such a big fish.
“In order to be convincing to win a project like that, you have to have two things – access to capital and expertise. In terms of expertise, we have assembled a highly expert team with centuries of combined experience.
“We have a range of highly experienced executives. We have been lucky enough to pick the best talent and create the dream team. We were able to access Infracapital as an investor and I knew them well. We were both keen to do business. It has invested billions in this market – it is a very significant investor.
“Then, you are ‘doing the exam paper’ and answering the questions correctly. We did very well. Not being a big legacy organisation means starting with a blank sheet of paper.
“We wanted to fundraise the whole programme. Infracapital came in and backed us from the start.
In terms of how he runs a business, Conal says: “I don’t think people work for me, they work with me. The most important thing by far, is the quality of the people you bring in. Avoid the muppet, and bring in great people – make clear what is expected out of them, and then get out of the way.
“If you bring in a lot of office politics, you spend your time clearing messes and brokering peace. Make clear what it is you want to have done.
“You can’t take yourself too seriously. We do this because we can. But you can’t start obsessing about it. In terms of my own job, I never work weekends and I take all my holidays. You can’t be working all the time. People make business so complicated, it’s not.”