2016 EY Entrepreneur Of The Year Brendan Mooney on controlled growth, remaining competitive and giving back

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  • Two years after Kainos was founded in 1987 Brendan Mooney joined the company as a newly qualified Computer Science graduate. Back then the computer firm had fewer than 30 employees.

    The organisation grew steadily, diversifying from its original focus on supporting ICL and in 2001 Brendan Mooney took over at the helm of the company when founder Frank Graham became CEO of Meridio, a product-based group concentrating on document management that was a Kainos spin-out.

    Mooney won the prestigious Irish EY Entrepreneur Of The Year 2016 and went on to compete in the world final.

    His love of IT stemmed from his childhood enjoyment of “the creativity of programming” on the BBC Micro Model B his father purchased for the family and the opportunity to study O-level and A-level Computer Science at school in Coleraine.

    Back in 1989, there were 28 in Mooney’s Computer Science year group studying at Jordanstown. Just six got jobs in Northern Ireland, and the remaining 22 left to find work. “There were 900 people employed in IT in Northern Ireland in 1989; today it’s 33,000 or 38,000 depending on your definition of IT”.

    “As my colleagues remind me, the last time I wrote a piece of code was 1993, so I don’t have a long computing career in that regard, but I love the idea of solving a problem. The problems I solve today might be about how we do a project or how we win a piece of business or how we build an organisation, but I love that problem solving aspect of what we do.”

    While the firm’s commercial success is clearly important – even more so since their stock market flotation in 2015 – the strength of the company ethos has long been an important part of measuring the health of Kainos.

    “A few weeks after joining Kainos, once I got past the newbie, know nothing stage, it felt like a very natural home and that sense has never changed throughout my time at Kainos.”

    Mooney knows that disarray and change can be unhelpful in an organisation.

    “What we do is complex, so we need skilled people. So we look a lot at employee engagement and attrition. In Belfast our attrition rate is 4%, so people will on average stay 25 years in the company. For us, growth is important. But controlled growth is really important. We engage with people who join, invest in their skills to increase their value to the organisation.”

    For many staff, that investment starts even before they become an employee.

    Kainos now employs 1,100 people with 650 based in their Belfast and Derry offices.

    “We spend a lot of time looking to convince people to develop the next part of their career in Kainos. Last year we had 9,300 job applications. We interviewed 3,000 people face-to-face, and we offered 200 jobs.

    “We do a lot of work to help young people think about career decisions. Each year we will engage with 1,200 young people in Northern Ireland, whether at our two week Code Camp at Queen’s University, AI Camp for Computer Science students, the annual BelTech conference or weekly work experience placements. All our programmes are free to attend.

    “Over half the people who join us from school or college been on one of our programmes before they join us. They have spent time learning about the company and maybe thought that the staff were inspirational and decided that they want to be part of that organisation.

    “You don’t start off saying ‘we’re doing this because we want more people’. The motivation is about giving back and being a socially responsible organisation. And at some point in time they may choose to join Kainos and then we get that benefit as well.”

    Working first in Belfast, Mooney later moved to the firm’s new Dublin office before returning north to run the business. Mooney credits Kainos’ former Managing Director Frank Graham and Chairman he ‘inherited’, John Lillywhite, as “fabulous business people in their own right with an outstanding duty of care to people in Kainos”.

    While Mooney had been identified by the board as Graham’s successor, the plan for a gradual handover over several years was suddenly reduced to a few weeks when Graham decided to move across to lead new spin-out Meridio.

    “I felt far from ready to step up … there’s no easy school to learn this stuff” says Mooney who used the services of a business coach in the first few months and hasn’t been afraid to dip back into coaching since then.

    “The coaching was useful to make me feel more grounded about what I wanted to do with the company and not just default to ‘more of the same’ even if that may well be what transpired.”

    There have been bumps in the road as Kainos has grown. “The charts didn’t all go up and to the right” says Mooney.

    “While our business today has its genesis in 2010 and the themes of highly capable staff and software engineering excellence are consistent, our customers, the markets we are in and the scale of the business are all vastly different.

    “That’s driven by the fact that in 2008 and 2009, 75% of our business was in Irish banks and insurance companies which stopped spending money during the global financial crisis. Every business has the ability to be innovative and entrepreneurial.”

    Kainos adjusted its customer focus away from these markets to focus on providing digital services in the UK.

    While Mooney took a little convincing to enter EY’s Entrepreneur Of The Year programme, he talks passionately about the process and the opportunities that were presented to him when he took the leap and filled out the form.

    “It’s a fabulous programme and I think that people should do it. I found it a very positive experience, and I’m not just saying that because of my success!”

    Each year the initial applications are shortlisted down to the 24 finalists who go forward for more rigorous assessment. The winner in Ireland has a chance of winning on the world stage and Mooney competed in Monaco as one of the 60 global finalists.

    “There’s a real sense of togetherness. During the Ireland competition you get to know 23 other companies and meet perhaps 26 other entrepreneurs (because there’s normally a husband and wife, or a couple of siblings in there) and while you’re a bunch of people there because of the competition, the stories you hear are inspirational.

    “In general, business problems are never unique to you and I’m able to pick up the phone and ask for help and advice from other people in the EY Entrepreneur Of The Year network. There’s a common currency among the almost 500 strong alumni.”

    Each year the finalists are brought on a CEO retreat to a foreign country, in 2016 they went to Boston, something Brendan says he found “inspirational”, meeting figures at MIT and Harvard as well as spending time with the other competitors. By this stage, any reluctance had vanished. Mooney recalls being interviewed during the year, when asked “do you want to win?” he simply replied “yes”. He explained: “I am competitive. I want us as a company to do well.”

    Mooney is conscious that the concept of ‘an entrepreneur’ focusses on one person while he knows that “the reality is that Kainos is a complete team effort from a team that was there before I was its leader”.

    “We want to run a better business every day. And as a business we have lots of ideas and we have to decide in which of those ideas we want to invest time and people and money.”

    Mooney praises the EY programme and encourages local business leaders to apply. The closing deadline for applications for 2018’s EY Entrepreneur Of The Year https://eoy.ie/ is the stroke of midnight on Friday 16 February. The previous winner offers advice to those who enter:

    “It’s worth thinking about how you can use the platform and the exposure it brings to benefit your business and think through whether your involvement is about employee branding, customer acquisition, providing a story that will resonate with employees, or some other reason that you can to weave that through your application and the programme.”

    While Mooney didn’t win the global award in Monaco, it was “a fabulous experience” and he was inspired by the other contestants, in particular the winner Murad Al-Katib from Canada. A Turkish immigrant, Al-Katib grew his lentil and chickpea supply business On top of running a successful business he had also shipped 4.5 million meals to Syria. “Such a great winner. His business was only a little bigger (in terms of staff numbers) than Kainos, and he was an inspirational figure.”

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