Lessons from gridiron for Irish business leaders on dealing with the unexpected

EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalists learn about American football, the unravelling of Enron and the Texas two-step at CEO Retreat in Austin

There is a phrase used by coaches and commentators to describe a pivotal, usually negative moment in a game of American football. Known as a “sudden change” situation, it refers more often than not to a play when a quarterback throws an intercepted pass or a running back fumbles the ball, transferring precious possession back to the other team. In the blink of an eye, attack turns to defence.

Former NFL wide receiver and national championship-winning University of Texas Longhorns player Quan Cosby is explaining the concept to a delegation of more than 100 Irish businesspeople, all of them finalists, past and present, in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year (EOY) competition.

Sudden-change moments mean defenders resting their battered bones on the bench have to hop up, promptly refocus their attention in whatever way they can and get themselves back into the game, physically and mentally.

“The defence could say: ‘Oh man, we just got off the field and two seconds later we’re back out there.” Instead, on the national college championship team Cosby played on, he says: “The captain of the defence [would tap] his quarterback on the shoulder and say: ‘Hey don’t worry about it. We got your back.’”


Not only is it a hallmark of great football teams, it is as a concept and a mindset that Cosby believes can be “massive” for his audience.

Sudden change is something the delegates have had to think about a lot over recent years. Many have been forced to rip up plans, improvise – “call an audible” or two, as they say in the NFL – in response to an avalanche of unexpected, interconnected challenges, from the pandemic to inflation to Ireland’s energy crisis.

Football, particularly college football, is religion in Austin, Texas, as well as a billion dollar industry for local businesses and the university each autumn, says Cosby. He is one of a coterie of speakers lined up to inform and challenge the thinking of the delegates, who are visiting the capital of the Lone Star State this week to attend the annual EY Entrepreneur of the Year chief executive retreat.

Apart from the awards ceremony itself, the retreat – run with rigorous precision by EY Ireland assurance partner and associate partner Roger Wallace, his equally fastidious programme associate director Eimear McCrann and their team – is seen as the jewel in the crown of the year-long EY endeavour, now its in 25th year.

Bitter rivals

“Y’all picked a fun time to come to Austin,” Cosby says, referring to the football game the Longhorns narrowly lost to bitter rivals Alabama just 24 hours before the Irish group arrived. “Fortunately, you came Sunday, because if you came Friday or Saturday, you weren’t finding a hotel.”

‘I have to say, it’s no holiday,’ says Louis Copeland, who, at 73 years of age, is attending his first retreat as a finalist in the established business category of this year’s awards

Part boot camp, part networking opportunity and all action, this year’s iteration of the retreat is the first to take place outside of Ireland since the outset of the pandemic. After a full day of travel on Sunday, narrowly escaping the chaos created by Aer Lingus’s IT malfunction last weekend, a crammed agenda and a dose of jet lag has starry eyed hopefuls and grizzled veteran alike struggling to catch their breath over the first day or two.

“I have to say, it’s no holiday,” says Louis Copeland, who, at 73 years of age, is attending his first retreat as a finalist in the established business category of this year’s awards. “It’s full-on from breakfast at half six in the morning until late at night.”

He’s not complaining, though. “I’ll be taking back a lot of email addresses and phone numbers,” the tailor says. “Although there is nobody [at the retreat] in my business as such, it’s great to be able to pick up other people’s brains.” For many of the group, the tiredness turns out to be nothing some barbecue, an evening of country music at the famous Broken Spoke dance hall and a cold bottle of Lone Star beer during a rare moment of downtime won’t cure.

On Tuesday evening at the dance hall, some Ireland’s leading executives learned the Texas two-step from the daughter of recently departed local hero James White, who founded the honky-tonk in 1964. Along the way, the Spoke has played host to some of the biggest names in country music, from local legend Willie Nelson – the outlaw country hero who fled the polished, astringent atmosphere of Nashville in 1974 and adopted the more laid-back Austin as his base of operations – to Kris Kristofferson. Who needs Garth in Croker?

Here, in the fastest growing city in the United States, a town that has, since Shotgun Willie first pitched his tent, been transformed utterly by a flood of investment capital and uber trendy companies, the EOY delegates are learning that one constant has been Dell Technologies and the long shadow it has cast over the city and its business community.

The Dell name crops up ubiquitously over the course of the week. On Monday, a trip to the tech behemoth’s cavernous Austin base – where, among others, Irishman Darragh Carey, the company’s chief financial officer for its global supply chain, addresses the group – blows many of the finalists and alumni away. For some, it was almost the main attraction.

‘It’s not the big that eat the small. It’s the fast that eat the slow’

“I was really excited to come to Austin to see Dell and learn about its inception,” says EOY finalist Evelyn Kelly, chief executive of Orphan Drug Consulting. “What a stunning organisation,” says another of this year’s finalists, Martin McKay, co-founder and chief executive of Northern Ireland-anchored educational technology company Texthelp, which does a lot of business in Texas.

‘Speed of execution’

Of the 19 school districts in Austin, 14 are customers of McKay’s company, “so we have really good market penetration”, McKay says. “I think the thing that really got me [with Dell] is that sort of speed of execution, speed of decision-making side of it.” Repeating the words of Dell’s president of sales for North America to the group the previous day, McKay adds: “It’s not the big that eat the small. It’s the fast that eat the slow.”

Backed by an audiovisual set-up that makes the place look more like mission control in Houston, Limerick native Carey tells the story of Dell, founded by the University of Texas at Austin’s most famous dropout, Michael Dell, in 1984. It continues to sell something like 600 million PCs and laptops annually, almost two per second, says Carey, and employs 133,000 people worldwide, 5,000 of them in Ireland.

But Dell is much more than that. With the arrival of 5G, among its most interesting strategic focus, Carey reveals, is the impending “explosion of ‘data at the edge’” – real-time or close to real-time enterprise data produced by devices such as smartphones, wearable tech and computers themselves.

“Think about pharmaceuticals,” he tells the EOY group. “Think about medicine at home, banking at home. Think about... that explosion. You can see it on your phone. And so we believe that is going to drive a whole lot of requirement for IT infrastructure. And we believe we’re best positioned to do that through our hardware, but also through our cloud offerings.”

He won’t find many doubters among this group or in the city around them.

“Dell made a lot of people very wealthy in this town,” John Doggett, a senior lecturer at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas, tells his Irish audience the following day during a day of lectures and executive education. “And many of them blew their money because they thought they were smart.”

His entertaining talk on growing businesses to scale includes advice on how to spot “ugly babies”. Doggett says: “Everyone says there is no such thing as an ugly baby. Oh yes there is. If you want to be successful in growing your business, you have to have the ability to see what is.”

The trip is littered with fables of this variety and cautionary tales.

Pleaded guilty

A quick canvass of attendees reveals that one of the most popular guest speakers of the week so far has been Andy Fastow. His story is a parable if ever there was one.

He wants the Irish contingent to understand “how [his] brain was working”, when, as chief financial officer of Enron, he engineered the most notorious American financial scandal of the early part of the 21st century. Charged with a laundry list of crimes for his role in devising a complex network of off-balance-sheet special purpose entities and shell companies used to conceal massive losses, he eventually pleaded guilty, testified against his former colleagues and spent five years in a federal prison before his release in 2011. More or less all of this happened in Houston, also in Texas, just over 260 kilometres to the east of where the delegation is staying.

Since then, Fastow has, in typical American fashion, reinvented himself as a lecturer of sorts on fraud and “business in the grey area”, as he calls it.

“If you encounter people – either people you’re doing a deal with, or people in your own company, or maybe yourself – starting to sound the way my brain was working, hopefully that sets off an alarm bell,” the jailbird-turned-lecturer tells the group. Enron was a powerhouse, he says, one of the most successful companies in United States before its ugly collapse, which costs thousands of people their jobs, their homes and the life of at least one former executive.

“That alarm bell doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t do what you’re doing. But it means maybe you need to stop and think and get advice from someone outside your immediate vicinity to help you assess that risk better.”

‘Quick question,’ Fastow says after outlining some of the ‘creative’ accounting practices he pioneered at Enron: ‘evil or genius?’

Although Fastow says he is truly sorry for what he did and that he does believe what he did was wrong, it is hard not to think that the telling of his version of events is somewhat aided by the passage of time, fading memories and Enron’s displacement on the totem pole by the wave of post-2008 financial scandals that rocked capitalism to its core.

“Quick question,” he says after outlining some of the “creative” accounting practices he pioneered at Enron: “evil or genius?” Genius, says one of the Irish guests. “It’s both, isn’t it?” Fastow says. But not everyone agrees.

Clearly animated by Fastow’s story, the Irish entrepreneurs won’t even let him finish his by now well-worn shtick before plying him with questions. One way or another, it left a strong impression.


A strong impression is exactly what this year’s 25 finalists are hoping to leave with their elevator pitches.

At frequent intervals throughout the week, often during working lunches and dinners, they have been required to brief the more than 100-strong group on their companies, what they do and where they are going.

“It’s kind of nerve-racking when you don’t know anyone,” says finalist Harriet Dunne, co-owner of Ballymun-based ICE Comfort Slat Mats. The award winning company manufactures comfort mats for use on concrete slats in cattle sheds to help reduce lameness in the animals, keep them warm in winter and reduce methane emissions, as she explains in her pitch. “But everybody’s been so nice. They’re all willing to share and they all have different experiences.”

Austin has itself turned out to be something of a cautionary tale, however. A bit like Dell, which as John Doggett told the finalists, grew so rapidly as a publicly listed company in the 1990s that it was desperately sending out recruiters to hotels to hire their janitorial staff, Austin’s economic growing pains are palpable.

“We’re the poster child for the housing crisis,” Austin’s Democratic Party mayor Steve Adler tells the finalists over a steak dinner on Sunday night. “House prices are going up by so much that we’re losing our musicians and artists,” he admits, a depressing fact for a city that has nurtured some of the great talents of the past century.

“I’m very worried about affordability,” says Quan Cosby. “I am very worried about that because it’s not a quick fix, but it’s getting worse faster than it could ever be fixed.” It sounds familiar.

Ian Curran

Ian Curran

Ian Curran is a Business reporter with The Irish Times