EY Entrepreneur of the Year: 'Every deal will die at least once, be sure to hold your nerve'

The final four of eight shortlisted nominees in the industry category of the award

Jim Darragh, Totalmobile

Jim Darragh's CV is a clear indicator of his leadership capabilities. Having started his working life at large corporates including software giant SAP, Darragh ultimately got his first chief executive role at Cambridge-based Zeus. He has since taken roles as the chief executive of software companies such as Abiquo, Ipanema and CMO Compliance.

The former professional rugby player (pictured above) got the software bug during his rugby days. When he took the opportunity to move to a different club, he began working in a software company that had connections with the team.

In 2016, he took up the chief executive role at Belfast-based Totalmobile, a company that specialises in technology for mobile workforces. In the period since, he has grown the business to be five times bigger than when he started. Darragh’s ambition now is to turn Totalmobile into a company with more than £100 million (€117.3 million) in revenue in the next three years, roughly double the figure today.

What was your 'back to the wall' moment and how did you overcome it?
There were a number of challenges that needed to be addressed when I first joined the business. We looked at many areas, including company structure, but the biggest change was the change to a SaaS-based business model, which led to cash becoming very tight in the process. But we all pulled together, believed in what we were doing and grew our way through the issue.


What moment/deal would you cite as the game-changer or turning point for the company?
During our growth, we have won some landmark deals. I'm a great believer that you can create a positive vortex around these wins that leads to the next landmark deal, and the next and the next. Winning the Office of National Statistics contract in the UK for the delivery of the 2021 census was one of those landmark deals and changed the game for us.

What were the best and worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The best advice I received was that every deal will die at least once, and therefore be sure to hold your nerve. The worst advice was to chase revenue, not profits. Life is much easier when you have a healthy and profitable business.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
Entrepreneurs often make the mistake of overstretching finances. Modelling based on either best-case scenarios or unrealistic expectations means that problems occur whenever something unexpected happens, as it often does. Entrepreneurs have got to operate within their means and have a robust plan in place that supports growth in a viable manner.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?
Identify what it is that you do different and what is most valued by your customers. Is it your product? Or delivery? Or perhaps your industry expertise? Once you are clear on this differentiator, look to build everything else you do around it. This will enable you to continue to stand out from the competition and keep you focused.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?
We have some international business but it is a modest amount. Our real focus is to continue to establish leadership in the British and Irish markets. There is plenty of opportunity there to continue to support our growth in the short term. Once we capitalise on that opportunity we will look internationally to see what is right for us.

Joseph Doherty, ReGen Waste

While he started working alongside his brothers in his family’s construction business, at the age of 24, Joseph Doherty decided to step away and move into the recycling sector. This was prompted by a “family kitchen table” discussion which discussed the need to diversify their construction business. As Doherty was viewed as the “least busy” family member, he decided to explore commercial opportunities in the sector. Over the following year, he travelled across the United States and the UK to tour the best recycling facilities in the world.

Once he had gathered enough market research, Doherty convinced his brothers, Aidan and Colin, to join him in establishing ReGen Waste in 2004.

The Newry-based business now operates its factory 24 hours a day in order to process about 1.5 million tonnes of waste, processing both dry and mixed solid waste across Ireland and Britain.

Doherty now wants to build the business to have turnover of £100 million (€117 million) in the coming three years. But he also wants to ensure that recycling becomes more commonplace so that less waste ultimately has to be burned.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?
Creating a business in an unknown and emerging sector that has grown to employ over 300 people in 17 years. The business has also continued to allow five family members to work together.

What was your 'back to the wall' moment and how did you overcome it?
The initial investment we made in our plant – go big or go home. We were confident in our research and made the big jump.

Separately, we had an unsuccessful planning appeal for a new facility in Craigavon – we fought our corner but eventually had to lick our wounds. However, our tenacity did not go unnoticed.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?
Up to 70 per cent of our revenues are derived from export sales, due to lack of home markets. We plan to develop new products to ensure recyclables can be better used closer to home. These include products for animal husbandry and high-tech industrial applications, carbon nanotubes derived from recyclable plastic, for example.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
Micromanagement: expending too much time and energy working on the operational side of the business and not enough on its strategic aspects as the business expands and matures. This micromanagement can be beneficial when growing the business but there comes a point where you need to engage specialists, and then be willing to trust them to do their job – they are the experts.

Be careful how you build your team – if you choose correctly it is easier to build trust, and if you trust and appreciate your people this will be reciprocated.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?
Pick your niche carefully. Be very focused on that niche and build your reputation by being better than your competitors, making quality service delivery your unique selling point.

What are the big disruptive forces in your industry?
Carbon and the conversation not to distort the market to the disadvantage of carbon. Complexities of science around waste coupled with a cumbersome decision-making process means that many of the hard decisions are being taken by people who have not developed a full understanding of the issues at play.

What are you doing to disrupt, innovate and improve the products or services you offer?
We are further developing an innovative waste-processing infrastructure that will allow us to develop additional services and end product offerings, which will have a significant impact on the local circular economy.

Michael McKinney, Inishowen Engineering Manufacturing

Michael McKinney started working at a young age, leaving school at 16. With a passion for engineering, he completed an apprenticeship and continued working in the field. But he always wanted to return to Donegal and, in 1996, he did just that.

McKinney decided to set up his own business with the aim of creating local employment. Over the following 25 years he has built his custom metal-fabrication company, Inishowen Engineering, into one that employs more than 130 staff from a 155,000sq ft facility in Buncrana.

The business has enjoyed considerable success and now counts itself as the preferred supplier to major brands including Caterpillar. And McKinney has played a large part in that, being the first to bring new technologies to the Republic. He now wants to grow by up to 25 per cent over the coming three years while also broadening the company's customer base.

How is your business model unique?
We are predominantly a subcontract business. Our unique selling point is that we can take a product from concept through the stages of design, manufacturing, finishing and right through to assembly.

What was your 'back to the wall' moment and how did you overcome it?
Probably when the recession hit in 2007. At the time we employed 110 people here and in the space of two months that went down to 45. We had to reinvent how we did things, and we adopted a lot of lean principles in manufacturing, which probably brought us through the hard times.

What are the big disruptive forces in your industry?
The main ones would be the fluctuations of steel prices and the euro exchange rate. Also, the availability of trained skilled workforce to allow ramp up if demand increases.

How has Covid-19 impacted your business?
Thankfully, Covid had little impact on us. We were closed for three weeks in total and then, seeing as some of our customers were involved in essential services and remained open, we had to as well. We were able to keep the disruption to a minimum and once the vaccine is rolled out we expect things to get back to relative normality.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
Over-expansion or trying to do too much too quickly. Also, trying to do everything themselves. Delegation is an important element of a business's success.

How will your market look in three years?
We are expecting massive changes. More companies are outsourcing the manufacturing of their products and as the employee base changes, companies like ourselves will have to adopt new technology and processes in order to be competitive.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?
There is no substitute for planning and hard work.

What moment/deal would you cite as the game-changer for the company?
The biggest change the company went through was getting into CNC [computer numerical control] machinery and robotics for the production process. There were only a few companies in our sector going down this road at the time and because we were offering these processes and, with the improved efficiencies, it opened a lot of doors for us at the time.

Oonagh O’Hagan, Meagher’s Pharmacy

After studying pharmacy at Trinity College Dublin, Oonagh O'Hagan got a job at Meagher's Pharmacy on Baggot Street in Dublin. There she got to love the idea of community pharmacy and, ultimately, this store became the first pharmacy she would own aged just 25.

While the owner didn’t initially intend to sell, she eventually got a call telling her that another offer had been received. But O’Hagan was told that if she could match the offer of £2 million it would be hers.

In the years since, O’Hagan has grown the business into one with nine physical outlets as well as an online business that sells into 58 countries. The online business was a necessary transition in the aftermath of a significant government change to the payments to pharmacies introduced around 2009. But O’Hagan also views that period as one which helped her transition it towards a more retail-focused strategy.

Over the coming years, O’Hagan expects further consolidation of the Irish pharmacy market in addition to an accelerated digital transformation.

What were the best and worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The worst was to 'stay in my lane'. That is nonsense. We thrive when we collaborate with others and try new things. A lot of advisers urged me not to invest in an online presence for example, and whilst I listened to their advice, I trusted my gut and went for it anyway and Meaghers.ie is one of the key differentiators behind my business today.

The best advice was to always remember why you exist. As long as we keep our customers central to all our decision-making I know that we will not stray too far wrong.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?
I would like Meagher's to be shaping a new type of pharmacy. A pharmacy that embraces the use of technologies to free up our pharmacists to deliver innovative services, such as diagnostic testing and health screening to proactively look after their health and wellbeing. I believe we need a more preventative approach to health and there's no better place to deliver preventative services than in your local community.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
To try and do it all. I have learned that it is so important to surround myself with experts in various fields who support me to achieve my business growth. A mistake that I see entrepreneurs make is to try and be the expert in every part of their business. It's okay not to know it all and its impossible for you to have all the skill set you need.

What was your 'back to the wall' moment and how did you overcome it?
In 2009/2010 the Irish government enacted Fempi legislation and payments for the provision of services to pharmacies were cut dramatically. The entire industry and our business model was turned upside down. I overcame that horrendous time by pivoting and turning our attention away from sickness and towards health. I focused on what I could control and developed a retail strategy to diversify and future-proof the business. This led us on a journey of digital transformation, offering our customers new products and services and bringing these to many new markets in a virtual world.

Peter Hamilton

Peter Hamilton

Peter Hamilton is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in business