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Success, scandal and distraction: the business world’s winners and losers of 2021

In a sequel to 2020 no one wanted, some thrived, some slumped and some were unlucky

Goodbye 2021, the sequel to 2020 that dared to ratchet up January doom several apocalyptic notches and then stumbled on in that spirit for months.

It was the kind of year when billionaires voted with their rockets and headed off-planet while everyone on earth with a livelihood in deep freeze wondered if the sun would shine again. Not exactly vintage.

By the end of it, even people who had received their vaccine booster were in need of an emotional one. With virus variants threatening to outnumber the remaining letters of the Greek alphabet, it didn’t take much to make the walking wounded in the most Covid-wracked parts of the economy to feel they were back to where they started.

Where they actually were was on the cusp of Year Three and still, in the words of Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, "taking one for the team". Anyone for the Lotto?


In firm proof that 2021 was a year with more losers than winners, Lotto ticket buyers collectively failed to win the twice-weekly jackpot for more than 50 consecutive draws. It was almost as if Premier Lotteries Ireland (PLI) – which got lucky by winning the National Lottery licence during the great State sell-off of 2014 – wanted to underline the point that hope is futile.

This was all too much for Fine Gael TD Bernard Durkan who, after 47 rollovers, intervened to say "Shergar would have a better chance of winning Squid Game" – a double-reference that spans the ages. It would help, he proposed, if PLI chief Andrew Algeo dropped the two balls added in 2015 "as a mark of good faith".

Faith was in increasingly short supply. Rollovers are usually excellent hype for ticket sales, but open jadedness with how unwinnable the thing is? Perhaps PLI’s two price rises since privatisation, plus the controversial introduction of those extra balls, had been a gamble too far.

Scandal odds

The odds of winning the Lotto on a single line are 10.7 million to one. The odds of any given year yielding at least one scandal in the Irish financial services sector are significantly shorter.

In March, Davy was fined €4.13 million by the Central Bank. The awkward fact was that Davy had sold a Davy client's bonds to a consortium of 16 people who happened to work for Davy, without notifying the compliance people in, er, Davy. This, unsurprisingly, is a breach of the rules and prompted the erstwhile client in question – Belfast property developer Patrick Kearney – to sue the stockbroker for a second time.

The resignation of chief executive Brian McKiernan, deputy chairman Kyran McLoughlin and head of bonds Barry Nangle – three of the 16 – followed.

Then the National Treasury Management Agency decided the firm should no longer act as a primary dealer of Irish Government bonds. Soon the Davy bond desk was no more, and Francesca McDonagh, chief executive of its opportunistic suitor, was welcoming what was left of the Davy team to Bank of Ireland.

The sale meant Davy could “benefit from a range of comprehensive culture, risk and governance programmes” that Bank of Ireland has introduced “in recent years”, McDonagh suggested – “recent” being the operative word.

The bank rounded out 2021 with a Central Bank fine of €24.5 million for failing over the period 2008-19 to offer continuity of service to customers in the event its IT systems went kaput. Had “a severe disruption event” struck, every payment service the bank is entrusted with, from salaries to debt repayments, could have gone haywire.

The record for the largest Central Bank fine, however, is currently held by the departing Ulster Bank, fined €37.77 million for its role in the tracker mortgage scandal.

Public relations

Yet again, banks were in need of good public relations advice. But, then, 2021 was the sort of year when public relations advisers were in need of good public relations advice.

Teneo, the New York-headquartered PR company co-founded by Declan Kelly, specialises in close relationships with blue-chip CEOs. Alas, the difference between close contacts and non-consensual ones eluded Kelly at a fundraising event, according to allegations published in the Financial Times. Five days after its report on his "drunken misconduct", he resigned as chief executive and chairman.

By this point, General Motors, led by chief executive Mary Barra, had become the first major client to drop Teneo as an adviser and it seemed others might skedaddle, prompting Kelly – the brother of Labour Party leader Alan Kelly – to say he did not wish to be "an ongoing distraction".

Closer to home, insulation manufacturer Kingspan was mired in an ongoing reputational crisis. More than a year ago, the inquiry into the 2017 fire in London's Grenfell Tower, in which 72 people died, revealed what chief executive Gene Murtagh called "undeniable historic shortcomings". These centred around its previous reliance on results from flawed safety tests to market its Kooltherm K15 product.

The inquiry is not set to conclude until mid-2022. In the meantime, notwithstanding Kingspan's insistence that its product was used without its knowledge or advice in the refurbishment of the tower, few have forgotten its link to Grenfell. When Formula One team Mercedes-AMG Petronas announced a sponsorship deal with the Cavan-headquartered company in December, objections from survivors and UK politicians were immediate.

Kingspan’s logo was duly stuck on Lewis Hamilton’s car for that weekend’s Saudi Arabian grand prix, but the Mercedes star driver agreed this wasn’t ideal. “Unfortunately my name is associated with it because it has been on my car, but whether that remains the same, we will see.”

With the kind of speed that only an F1 team could manage, the deal was shelved a week later.

‘Unfit for purpose’

Not exactly known for its hasty decisions, the Data Protection Commission (DPC) and commissioner Helen Dixon seemed thoroughly weary of its under-resourced status in 2021. The DPC told the Government that it wanted to recruit more senior managers "at closer to market rates of pay" to help deal with the "additional complexities" of regulating the EU operations of Irish-based tech giants such as Facebook – sorry, Meta.

The DPC’s current structure is “unsustainable and unfit for purpose”, its budget submission lamented, while failure to rectify its inability to “operationalise key projects” will “magnify the risks to Ireland’s reputation”.

Some might say it already has. In December, a Bloomberg opinion piece republished by the Washington Post opened with this line: “Europe’s ambition to lead the world on data privacy has a weak spot: Ireland.”

There was a distinctly un-private end to 2021 for the Web Summit crew, with Lisbon-loving frontman and largest shareholder Paddy Cosgrave off the Christmas card list of his co-founders David Kelly and Daire Hickey.

Lending further weight to the theory that there’s no business like tech show-business, Hickey offered extensive thoughts on Cosgrave’s personality, alleging in an affidavit that his behaviour “has been and continues to be damaging to the company’s business and reputation”.

There was more – much more – but these pastéis de nata won’t eat themselves.

Stars of Stripe

How about some bona fide winners instead?

It was an unequivocally decent 2021 in business for Patrick and John Collison. Granted, wealth-focused media outlet Forbes published an ill-received and soon withdrawn article implying the brothers had done well to "beat the odds" by escaping Limerick, erroneously described as the murder capital of Europe. But this was a mere trifle compared to how splendidly things were going at Stripe.

After a $600 million fundraising in March, the Collisons’ digital payments company was valued at a whopping $95 billion while, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, the brothers have a net worth of $11.4 billion. That’s $11.4 billion each.

Not worth as much as either Collison is Denis O’Brien, but as long as the veteran businessman can stop Facebook from snatching his champagne – something he has accused the tech giant of metaphorically doing – he can raise a glass to a successful 2021.

After offloading radio group Communicorp to German conglomerate Bauer, O'Brien was finally unburdened by the media interests he had started amassing 32 years earlier. Better still, he persuaded the Australians to buy Digicel Pacific.

This was a "cracking business", O'Brien told CNBC, but the more important thing was that Aussie telco Telstra liked the look of Papua New Guinea too, and that, with no small degree of assistance from the Australian government, it was prepared to pay $1.6 billion to take this unit of Digicel off his hands.

The deal is on track to improve his telecoms group's creditworthiness, though not as much as it would have done, ratings agency Fitch noted, if Digicel hadn't twice made "aggressive" manoeuvres to restructure its debt pile.

Auction business

Some less familiar names also sold up and banked the proceeds. Among them were Derek Keys and his brothers Jonnie, Lynden and Trevor, founders of Dromore, Co Tyrone-based Euro Actions, which conducts unreserved auctions of industrial plant, construction and agricultural equipment. In August, it was acquired by Canada's Ritchie Bros – the company that had inspired theirs – for almost $1.1 billion (€850 million). What Jonnie Keys called "a fairly tight family bond" had paid off.

About 70 km north of the Keys' home is the village of Burnfoot, Co Donegal, the headquarters of E&I Engineering. A major employer that makes the electrical switchgear and power distribution systems used in data centres, E&I was bought in September by Ohio-based Vertiv in a deal worth up to $2 billion (€1.7 billon). It was a great result for its founder, Derry City Football Club chairman Philip O'Doherty.

After almost two years of virus trajectory graphs, the phrase “exponential growth” is not one everybody wants to hear. Ecommerce companies are not everybody.

Swords-based ESW, previously known as EShopWorld, aims to make it easier for retailers to sell across borders. In 2021, it became clear that it is quite adept at doing this. After "embracing the structural shift in favour of online shopping", as chief executive and founder Tommy Kelly put it, ESW lengthened its client list, while March saw Asendia, a joint venture between La Poste group and Swiss Post, buy the remaining stake in the company it did not already own.

ESW, which neared a €1 billion turnover in 2020, is now eyeing revenues of €4 billion by 2026 at the latest.

“Ambitious but achievable,” declared Kelly.

Fintech company Fenergo likes to "create digital journeys that delight clients", its website says. This delight is lucrative. In April, it became the third official Irish tech unicorn, after Intercom and Workhuman – meaning it is a private company valued at more than $1 billion – when it sold a majority stake for $600 million.

"We're in a good place right now," said chief executive Marc Murphy.

‘Landmark year’

Also in a good place was biotechnology company Nuritas, which uses artificial intelligence to analyse billions of hidden peptides – smaller versions of proteins – in plants and natural food sources and then identify how they can help our health. Bono and The Edge are fans.

In November, Nuritas closed a $45 million funding round, taking its total raised to $75 million. This capped what founder and chief executive Dr Nora Khaldi called "a landmark year".

Award-winners in 2021, meanwhile, included Brian O'Sullivan of Zeus Packaging, who was named EY Entrepreneur of the Year, though even more impressive was the scream of joy he gave when he went on stage to collect the gong.

Galway sisters Izzy and Ailbhe Keane, whose company Izzy Wheels designs colourful wheelchair wheel covers, claimed the EU's Rising Innovator Award for women entrepreneurs following the launch of Disney x Izzy, a collaboration with the near-100 year-old media empire that saw it produce covers adorned with characters from Minnie Mouse to Marvel's Spider-Man.

And back in January, The Irish Times Innovation of the Year award was won by Suzanne Moloney, a former chef who suffers from the skin condition Hidradenitis Suppurativa (HS). Her Galway medtech company HidraMed Solutions has developed HidraWear, a range of crop tops, T-shirts and boxer shorts fitted with adhesive-free pads to make dressing HS wounds less painful.

Triumph to disaster

If the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that healthcare has many heroes. Economies would not have staged any kind of recovery in 2021 without the ingenuity and dedication of all those involved in getting Covid-19 vaccines to market.

Among them were Irish scientists Prof Adrian Hill and Prof Teresa Lambe, key members of the Oxford team that developed the AstraZeneca vaccine.

“The variants keep us occupied,” said Lambe in June.

It would be nice to end on this note of human triumph and say the stupidity of the ecological abuse that puts us at risk of pandemics in the first place is on the verge of being consigned to history, just like the State’s 12.5 per cent corporation tax rate, for instance, or chances of a happy ending in Succession.

Alas, despite an ocean's worth of sustainability pledges and net-zero promises, 2021 was the year in which the Cop26 climate summit – dramatically billed as the "last chance" to save the planet – ended with its president, Alok Sharma, telling the world he was "deeply sorry" as he fought back tears.

They did not seem like tears of relief.