Who were Ireland's best performing CEOs of 2019?

Brendan Mooney, chief executive of of Kainos, which had a memorable 2019

WHAT a year! 2019 saw the 100th year anniversary of the first seating of the Dáil in January and significant cooperation throughout the Brexit process. But the gloves have come off in recent weeks with the expectation of an election in early 2020.

In May international business relations were thrown into disarray when America hit China with a $200bn trade tariff. In the UK there were a string of parliamentary defections, government defeats and utter chaos in play at Whitehall in September. In December, we went to the polls with Conservatives gaining their biggest majority since the era of Margaret Thatcher, paving the way for a swift and definitive Brexit -or so it seems.

What a year indeed! And throughout this period, Irish business has had to navigate through the mire of Brexit, currency fluctuations, stockpiling contingencies and an accommodation crisis, coming out the other side to provide the stewardship required to boost national finances, maintain vibrancy across core sectors, drive employment and further develop vital trading relationships globally.

In this year of political and economic fluidity, Ireland has found itself once again as the fastest growing economy in the EU, with a 5.8 per cent GDP increase from 2018, foreign direct investment continuing to flow and sectors including pharma, cyber security and finance all flourishing in a climate of geopolitical uncertainty.

Many of the brands and businesses which power this success are well known, however, when we examine the individuals behind this growth, it's clear that leadership, adaptability and decisive action are key drivers in sustaining momentum and ensuring Ireland remains a key player for the global economy.

Recent research by KPMG found that businesses which have a culture that nurtures innovation and creativity are more likely to thrive in this age of unpredictable, high-impact change and technological disruption.

CEOs are increasingly encouraged to engender a leadership culture which develops an environment of ‘fast-failing' (the process of ‘learning fast' through trial and error), with research showing that 84 per cent of CEOs across Ireland now demonstrate a willingness to adapt to this change.

When we look at Ireland's economic growth, there are two sectors which really stand out in pharma and tech. Ireland is now home to many global tech businesses with Facebook and LinkedIn both headquartered in Dublin, and in pharma, Johnson and Johnson and GlaxoSmithKline are notable brands operating on the island.

FDI is hugely important to both sectors and is a core pillar for overall employment, generating more than 229,000 jobs, with latest statistics showing multinational dominated sectors growing by 5.3 per cent in 2019.

Adaptability is crucial in the tech sector, an industry which is evolving at a rapid rate. Cathriona Hallahan, CEO of Microsoft, helped steer the business in a very positive financial direction in the last 12 months and was granted the inaugural ‘Women of Concern' Award for 2019, an award launched by Concern Worldwide in recognition of leaders driving gender equality.

Described as a ‘shining light for women in leadership positions in Ireland, having championed gender equality and led diversity and inclusion' at Microsoft for many years, Cathriona oversaw a strong year, with sales of more than $52.8 billion worth of assets from Singapore to Ireland and the Irish operation assuming control of the software giant's business for the entire Asia-Pacific region.

Staying with tech, Belfast-listed technology company Kainos had another memorable year in 2019, with its profits growing strongly and income for the year at £151.3 million (€171m), up 56 per cent from £96.7 million, recorded in 2018.

The company, led by tech disruptor Brendan Mooney recently announced a £7.05m deal to buy the Movie House Cinema's Bankmore Square site on the Dublin Road, signalling further growth ambition.

Brendan has led the company to a ninth successive year of growth and with 1,500 workers across 12 offices, and notable acquisitions including that of Formulate (a UK and European partner to Adaptive Insights), the business looks set to continue this trajectory into 2020 under the able stewardship and leadership of its founder.

As for pharma, it continues to influence the Irish economy exponentially, with the number of people working in the sector having doubled in the last 20 years, now supporting more than 40,000 jobs.

Export figures in 2019 are set for a record year, and with Ireland's pharma trade with the United States equal to that of Canada, Ireland's position as a global leader in the industry is now firmly established.

John Power, founder of indigenous Irish Pharma company Aerogen, which now operates critical and emergency units in 75 countries with 7 million patients, is central to Ireland's pharma growth.

John steered the company to new investments from Singapore fund Temasek, leading to a 10 per cent increase in sales to €60m, and in the last 12 months announced 50 new jobs with 2020 set to see an additional 80 jobs come to Galway.

In terms of chief executive performance in 2019, John's contribution cannot be underestimated, having worked to secure a €30 million loan from the European Investment Bank, showing negotiation prowess and a strategic vison for Aerogen who look forward to a period of continued growth.

Of course, the ability to secure funding is vital for any business, and with Ireland's banking sector having been thrust into the international stage with UK market uncertainty regarding Brexit providing opportunity locally, both Barclays and Bank of America Merrill Lynch chose Dublin as their EU hub, and between them, have transferred £200 billion in assets to the Republic along with 250 staff.

Overcoming adversity is a leadership asset that can define the success of any business or organisation and within Bank of Ireland's 2019 performance, we can see leadership and adaptability both taking centre stage.

Having endured a challenging start to 2019 as BOI failed to meet ambitious financial targets, Francesca McDonagh made the necessary adjustments to steer the bank to €1.5 billion of net lending growth in the Q2 to Q4 in 2019, €800 million higher than in the same period a year ago. Francesca's leadership proved crucial in what has been a fragile year for the markets and currencies.

To quote Charles Darwin, ‘it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change'. Ireland's business leaders have shown they can adapt to change, however, another year like 2019 may test this strength to its limit.

With digital transformation, AI and the future of work now upon us, there is little choice but to adapt, lead from the front, and embrace change. If CEOs can continue to provide positive, innovative and dynamic leadership, then 2020 can be another year of solid economic growth.

:: Claire Aiken is managing director of public relations and public affairs company Aiken

:: Next week: Richard Ramsey

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