Paul McErlean: Pandemic 'has created an environment which is either terrifying or absolutely fantastic'

WIRED FOR SUCCESS: Fibrus executive chairman Conal Henry (at left, with the firm's chief executive Dominic Kearns and UK broadband minister Matt Warman) told the Saffron Business Forum that the Covid pandemic "has created an environment where all certainties are now uncertainty . . . which is either terrifying or absolutely fantastic"

I HEARD a phrase on Friday last which I hadn’t heard before - ‘pandemic native’.

It was mentioned in a webinar, another pandemic phenomenon which has helped to change how we communicate and meet in lockdown.

A pandemic native company is one that was born during the pandemic and it was Conal Henry, executive chairman of Fibrus, who said it.

While Fibrus came into existence in advance of the first lockdown, it has hired over 150 people over the past year and Conal hasn’t physically met any of them. That clearly hasn’t been a disadvantage though, given the speed of his company’s growth.

The webinar was organised by the Saffron Business Forum, the membership-based business network created to provide financial support to Antrim GAA.

The forum was founded by Tony Shivers, best known in business circles as managing director of the very successful Premier Electrics but also much respected and admired for his work as the dynamo behind so many initiatives supporting Antrim GAA.

Tony’s energy, persuasiveness and unbridled enthusiasm for his native county is a sight to behold. You basically can’t say no to him.

I have never seen the colour of Tony’s blood, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s saffron yellow, probably mixed with Dunloy green. Thanks to Tony’s efforts and us foot soldiers who support him on the committee and, of course, the membership and its network, around £350,000 has been raised over the last four years to support Antrim teams, the Dunsilly centre of excellence, the under-age development squads, the new stand at Corrigan park and other worthwhile initiatives.

Under the leadership of county chairman Ciaran McCavana, who is also a chartered accountant, Antrim is beginning to lift itself. Success on the field is following (the hurlers have already demonstrated that).

I must admit that the Saffron Business Forum also gives me the opportunity to do something I love to do, and that is to talk. The talk at forum events centres around the real-life stories of entrepreneurs, good business strategy and management and the best principles of leadership.

We have hosted some brilliant people, real leaders in their fields like Bill Wolsey of the Merchant Hotel, Brendan Mooney of Kainos and Seamus McKeague of Creagh Concrete, hopefully providing inspirational insight for our members, in addition to providing networking opportunities for business development and sales.

The chat with Conal Henry last Friday was another fascinating journey, charting his rise through the ranks at Proctor & Gamble and onwards to Asda and then a return home as commercial director at Ryanair before getting into telecoms, first with Energis and then with Enet, which he founded and was subsequently sold for €200m, after it had beaten off much larger competitors like Eircom to take the €2bn Irish broadband infrastructure roll-out.

Fibrus, which Conal created with one of my fellow committee foot soldiers and founder of B4B Telecoms, Dominic Kearns, is in the same sector, only this time, it will roll out broadband infrastructure in this jurisdiction. Fibrus recently won the £165m Stratum broadband project.

Conal’s switch from big corporates like P&G and Asda to a start-up at Enet and his reflections on his need to learn how to manage people in that transition were very insightful and valuable to anybody trying to run a business or indeed understand leadership better.

And as this was the first webinar we had done with the forum, rather than having a single speaker as we would normally do at our live events, we brought in former Galway manager and All-Ireland winner Kevin Walsh as well as New York-based business coach and author Jim Frawley.

Putting the two guys together by live link, with Conal and myself in the NIAVAC studio, worked really well.It was an excellent discussion, covering areas like team culture; how to adapt to the rapid speed of change; humility and confidence versus arrogance and, with particular reference to how companies emerge from the pandemic, planning. It was an insightful hour, and the details are below if you want to watch it on YouTube.

The big takeaway for me though was what Conal said about the pandemic. The pandemic has created an environment where, as he said: "All bets are off, all certainties are now uncertainty. That is either terrifying or absolutely fantastic. If you can go into this with a positive mindset, saying there is as much opportunity as there is threat, it’s a phenomenal environment”.

I certainly believe that. But it was good hear such an experienced and successful entrepreneur say the same thing.

* Saffron Business Forum: Growing the Economy Post Pandemic, Lessons in Leadership. Antrim GAA You Tube channel,

:: Paul McErlean ( is managing director and founder of MCE Public Relations


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