Kainos' incoming CEO planning for a subtle and seamless succession

Russell Sloan, who will officially become the next chief executive of Kainos at the Belfast software group's upcoming AGM on September 21.
Russell Sloan, who will officially become the next chief executive of Kainos at the Belfast software group's upcoming AGM on September 21. Russell Sloan, who will officially become the next chief executive of Kainos at the Belfast software group's upcoming AGM on September 21.

IN just over two weeks, one of the biggest jobs in Northern Ireland's tech industry will change hands.

If there’s a greater antithesis to the chaotic and back-stabbing narrative to the finale of smash hit TV series Succession, then the Kainos AGM might be it.

For the past four years, the Belfast software company has been carefully implementing a plan to allow its long-standing chief executive Brendan Mooney to step aside after 22 years at the helm.

On September 21, Russell Sloan, who currently heads up the group’s all-important digital services division, will quietly slip into the CEO chair, 24 years after the north coast native joined the company as a graduate of Queen’s University.

The seeds of succession were sown four years ago in California, when a small group of Kainos’ most senior figures attended a two week course at Stanford University.

“It was a good chance to take a step back from business and think about strategic planning,” recalled Russell.

Following that period it was decided that Russell and Malachy Smith, who heads the Workday division, would begin attending meetings of the Kainos board.

By the end of 2020 Russell was charged with leading the company’s development of its new strategy plan for 2025.

He has also become an increasingly familiar face to the London-listed company’s investors.

“It’s probably fair to say I’ve grown into the business over the past number of years,” he reflected.

“That still doesn’t prepare for the phone call to ask ‘will you take over?’

“It wasn’t a big surprise for people in the organisation that I was taking on the role. I think people will see a lot of continuity, a lot of the senior team are still there.

“We’re blessed with having a lot of people who have been in the business for a long period of time, and that will continue to be the case.

“So I feel very fortunate and very well supported by the team around me.”

That continuity in leadership has proved one of Kainos’ greatest strengths.

Like some of his senior colleagues, Russell joined the company as a Queen’s University graduate.

After growing up just outside Portrush and attending school in Coleraine, he relocated to Belfast and never left.

Joining Kainos as a trainee software engineer in June 1999, he rose through a number of leadership roles before he was asked by Brendan Mooney to head up the firm’s fledgling digital services division in 2012.

“At that stage we had about 35 people doing digital transformation work, mainly for the UK Government,” he recalled.

“From 2013 until now, we’ve grown into about 1,600 people, doing complex transformation work across UK Government, the commercial sector and healthcare, which forms about 60 per cent of the Kainos revenue.”

In those 24 years, Kainos went from a company of 160 people to a global operation of more than 3,000 staff.

“Overall, it’s exciting. I’m taking on the reins at a great time,” he said.

“Normally transitions in leadership can take place at a time of distress or some issue.

“This is not what has happened here.

“If Kainos wants to be around for 100 years as a business, we need to be able to do transitions well.

Even with that massive growth curve, the incoming CEO believes the same core principles exist at Kainos 24 years after joining.

“We want to be a great employer, we want to delight our customers and we want to be a growing, profitable and responsible company,” he said.

“It’s quite a difference in scale, but those core principle still exist.

“I was over last week in our Birmingham office and you could see the same warmth and sense of community that I have known in Belfast as an employee since 1999.”

While some of his tech contemporaries at Queen’s were looking to leave Northern Ireland in search of work in the late 1990s, Russell said in Kainos, he always found himself appropriately challenged and stimulated.

“I’ve never felt the need to move,” he said. “You’re trying to create that environment for people, so that they can grow their careers, take on a number of different roles and feel a sense of achievement.

“I’m pleased and proud of what Kainos has created so far. From our headquarters in Belfast, we now over 1,100 people in employment in Northern Ireland.

“We want that to continue. It’s a thriving sector and we still want to do more in Northern Ireland.

“I think we still have a lot of runway here, I still don’t think we’re anywhere near close to reaching our full potential.

“That’s the exciting thing as well.”