Following the sun brings IT's own success
It's a long, hard road from voluntary redundancy to heading your own successful IT firm - but John O'Sullivan took it
In 1994, after working for computer manufacturer the Digital Equipment Corporation for 16 years, John O'Sullivan was offered voluntary redundancy. Realising that there was a growing demand for IT support services for businesses, he left to set up his own company, Westbourne IT Global Services. Today, that company employs more than 100 staff and has a turnover of more than €6.5m.
John is in a cheerful and upbeat mood when he welcomes me to the company's head office in Cork city. He has just signed a three-year contract to provide IT support services to a major US pharmaceutical client - and while he can't talk about it publicly, it's a significant multimillion-euro deal for the proud Corkman.
He shows me around Westbourne IT Global Services, explaining just what it is they do.
"The company's business can largely be divided into two. Firstly, we provide companies with a range of hardware and software solutions including servers, storage, networking and cloud services", explains John.
"Secondly, we provide business process outsourcing (BPO) and IT technical support for companies. So if one of their staff has an IT issue, they call their own company's helpline but this call is actually answered, on their behalf, by our support team either in our office here in Cork or in Auckland.
"Calls are answered on a 24/7, multi-lingual basis. Issues are normally resolved over the phone on a first-call basis. However, if the issue is more complex, we may dispatch specialised staff to visit the client's company in person to resolve it directly. This frees up the client's staff from the distraction of IT-related issues, so they can concentrate on their own core business processes," he adds.
It's also a service that helps remove the need for companies to directly recruit and manage technical staff as a direct fixed cost.
Westbourne IT's clients include a variety of large Irish-based companies in the food, insurance, manufacturing and healthcare sectors, as well as a host of small and medium-sized enterprises. In addition, they work with a number of international clients in the biotech and pharma sectors.
John O'Sullivan grew up in Westbourne Park, across the road from University College Cork. In fact, it is from this locality that his company takes its name - Westbourne. While his family were not involved in business, John nonetheless dreamt that one day he would be his own boss and run his own company.
After school, he moved from Cork to Galway to join the manufacturing department of Digital Equipment Corporation, which at that time was a major supplier of computers, software and peripherals. Staying with the company, he moved up the ranks, taking a role in customer services where he specialised in supporting large corporate client companies based in Ireland.
"In 1994, after 16 years there, the business began to go through a difficult time globally - and as part of their restructuring myself and others were offered voluntary redundancy.
"I jumped at the opportunity," explains John. "Because by that stage, I'd decided that if ever there was going to be a time for me to start my own business, then this was it," he adds. (In 1998, DEC was acquired by Compaq in what was at that time the largest merger in the history of the computer industry.)
With the money from his redundancy, he set out to create a business that offered both hardware and software solutions on a flexible contract, at reasonable prices and with fast response times. His background as a technical engineer was a tremendous asset, as were his skills and experience in fixing highly complex technical problems.
However, John quickly recognised that he had little or no experience in sales or in wining new business. It had never been required in his previous roles - where there had always been a dedicated sales and marketing department whose function that was. However, John had no such expertise. He knew that to be successful, he would need to learn to sell.
Immediately, he undertook a crash course in sales - focusing in particular on the areas of finding and converting sales leads.
"The training proved invaluable - and to this day, I understand that sales is the lifeblood of any business and something that needs continuous attention," John tells me.
Once he started winning customers, word began to spread among the business community and more opportunities began to come his way. After a few years, however, the market became increasingly crowded and the traditional model of being a direct reseller of IT software and hardware was becoming excessively competitive.
Wanting to offer something different, John and his team began to align themselves even more closely with customers and to provide a complete suite of solutions to their growing technical challenges.
"I noticed that as companies expanded, they struggled to recruit and retain experienced technical support staff to support IT systems," explains John. "We, on the other hand, were able to attract and retain IT engineers because we could offer them a career path and a degree of diversity and development that they could not get if they worked in a non-IT company."
On foot of his clients' expressed need for IT support, John launched his new customer support desk concept - firstly at home in Ireland and then to his corporate clients internationally.
"Around this time, Enterprise Ireland came on board and I took part in one of their international growth programmes which saw us participate in trade missions to the US and Australia. With their support and encouragement, we began to think on a much bigger scale, and to gain a greater sense of confidence in our abilities.
"From there, things just snowballed and it led us to expand our customer support desk service to clients all over the world on a 24/7 and multi-lingual basis," he adds.
As the business continues to grow, finding people with the right 'can-do' attitude and required skill set continues to be a challenge.
"Our staff are by far our biggest asset," explains John, "Our tag line is that 'We invest in people to bring technology to you'. We think that a person with a lower technical knowledge but with a customer- focused, can-do attitude, can be developed into a valuable asset - whereas a highly qualified person with a poor attitude can lose you customers," explains John.
"Fortunately, Irish people are very customer focused, with a strong work ethic and a genuine desire to solve problems. These attributes have been a major help in growing the business."
Availability of multi-lingual IT graduates in Ireland continues to be a major challenge for Westbourne IT. This limited talent pool was what, in 2014, spurred John to open an international office in Auckland, New Zealand.
"We are continuously on the hunt for IT talent and specifically target Irish ex-pats across the globe. We have been known on occasion to appeal to Irish parents to have their sons and daughters send us their CVs so we will bring them home to quality jobs in Ireland," he adds.
I ask what's next for the company.
"We have a fantastic opportunity to build on our success here in Ireland, so we plan to grow our domestic market," explains John. "Our Auckland office has already doubled in size and is allowing us adopt a 'Follow the Sun' solution, opening up a whole new market for us in the Asia Pacific region. We've also recently landed a large UK-based IT project that will lead to us setting up a UK office over the next year," he adds.
With a presence now in the 'Europe, Middle East and African region' (EMEA) through their Irish office, and in the Asia Pacific region (APAC) through their New Zealand office, the company is now planning on expanding even further and hopes to open another office in North America.
"Our five-year plan includes having offices in the UK and US, growing our annual revenues to over €20m and employing 300 staff," explains John. "But Cork will always be our headquarters. Sure, you couldn't get a better place to do business," he adds with a smile.
John O'Sullivan gained considerable experience in the IT sector as an employee in a multinational. Pressures on that business offered him the opportunity to opt for voluntary redundancy.
Seizing this opportunity, he set up his own business, providing innovative solutions to the needs of Irish and international businesses.
By adopting a highly flexible and customer-focused approach, his business has continued to grow and expand - a valuable lesson that usually comes only when you are willing to work hard and to follow your dreams.
For further information contact: Westbourne IT Global Services, Unit 5C, Fifth Floor, River House, Blackpool Retail Park, Blackpool, Cork. Web: www.westbourne.ie
John's advice for other businesses
1 Without sales, you don't have a business
"Sales is the most important function in your business. Without sales, you can't survive, can't grow - so sales has to be your key priority every week. And it has to be a priority for everyone in your organisation. No sales = no business."
2 Build a team with a 'can do' attitude
"The growth of your company will be heavily dependent on your ability to grow your team. Therefore, you should recruit and retain people who have a positive 'can do' attitude. Then, you need to invest in training and upskilling them."
3 Keep ahead of the curve
"To stay ahead in business, you need to constantly research your market to understand the factors that may be creating change for you and your customers. Among these changes is the pace at which technology is advancing: you need to keep pace with this."
Sunday Indo Business