Tuesday 17 October 2017

Interview: Liam Halpin - Corporate leader by day and hot gamer by night

In the business market, Dell is still developing new products and services, writes Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

It's 2am. You come down to the living room to find your 14-year-old getting 'pwned' in a 'Call Of Duty' death match against an unknown online opponent. The anonymous adversary could be some Russian or Californian gamer. But it could also be Dell's 45-year-old country manager for Ireland, Liam Halpin.

"Some are into sport, I'm into gaming," said the Kildare-based executive. "'Counter Strike', 'Call Of Duty', that kind of stuff. I also do a little beta testing on new games."

Mild-mannered corporate leader overseeing 2,500 staff by day, white hot gaming menace by night: Liam Halpin is certainly walking the walk.

But is Dell following? In a world of smartphones and online business, can Dell shift its old image of the boring beige box-maker?

"Maybe some aren't fully aware about how Dell has transformed itself," said Mr Halpin. "But we're actually doing very well. In Ireland, we're actually adding to our workforce, which now stands at over 2,500 people. It's fair to say that we're a manifestation of how the industry is changing."

To wit, Dell's mission has changed from being a beige-box maker to one that sells servers, storage and services. If HP was the benchmark 10 years ago, IBM appears to be the model now.

In September, the company took a leaf out of Volkswagen's book by opening a 'Dell bank' in Ireland to directly finance corporate clients.

"That was the first banking licence granted in this country since 2008," said Mr Halpin. "It's a €300m investment and we have 200 new colleagues working in that segment, with more to come."

Financially, the company is doing tolerably well. Although its global revenues are down, profits at the Irish subsidiary are up (to €10m), according to the company's most recent accounts.

Meanwhile, this week, the company started to show off its 'computer on a stick' product. This is a dongle with Android on it that plugs into a monitor and allows a mouse and keyboard connection. It is aimed at the 'thin client' market, where companies need simple desktop terminals to run a company-wide network with basic features.

"Being honest, we're no longer in the space of being the cheapest product on the shelf," he said.

"We're not abandoning our consumer business but the vast majority of our revenues these days come from our business and enterprise businesses. We're more into innovation than price."

Industry peers describe Mr Halpin as a decent, community-minded man. A formative three-year period in the 1980s serving as a trainee manager in Superquinn gave him a grounding in how to deal with people. He then moved into electronics, doing sales management stints in Canon, Panasonic, Brother and Fujitsu Computers, where he rose to become managing director for Ireland in 2007. Following a two-year spell at large IT sales firm PFH, he was recruited into Dell as country manager in 2011.

"I love it, it's the best job I've ever had," he said. "The reason is because at Dell there's a genuine commitment toward people. We're also developing new things here."

Mr Halpin means that literally: Dell's recent acquisition of a US cloud firm called Enstratius has seen development for new products and services located to Dell's Dublin office. It's a small but significant step in the emerging braintrust that is solidifying among the workforces of multinational companies working here.

In more pragmatic terms, Dell leads the market in work-based PC sales with over half of all office PCs sold. But with the PC market shrinking, is this any use? Outside the workplace, fewer people are buying laptops. And almost no one is buying desktops. Despite all the new divisions Dell has, isn't this a cause for concern?

"There is certainly a ceiling to what the addressable market is," said Mr Halpin. "But we're not seeing the death of the PC. Not at all. In the consumer market, there's a shift away from them. But in the business and corporate market, it's still PCs and laptops all the way. They're the devices that companies rely on day in, day out."

What about other devices, such as smartphones and tablets?

"No, phones are not on our roadmap right now," said Mr Halpin.

This is probably a wise move. Unless your name is 'Samsung' or 'Apple', it is very, very difficult to make any money from launching a new smartphone. It is also ridiculously expensive.

However, gaming PCs are a different matter.

"We've grown Alienware sales 600pc since Dell bought it seven years ago," he said. "It's a very successful product category for us."

Typically, these machines are not cheap: a fully-loaded Alienware laptop can cost over €3,000.

"The branding around these machines is very different to other products we market," he said. "You'll see words like 'kill' and 'noob' [short for 'newbie'], words we would never use with other categories. But they're brilliant machines."

Mr Halpin says that growth in Dell's public sector and large corporate divisions is "significant", while its business among mid-size companies is "encouraging".

He thinks that the Dell brand is still far more of a strength than a weakness.

"For our own customers, the Dell brand means devices or enterprise solutions. We're the people helping them to modernise their business. Our challenge to non-customers is bringing that message of the new Dell to them."

Mr Halpin is married with five children. The family have two rescue dogs, a greyhound and a German Shepherd. He doesn't know how old the German Shepherd is.

"She has white hair, but we don't know how old she is as she has arthritis."

Irish Independent

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