Some companies pride themselves on the money they raise, their valuations, a rising share price or soaring profits. But for Irish software company Cora Systems and its founder and CEO Philip Martin it is all about jobs.
Announcing more than 300 new roles earlier this month, half of them in his home town of Carrick-on-Shannon, was a moment of great pride and validation.
From its bustling headquarters in the picturesque Leitrim town, Cora Systems has, over 23 years – slowly at first and now rapidly – grown a client base for its enterprise project and portfolio management systems that now includes some of the biggest engineering, construction, healthcare and government organisations in the world. Clients include huge conglomerates like Honeywell, corporate service firms like PwC and government agencies such as Britain’s NHS.
Martin has set an ambitious target of hitting €100m revenue by 2025 – a massive jump that will, all going to plan, see it expand sales tenfold.
With opportunities abounding for the firm, the recent jobs announcement is a big step in that expansion and one that Martin was only prepared to take on his own terms.
For two decades the firm reinvested profits and patiently built a digital platform aimed at helping big companies manage and integrate various systems and data streams. The pandemic changed everything and presented new opportunities.
Martin and his team had presumed the world was heading for recession and quickly cut excess spending.
“But after six months we realised we weren’t haemorrhaging cash and actually we were getting a lot of business from companies needing the sort of service we offer to help manage remote workforces. We realised it was time to bring in some investment.
“We raised just shy of €2m. We didn’t need more than that. We didn’t need €20m. We were being offered big money and there were people wanting to buy us. We weren’t interested.”
The money was largely used to hire key staff in the US: “We had spent five years dipping our toe in the water there. I travelled over and back a lot and I would have been questioned a lot around why we were doing it because it’s a €4,000 or €5,000 round-trip, or more, but I might do four or five cities on the east coast at a time.”
Capital efficiency was everything to Cora but the contacts made and the deals done on those trips slowly began to pay off. In 2021 revenue rose to €7m but this year it will top €20m. Next year, he says, that will grow to €40m, the following it will hit €60m and by 2025, it will reach €100m.
“They are aggressive numbers but we think we can do that,” he says.
“We can see where those numbers are going to come from.
“We have contracted about €60m worth of business already this year for the next two or three years.”
But Martin has still resisted the urge to take in major investment.
“We are a bootstrapped company.
“A lot of our competitors would have maybe €100m-plus in funding but it means we have never been pushed down the road that we have to make money for someone else to make a return or make an exit after five years.”
That has allowed Martin to focus on a different set of priorities and innovation was always a bigger driver than profitability. “That has been huge for us because we have basically developed ourselves into a niche vertical that we are now very good at.”
So when Cora’s client base began suffering massive supply-chain issues, it was able to quickly find solutions and adapt the platform.
“People within large companies are often operating in silos. The project managers are often completely separate to those who are ordering materials and there is often poor communication,” he says.
“One of our clients had just spent £75m (€87m) on subcontractors to be on site to install material that it turned out wasn’t coming for another two months.
“Their material management people had known but the project managers didn’t and it was too late to cancel the subcontractors. We found this type of thing was costing clients tens of millions, depending on their size.”
Cora created a very visual traffic-light style early-warning system linking project management systems to material ordering systems and allows clients better sequence projects as materials became available.
A conversation with another client about the difficulties it faced generating the reams of data it needed to be a supplier into the US government has led to another new opportunity.
“If you’re a contractor to the US government, you’ve to report into them in a very specific way with a lot of details. It is very prescribed, very manual and can be very difficult for organisations to keep up with.”
It was taking the client three-and-a-half weeks each month, so Cora set about automating the entire process across the client’s various systems. This allowed the client to generate the reporting at a push of a button.
“The impact was huge and when we showed them they almost had tears in their eyes. We showed it to a second client and it blew their mind. And there are literally thousands of companies feeding into the US government in this way.”
All of this transatlantic activity has helped drive jobs growth back home and this, says Martin, is more important than anything.
He has previously chaired the local job creation board and allows Cora’s offices to be used as a staging post for advanced parties from FDI firms wanting to invest in the region. He is involved too in Club Rossie, the fundraising arm for Roscommon GAA.
“I’ve a huge sense of place. This is my home town. It’s where I was born and bred. I went away but I’ve come back and it is where I want to be.”
He grew up the youngest of five on a small dairy farm 5km from the town, across the Shannon in Co Roscommon. His father had divided his time between the farm and driving a school bus and his mother worked hard “keeping the show on the road”.
“I always believed up to the age of 16 or 17 that I would be a farmer.
“As a 13-year-old, I would grow lettuce and sell it in the local shops for 25p a head. There was never a huge amount of money in the house but we all had a good work ethic.”
Martin’s older brother had studied electronics at the RTC in Sligo and, more or less on a whim, he followed in his footsteps.
He took to it and then studied engineering at Jordanstown in Belfast, a course that also included a diploma in business studies: “I actually found that business part more interesting than electronics,” he says. Yet after graduating he worked in a series of electronics jobs, starting with Tellabs in Shannon, before moving to 3Com digital electronics in Dublin and on to DSC electronics in Drogheda. At 3Com he had been assigned to testing products for high-volume manufacturing.
He completely redesigned the process so that it went from taking two hours to test one unit to 24 seconds.
“It was being way over tested. Sometimes in small companies people go way over the top and you just have to apply proper logic to it.”
When he married his wife, Anne Marie, who was teaching in Granard, they both decided they wanted to move closer to home. He took a job in Tuam managing a small team at a transformer manufacturer, which meant a 60pc pay cut at the time.
“But my two previous employers kept contacting me asking me could I do different bits and pieces of work.”
When in 1999 he was offered two different contracts, both paying IR£10,000, he took the plunge and quit the job in Tuam to go out on his own. One of the contracts fell through but he ploughed on with his plan.
Six months later he was joined by now CTO Pat Henry and the then two-man operation that would become Cora Systems was born.
“Pat and I had both come out of the tech industry and neither of us had any experience in sales. So we tossed a coin and I lost and was the one who had to go out selling. I thought it was going to be terrible but I loved it.”
The company’s first customer was Leitrim County Enterprise Board and that led to a deal with six county enterprise boards across the Border region, with other public sector contracts following.
“We were reinvesting everything we made back into the company and I could not have done it if my wife had not been working too. But there was a bit of blind determination about it.
“We learned a ‘land and expand’ strategy. You’d get into one department and then maybe a division and then maybe the plant in the UK or Ireland would have a mother plant in the US that you would get into.”
These days the big challenge is not so much winning contracts as having the skilled people to execute them. Martin says that it is an undoubted challenge to hire so many highly skilled people so quickly in Carrick-on-Shannon. But flexibility and the chance to work remotely – while living in a beautiful place like Leitrim – is a big draw, he believes.
“When you look at this region for the last 20 years, there has been a huge export of people to Dublin, London or the States. Many of those people want to come back.”
And while most of the headlines are still about staff shortages, he has detected a change in recent months, not least since the share prices of the big tech giants have taken a pummelling.
“We’re starting to see a lot of tech staff becoming available in the States and it is creeping in over here too. There’s definitely a trend towards layoffs and the quality of the people available going up.”
He believes that others in the industry may be starting to fear that a recession is on the way.
“We have grown reliably based on sales coming in the door and we haven’t taken big funding in the way others have,” he says.“When that funding dries up and the tide goes out, as Warren Buffett says, we will see who is wearing their swimming togs.”
Either way, Martin is confident that the next five years will be transformative for his firm. “Will I be the guy running this in five years? Probably not. It will be somebody better than me. One thing I have learned is that there are different walls in revenue.
“The person who runs a two person or 10-person company is a different type of person to someone who runs a €100m company.
“I think I have evolved with the company but I have evolved because I’ve had great people around me. There’s a strong possibility that in two or three years’ time, or even before that, some of those guys will step up.
“At the moment the firm is coaching and developing a middle layer of management as it scales.
“And the plan for now is to scale the hell out of this because, right now, we know we have a great opportunity. The world is our oyster.”
Is there a piece of business advice that has stood you in good stead?
“I love Mike Tyson’s line that ‘everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth’. It’s better to fully execute a simple strategy than to have a complicated strategy that you cannot execute at all. If a simple strategy fails, you can reset it: that’s not so easy with a complicated strategy.”
What advice would you give a young person who is coming out of school or college right now?
“Believe in yourself. You are the future. Sometimes people don’t believe in themselves. But if you look at football you’ll see that the best coaches are the ones who give belief to the kids – not the ones who teach the kids how to solo the ball.”
CEO and founder of Cora Systems
Woodbrook National School in Co Roscommon, electronic engineering at Sligo IT, followed by a degree in engineering and a diploma in business at Jordanstown
Married to Ann Marie with two children, Kate (15) and Patrick (13)
Huge interest in GAA and is part of Club Rossie, which fundraises for the development of Gaelic games in Roscommon. He also loves golf.
He struggles to find time to read books any more. But the marketing book Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore made an impression when he was starting out in business.
Favourite holiday destination: