Sunday 15 September 2019

New Ibec boss takes a long-term view

Tech entrepreneur Edel Creely wants more action on tax and housing issues to support businesses

Edel Creely says attracting talent is key to success for Irish businesses Photo: David Conachy
Edel Creely says attracting talent is key to success for Irish businesses Photo: David Conachy
Samantha McCaughren

Samantha McCaughren

Going to school in Terenure, Edel Creely's main after-school interest was the violin. So when it came to choosing a university course, a degree in music studies was high on her agenda.

However, Creely - who has just been inaugurated as president of employers' body Ibec - was also fascinated by the career path her brother had taken in engineering, which had led him to a role in Aer Lingus.

"He was always pulling things apart and he'd have me help, saying 'You hold those pieces and this...'."

With a natural aptitude for maths and science, engineering seemed like a good option. "So that's how I ended up doing my engineering degree, although my brother says it's not fair to blame him," says Creely with a laugh.

Her decision to opt for an engineering degree rather than studying music served her well, eventually leading her to a career in technology. Her day job is that of managing director of Trilogy Technologies, an IT-managed-services company that she founded with four other people in 2009.

Creely takes over the role of Ibec president at a crucial time for business. Brexit is a top concern at the moment, as are threats from the EU to Ireland's corporate tax rate. For Creely, the priority is to get the Government to take a long-term approach to the challenges ahead.

"It is crucial that we're not going to be thinking too much in the short term and we're not defining what happens in each budget as it comes along," she says.

As an entrepreneur, Creely is particularly strong on measures which support the indigenous sector.

"I would call for an improvement in our capital gains tax (CGT) regime for entrepreneurs," says Creely.

"As an entrepreneur - and also from my involvement through my time with the Irish Software Association, advocating for growth and scale for technology businesses - I have seen how we need a competitive environment that rewards entrepreneurship, rewards people for taking those risks.

"That encourages the ability for companies to then grow and scale here in Ireland, rather than go somewhere else to do the same thing."

While the Irish CGT system for entrepreneurs selling their businesses has improved, the UK system is far more generous.

"They've put some very attractive schemes in place, and we wouldn't want to see companies that could potentially set up here in Ireland go and set up in the UK because of a more favourable regime," she says.

Creely also flags the need for both Irish and international companies with operations here to be able to attract staff. "Our unemployment rates are down at much better levels than we have seen in a long time. A lot of companies are finding that they now need to attract talent from outside of Ireland to come here, and that talent can decide to go here or decide to go somewhere else," says Creely.

"So if we don't make sure that we're retaining our competitiveness, the challenges are that those people may go elsewhere and therefore our businesses won't be able to grow and create more jobs."

Like many other employers, she also has concerns about the very tight housing market, with rental accommodation a problem for many workers travelling to Ireland.

"As well as housing being an acute social concern, which we are hearing about every day, it's also a problem for businesses, seeking to attract and retain staff. If we're not looking favourable in that space, well, then we may not get the people to come," she says.

Creely herself is a Dublin woman and has spent most of her career in the city. She grew up in Terenure, where her father ran a Spar supermarket and her mother raised the five children.

When she started engineering in Trinity aged 17, she was struck by the lack of young women in her class. "I never even thought at the time that it was something that not many females did. I was a bit surprised to go in and discover there was about 120 of us and only 12 girls in the class."

The ratios have improved since Creely was in college in the 1980s, but levels are still below 30pc.

"You know, it's a shame, really, because it's a fantastic profession to go into and there are a lot more options in engineering today than there was in my day," she says. After college, she went to Guyana in South America, joining that same brother who was working for Guyana Airways. She taught maths and music there for a short while, and later travelled around Europe playing music.

The employment market in Ireland was grim at the time, and many of her fellow graduates emigrated. Creely did a course in product management, which led to a role in a software start-up, setting her on a path to a career in computing.

Creely always felt she wanted to work for herself and so she and some colleagues decided to go out on their own in 2009. "We started off by actually acquiring a small business called 'IT Focus', so we didn't start from nothing - there was a core competency, a core set of clients and a business already in place, so we didn't have all of the challenges of setting all of that up."

The company manages IT infrastructure for firms. "As systems became more complicated, it didn't make sense for the SME to try to manage these systems for themselves," she says.

"So the idea of a managed service provider or a partner company is that it could be like your IT department, and manage your infrastructure for you."

Although they set up the company at the start of the crash, the business prospered. "IT has always been critical to companies - it's an essential service that they need, and it also allows companies to be more efficient in many cases and to innovate."

Creely, who employs 62 people, bought a UK businesss in 2014 and is seeking further acquisitions.

"Our business has an opportunity to scale. So, it is probably down to me and the team as to where we want to take it in the long-term, but I would say my work isn't done yet."

"We recently made some significant investments around our cloud services and security," she adds. "So there's a lot of new opportunity for us in that place, in that space and rather than trying to continuously grow organically, where it's harder to get the scale, we're looking at further mergers or acquisitions in the next while, either here or in London."

Creely believes Ireland has positioned well as tech hub. "We have done a lot of work to promote Ireland as a place for mobile talent to come, and I think that's proving very successful, because they are coming.

"You've got two things - you've got the piece where you want the talent to come, but then you also want to attract companies to come to Ireland to set up as well. Whether they're a startup or perhaps established multinationals, we want more and more of them to come. And I think that Ireland is seen as certainly a very attractive environment in which to set up business."

She does have some concerns about the international view of Ireland, particularly when tax arrangements make headlines all over the world.

"There's a danger that perhaps the actual substance of the Irish business model isn't as fully understood as it could be internationally," she says.

"It's really important that we get a message out there that we're not superficial. I hate when I hear the word 'tax haven' used, but it does get used outside this country in relation to describing us, and we have that other awful term of 'leprechaun economics'."

She says there is a "very big job to do" in ensuring that message gets out. "We refer to it here in Ibec as this model of substance - that that's fully understood internationally. That these big-name companies coming here are not coming just because of tax, they're coming because it is a great place to create a business."

Creely would like a bit more noise made about successful Irish companies, although she believes Enterprise Ireland and the Government are supportive of Irish firms.

"Some of these Irish companies are selling internationally, they're selling to large enterprise, so they're not household names such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc.

"There are Irish companies like Openet or Ergo or Clavis Insight (where her husband Ronan works) and they're not necessarily names that people on the street know about, but these are really successful companies that are growing and scaling here in Ireland, and maybe sometimes we could hear more about the great stories."

Creely believes that now, more than ever, Irish business needs to be heard at Government level. "I think business in Ireland has a very strong voice through Ibec, because Ibec represents 7,500 businesses, who employ over 70pc of the private sector workforce - that is quite a considerable representation," she says.

While some may feel that Ibec's voice is too powerful, Creely points to the UK, where there isn't a unified voice to bring business views to the top table of government.

"We have seen how in the UK, where they don't have such a strong representative voice, [there was] the result of the Brexit referendum," she says.

"Perhaps if business had a stronger, more authoritative voice at the time, some of the rhetoric would have been less in evidence in the run-up to the vote, and more substance would have been at the fore."

Business lessons

What is your best piece of business advice?

I think when somebody asks you to do something that is challenging and you are a little bit afraid, just step up if you can, because if they believe in you, you should too.

How did you feel about setting up a company during a recession?

Anybody starting a business is going to have a lot of questions for themselves and a lot of soul-searching. So it wouldn't have been any different, but I had a lot of support around me and just decided to go for it.

Curriculum Vitae

Name: Edel Creely

Age: 54

Position: President of Ibec, Managing director of Trilogy Technologies

Lives: Terenure, Dublin

Education: Presentation, Terenure Engineering, Trinity College Dublin

Previous experience: Managing director, Datapac Former chairwoman of the Irish Software Association

Family: Married to Ronan Webb Children Alex (23), Chris (22) and Katie (16)

Pastimes: Plays violin with the Hibernian Orchestra

Favourite book: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

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