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The Berlin Wall - and its part in my rise


East German citizens climb the Berlin wall at the Brandeburg gate. Photo: Herbert Knosowski

East German citizens climb the Berlin wall at the Brandeburg gate. Photo: Herbert Knosowski

West Germans hold hands and dance in the sunshine of the morning of November 11

West Germans hold hands and dance in the sunshine of the morning of November 11


East German citizens climb the Berlin wall at the Brandeburg gate. Photo: Herbert Knosowski

Enda O'Coineen has never been afraid to take on uncharted waters. At the age of 21 he sailed from Boston to Galway in a dinghy he designed - just to prove his invention was up to scratch.

So when the Berlin Wall came down 25 years ago, symbolising the end of communism in Central and Eastern Europe, it makes sense that O'Coineen was one of a band of Irish entrepreneurs to capitalise on the newly minted free-market economies.

"At the time there was nothing happening in Ireland. Usually people like myself would have headed west, towards the US but I decided to go east. I was up for a challenge," O'Coineen explains.

"There was a real buzz in the air at that time. Entrepreneurs were piling off planes with backpacks, determined to make their fortune."

As a revolutionary wave dismantled the Iron Curtain, Declan Ganley was also keeping a close eye on developments.

Back then Ganley had yet to become the enigmatic telecommunications mogul and political campaigner we know today. An ambitious and adventurous 21-year-old, he spotted the opportunity to make big money in the region.

"What happened in 1989 was the culmination of a series of events in the communist block that most people had missed. I had been paying attention because I've always been a history buff and was fascinated with the Soviet Union. I was the right age and in the right place at the right time to capitalise on the opportunities."

Ganley's first business idea was an audacious one. "I initially went to Russia with an idea to use soviet platforms to launch western satellites; ever since the Challenger disaster in 1986 there had been a backlog," he recalls.

That venture didn't work out. Yes, the Cold War had started to thaw - but the political climate still wasn't right for Ganley's concept.

Undeterred, he continued building relationships in the region and within a couple of years had ingratiated himself with members of the Latvian Popular Front. Ganley's new connections allowed him to build a business exporting Russian commodities, initially aluminum then mainly timber, through Latvia.

As Ganley was making inroads in Russia and Latvia, O'Coineen was setting up a financial publishing company in what was then Czechoslovakia. It was his first foray into a market that would make the Galway native a very rich man.

"It was a really transformative period. The change was pretty rapid in those early years. When I first visited Prague, everything was drab. Within three years the place had come back to life. The streets were more colourful, the clothes more stylish and the women had begun to dye their hair."

After getting a feel for the Czech market, O'Coineen set up the country's first national credit bureau before moving on to the project that would propel him towards the ranks of the super-rich.

O'Coineen set up the Czech and Slovak Credit Bureau's Globix Telecom alongside fellow Irish venture capitalist, Sean Melly.

The company, then known as e-Tel, used a legal loophole to circumvent the state monopoly and provide Czech people with cheap phone calls for the first time.

Both O'Coineen and Ganley's stories of post-communist success read like financial fairy-tales. But despite all the optimism in the air, Western entrepreneurs still had to deal with the tough realities of transition economies. Deeply ingrained Marxist ideology - a hangover from the communist era - caused particular problems.

"Initially, I wouldn't hire anyone over 21 because they were too used to the old work culture," says O'Coineen.

He says he led by example and threw himself into a gruelling work schedule.

"I spent Monday to Friday in Prague. I slept in the office so when my employees arrived early in the morning and left late at night - I was always there."

Conditions were as challenging as they were exciting, but for brave and enthusiastic young entrepreneurs, ignorance was bliss.

"Looking back, I can see that it was risky and fraught with problems but I was so young I wasn't really sure what things were supposed to be like. Massive obstacles just didn't seem that big," says Ganley.

In the late 1990s, Ganley accepted a buyout and made a profitable exit from the market - not yet 30 years of age.

"I wanted to get back to my primary business interest which is communications. I had gotten involved in a bid for a mobile phone licence in Ireland - it was time to move on."

O'Coineen has stayed loyal to the market which proved so lucrative back in the nineties and still spends time in Prague. He is now executive chairman of Kilcullen Kapital Partners, a venture capital firm focused on Ireland, the Czech Republic and, increasingly, the US.

Twenty five years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Ganley and O'Coineen now occupy spots on Ireland's rich list, alongside a number of their generation who made the foundation of their fortunes the same way.

Both businessmen attribute much of their current success to that time.

"Witnessing the collapse of the Soviet Union first-hand was pivotal to my formation as a businessman," says Ganley. "It taught me the most valuable lesson of my career - that absolutely anything is possible. The only barriers are the ones we imagine for ourselves."

O'Coineen shares this sentiment.

"I remember telling an acquaintance that I was going to Czechoslovakia and he was horrified. Even though they were sheltered, these were smart, sophisticated people.

"Our view in the West was quite skewed. I got the chance to do things I never would have had in Ireland. I was at the cutting edge of technology and business development."

Two and a half decades after the fall of the Berlin wall, research shows that the majority of people in countries liberated from the Iron Curtain view capitalism favourably. But popular support for the free market system has weakened and political freedom has been harder to maintain.

Although he no longer has any business interests in Russia or the Baltics, Ganley keeps a close eye on regional developments.

"I really love and care about the region," he says. "It breaks my heart to see some of the moves Russia is making at the moment, but ultimately I think the future is positive.

"At some point I hope to see Russia and Ukraine as key members of the EU."

The Irish pioneers who ventured East are now older, wiser and richer. But their ethos and eye for an opportunity remain the same.

"If I was a budding entrepreneur just starting out, I'd be looking to the new emerging markets - Vietnam and further east," says O'Coineen.

The fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequent destruction of the Iron Curtain was one of the most remarkable political periods of the last century. It eased the threat of nuclear war and changed the world structure. But from a business perspective it taught us one fundamental lesson - with great change comes great opportunity.

Today's generation of young entrepreneurs would be wise to follow Ganley and O'Coineen's example and focus on new frontiers - there's big money to be made.

Sunday Indo Business