After qualifying as an electrical engineer, Cathal McGloin worked for Siemens in Germany before doing an MBA and moving into management consultancy. He set up his first company in 1998, moved to the US two years later and now specialises in developing and internationalising start-ups, including Waterford’s FeedHenry, bought by Red Hat in 2014 for €63.5m.
About Cathal McGloin
Tell us a bit about your education and career
For my primary degree I studied for a bachelor of engineering. The first year of lectures was in the main UCD campus at Belfield with subsequent, more specialised years attending the engineering school, which at the time was located at Earlsfort Terrace and Merrion Street. When I graduated in 1986, employment opportunities in Ireland were very scarce, even in the field of engineering. It was the first year that Siemens recruited in Irish universities for positions in their German operations and I was one of 10 graduating students from my engineering class along with another 10 from Trinity College’s engineering programme who left to work in Erlangen in Germany.
I spent the next five years as a commissioning engineer, working on automation and energy projects all over the world, including in BMW manufacturing plants in Germany, in Heathrow Airport for a large baggage handling project, and in Singapore. I also spent a year in East Germany before and during the fall of the Berlin Wall, working on an early warning system for a nuclear power plant in the northern part of the country. This was a unique experience and a very exciting time to be part of a historic event.
Then I decided to leave work and return to Ireland to complete a full-time MBA in UCD. A friend, both from engineering school as well as a colleague in Siemens throughout my time in Germany, had also returned to do an MBA. As it happens we got engaged the same day we graduated in October 1992. As we both had attractive positions waiting for us back in Germany and with the Irish economy still struggling, we decided to return to Germany.
I was employed as a management consultant at that point for Siemens, which took me into a new and exciting area of global business strategy. I hadn’t planned it but it was a good segue from engineering into business and consulting, allowing me to take advantage of my technical skills and experience and develop my newly-acquired business and management skills.
After a further three years, we decided to move back to Ireland. The economy had picked up by 1995 and opportunities were opening up again. It was great to see the country at the cusp of the Celtic Tiger, although I didn’t know it at the time. Having explored a new country and learned a new language I felt I was finally home and that’s where we’d stay to work and raise our family. That plan turned out to be short-lived! I joined Capgemini – or Hoskins as it was then – to head up its consulting group and spent a year in Dublin before being transferred to London for a year. Then, in 1998, Paul Kerley, a friend of mine who I’d worked with in Capgemini and who went on to become chief executive of Norkom, left and formed a business. I had been itching to do something myself and this gave me the impetus to go out on my own and set up my own company. I left my job and – together with my brother – set up my first company, Performix Technologies.
That was towards the end of the first dot.com boom when it was relatively easy to go out and raise money for tech ventures. Performix Technologies created an agent performance management system for call centres that empowered agents to play a much bigger role in determining, measuring and managing their performance objectives. At the time this represented a unique and forward-thinking approach to the sweat-shop mentality that existed around agent performance measurement. We were the first company to start using data in employee management and performance.
In order to grow we quickly realised that a presence in the US would be necessary so that we could tap into the large number of call centres and the massive number of agents they employed. In 2000, I moved to Boston with the family, opened an office in a suburb north of Boston and started to build the business. The plan was to set things up over a two year period and then return to Ireland but, 18 years on, we are still here, have raised three children in the US, and are very settled.
How did things develop after that?
In 2006, Performix was sold to Nice Systems. I’d moved on before the sale and joined another Irish tech start-up, Aran Technologies, which was looking to enter the US market. I’d obviously done that already with Performix so I joined as president of the US business and helped build that company over the next three and a half years until it was acquired by Tektronix Communications.
I had enjoyed the buzz of the start-up world twice so decided to find another Irish company that wanted to move to the States. I visited several Irish universities, networking with incubation centres and management and came across FeedHenry in Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT). At the time I joined FeedHenry, the company was involved in a technology targeting media and telcos. This was not a good market to be in at the time so in 2010 I began to pivot the company in a different direction.
FeedHenry had about seven people at the time I joined. I spun it out from WIT, raised funding and repositioned the technology and business towards the enterprise software market around mobile applications. The iPhone had launched in 2007 and enterprises were waking up to the potential to use mobile apps to engage with customers and employees. It was a perfect time to launch our mobile application platform, which helped businesses build mobile apps and integrate them securely into their IT systems. We built the business and customer base in Europe and the US simultaneously, grew to nearly 70 people and took in some venture capital money. And then we started to get interest from potential acquirers.
We sold FeedHenry in 2014 to Red Hat, which I felt was the best cultural fit for the team and our vision. I think it was probably the best move for all the staff because Red Hat has continued to invest in Waterford with the Red Hat Mobile offices employing over 60 people.
I agreed to continue with Red Hat, managing the mobile business for two years following the acquisition. I hadn’t been fully immersed in open source software and wanted to learn more about the business model and communities. And so I spent the next couple of years travelling the world, presenting and talking to customers and partners, learning about open source and the value it lends to today’s enterprises as they try to innovate at ever faster rates. I loved it, but I really missed the start-up adventure and wanted to do it all again.
I left Red Hat at the end of 2016 and founded my latest venture, ServisBOT, in an effort to tap into the potential of conversational interfaces and artificial intelligence as the new wave of digital transformation for enterprises, helping brands connect and engage with customers and employees through intelligent conversations.
What motivates you?
It’s about creating something out of nothing: something that creates value and improves lives. I’m very proud that all the technologies I’ve been involved with are still around today. And along the way, in building start-ups you help other people. I like to mentor and teach people who are passionate how to do, or not to do, what I have done. They develop great experience, they gain confidence and they benefit financially. In every company I’ve been with, I have relocated some people who wanted to move to the US. So they have new opportunities and I can see them grow in their careers. That’s what I like.
What is your leadership style?
I believe that work is done by teams. It’s never one individual – it’s a team effort. When you do this five times, you figure out what the role of the CEO is: it’s about taking a concept, figuring out the best product/market fit for that and putting together a good team.
My style is collaborative: set the strategy and direction and help people be successful in their jobs. I wasn’t always like this, but when you’ve done it a few times you learn that the CEO’s job is not to be the best in every role. The best teams will get the job done. I don’t micro-manage people. I trust them to do their job and to look for help and guidance when they need it.
My job is to find the best marketer, the best salesperson, the best finance person and so on, and to help them to do their job and work as a team. It’s almost like being a conductor.
Many people come with me on the journey again and again – I believe in looking after people and some of them have been with me since my first company.
Who or what has inspired or influenced you?
Nobody really sticks out apart from the usual famous people. I remember being very impressed by Sir John Harvey Jones who came to speak to us during the MBA. He had run ICI and then became a thought leader around management and leadership. I remember thinking he really knows how to cut through stuff and tell it like it is and I was very impressed with that.
I’ve read a lot about different styles, but I’ve been more influenced by people along the way. I’ve met some of the best salespeople in the world who’ve impressed me with their work ethic and have given me a new outlook on sales. Now, I meet young people particularly who have built extraordinary companies very quickly because they’re not encumbered by older ways of doing things and can think outside the box.
I believe you constantly learn and if you’re open to learning you can do anything. And it’s never too late to learn.
You have to know who to learn from and, increasingly, it’s the young people I’m learning from most. The tech world definitely belongs to the young. Yes, you need the grey hairs to know how to avoid traps and make it successful, but young people think differently and operate at different speeds. And I think that’s a really cool thing.
What’s your biggest achievement to date?
The biggest achievement is raising a family and enjoying the activities and social time with them and with friends. For me, success has been about having four start-ups that have done well and being involved in a fifth and still having a good family and work balance.
I’m also pretty proud of the fact that the four companies I’ve been involved with so far have all been successes, that there’s repeatability to taking Irish technologies internationally and selling on a world stage.
And definitely one of the highlights of the last 20 years was Red Hat coming to Waterford. When I got involved in 2010, Waterford was a very depressed region and we created one of the most successful start-ups they’ve ever had. And we left them with the legacy of Red Hat coming in and creating 100 well paid jobs and then the spin offs and companies coming out of that.
What about failures?
I don’t agree with the term failure as that represents regret, negative feelings, and bitterness. To be successful always means there’ll be so-called failures but I prefer to see these as moments of learning and experience that ultimately lead to doing things right. I would absolutely do certain things differently – without a doubt, you learn and you change how you do things. One thing the start-up world shows you is that no two days are the same and you have to go with the flow and do your best to overcome situations as they arise.
Every time something goes wrong, it’s an opportunity to learn and it’s about how you put those learnings into practice and do better next time.
What advice and tips would you give people for success?
If you have an entrepreneurial instinct then starting early is much easier than starting later in life. As you grow older you become more risk averse, your personal responsibilities grow, and you generally have a lot more to lose.
And people are the key in every walk – whether it’s employees, customers you’re selling to or others you’re dealing with. Getting employees to come with you in a start-up can be a challenge when you’re up against great employers like Google and Amazon and Apple in Ireland. They have to trust that you’re going to look after them and that your passion will be what drives them. At the end of the day, we live in a world of people and I think that’s key to success.
Do you have plans for the future that you want to share?
I see my life continuing as it is at the moment. I’m in Ireland one week out of every four and I really enjoy that and don’t see it changing. I’m involved with two very exciting business projects at very different phases at the moment and that’s all I’m focused on – making those companies successful.
What do you enjoy doing outside work?
In winter, I coach a disabled skiing programme every weekend and during holiday breaks. All my children are also involved – two as coaches and one as a disabled student. I am also on the board of New England Disabled Sports. I spend a lot of my weekends in winter with children and adults who have disabilities, helping them do things independently and try new adventures. It’s very inspiring and humbling. This gives me great balance in my life.
I am also a poor but very passionate golfer – I’m determined now to start my golfing career. I never had enough time with all the travelling. And in the summers, I enjoy lots of family stuff like hiking, cooking and entertaining.
How has your degree benefited your career?
Both my engineering degree and my MBA have given me the skills to travel the world in exciting jobs and ultimately start three tech companies of my own
What is your fondest memory from your time in UCD Smurfit School?
The camaraderie that we built as a small class, working 14 and 15 hour days together and maybe having a drink or two at the end of a long day in the Mad Hatter pub.
How important is your UCD alumni network to you?
I think it was important earlier in my career when I was on the Smurfit School North American Advisory Board and a lot more active. Now I feel I have many networks to call on.
What piece of technology can you not live without?
My iPhone is glued to my ear most of the day.
Who’s your favourite writer or what’s your favourite book?
James Lee Burke on holidays.
What is your favourite dish to cook?
Seven-spiced beef – a recipe created in one of my favourite restaurants, Wild Ginger in Seattle.
What are your insider tips for anyone going to Boston for the weekend?
Stay in the Backbay area; take a duck tour; walk around Faneuil Hall and get a sense of American history; and maybe a Red Sox game if you are a sports fan.
What charities or causes are closest to your heart?
New England Disabled Sports where I am a board member and the Pan Mass Challenge, which is the biggest contributor to cancer research in the world.