After a number of years in financial services, Colin Creagh did an MBA and pivoted into the fast-moving ecommerce world. After cutting his teeth in eBay, he’s head of Klarna Ireland – the global payments and shopping service
About Colin Creagh
Tell us a bit about your education and career to date
I went to St Benildus College for secondary school and, like many people, didn’t know what to do afterwards so ended up doing marketing with French and Spanish in Dublin Business School.
Then I got into financial services and worked for a big chunk of my career – almost 15 years – with Cornmarket. I trained as a financial planner and was a business development manager when I left.
I always had a hankering to do something more from an education perspective and got it into my head that I wanted to do an MBA – that was very much a personal endeavour. Smurfit had recently launched the MBA Financial Services and I started on that doing the executive programme but felt it was too narrow for me and I needed a much wider scope.
So I switched to the general MBA for the second year and that opened up a whole new experience for me. I moved to the Blackrock campus and it was an amazing time. There was a lot more variety and so many smart people in the class. You find out very quickly what you’re good at and where you can lean on other people in the class to help you. And that ultimately is what the MBA is about – you go in to do it as a team.
During the programme I went on the overseas trip to China and that was a total eyeopener. Going to Shanghai and Beijing gives you a completely different appreciation for other parts of the world and how they do business.
Was there any defining moment that helped shape your subsequent career?
Those two years of doing the MBA were the pivotal moment for me. Having an MBA gives you this ability and self confidence that opens up conversations you would not have thought about having previously.
I then went into ecommerce: I joined eBay in May 2010 and that was a complete pivot in terms of my career track to date and the world I was about to enter into. I know for definite I would not have got that job without my MBA. If you are looking towards a senior management role, having a master’s and in particular an MBA makes a massive difference. It certainly did for me.
Moving into ecommerce took me from a very specific career path to this unbelievable view of a wider world where there’s no barrier to anything you want to do. It comes with its challenges – you have to get used to being uncomfortable in a constantly changing environment where ambiguity is an everyday situation. So you really have to focus on the things you can control.
I spent six years in eBay working with multiple retailers and merchants and really learning about the whole customer experience. I had the opportunity to get into a lot of detail with many businesses across various markets and verticals. At the time eBay was this incredible marketplace where people could effectively sell or buy anything. This is where the idea of borderless ecommerce was brought into my world. Ever since then I absolutely love it. Ecommerce has democratised people’s ability to make a living or to create a business and this was really brought to light during the Covid lockdowns.
After eBay I had the opportunity to run an ecommerce business for Dita, a luxury eyewear brand. That involved taking the lessons I’d learned in eBay and applying them to a business that was setting up all of its ecommerce operations in Ireland. I was there for a year and it was an amazing experience.
Tell us about your current role and what it involves
I joined Klarna, which is a global shopping platform with ‘buy now, pay later’ options, in August 2017. I initially got involved with the UK business, working with retailers there to build out the Klarna proposition.
Since 2005 Klarna has been on a mission to revolutionise the retail banking industry. With over 150 million global active users and 2 million transactions per day, Klarna is meeting the changing demands of consumers by saving them time and money while helping them be informed and in control. Over 400,000 global retail partners, including H&M, Saks, Sephora, Macys, IKEA, Expedia Group, and Nike have integrated Klarna’s innovative technology to deliver a seamless shopping experience online and in-store. Klarna has over 5,000 employees and is active in 45 markets.
We officially launched Klarna in in Ireland in November 2022 of last year.
I have responsibility for the day-to-day operations of the Irish branch. This includes responsibility for growing the business, public policy engagements and key point of contact for the likes of the Central Bank of Ireland. My role also involves working with business partners like Stripe, Adyen, Shopify and third party system integrators like Studioforty9 based in Cork.
And then there’s the element of leading the local Klarna team. I manage a team in Dublin that includes experts in business development, business analytics, a specialist compliance officer, marketer and a technical integration expert. The model in all of our markets is to have a dedicated team based in country so there is a direct line of communication between us and our local merchants.
The merchant base we work with operates in verticals, including fashion, home and garden and consumer electronics – basically any retailer you can think of who has on online or physical store presence. We help those businesses to add Klarna into their retail payment offering which then allows them to grow their business domestically and internationally.
How would you describe your leadership style?
I read a really good book called Teams of Teams by retired US army general Stanley McChrystal. He wrote really well about the ‘eyes on, hands off’ approach to management and leadership. This is where you have the eyes on the business, so you understand your numbers and what the objectives are, but you’re not micromanaging and you let your team do their thing and get on with the job. You give them direction and course correction if needed but ultimately you let them get on with it.
I live by that. This is not just some saying I picked up. I do believe in that approach and try to live it every day with the great team that I have.
What motivates you?
I love working with new ideas and bringing them to life. I love the idea of testing and failing and testing and failing and iterating on ideas. I also love meeting with a retailer and looking at their business plans and then figuring out how we can bring additional value. It’s around that consultative approach of looking at their objectives, thinking about how we can help grow their business, agreeing on a plan of action to bring that to life and then putting in a strategic partnership to help grow that business – and then constantly monitoring and iterating that.
Who inspires you?
Lots of people have inspired me along the way but two in particular come to my mind. First of all is my wife who was diagnosed with MS six years ago. I think everybody has to deal with challenges in their lives, but she has unbelievable positivity around her day and her life and nothing gets her down. I have to remind myself she has this condition because she just gets on with it. She doesn’t let it define her or hold her back and I think having that mindset is inspiring.
From a business perspective I follow Scott Galloway, a serial entrepreneur who happens to have a professorship in NYU Stern School of Business. His view of the world is about challenging the status quo and he has this ability to see through all the nonsense. Sometimes he can be very brash and abrasive but he calls it as it is and then does something about it. There are lots of people who talk about what they should do but he goes out and does it, which I love. Challenging the status quo is such a great way to approach any challenge, particularly business opportunities.
What’s the best piece of advice you have received?
At the risk of sounding like a fortune cookie, the piece of advice I follow and give is ‘I never lose, I only win or learn’. That’s a Nelson Mandela quote and I use it all the time with the kids I coach in water polo, my own kids and my team.
I think as humans we can dwell on mistakes and things we should have done differently. We don’t take enough stock in the learning opportunity that comes out of something that didn’t go the way it should have. I frame it in the sense that it’s not about losing because you are always going to learn.
What is your biggest achievement to date?
By far and away the biggest achievement has been launching Klarna in Ireland in November 2021. It involved two years of preparation; making sure we met all the necessary legislation in Ireland because we’re a regulated bank; that all the product elements were available; and having the right team and the right structure in place. Being involved in that – and particularly being the face of Klarna in Ireland – was a massive achievement and is ongoing because it’s not about just launching, it’s also about growing the business and doing that in a responsible way.
It’s been a very successful launch: we have a fantastic app with 40,000 downloads in the last 12 months and we have 500,000 users.
What are your aspirations for the future?
I always want to be involved with new growth opportunities, so something where new business or products are starting. I love the idea of creating something from the start and helping it grow. I’ll always be going after that, whether it’s within Klarna or elsewhere.
I do have a particular interest in sustainability as well so I would see myself involved in something that is looking to benefit the planet and our fellow citizens.
We have a sustainability initiative in Klarna called Give One where we give one percent of our funding to sustainability causes. Through this we’ve been supporting Silicate Carbon, an Irish sustainability business that effectively extracts carbon from the atmosphere through a chemical reaction caused by spreading unused concrete that’s been turned into a powder over agricultural land. That’s happening on the back of the Give One programme Klarna is driving and I absolutely want to get more involved in things like that.
How has your degree benefited your career?
Having my MBA was a key factor in my career pivot from financial services to ecommerce with eBay.
What is your fondest memory from your time in UCD Smurfit?
I have many great memories but one that sticks out was the academic trip to China and being hosted by the Irish embassy in Beijing on St Patrick's Day.
How important is your UCD alumni network to you?
Extremely important. The international element to the UCD alumni opens up doors that would otherwise take longer to open. In particular when it comes to commercial opportunities and leveraging LinkedIn.
What are your main interests outside work?
Anything to do with the outdoors – open water swimming, triathlons, hiking, cycling.
What pieces of technology can you not live without?
Mid-week it’s Google Calendar and on the weekend, Apple TV.
What is your pet hate?
Number one is Irish queues: people using the 'fast track' lane at airport security and being clueless of security requirements; and going to your favourite coffee shop for a flat white and the person in front orders ten mochaccino concoctions.
What is your favourite dish to cook?
My go-to is French style pancakes with all the toppings - strawberries and Nutella – which are great for breakfast or dessert (add a little bit of Baileys).
Name three things on your bucket list
Do a full Ironman; get to a four-day working week; and get the Irish government to offer free public transport for everyone.
What teams do you support?
Leinster Rugby and Sandycove Swimming and Waterpolo Club.
What charity is closest to your heart?