A former county footballer, Fintan McGovern served in the Irish Army for 15 years before moving into the world of business. Armed with an MBA, he worked in Mozambique and the Caribbean and then returned to Ireland to set up technology company Firmwave. He now works in private equity and maintains a keen interest in building Irish businesses.
About Fintan McGovern
Tell us a bit about your education and career
I joined the Irish Defence Forces as an army cadet in 1997 and was a member of the 74th cadet class. I then served as commissioned officer for 15 years. During my time in the army I had various roles, and graduated with BBS from GMIT. I was also honoured to serve overseas for nearly a year in Chad and Central African Republic and I also served a tour of duty in Kosovo. I had a fantastic career in the Defence Forces and the training and discipline there was an excellent platform for life. I would highly encourage anyone to serve their country through this medium.
Towards the end of my time in the Defence Forces I became increasingly interested in business and undertook an executive MBA at UCD Smurfit School of Business. The MBA was the main springboard for me to change career into business.
Within a month of finishing the programme I was offered a role heading up change management in Mozambique for Kenmare Resources. After a very good year there I then moved to Digicel as regional HR director in the Caribbean. I looked after 15 markets and also got involved in five new business mergers and acquisitions. If you’re working out there and you’re prepared to put your hand up and get involved there’s a hell of a lot of learning to be had. It was an excellent career move to work in such a dynamic fast moving business , where ‘can do’ is the order of the day.
I met an Irish girl out there – Sarah Martin, who’s now my wife. After I’d been there for a few years, we came back and she went to Smurfit to undertake the full time MBA and I co-founded Firmwave, a technology company in the internet of things (IOT)space. We grew that from nothing and now have 24 employees, have just opened an office in the US and we’re an Enterprise Ireland high potential start-up (HPSU) company.
What is your current role?
I recently stepped down as CEO of Firmwave and remain a director and co-founder of the business. I may transition to chairman of the company in the near future. I now work in private equity for a high net worth family office in Dublin, doing everything from movie and aircraft investments to hotel acquisitions. I’m also involved in the Ireland Funds Young Leaders and a member of the Dublin chapter steering group.
How would you describe your leadership style?
My leadership style comes very much from my military background and the ethos instilled in me from the cadet school in the Curragh and also from sport where I played Gaelic football. I joined the army at 19 and going through cadet school, training as an officer was training to lead from the front, with the values of truth, honour and integrity as core values. My style would be very open, honest and frank. I’m not afraid to take responsibility. The ability to lead and take responsibility is a key leadership function of the officer. This holds true for business values also.
I like building teams. It’s very rewarding to see teams develop – in Firmware, what we’ve developed from zero to a highly effective organisation is very rewarding.
Delegation is important. Leaders who do well are not afraid to delegate. With good delegation comes clear communications – making sure people understand what they’re supposed to be doing and what their responsibilities are and to communicate back.
So, my leadership style is very much based on the military ethos of command and control but at the same time I’m not overly rigid and experience has taught me that. I think anyone who knows me and has worked with me would say that I am quite flexible.
I went back for a short period to Digicel last year and was there when Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the eastern Caribbean. Two Category 5 hurricanes was a once in a lifetime disaster for the small countries there. Coming from a small independent country like Ireland, I could empathise with the people of the region. Whilst there I was tasked to co-ordinate the response for the business. Forty percent of our business was knocked out so I had to rely on all my leadership skills and dig deep into the well to try to unify and achieve restored communications in areas that were just wiped out.
What motivates you?
Change and challenge motivate me. I like to see something transition and change from where it was to a new entity that’s in a better place. I also like to win. I like to get success and that doesn’t always have to be monetary – it can be change, it can be moving an organisation from A to B. Success is leading and taking responsibility as well. All of those wrapped together would motivate me.
Another big motivation for me is for Ireland to have success on a global stage. When myself and my wife returned to Ireland a key motivating factor for us to was setting up companies to contribute to the Irish economy in a meaningful and measurable way. She’s now CEO of a technology company called PulsateHQ.
It’s very important to both of us to build up companies that are successful and can compete on a global stage and really push the Irish brand out to the world and display and compete with all the best that Irish companies bring.
What are your inspirations and influences?
A few people have been real life influences for me.
One is my first cousin Oliver McGovern, who is based in the UK and is a very successful entrepreneur. We are the same age and spent our summers growing up in Cavan. He has achieved so much. I guess I may have caught the entrepreneurial bug from him!
Adrian Jones who works for Goldman Sachs in New York is also an ex-Irish army officer and has been an excellent mentor. He has been a big influence on me, especially since I started the MBA course. He’s a Harvard graduate himself and has really achieved a lot post leaving the Defence Forces.
The late Lt Gen Dermot Earley was a hero of mine growing up as he was an army officer who was a superb sportsman. Everything he did exuded charisma and when you were in his presence, you knew he was something special.
I like Richard Branson’s leadership style. I’m very impressed by the type of companies he builds and the legacy he leaves after him seems to be good. He’s not afraid to fail as well and he’s done that many times.
Closer to home, there’s Gabriel D’Arcy who turned around Bord na Mona. He’s also an ex-army officer. Gabriel recently completed the merger of LacPatrick and Lakeland Dairies. He is also a good mentor of mine.
Some other notable inspirations are Tony Spollen, Maoilioasa O’Culachain and Mike Brewster.
Denis O’Brien has built incredible businesses. What he achieved in emerging markets in the Caribbean during their growth phase was phenomenal and really democratised communications in that region. It’s similar to the way that Ryanair did with air travel in Europe. It’s when you see how important communications are to people when natural disasters such as Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit. Digicel through delivery of communication to people became as important as food, water and shelter.
What is your biggest achievement?
Getting Firmwave to where it is now is a personal achievement. From set-up through to opening our US office, I am immensely proud and there is still a journey to travel there yet. I also think the transition of moving from the Defence Forces to the private sector and putting a lot of experience in the six years since I left under my belt is a big achievement.
Something I’m very proud of is helping other people get on in business. I spend a lot of time mentoring MBA graduates and it’s good to see them getting on and helping other people with their businesses.
I’m proud of my Defence Forces service. I’m very proud of having served my country at home and overseas for 15 years. It stands you well going forward: to serve is to be grounded and I have total belief and faith in Ireland to continue to take our important place in the world.
I also played a lot of Gaelic football and had the honour of representing Cavan at all levels from U-16, Minor, U-21 and Senior level. I’m very proud of what I achieved on the sporting front with my county, even though I don't have all the medals in the world. Most of all I was privileged and humbled to wear the historic blue of Cavan.
Any failures you’ve learnt from?
Every day there are failures. Did Firmwave become what we thought it would on day one? Absolutely not. We had to pivot and change multiple times. That’s the world of the start-up.
In the Defence Forces I made it a goal to go try out for the special forces unit called the Army Ranger Wing (ARW). I dedicated a year to training for that. I failed the last test (claustrophobia), and had to come off it, and that was that. I had to deal with the failure and come to peace with myself.
From that point on I started to push my energies towards the business sector. Then I found out about the MBA and managed to get on the course. I sold my car in 2010 and moved back into the barracks and borrowed the money to do the programme. So I backed myself to get through it. Coming out of failure I think I turned it into a form of success and it definitely changed me and put me on a different trajectory.
I think resilience and the ability to bounce back from knock backs is going to be more and more important. Failure is a very important constituent of a person’s make up and career. There’s also very good learning from failure – to have the memory of it to drive you on towards success is very important. Success comes from failures/disappointments.
What are your tips and advice for success?
Take the learnings but also take the mistakes you make. A lot of executives expect perfection all the time. It doesn’t happen like that. For the many of the most senior people their greatest strength is being able to take success and failure in the same breath.
Keep grounded. Never lose touch with the most junior person. But at the same time, be able to step up and be that senior person.
Decisiveness is something we all need in life. I think you will never have perfect information but you have to use your judgement and skills and experience to make that call and be decisive. It’s great to see someone in a leadership position take control and make that call. People gravitate to that. I love to see boldness and audacity – obviously once it’s sensible as well.
I also think it’s important to always take time to reflect as we move through our lives and note the life experiences.
What are your plans for the future?
I’d like to continue to help companies develop. I foresee myself being involved in a lot more companies, either as a director or an investor. Having gone through the Enterprise Ireland HPSU programme, I’d like to help Irish companies that struggle to get matching funding if I can. I also believe a lot of Irish companies that get to that stage have to start looking overseas. In the greater scheme of things, Ireland is quite small so you need to have that global ambition. And I think we need to be looking towards emerging markets from Ireland. We have huge relationships with the US and it’s a well worn path but there but areas of growth I see are Africa and South America.
What do you do in your spare time?
I got married in July. We’re enjoying married life and looking forward to our first Christmas together as a married couple. I love sports and follow my county Cavan avidly. One thing I would love to do at some stage is get involved with a sports team in a coaching perspective. I love spending time with my family also.
What is your fondest memory from your time in UCD Smurfit/Quinn School?
The trip to China as part of the studies into emerging markets was a fantastic learning and cultural experience. I also loved the case study method and the debates in the lectures on the particular topic of the day. Our Exec MBA ran from 2010-2012, so it was a very interesting time in Ireland at the height of the recession.
How important is your UCD alumni network to you?
Very much so. I keep in regular contact with MBA classmates and attend the alumni events. I also help out with the MBA programme whenever I can.
Tell us something most people don’t know about you
I had the honour to be master of ceremonies (MC) at the GPO for the 92nd Easter 1916 commemoration. It was broadcast live around the world and was my last official duty as an officer. A nice privilege to sign off on my military career.
What piece of technology can you not live without?
Probably my phone, I like to talk.
What is your pet hate?
Poor turnout with clothes for work. It doesn't take much to iron a shirt/trousers or polish your shoes. First impressions last. Good deportment and people taking pride in their appearance.
Who’s your favourite writer and/or what’s your favourite book?
Niall Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money is a good one I have read a few times. Star of the Sea by Joseph O’Connor was an excellent reflection on probably Ireland’s most traumatic time, the Famine. I like my history and To War with Wellington by John Snow was a very good examination of the Napoleonic era through the Duke of Wellington’s leadership style.
And what is your favourite band or musician?
I like U2 and AC/DC, great energy with their live gigs. I have seen them both live and that was an experience.
What’s the last film you saw that you loved?
Bohemian Rhapsody , the movie on Freddie Mercury and Queen was a mind blowing experience.
What is your favourite dish to cook?
Roast chicken with stuffing, gravy, mashed potatoes!
What teams do you support?
Life-long Manchester United fan, my own Co Cavan and I have a soft spot for Galway, county of my mother and where I went to college.
What is your favourite place in the world to visit and why?
I have lived in some fantastic places – Jamaica, Mozambique and St Lucia – but I have to say that I do love where I grew up in a small parish called Corlough on the Cavan-Leitrim border and not far from the border with Fermanagh. Where I grew up, our home overlooks Brackley Lake and the view can take your breath away. With the colours always changing depending on the time of year or season it never ceases to amaze me how the environment around us is in a constant state of renewal.
Name three things on your bucket list
- To take a company public through an IPO.
- To help other companies get to public or a success globally.
- To help those other companies to help other companies, so there is a constant production line of entrepreneurs and risk takers for the future.
What charities or causes are closest to your heart?
I am heavily involved in the Ireland Funds, which does so much for those that are striving to make a difference through maintaining peace on our island, through education, sport and the arts.
The GAA is an organisation that I have been involved in as a player since I was four and it is an integral part of Irish culture and is the stitching that holds many parishes and regions together. It has a volunteer ethos that has built up and made contributions to rural Ireland.