In Profile: Niall Norton

Niall Norton

Niall Norton

BComm '87

He describes himself as “unquestionably unreasonable” in setting expectations for Openet, the company he has been chief executive of for the last five years, but Niall Norton (BComm 87) admits he was definitely not expecting to receive the 14th Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award along with chief technical officer Joe Hogan in October.

About Niall Norton

Park West-based Openet, which provides service optimisation software to communications and media service providers globally, also has bases in the US, Malaysia and Brazil.

In making their decision, the judges noted that the company has grown in size to 830 employees since being set up in 1999, increased its revenues from €31m in 2008 to €46m in 2009 and €75.5m last year, and is now chasing a target of a €100m turnover in 2011.

With the company generating 99pc of its revenues overseas, the pair also won the International Entrepreneur of the Year category in the awards.

Frank O’Keeffe, partner-in-charge of the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur Of The Year said Hogan and Norton “are the type of role models that we need to look towards, to demonstrate what can be achieved with unwavering ambition, creativity and hard work”.

The sheer ambition of the company is something that Norton has played a key part in driving during his time at the helm. He firmly believes in setting the bar as high as possible, which he describes as “a degree of swagger rather than arrogance in relation to what we should be content with”. While he won’t be drawn on expectations for revenue growth over the coming years, he says he won’t be satisfied until his company is the global leader in its space.

Norton joined Openet in 2004 as chief financial officer before becoming CEO in 2006. His career path before that had been fairly diverse. After studying commerce in UCD, he trained as a chartered accountant in Dublin before spending a couple of years in industry. He then joined Deloitte, where he spent around two years doing corporate finance, followed by a stint in ComReg.

He joined Digifone as it was setting up in the late 1990s and was CFO through the IPO and BT acquisition. Norton says he had spent some time initially deciding whether his future was in accountancy practices or industry. “After many journeys I decided I’d prefer to be in industry,” he says. “And when I was working in Digifone and then O2 I very much got a taste for general management. The reason ultimately I moved to Openet was that I had the opportunity to get more exposure in the general management level. And when the opportunity came up to be CEO, I was glad to take it.

“I can’t say this was an extremely well planned career path. It was a case of circumstance conspiring with my own mental readiness for it.”His time at UCD prepared him for a less rigid career journey, continues Norton. “My own thinking beforehand would have been very compartmentalised about how people’s careers should look – you follow a particular path and it leads to a logical outcome,” he explains.

“I guess the single biggest thing I took out of commerce was a great deal of self-confidence by the end of it. The other aspect was the ability to modify your thinking. It stretched your mind somewhat to showing you lots of different alternatives and gave you the confidence to chase down those alternatives if that’s what you wanted to do. A mental agility is probably the best way of putting it.”

Starting out as Openet CEO in 2006, he told the management team of his “quite simple” ambition. “It’s to be global market leader in what we do,” he says. “Certainly in the Irish site I could tell they looked at me and thought: ‘Good rhetoric but what do you really mean?’.

“But that’s the truth and I won’t be content until we’re there. And nor will the rest of the team. And I think that energy level and that sense of ambition are some of the things that set us apart. We assume a birthright to be as good as everyone else or better and we’re ambitious enough to think that we’ve got the right, clever plans to get there.”

Norton says he and Hogan had considered entering the Ernst & Young competition in previous years but didn’t feel the company was quite ready. “We entered this year because we felt we now had a right to be at the table in terms of the competition,” he explains.

“I still believe our best days are in front of us and we’re on this very good journey. But we’d reached a plateau of milestones where I felt that without any red-face element to it we could talk a little bit about where we’ve got to. There was an interesting story at this point.

“Over the six months of the competition, we got to know a lot of the other guys in our category and there were some absolutely extraordinary people in it. Some became very good friends and we stay in touch and almost swap problems and hopes and dreams and ambitions.

“I got to realise that some of these guys are really, really good, so when it came to finals night, I had no expectation that we’d win. I’m a pretty competitive guy – if I’m in I want to win – but on the night had we not won I wouldn’t have felt hard done by. So when we did win the category and then the overall thing, you could have knocked me down with a feather.”

One of the best things was being able to bring the trophy back to the rest of the team, says Norton. “People felt really proud,” he says. “It wasn’t an award for the leadership team; it was for what the company has achieved.”

Norton describes the idea of being a role model to other entrepreneurs and companies as a “nice by-product”. “But we’re much more content to be rich than famous,” he says. “We work with some Irish companies and we’re keen to do that when we can. But that’s because it’s good business rather than because we’re waving the green flag.

“I had some great role models that helped me along the way and I think if we can help other people, we’re very glad to that.

“But as the company grows and succeeds and matures and we achieve our goals, I’m rather hopeful that we’ll spawn a whole lot of entrepreneurs inside Openet who’ll go off and do other things, so we’ll get a second and maybe a third generation of Irish entrepreneurs out there doing their stuff in the marketplace,” he concludes. “Half the battle is just having the ambition to realise that you can be a world player.”

November 2011