Posted on Saturday 22 January 2011 byUlster Business
Robin Morton sharpens the focus on Conor Walsh, CEO of Belfast-based digital camera development and manufacturing company Andor Technology, who was named the Institute of Directors' Northern Ireland Global Director of the Year in 2010
Conor Walsh was keeping a weather eye on the snow which was descending from the December skies over Belfast on the day on the day we chatted. For that evening he was bound for Downpatrick race-course where he was due to change his persona from corporate CEO to lead singer of a band.
For Mr Walsh (43), the boss of Andor Technology, has another string to his bow – he is a singer and bass guitarist with the optimistically named Free Beer Band. And on the night in question the band had a booking at a Christmas function.
Mr Walsh's love of music first came to the fore when he was a teenager learning classical music with Daphne Bell at the Ulster College of Music in Belfast. While a student at Queen's University, he diversified into rock music and after graduating in computers science and mathematics, he went into music full-time.
"I played with several bands but the main one was Irish Heritage, a rock-Irish band," he recalled. "We went on tour to countries such as America, Russia and the United Irish Emirates and I must say I loved it. There was a world market for our brand of music and I went full-time for a year. But it was not a career and travelling all the time was tough enough. That said, I find that my present role involves a lot of travelling, so perhaps in one sense nothing has changed."
With his high-pressure job during the week, Mr Walsh enjoys his weekend gigs. But are there correlations between performing on a stage and running an AIM-listed company which has increased its revenues by 30% per annum every year for 13 years, right since it was founded in 1989?
"I think there is a bit of a crossover in that in the role of CEO you are a sort of performer," he said. "You are presenting and selling to people, performing in front of investors and promoting the company."
Perhaps Mr Walsh's talent should come as no surprise, given that his mother was Roisin Walsh-Dunseith, the distinguished television presenter and his step-father is former BBC broadcaster David Dunseith.
He has now set up home with his wife Kathleen and their two young children in a house in the vicinity of Delamont Park in Co Down, an area he came to love as a teenager. Born in Belfast, he attended St Teresa's Primary School in west Belfast before switching to St Patrick's High School in Downpatrick at the age of eleven when his family relocated to Strangford.
It is with a certain amount of pride that Mr Walsh notes that Andor Technology, located in Springvale Industrial Park, is now one of the largest employers in west Belfast.
"Three of the four jobs I have had have been based on the Springfield Road – at Mackie International, JP Corry Group and now Andor," he added. "There was no real plan as such, it is just the way that fortune has dealt the cards."
Andor Technology now employs 290 all-told, 210 of whom are based at Springvale, and if its plans for expansion are backed by Invest NI, that number could increase by 70 in the next couple of years.
"We recruit a mixture of graduates and more seasoned people and we see our success as being a tribute to all our staff," he said.
So much so that the company is paying its staff a bonus of two months' pay, in line with its policy of giving 15% of each year's operating profit to its staff.
Mr Walsh is adamant that the company's expansion, locally, should take place on the site at Springvale. "In terms of the transfer of knowledge there are huge advantages in having our research division in the same building as operations," he said.
When it was set up, Andor was supported by funds from Queen's University and the company has always relied on Queen's and University of Ulster for its intake of high-level graduates. Now it is payback time and Andor has invested £50,000 in a new education centre being developed by Queen's University at Riddell Hall on the Stranmillis Road.
"The new centre will be modelled on Harvard Business School and will become a post-graduate and executive education centre, which we are keen to support," said Mr Walsh.
Andor, which specialises in advanced scientific imaging and photographic equipment, is bucking the trend by growing in a time of recession, and indeed, it has performed better in the past three years than any other period since it was established.
"A key part of our market is the field of academic research and although there are pockets that are feeling the downturn, we spend a lot of time analysing the market in order to find niche areas that are receiving funding and are growing, and then we target them," explained Mr Walsh.
To this end, Andor opened an office in Shanghai in November, and it sees China and India as two major growth markets over the next five years.
The stock market has responded positively to Andor's success and the share price has jumped over the past year by 187% to 390p. This is welcome news for Mr Walsh, who in 2007 led an unsuccessful management buy-out bid for Andor. At that stage the shares were trading at 40p.
"The real driving force for us was that the company was significantly undervalued and there was a real danger that someone would come in and buy it on the cheap," he recalled.
A counter bid was made to the MBO, but after several months of speculation the company announced in January 2009 that it was remaining in the Alternative Investment Market after all.
"You always learn from these situations and it is all part of life's experience," said Mr Walsh. "The market tends to trail the performance of the company but now the price is starting to reflect the true worth of what we are delivering," he said.