‘Tech saved the day’ says DataSolutions’ Michael O’Hara

Podcast Ep 35: DataSolutions MD Michael O’Hara is eyeing the horizon beyond Covid-19 and Brexit and plans to be leading a €200m a year business by 2025.

In the early days of the internet – let’s say the mid-to-late 1990s – I stumbled across a young Irish tech services company that was trumpeting a new-fangled technology called virtualisation, expounding the notion that every computer one day would be a networked computer, a virtual machine. A sultry early summer’s evening saw the company launch its partnership with Citrix at Dublin Castle.

Zoom forward to 2020 and via a conversation over Zoom I hand it to DataSolutions’ CEO Michael O’Hara, that he was right. “I think technology really did save the day for a lot of companies through the pandemic,” he shrugged.

“We set ourselves a target to be a €100m business by 2022. And our goal is to be a €200m business by 2025”

DataSolutions is now marking 30 years in business. In April the company reported €74m in turnover for its most recent financial year, signifying a 57pc increase. Having entered the UK market in 2016, its operations there now account for 50pc of the overall business.

“For the first 25 years we were happily trading doing 10pc or 15pc growth per annum. But then in the last four years we had been growing at 30pc a year and then 57pc last year. We grew our customer base by 60pc.”

A lesson in scaling up


O’Hara attributes this exponential growth to the company hitting a need in the market for good professional and personal IT services, particularly in the UK.

“We went into the UK market in 2016 and we were only there two months when the UK voted for Brexit. At the time we had zero sales and knew nobody. But what really turned it around for us was our knowledge of the IT vendors we work with. So what really turned it around for us was the service that we give, the knowledge we have on the vendors. We are a distributor for only 12 vendors whereas our competitors would have hundreds. We focused in on a small, select number of partners, we did our research, we knew they had a customer base and if we worked really well with them we knew we could generate revenues. And that’s worked really well for us.”

The key pillars to DataSolutions’ offering are cloud computing and IT security, assisted by the company’s ability to shrewdly identify technology trends as they affect businesses from SMEs right up to corporate business.

But no one saw the Covid-19 pandemic coming.. For O’Hara the pandemic showed companies how it was possible to keep operating and working remotely but it also showed a lot of businesses they could operate as online businesses too.

“We saw a boost to our business in March and April and it was driven by people trying to stay open and carry out their business. But now it is going to be about hardening systems to make them more secure, because working from home is going to be here to stay. But equally our exposure to security risks is going to be bigger and we need to protect [our systems].”

The elephant in the room is obviously Brexit and I have to ask O’Hara how he believes DataSolutions, a business that is currently at least 57pc exposed to what happens in the UK, will fare.

“It is more than four years since the UK voted for it [Brexit] and it created a lot of negativity in the market. And for the first couple of years people did make changes, including business units leaving the City of London to continue to operate in the EU. I think it had settled down.

“And we have been able to carry on our business and grow as we have.”

Whatever happens with Brexit, he says the point people need to remember is the scale of the UK economy. “The UK is a huge market. It’s the sixth biggest economy in the world. It’s going to continue. The UK’s technically in recession at the moment but so too is every other developed country in the world. I think common sense will prevail and there will be an agreement. There’s a bit of gamesmanship at the moment, but I think there will be an agreement.”

As an Irish business selling and operating in the UK, he is confident that will continue post-Brexit. “We’re English speaking. Culturally we are very similar and the Irish are very much liked in the UK. I see the UK as a great market opportunity. If you have a good product, good service that you feel will sell in that market, I would absolutely recommend business to go for it.”

Looking beyond Brexit, looking beyond the pandemic. O’Hara believes the real winner will be technology and innovation.

“I think it has been expedited,” he says, pointing out that every business in 2020 is now a digital business.

“For years we had been trying to position disaster recovery in the Irish market and more laterally in the UK market. The worst people thought would happen was that maybe there would be a storm and the office would close for three or four days. But I think that the realisation this pandemic brought with it is that it can happen again. It’s not going away yet. And I need to make my business ready for it.

“So, it really has pushed the digital transformation agenda forward and that will be the new normal.”

The pandemic, O’Hara says, has brought permanent changes.

“But do I believe we’ll all be working at home forever? I don’t think it is a good idea. People come to the office for their own mental health, to meet their colleagues, grab a coffee with them, have casual conversations, sit down and brainstorm. It may only happen once or twice a week after this, but it needs to happen. Do I think working at home is here to stay? It definitely is here to stay. We’ve been doing it for months now and it works.”

Looking to the future, if anything O’Hara believes DataSolutions will grow in the UK market at an even greater rate. “For the last five years we’ve been doubling the business every three years. We set ourselves a target to be a €100m business by 2022. And our goal is to be a €200m business by 2025.”

By John Kennedy (john.kennedy3@boi.com)

Published: 16 November, 2020