INTERVIEW WITH LIAM BOOTH – PRESIDENT OF TRINITY BUSINESS ALUMNI

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[Republished with the permission of the Trinity Business Review, to view the original interview, click here.]

I sat down recently with Liam Booth, Managing Director of Investec Ireland’s Corporate Finance Advisory Business and President of the Trinity Business Alumni to ask him about his career, Investec, the corporate finance industry and what advice he would give to students.

Liam attended Trinity from 1978 to 1982 before graduating with a Bachelor of Business Studies. He went on to have a very successful career working for a number of different companies before securing a job at NCB Group. NCB Group was acquired by Investec in 2012 and it was then that Liam became Managing Director of this company here in Ireland where he remains today.

Q1. What did you study in College?

I did Business Studies in Trinity, which was ESS at the time. I graduated with a Bachelor of Business Studies in 1982.

Q2. What did you then go on to do after college?

After college I went and entered the Chartered Accountants programme and worked with Coopers and Lybrand (now PwC).

Q3. Could you outline what you do here at the corporate finance side of Investec Ireland?

I head up the corporate finance business here at Investec and we’re essentially M&A and equity capital markets advisors. The world of M&A advice revolves around advising, either on the sale of Irish businesses or working with our corporate clients and acquiring other businesses. There’s the two terms sell side and buy side which tend to be how we look at it from an M&A point of view. Our business probably has good mix of sell side and buy side mandates and working with companies on transactions that range from deals of €30 million, coming up into the hundreds of millions.

Then on the fund raising / equity capital market side. We work on fundraising both for private companies as well as for public companies. The public side of that can involve IPOs, which we have done with companies like the Irish Residential REIT (Real Estate Investment Trust) and also follow on offerings in the market. So it’s the blend of both of those activities from a corporate finance point of view, both M&A and fund raising.

Q4. Was the Irish REIT IPO a recent occurrence?

IRES, as we as we refer to it, had its IPO in April 2014 and we did a follow on fundraising of €130 million in June for Irish Residential REIT which it’s the third substantial fundraising . IRES has been a great Irish success story for investors and the REIT property sector.

Q5. What would your job as Managing Director of Investec Corporate Finance Ireland entail on a day-to-day basis?

The good thing about the world of corporate finance is that no two days are the same. Typically it can involve sitting down and meeting with the rest of the team, talking about the pipeline of activity that we have going on in terms of the slate of transactions, how we are resourcing those transactions, how we are engaging with clients, what our go-to market strategy is on live transactions, that is generating interest and positioning companies who are looking to sell or indeed how we are researching buy side opportunities.

In terms of the internal side of it, it involves a lot of interaction and collaboration with the rest of the team here. We have a team of 15 professionals and there is both a formality and an informality to those meetings. We operate in an open plan area so there is a lot of interaction on a day-to-day basis between us.

More and more of my time is outward-looking. This involves meeting with existing clients and also then looking to see where we can originate new business. Typically, this involves pitching new ideas to companies, some of which you may know and have met before and others where you’re literally going and saying “This is who we are, this is what Investec Corporate Finance have been doing over a long time in the Irish market, here’s a really good, interesting and relevant idea for your business and this is why you should work with us on that”. So there is a fair bit of my time that goes into new business origination. This means that most days involve varying degrees of client engagement and prospecting as well as working on business planning internally.

Q6. Would you say that your work on new business origination coincides with your long-term responsibilities as Managing Director?

Yes, if you think about the nature of any M&A transaction from start to finish it can take anything from six to nine months. Occasionally you do get shorter deals but given the world that we operate in now where there is increased regulation and complexity, deals generally do take from the start to finish about six to nine months. So, whilst it’s good that you are busy and active on current deals, you’ve also always got to be thinking about how you’re filling the pipeline for the next wave of transactions, so there is medium and long-term planning that goes into that.

As well as this we must try and identify where there are the next attractive areas of opportunity. As we all know in business, certain sectors can be particularly hot and interesting for a period of time and others can become less interesting. So at times you’re just looking to see where those deep pockets of opportunity are going to lie. In an Irish context there are sectors such as technology and food that are constant and then there’s others that have become more interesting from a deal point of view, particularly the whole areas of energy and health care. So to some degree you’re just trying to anticipate where those opportunities are going to be and that’s where some of the medium and long-term planning comes into it.

Q7. You formally worked as a Director at NCB Group before it was taken over in 2012 by Investec, what effect did this have for the company?

We enjoyed good success in running NCB as an independent small Irish investment bank as it were from 2003 when we bought the business in a management buyout from Ulster Bank. Even though we had built up a very successful business, we had to face into the enormous challenges of the global financial crisis in 2008. So from then through 2010, there was some very tough decisions to make around the business but we were fortunate that we went into the crisis in good financial shape and we were able to withstand it. But we realised that survival wasn’t enough as we had seen how as a relatively small financial services business you are subject to the vagaries of substantial macro trends so we decided that it was probably right to look at a new home for the business with a bigger international partner. We were fortunate to come together with Investec and agree the deal in late 2011. It got approved in 2012 and that’s been really good for the business and the business has gone on to prosper under Investec ownership.

Q8. Was there an effect for you personally of this change? Did you move positions due to this take over?

Yes and no, I continued to do what I was doing to a large extent. At NCB I was both a head of Corporate Finance, an executive director of the business and also a shareholder in the business. Now at Investec I am still the head of corporate finance and also an executive director of Investec Ireland. The main difference now is being part now part of a large international bank and making that international network relevant for our Irish clients.

Q9. Gift Voucher Shop, the company that operates the One4all gift card scheme was sold to Blackhawk Network in a deal worth roughly €100 million. Investec advised An Post on this sale but what exactly is involved in a project like this?

The origins of our involvement with Gift Voucher Shop was through An Post who would be a longstanding client of ours that we’ve done a lot of work for. Gift Voucher Shop, although it was majority owned by An Post, a substantial portion of the equity was owned by the management team led by Michael Dawson and some other private shareholders. In the first instance, although An Post introduced us to the opportunity, we had to meet with Michael and his team and persuade them that Investec were the right people to hire.

Michael is a hugely successful entrepreneur and has built up that business from scratch with the support of An Post, so from that point on it was a matter of looking to identify who we considered would be the best buyers for the business. In that regard we looked at two potential pools of buyers. The first we certainly looked at the leading trade players in the gift card and digital card space. We also looked at the private equity firms that are active in fintech who would have had an interest in it. We went after both of those potential pools of buyers and Blackhawk emerged after a number of months as being clearly the best buyer for the business. Given their international footprint they had the most to gain from the acquisition of GVS and so were in a position in a sense to pay that strategic premium that was attractive to An Post, and to Michael and the team.

Q10. What would you see as the biggest threats and opportunities for Investec Ireland at the moment?

Of course, the Brexit threat that we’re all growing quite weary of. The reality of it is from the Investec Ireland point of view we’ve had to make some substantial changes in our business on account of Brexit. Thankfully we have made those changes and we are now in the best place to deal with whatever form and shape that Brexit may take. Aside from that, the main issue for any Irish financial services businesses comes down to the strength of the Irish economy. We are roughly 5 million or so people, we are a small country and so we’re constrained by the opportunities that are largely here. The main concerns revolve around the strength of the Irish economy, which thankfully, notwithstanding the threats of Brexit, has been remarkably robust and hopefully can remain that way for some time.

On the other hand, the opportunities we have to address as a result of that is looking to see where we can develop and generate more business internationally and not to be overly dependent on the local market.

Q11. What are Investec’s plans for the future here in Ireland? What are your long-term goals?

We decided as part of our strategic planning to exit our wealth management business, which we’ve recently sold to Brewin Dolphin. We had a really fantastic wealth management business, but it’s an industry that requires scale, so you’re either going to be the consolidator and getting much bigger in that area or you take advantage of the opportunity there is to realise substantial value. We went down that latter course, but that means for the remaining businesses, the opportunity now focuses even more on growing our corporate finance business, our treasury business, looking at further opportunities in private banking.

I think in large part we can continue to look at gaining more market share in Ireland in all those areas which is good in itself.

However, we are also looking to see where we can look at doing more international business in particular in Europe maybe post Brexit or indeed depending on how things shake out in the UK there could be opportunities to do more business in the UK. There could be opportunities also maybe to partner with other institutions that are looking to deal with someone who has the fully Brexit approved platform to transact in Europe. There are obviously a lot of US companies and institutions looking at Ireland now as a hub or base rather than the UK.  

Q12. Would you be looking to work more with companies in Europe in the future?

We definitely are. We have done deals in Europe before. Recently this year we did a deal in Europe with one of our main clients, ATA Engineering which is a hugely successful Cavan based engineering company. We worked with them on an acquisition of a German company. Through collaboration with both the international network that Investec has and then some other partnership relationships that we have in Europe, we are looking to use that international network to generate opportunities, be it in Europe or indeed as we’ve successfully done that using the Investec network in terms of finding opportunities with South African businesses. We have had two substantial deals here in Ireland with South African businesses, the first was Spar South Africa who bought BWG Group which is the Spar franchise owner here in Ireland and then Bidvest bought Noonan Services. So that’s part of not just looking at the set of opportunities that are here within the Irish economy but looking further afield and using international networks to see where opportunities for either those companies to buy and invest into Ireland or vice versa for we can facilitate our clients in doing deals internationally.

Q13. What does the Trinity Business Alumni involve?

The TBA is first and foremost a network for graduates of Trinity who are involved in business, they don’t have to be a business graduate like you and I, but any graduate of Trinity involved in business. The idea of the network, as with most networks, is that it can have both a business and social purpose. You can use that network for your career, for your business, for finding a financial partner and or for finding other entirely new business opportunities. It also does afford a social dimension to it in terms of keeping in touch with people that you were either in college with or developing other relationships. So, there is that network side of it but I think the other interesting aspects of it are for those of us who have warm memories of our time in Trinity, it’s a way of remaining connected with Trinity.

In this regard, I think an increasingly interesting area is the opportunities for continuing education. For people who left Trinity like me in the early 1980s it’s a bit ridiculous that was the last point of contact with Trinity from an education point of view. Now the business school has a tremendous range of executive education modules. I know one of the things that Dean of the Trinity Business School, Andrew Burke is keen to do is facilitate members of the TBA being able to access those modules. That doesn’t mean going into an MBA for a year or two years, it could be much shorter courses and just increase the relevance of Trinity from a continuous education point of view.

Q14. What does your role of the President of the Trinity Business Alumni involve?

The role of the President is to help promote and make a number of these previously mentioned things happen. The main role I believe is to try and increase the relevance of TBA through the series of events and activities that we run. We do this to make sure that we remain relevant to the network of business graduates and look to foster that network as best we can. Throughout the year we look to run a series of what we consider to be interesting events such dinners or master classes. We have a master class coming up in November on artificial intelligence that one of our corporate partners Deloitte have arranged. Alongside that we also look to support the student activities in the college if they are business related such as Foresight Business Group, the SMF and sponsoring the business student of the year. Through that we’re hoping to get the next wave of business graduates signing up to become members of the TBA.

Q15. How did you become the President of this group?

I was involved with the TBA about 15 years ago where I was the treasurer on the committee for a good period of years. After that I stepped back from a direct committee involvement. Both NCB and Investec have been corporate sponsors so there has been an ongoing involvement at that level. I was privileged that the committee through that involvement over the years asked if I would be open to take up the presidency which I was delighted to do.

Q16. You have changed companies on multiple occasions and have progressed your career whilst doing so, what advice would you have for young people entering the professional world that are looking to make the most of their careers?

Yes, I have had a number of career changes along the way, less as I’ve gotten older with the last seven years here now with Investec and at least the same with NCB. Before that I was certainly open to a degree of career exploration, of not feeling tied to a straight-line career. I was looking to explore different aspects in terms of either working in professional services, working in a startup, being involved in an Irish technology company, being involved in a company that listed on NASDAQ. I suppose it was a sense of willing to explore as I said and look at new challenges and opportunities. Some of these I would have to say worked out great and others quite frankly didn’t. But when you’re young and have both equal amounts of ambition and resilience I think the one thing I’d say is just don’t be afraid to pursue those opportunities and be prepared to take a certain risk and if it doesn’t work out you can dust yourself down and find another opportunity. I think that’s a great way of accumulating experience and ultimately develop your career. It’s about building that experience and learning and also developing that resilience along the way which is a great attribute to have.

Q17. What was it that made you want to go into corporate finance? Did you always have an interest in it?

When I was in Trinity doing Bess (ESS) I liked finance and corporate finance and I certainly had an interest in accounting for my three and a half years studying to be an accountant. I had a fantastic time at Coopers and Lybrand or PwC as it is now but I quickly realised that I didn’t want to be involved with auditing and around that time there was the emergence of more public company activity in Ireland in the mid-1980s. I was very attracted to the profile that Dermot Desmond built up in establishing NCB. I wrote a letter to Dermot saying that I’d love to go work for NCB. I was then fortunate enough to get an interview and a job in NCB Corporate Finance, so yes it was always an area that I wanted to get into. As I said my career has moved around a little bit and if you go back to NCB my career spans over thirty years. Of that time frame I spent about twenty four years in corporate finance and the other years have been in business. I think the effects of having had spent time in the business side of it, in both a startup and in a public company which are two different extremes, is that it does give you slightly better empathy as an advisor. You understand what it’s like to be at the sharp end of raising money or doing deals and pressures that that involves. So yes, it was right from the get-go an area that I wanted to get into corporate finance and I’m delighted that I did.

Q18. Do you see this industry as an attractive industry to work in right now, especially for students leaving college?

Yes, I think it is. It doesn’t have to be necessarily a career long vocation. I have seen over the years that we’ve attracted a lot of wonderful talent into the business and a good number of those individuals have worked for us for years and obtained some great experience working on a wide variety of transactions, exposed to a wide variety of sectors, different people, different personalities and they then have leveraged that to move into industry. Quite a number of them have gone into corporate development roles where they act as the internal M&A advisor with a large company and others have gone into the world of private equity which is an increasingly big area of opportunity in Ireland. By all means it can be a great career as I’ve enjoyed or it can be the springboard to do a number of other roles in business or financial services.

Q19. Are there graduate or internship opportunities at the Investec offices here in Dublin at the moment?

We have for the last five years taken on into our corporate finance team at least one if not two graduates each year and we tend to do that in six month cycles. We have been delighted with the talent that’s in the market and I’m glad to say that our most recent hire has come from Trinity, but we are broad church, and we have recruited graduates from UCD, UCC and Queens as well. We ourselves have got better in terms of being able to best assimilate graduates into the team. Graduate talent can be great but equally raw so we just have to find the best way to upskill new recruits and that’s generally best done through on the job mentoring by more senior members of the team. 

Q20. Are there things that you now know that you wish you knew when you were younger/ in college? What would you go back and tell yourself?

Opportunities come with the possibility of risk and reward so don’t get overly seduced with the potential of massive rewards but equally don’t be afraid of the downside of risks that go with it. In looking at those situations I think it’s useful to have some form of mentor, an experienced businessperson that you can turn to and say “This is how I’m looking at this opportunity, what do you think”. To  have someone that you have a trustworthy relationship is very valuable, whether it’s a family friend, relative, someone you’ve got to know in business, in college or through the TBA. That way you have a reliable sounding board when you’re faced with a situation and you don’t have all the answers.

Q21. What societies were you involved in at trinity during your time there?

Apart from the rugby club I was involved with DUBES for a while (Dublin University Business and Economics Society). Back then the societies weren’t as developed or evolved as they are now. DUBES were good in terms of organising a number of business breakfasts but I think the good thing now is that there’s a lot more involved student societies such as the SMF, Foresight and the initiative that has been taken in establishing the Trinity Business Review which is great.

Q22. Do you think being involved in societies in college is important in terms of gaining relevant experience before entering the workplace?

The more practice you get at being involved in anything that just takes you out of your comfort zone and forces you to go into a room to network with other people is a really good thing. No matter how young or old you are, there’s just are countless times you’re going to have to do that. Developing skills and just being comfortable in those environments and understanding how best to conduct yourself from an interpersonal point of view are the habits you want to learn early as it will be really worthwhile.  

Q23. What have you learned during your career about managing people and what advice would you give to students looking to become managers themselves in the future?

For anyone who assumes that responsibility there’s a lot of learning that is best done on the job. I think an important thing is not to pretend to be someone that you’re not. It is important to be open and authentic with people. Nothing beats developing the ability of being able to be part of a team and not being afraid to take on more responsibility. In terms of managing people I would recommend involving them in the whole process and giving them ownership of what that process is, what the objectives are, as this makes it easier to manage people. If you sit down and look to keep it all to yourself and then try to dictate and tell people “This is how it’s going to be done”, that doesn’t generally lead to very good outcomes. I think for students getting exposure to teamwork is very important, be that within Societies or where you are working on projects in college. It’s also great if you can assume a leadership role to get that added exposure and learning so as to become comfortable in assuming more responsibility. We are in a world where you deal with a lot of different personalities and there’s no such thing as the secret sauce but it is hard to beat practical experience.

Q24. Is there anything that stands out for you in an interviewee?

Just doing an internship in a firm so that you can put a certain brand name on your CV isn’t in my view the best use of someone’s time. For example, amongst a number of candidates we were recently reviewing was a candidate who stood out to me because they were running their own business through college. It was a proper business with real customers and some heavy service demands to make sure that the business performed. He kept that business going and when he wasn’t around he outsourced it to his friends to ensure it kept going. The point here is that such a real world experience is very important when it comes to interviewing for a job because being able to show to your perspective employer that you have good interpersonal skills, can work in a team, that you could deal with potentially difficult situations, that you’re used to negotiating over the price of things as opposed to sitting in a large professional services firm doing an internship where you may get some learning but it may not really challenge you in the ways you should be. So, I think it’s looking for those type of real world opportunities and then at an interview being able to talk about in a manner that brings your personality to life.

Q25. Is there something that you’re most proud of during your career?

I think it’s certainly important that we all have a degree of humility so equally well I can remember lots of things that I wish hadn’t happened! I wouldn’t look to call out any single deal but one thing I am proud of is how we in NCB built up a superb corporate finance business and how we have successfully transitioned that franchise into Investec and continue today to be highly relevant as one of the leading players in corporate finance in Ireland. I think that is certainly is something that I’m proud of. I am equally proud of the people have been part of that journey along the way. It is certainly fulfilling when you see how their careers have developed and prospered, in some cases they have gone on to become clients of ours and that is particularly gratifying.

Q26. How do you deal with failures?

It’s can be a feature within the world of corporate finance where you’re not always going to win every mandate! Then when it comes to deals themselves, sometimes the best advice you can give to a client is to say “maintain your discipline and don’t chase the deal”. You have to tell them not to do something even if it means we’ll be disappointed that the deal hasn’t happened. The important thing in any of this is looking to do that post match analysis. You need to analyse what happened, how did it happen, what more could we have done to influence the outcome and some cases you’ll say to yourself that we did what we could. Then in others you might say we could have done more and should have done more. You need to learn from these situations and it is as simple as that. It’s something that we do here. That post match analysis is very important.

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