Even now, five years on, Mark Flood still vividly remembers one standout piece of feedback from the 2019 edition of The Real Deal, the SME-focused conference that Flood launched with Stuart Fitzgerald, the chief executive of accountancy firm Fitzgerald Power. 

After all, while most of the feedback was positive, this one was brutal and honest, explaining how the food service was a mess and the queues were too long. 

Shortly afterwards, however, Flood got a call from one of the attendees saying they had secured investment while standing in the long queue waiting for the shambolic food. 

“That is what makes the event special,” said Flood, the founder of Renatus Capital Partners, a private equity firm that has raised €110 million from investors through three separate funds. “It is about people in the ecosystem bumping into each other and connecting.”

Later this month, more than 900 people from that ecosystem will attend the next edition of the conference at Goffs, Co Kildare. For Flood and Fitzgerald, the conference is about fostering the business community, not money. 

“There is a purity to it. It is not for profit; we lose a lot of money on it,” Flood said. 

“Plus, it’s all players on the stage. There are no agendas. As sponsors, we’ve all kept ourselves off the stage because we would press our agenda if we were on the stage. It’s more BBC than Channel Four when it comes to ads.”

The idea for the conference came during a brainstorming session between Flood and Fitzgerald. Both were operating in the mid-market space and thought there was a gap in the market for a bespoke conference. 

“We realised that there was no conference to really inspire Irish SME entrepreneurs and C-level management who are looking to do M&A of different sorts  – be that taking in an investor, taking out some money, going on a growth path,” Flood said. 

The conference has evolved over the years, but those broad themes remain the same, as evidenced by this year’s lineup. 

Niall Molloy, chief executive of Echelon Data Centres, will talk about securing a reported €850 million investment from Starwood Capital, a deal that valued his business at €2.5 billion.

“Niall Molloy brings two things to the table. He brings a huge insight into AI – it has effectively driven the growth of his business. And without the growth in artificial intelligence, he might not be running a €2.5 billion business,” according to Flood. 

“And the second thing, for want of a better phrase, is that Paddy Irish person is building the cloud. Years ago, Paddy Irish person built the highways and London city, but we could name nearly a dozen companies worth a billion plus each in that space, and we’re big players in this cloud ecosystem.”

John Purdy will talk about the many facets of his career – from founding Ergo to spinning off Fenergo to stepping back from the day-to-day management of his business. “John Purdy can speak to everybody in the room because he’s been a founder, he’s been a scaler, he is a mentor and a non-exec chair. He has had many chapters,” Flood said. 

Sharon McCabe has just sold her McCabes Pharmacy chain to Lloyds Pharmacy, while David Maxwell’s Boojum sold a controlling interest in the Mexican-themed restaurant chain to UK food group Azzurri last year (a deal that saw Renatus exit as a shareholder). Both will talk about the nuances and lessons of managing a sales process. 

“A lot of players in the room are looking at their options. Should they do a transaction? Should they do it privately? Should they get advice? Should they go wide? This will help,” Flood said.

Aisling Teillard will explain why she left a senior role with O2 to found the employee management firm Tandem, before selling last year to Swiss HR tech company Beqom.

“We want people in the audience to learn something, to help them frame their thoughts about where they are going,” Flood said.

Deals and dealmaking

Mark Flood knows a lot about deals and dealmaking. Renatus currently has nine companies in its portfolio, having exited Boojum last year, and Flood said the firm generally makes two investments a year. 

Its initial fund of €10 million was deployed on three investments, while its second fund, totalling €40 million, went to six companies. Its latest €60 million fund, backed by the State-owned Ireland Strategic Investment Fund, recently wrote a cheque to take a controlling interest in Wicklow engineering firm WH Scott Group. 

“We are close to writing two more cheques from this fund,” Flood disclosed, adding that they focused on four key verticals: B2B tech, pharma/medical support, downstream decarbonisation, and a general category they called market leader where they seek to “back a legend”.

“We’re below the big players and later than the private equity or the small cheques. And our equity cheque is normally €5 million to €10 million out of the new €60 million. That’s our sweet spot,” he said.

“What’s most exciting is the stakeholders we have – the amazing colleagues inside Renatus and our investors who are inspirational. They are some of the best entrepreneurs in Ireland. And the companies we invest in have great teams.”

Mark Flood: “For three or four years, some businesses just weren’t in any shape to trade.”

In addition to making deals, Renatus also tracks them. 

Each Sunday, Flood and his team dispatch a newsletter to his company’s growing mailing list outlining all the Irish-related deals that have closed over the past week. According to Flood, there are always between five and ten deals on the weekly list. 

It all gives Flood a broad sense of Irish dealmaking – from valuations to trends to outlook. 

And, in his estimation, the volume of dealmaking will continue to remain high over the coming period. 

Flood cites several reasons for his optimism. The first relates to chapters: “I think people want to close chapters and open new ones. And I think that’s definitely going to drive a lot of activity for the rest of the year,” he said. 

The way Flood sees it, many businesses were simply not in a shape to be sold during “the noisy years” of the pandemic and the supply chain and inflation issues caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

“For three or four years, some businesses just weren’t in any shape to trade. What were the numbers? Nobody knew. Not in every sector, some sectors are very hot, such as e-commerce. Now is the relative level of calm and people can show what the real numbers in their businesses are,” he said.

He also referenced the evolution of private equity. In the past, he said many business owners thought their position was “binary” – they could hold the equity (“the Irish farm mentality,” he said) or sell out. 

“Neither were great results in many cases,” he said. “The hybrid model where people chip off and pull out some money can be a great workaround. This is where private equity can come in. The business owner gets to stay in the sector they know with the people you know, but with more financial comfort,” he said.

Flood acknowledged that deals were now taking longer to close and that some of the frothiness around valuations had calmed recently.

“That mad price is probably not out there. There were Spac-backed funds and so much loose money, but the wild offer is unlikely to be out there now. I think there’s less Fomo on huge prices and people are realistic on normal prices,” he said, adding that the changes in the debt markets had “put manners” on massive price demands. 

“I am not trying to talk down the values of people’s businesses. There are a lot of good businesses selling for a lot of good prices for this. But the madness has gone. It feels like a real market,” he said.

In relation to sectors, he said that nursing homes were “very hot for a year or two” but had been impacted of late by a rising cost base. 

“Costs went up across the board but most businesses can recover it. The nursing home sector was not in a position to recover it all because it has a very stubborn top line,” he said, explaining that the government largely sets the pricing structure. 

Insurance brokers remain a popular consolidation play, he said, adding that there could be a wave of consolidation in the wider financial services space. “This would include accountancy firms, financial advisers, pension advisers,” he said. “It would seem to be the next market that could be consolidated.”

Lessons from the past

As the 2024 edition of the conference draws near, Flood has been thinking about some of the standout moments from previous years when wisdom from the speakers really resonated.

One came last year from Gene Murtagh, the head of the building materials giant Kingspan, who talked about what helped drive the company’s acquisition strategy. 

Yes, it relates to the market and the fit. But Murtagh was keen to stress that they put a lot more marks for the people coming in the door as part of the deal. 

“That’s being quoted in our boardrooms. When we look at the scorecard for acquisitions, we ask if the deal will be bandwidth-enhancing, or bandwidth-draining. And that comes down to people,” Flood said.

He also referenced a contribution from Donagh Kelly, the founder of Irish telecoms network services provider KN Group, which merged with French firm Circet in 2018.

“Donagh Kelly talked about the different chapters in the business, and you need different people at different chapters. And that was quoted around the table of Boojum. And we maximised the island of Ireland with David Maxwell. And he’s going on with his new investors to take on the UK. So there are different chapters,” Flood said. 

“I could go on. And that’s why we put on the conference each year.”

Deal outlook and trends: the expert view

“Larger companies in all sectors within the SME space are continuously looking for scale and efficiencies”

Jennifer Power is a partner at Fitzgerald Power

What is your M&A outlook for 2024?

Following strong activity in 2023, the M&A market in Ireland continues to remain robust in 2024, with activity comparing favourably to both the wider European and global markets indicating resilience in the domestic market. 

We see the SME mid-tier market as continuously active, mainly as a result of that market being less reliant on debt compared to the larger M&A transactions. Also, this market allows for a wide range of investors from private individuals, international investors and private equity, therefore attracting a lot more interest than some of the bigger deals. 

Although we know Ireland’s economy in 2023 remained robust compared to some of our European counterparts, we did see macroeconomic factors, in particular the high interest rates, impacting deals that required high levels of debt. However, we are hopeful that the second half of 2024 will see this pressure ease with the interest rate environment and inflation levels improving. 

Consolidation continues to grow in 2024 – larger companies in all sectors within the SME space are continuously looking for scale and efficiencies. 

We think the level of PE-backed deals will continue to grow throughout the remainder of 2024 as we know there is capital that needs to be deployed and therefore these PE firms are highly motivated to invest.

Finally, although we know that ESG reporting is not yet mandatory for SMEs, we are predicting it will become a more rigorous element of the due diligence process even at SME level. Through the work we do with SME clients in all sectors we see sustainability policy becoming an important element of an SME’s business model, whether it’s used to gain competitive advantage or attract talent. It has been a growing trend in 2024; as a result of this, we see this trend having a greater impact on M&A activity going forward.

What sectors do you see being in vogue?

Within the SME space – professional services and technology (SaaS in particular).

What will be the biggest deal trend in the short to medium term?

The biggest one is the improved deal flow driven by the reductions of the cost of capital referred to above, and also the improved enterprise valuations, again driven by reductions in the cost of capital and the risk-free rate.

Some of the other trends we are seeing are:

  • PE investments in mid-tier SME companies;
  • Investments by international corporate consolidators and international investors (ie international PE firms);
  • International investment activity by Irish firms;
  • Management teams staying on the bus for longer and building greater enterprise valuations, possibly through several rounds of PE. Version 1 and H&MV Engineering are fantastic recent examples of this.

“While there is still a lot of PE capital out there to deploy, it is becoming more and more difficult for them to find a suitable target”

Richard Curran is the managing partner of LK Shields

What is your M&A outlook for 2024?

We are generally positive about the future. Uncertainty continues to abound, but this is no different to what we have seen over the past number of years. Despite the challenges that have been faced, the Irish economy has continued to perform well, and our pipeline and present levels of activity are very healthy.

The decrease in inflation and interest rates will spark activity, although at a cautious pace. Investor activity will be tempered by geopolitical uncertainty and impending elections in Ireland and overseas. 

The nature of our industry is that things can fluctuate from one year to the next depending on the level of activity that’s going on in the corporate world more generally. But I’m very happy with the level of performance our business has demonstrated on a consistent basis.

What sectors are in vogue?

We have a strong background in advising on deals for technology, media and telecoms-centred businesses as well as engineering and regulated industries such as insurance. We saw a lot of this type of activity in 2023 and expect the same for 2024.

What will be the biggest deal trend in the short to medium term?

Deals are taking longer to get off the ground and longer to complete. People are really taking their time to get the deal terms right and to conduct proper due diligence. Also, while there is still a lot of PE capital out there to deploy, it is becoming more and more difficult for them to find suitable targets.

“Every sector and business needs to start thinking about how they could leverage artificial intelligence”

Nicholas Lyons is senior director, Bank of Ireland corporate banking

What is your M&A outlook for 2024?

We see Irish M&A in 2024 remaining resilient and relatively buoyant relative to the global market. This is expected to be fuelled by continued underlying economic growth, strong entrepreneurship in multiple sectors, continued domestic and international private equity interest in Irish corporates and a more favourable interest rate environment providing more certainty for decision-makers.

We also feel there are companies and private equity owners who have held back on M&A somewhat due to the rate environment and inflationary pressures which may now come forward and help fuel activity levels.

Positively, we have also seen an improvement in the fundraising environment for private equity, with multiple Irish and European limited partners recently committing to new funds that will target Irish business across early stage, development capital, and private equity. This increased market liquidity will help to drive deal activity, provide vendors with options on structures, and allow Irish businesses to scale and develop. 

What sectors do you see being in vogue?

What is striking is the breadth of sectors active in Irish M&A, which really characterises the diverse nature of the Irish economic story. Particularly in vogue recently have been businesses associated with the roll-out of data-centre infrastructure, whether developers or associated contractors. Tech services and telecoms are also expected to remain active. Infrastructure investment in Ireland across the broad spectrum of housing, renewables and data is expected to fuel growth opportunities for companies in these sectors.

We also think that the gradual adoption of artificial intelligence will have a transformational impact on business activity and by extension transactions. It is difficult to quantify the specific impacts at this stage, given the rapid pace of development, however, the early signs are that data-heavy sectors will benefit first with major advances in efficiency and pattern identification. We think every sector and business needs to start thinking about how they could leverage artificial intelligence.

What will be the biggest deal trend in the short to medium term?

Our expectation is that private equity will continue to feature strongly both in exits and in bidding processes for assets and we expect to see deal valuations remain strongest for companies in high-growth sectors with barriers to entry. We expect to see valuations for mid-category corporates remaining sensible.

In recent years, we have seen platform businesses pursue consolidation and bolt-on strategies in fragmented Irish sectors. This has been very successful for key market players, and we expect to see this strategy rolled out by trade buyers, private equity-backed trade buyers, and private equity in new sectors in the short to medium term.

The impact of ESG and energy transition continues to grow. Across every sector, ESG is now a critical factor that needs to be considered from an operational, financial, and strategic perspective. In response, Bank of Ireland corporate and commercial has recently launched the Green CapEx Loan to support customers in their sustainability journeys. Examples of how this Green CapEx Loan could be used by businesses include investments in green buildings, recycling or composting, clean transportation (electric vehicles) energy-efficient appliances, retrofitting, solar or geothermal power etc. Our view is that every sector is now engaged with ESG and energy transition and this will lead to increasing investment and deal activity.


The Real Deal partners are RenatusFitzgerald Power and Bank of IrelandThe Currency is its media partner, with Silver sponsors LK Shields and additional sponsors DavyInterpath and The Panel. This event is now sold out, to join the waiting list and find out more, click here. Tickets will be released on a first-come, first-served basis.