Sitting in the elegant boardroom of Ireland’s longest established corporate finance adviser, Ted Webb wears a crisp blue suit. One dark blue wall is embossed with the letters of IBI, the business he jointly leads. Fittingly, the letters are in gold. On the other walls are bright paintings, which frame a beautiful boardroom table overlooking the Georgian buildings of Fitzwilliam Place, Dublin 2.

I have passed IBI’s office for years, usually on the way to one meeting or another. I have never been in before, however.

It is a business with a storied history that traces its roots back to 1966. Its full name is the Investment Bank of Ireland and originally it was backed by Bank of Ireland, Morgan Grenfell and Schroeders. The idea was to bring international standard investment banking advice to Ireland.

In the 1970s Bank of Ireland took full control of the business before in 2017 its management team led by Webb, managing director of IBI, and Tom Godfrey, chief executive of IBI, bought the business out in a deal rumoured to be worth €10 million.

The IBI story echoes Irish corporate life. For decades it was rare if a significant Irish business deal did not have IBI advising on one side or the other.

Historically it was associated with the best of Irish business from the Jefferson Smurfit Group to the Jurys Doyle Hotel Group. It was behind the scenes on deals that shaped Ireland – from the 1998 floatation of Ryanair to the epic battle for Irish Distillers.

In more recent years there has been more competition as new corporate advisory firms spring up, but the firm remains a bedrock advisor to household Irish business names as well as the state and semi-states.

When Paddy Power wanted to do an $11 billion merger with Betfair, it turned to IBI.

When Bank of Ireland faced being taken over the state during the last financial crash, it was IBI who helped it come up with its €3.5 billion capital raise, a turning point in the last crash.

When the Sisk family needed to raise money to invest in its huge construction company John Sisk & Son, it was IBI who advised it on selling its healthcare division.

Dawn Meats, Coillte, Musgrave Group, Monaghan Mushrooms, the VHI, Fairfax Financial Holdings and Mercury Engineering are among those it has advised in recent years.

Webb has advised on over 150 deals in his career, so I am familiar with much of his work, but not all of it.

Like his brother, Ted Webb is whip-smart and good-humoured. But he is also grounded in his home country of Mayo despite living decades in Dublin. 

I’d been chasing an interview with the managing director of IBI for a couple of months, but with Covid-19 we hadn’t managed it until recently.

Webb, as the managing director of IBI, is responsible for its private business while his long term business partner Tom Godrey is its chief executive. Godfrey deals with its listed company deals, and they jointly lead the firm. 

The division between public and private companies isn’t hard and fast. Corporate finance is a relationship-based business, so Godfrey and Webb’s roles can crisscross, and neither is strictly confined to either listed companies or privately held firms. 

I am interested in hearing about the dynamic between the two leaders of IBI, what are their plans for succession, how they see the market, and where they want to bring the business next.

Webb is articulate, and a good storyteller, who weaves in deals into our conversation, as he frankly answers questions.

It is interesting to hear about deals from his point of view. Corporate financiers are never fully on the pitch like entrepreneurs or management, but they are far from the sidelines and can often make the difference between winning and losing in business.

Webb is discreet about deal financials, other than when they are already in the public domain, despite my best efforts.

I know Ted Webb’s brother Joe, the chief operating officer of the Irish arm of advertising giant Dentsu,  from his time with Independent News & Media, and there are definitely similarities.

Like his brother, Ted Webb is whip-smart and good-humoured. But he is also grounded in his home country of Mayo despite living decades in Dublin. 

Ted Webb’s other brother Sean, incidentally, is managing director of Cabot Financial Spain and Ireland, after previously leading GE Money here.

His older sister Olive Macleod OBE was made interim chief executive of the Public Health Agency in March 2020, so she is helping to lead Northern Ireland’s battle against Covid-19.

So where to begin with the Ted Webb story, which in many ways reflects that of Irish business since the 1980s.

A launchpad in the west of Ireland

“I got my first view then of the first generation out of Europe in America who had made money.”

To understand Ted Webb, you need to start with his parents. Ted Webb’s father Joe was one of 21 children. His grandfather, Michael, had seven children with his first wife, and after she died, he had another 14 children with his second wife. Ted Webb himself is one of nine children. He has two brothers and six sisters.

“It was a big family,” Webb recalled. “A lot of our family was in the meat trade, butchers, cattle dealers.”

His father, Joe Webb, left school at 14 to become a cattle dealer, and he married Rita, one of four girls who came from Ballyhaunis, a small town in County Mayo.

It was in this town, one of the first you hit in Mayo as you travel West from Dublin, that the Webb family grew up. “My Mum was a kind of socialist, while my Dad was a capitalist so they balanced us all out,” he tells me.

“My mother figured education was something we had to achieve. We were the first generation where education was really key.”

At the age of 12, Ted Webb was sent as a boarder to St Jarlath’s College in Tuam, Co Galway. The school is legendary for its Gaelic football tradition which has fed both Galway and Mayo’s county teams.

The Irish Times described the school recently as “a kind of Checkpoint Charlie” for the football rivalry between the two counties, during the boarding school era when Webb attended. “It was kind of the Blackrock of Gaelic football,” Webb explained. “Football became a big part of our lives growing up, and it gave me confidence later to figure out what to do.”

Webb, however, started far from the action in Dublin.

Gaelic played a formative role for Webb. He was a decent forward playing club level for Ballyhaunis, and even playing a few games for the Mayo senior team in the national league in 1983. His first cousin, also called Ted Webb, was a star player in the Mayo senior football team who died in a car accident in 1975 at the age of just 21. Webb today mentors several of the senior men’s Mayo football team, helping them prepare for life after football.

After school, Ted Webb studied commerce in University College Galway. He recalls spending his summers in America on various student work visas in New York, Boston and Chicago. His talent playing Gaelic paved the way.

“I went over to play football,” Webb said. “If you were hooked in with somebody, they would get you a job. I was playing with my local club, and that was a bit of cache.”

The first year he went to America, Webb stayed with his aunt, who lived in Harvard. “I got my first view then of the first generation out of Europe in America who had made money,” Webb recalled. “It was a real eye-opener for me coming from the West of Ireland.”

Webb mixed with students who went to places like Notre Dame, an Ivy League university, where tuition carried a hefty price tag. The America he experienced was on a different level, and Webb loved it. “It gave me a level of ambition to say that pretty much anything is available to you but you have to apply yourself and work hard,” he said.

After college, Webb got a job as a trainee accountant with Stokes Kennedy Crowley (today KPMG). The accountancy firm had formed from the merger of several others, including one co-founded by the late Vincent Crowley. The next generation of Crowley’s included Laurence Crowley, a former governor of the Bank of Ireland, and his brother Niall Crowley, a former chair of AIB, were also part of the firm’s history. Webb’s later boss in IBI Peter Crowley is a scion of this noteworthy business family.  

Webb, however, started far from the action in Dublin. “They’d just opened an office in Galway, so I was lucky. I was one of three people they hired,” he said. It was the mid-1980s when Ireland lurched from recession to recession and was dubbed the ‘sick man of Europe’.

Ireland had, however, a rich seam of multinationals along the Western seaboard, so Webb gained experience in audit there. He also got to know some of the great West of Ireland business families like the Rehills who owned oil distribution Tedcastles, and the Hunters who ran a coal importation and distribution business from Sligo.

These early connections would stand to Webb. He is a people person, who maintains contacts and friendships in business. In 2018 when the Reihill family sold the 200-year old Tedcastle Group, which owns Top Oil, to Canadian multinational Irving Oil, it was Webb and IBI who were retained. The price was never disclosed, but it was reported at the time to be over €100 million.

Canada, the McCanns and London Irish

But back to the 1980s. As the economy worsened, Webb often found himself working for a KPMG partner called Ray Jackson who specialised in insolvency and restructuring companies. “It was a tough time. It wasn’t easy. These were family businesses who you were liquidators for,” Webb recalled. “It opened my eyes up… it was not something I felt comfortable with.”

Webb was only in his early 20s, and eager to travel. PWC offered him a job in Brisbane, and KPMG countered with an offer of Toronto. He decided on Canada and was due to head over there after Christmas.

At the last minute, KPMG asked him to step in as financial controller in Athlone Extrusions. It was an interesting, if an unglamorous business, making plastic sheeting. It worked with all sorts of companies like car manufacturers and toymakers.

Athlone was founded by an Italian businessman in 1971 before it was bought out of receivership by its management and a consortium in 1983. Webb arrived there in 1986 two years before the business floated, and four years before it went private again via an MBO.

“It was going through a difficult time back then so I went in for a few weeks and ended up staying five months,” he said. A replacement was eventually found, in the form of Michael Cawley, who went on to become deputy chief executive of Ryanair and a non-executive director of Paddy Power among other companies.

We will return to Athlone Extrusions later in this article, but with Cawley in situ, Webb was now free to head to Canada. He ended up staying there for five years and met his Irish wife Orlagh out there during that time.  Webb became a Canadian citizen, and he was promoted to being a director.

KPMG wanted him to do his exams in Canada, but he was bored with auditing and wanted to come home. He asked for a transfer, and KPMG assigned him to what it called its Irish desk. Based in London his job was to work with the Irish community doing business there. Among his predecessors was Peter O’Grady Walshe, a dealmaker who went on to turn around the video rental business Xtra-Vision, and today chairs John Paul Paul Construction. 

“I ended up trying to resolve some issues in the London Irish rugby club,” Webb recalled. “But my main job was working with Irish firms over there.”

By now it was 1991 and Dermot Desmond and the state’s vision for the Irish Financial Services Centre was beginning to emerge. “Part of my role with KPMG was to work with the IDA trying to sell the idea of the IFSC to building societies. So, I spent a lot of time in northern England meeting them,” he said.

Webb met with little success, as it was not a good time for building societies, which were beset with bad loans because of the economic downturn. He wasn’t looking for a new gig, but then fruit distributor FII Fyffes (later renamed Fyffes) came knocking.

It wanted someone on the ground in London to represent it, and Webb got the job in 1993. He reported into Jimmy Tolan, later the chief executive of the VHI in Dublin, who in turn reported into Carl McCann, one of company patriarch Neil McCann’s sons. 

It was a learning experience for Webb working for the McCanns who ran a company that traced its roots back to 1902 when Charles McCann opened a greengrocer on Clanbrassil Street in Dundalk.

The McCanns were a brilliant and ambitious family, who had grown even more so after teaming up with Jim Flavin’s DCC which had taken a minority shareholding in the business. In 1986 FII had acquired Fyffes, a 100-year old firm famous for bringing bananas to London, for £27 million making it the biggest distributor of fresh fruit in Ireland, and second in Britain.  

Webb came in as acquisition manager with Fyffes, and his job was to “tidy up” its wholesale fruit markets in regional cities like Sheffield, Manchester and Liverpool. Fruit markets were beginning to shrink, as large shopping multiples took over. The business of ripening bananas had changed the way things were done, so Fyffes was closing parts of its business while growing others.

“There was a lot of buying and selling of small and medium-sized businesses as we were tidying up a very large portfolio they had acquired,” Webb recalled. “Then I got involved in Germany, Denmark and France with Jimmy (Tolan). I learned more than I ever had in the two and a half years I was there.”

Webb got to know the McCanns as well as Chris Comerford, who worked as a consultant with Fyffes prior to leading Greencore, and Paddy McNamee, its veteran development director who was the right-hand man of Neil McCann.

Webb admired the McCanns and their team. “They had humility. Carl McCann was calm under pressure. Neil McCann’s great line always was ‘There are 24 heads of lettuce in a box and the final two are where we make our profit,’ so you have to be careful in business.”

Webb was now in his late 20s. He knew that if he was to progress in Fyffes he needed to run one of its businesses. “I knew it wasn’t my forte, my forte was people and constructing deals,” Webb said.

Joining the IBI family

“Money was more available. Irish families were becoming more ambitious.”

Bank of Ireland asked him would he be interested in working for Willie Cotter, who ran its asset management business. Cotter had just set up a new division called Bank of Ireland Securities Services which was led by Bob Craddock. Billions had started to come into Dublin’s IFSC from Germany and the United States primarily, and this division was set up as a result.

“Bank of Ireland Securities Services was effectively established overnight to manage this money,” Webb said. “They had people, buildings and a licence but they needed a technology platform and marketing arm to sell these services.”

Webb came in to help close these gaps and win new business. Fund management giant State Street had a large client which wanted to shift its business from Luxembourg to Dublin so it began to work on forming a joint venture with BoI Security Services to manage this business.

As State Street got to know Dublin it changed its mind and decided to set up its own office here in 1996, which today employs 2,500 people and is one of the pillars of the IFSC.

Webb started to think about what to do next after that. He met with Willie Cotter, who asked him what he wanted to do. “I said I thought I was more interested in dealmaking,” Webb recalled.

Cotter introduced him to Richard Keatinge, the head of IBI, who brought him into the business. It was 1996, and IBI was owned by Bank of Ireland. It was the preeminent advisor to public companies, semi-states and very large family-owned businesses.

There was a good team there already. It included Chris O’Connell, who later left to join Shelbourne Developments before setting up his own boutique corporate advisory firm. Roisin Brennan, who would later lead IBI, was also in situ. Tom Godfrey was one of its up-and-coming stars.

Peter Crowley had just left to join Tony Boyle’s Sigma Wireless, so Webb would not work with him until 1999 when he returned to the business as chief executive.

Having experienced accountancy and industry, Webb was now in the thick of Irish dealmaking.

“I was 36. Old in the context of joining something,” he said. “But things were changing. Money was more available. Irish families were becoming more ambitious. My forte was people, and I absolutely loved working with entrepreneurs.”

IBI had a strong leader in Richard Keatinge, one of the foremost corporate financiers of his generation. Keatinge had trained as a journalist with Reuters before going on to be a business editor with The Irish Times. He had served on the court of Bank of Ireland, before unfairly taking the fall over losses in a British division of the bank he had inherited.

After he resigned from BoI, he joined Dermot Desmond’s NCB as executive chairman, before being lured back by the bank to lead IBI in 1993. Keatinge was a curious mixture combining the curiosity of a journalist, but also the toughness required to endure the knocks of corporate life. His son, incidentally, is Doug Keatinge, a communications specialist who advises firms like Glanbia and Kingspan.

Webb was not a typical hire for IBI, but Keatinge knew the firm needed to change. He wanted it to grow outside of Dublin, and he recognised Webb’s ability. “I could bring something different,” Webb reflected. He knew from his time working in the West of Ireland, that there were hidden business gems outside county Dublin that never made the newspapers.

Bank of Ireland, particularly in those days, was embedded in every local town in Ireland. Webb felt IBI could use the bank’s network better, to bring it closer to private business rather than just relying on advising the listed company market which it dominated.

“You can never lose sight of the fact that these are entrepreneurs. Trust is hard-earned but easily lost”

Keatinge backed Webb and put younger up-and-comers like Conor Sheahan alongside him. It wasn’t easy work. “I spend a lot of time driving around meeting bank managers,” Webb recalled. “They were fantastic people. I met really progressive bank managers who knew their local people,” he recalled.

IBI was perceived as too blueblood by many well-run rural family businesses, but Webb started to convince them otherwise. He built up a book of private business advisory work from M&A to share sales that consistently grew, expanding the range of what IBI did. He could relate to the entrepreneurs who led these businesses, and they to him.

At the same time, IBI became closer to Bank of Ireland’s growing corporate banking arm. Zambia-born Richie Boucher had been hired to lead this division of BoI in 2003, and he was eager to work more with IBI.

Boucher is particularly close to Godfrey during his years as chief executive in the aftermath of the crash.

Godfrey was a key wartime advisor to Boucher as he scrambled to put a €3.5 billion recapitalisation of the bank together which rescued it from being taken over by the state. Looking back this investment can be seen as a turning point for Ireland, as it struggled to establish itself as a credible location for overseas investors.

IBI advised the bank too on restructuring its business, divesting some assets and buying others.

Among the deals, IBI advised on was the sale of BIAM, where Webb had worked 14 years earlier, to State Street, which he had helped attract to Dublin, for €57 million. 

All this work was crucial to the Bank of Ireland in the years following the crash, and it would become more important still when it came to IBI going out on its own.

The art of dealmaking

Ted Webb first learned about dealmaking from his father Joe. As a boy on a Sunday evening, he would stay in the Railway Hotel in Limerick in order to be up and arrive at the historic cattle fair in Abbeyfeale near the Kerry border at 3 am or 4 am in the morning.

“It would be pitch dark, and we would buy 14 or 15 calves from farmers coming in,” Webb recalled. “You would go out the roads, and find the calves in little box trailers or in the backseat of a car.”

Webb would spot the farmers and then run to tell his father so he could get a deal done before anyone else. By 9 am business for the day would be done, and the Webbs would move onto the mart in Rathkeale, a town in west county Limerick. The Webbs crisscrossed market towns in the West, buying and selling cattle. It was where Webb learned how to trade.

“You would do a deal with a handshake. There was honour. My father had a group of farmers who he would deal with exclusively as he trusted them and he knew the quality was right. Loyalty was very important,” Webb said. “It was about leaving enough for the other guy so that he’ll come back to you.”

This understanding of the meat business and farmers mindset has stood to Webb in IBI. His firm has worked closely with big food and agriculture players. “These are great businesses. In a high volume, low margin business, you have to be good at what you do. Something I really recognised was it was hard to be successful if you don’t have scale (in these sectors.)”

IBI advised, for example, Dawn Meats on its acquisition of Dungannon headquartered Dunbia, and on its investment in Elivia, France’s second-largest beef processor.

“The people who I have been most impressed by are people like the Browne family (the cofounders of Dawn Meats) and the Queallys who are shareholders in Dawn,” Webb said. “I have done some of the big deals they have done in France and the UK, and I still have a very close relationship with them.”

Webb has worked too with Ronnie Wilson of Monaghan Mushrooms on a debt refinancing, and on its acquisition of Prime Champ Group, taking the business firmly into Europe. He cites them too, as another business he has loved working with.

“Interestingly there is a transition in both of them from Ronnie (Wilson) to Paul (his son) and from Dan (Browne) to Niall (his son),” Webb said. “A generation is coming through.” 

“I saw that with the McCanns. Respect is hard-earned. It is not like nepotism. They are marked harder. I am always amused when people say ‘they got it because of their parents’…well you know something it was probably the last thing they got. They were probably put through the mill before they got it.”

I ask Webb why entrepreneurs and companies choose to work with IBI. “What do we sell? We sell energy. We sell curiosity. We sell a bit of humility. We want to understand. Particularly on my side of the table, which is more private company – so you are dealing with owner-managers or professional managers who are reporting into owner-managers” he said.

“You can never lose sight of the fact that these are entrepreneurs. Trust is hard-earned but easily lost. But once you earn it you have an interest. Having an interest is a big part of it. You really have to like people and to do different things every day.”

One business, two leaders

“Tom is much more bright than I am. He is more deliberate.”

For 24 years Ted Webb and Tom Godfrey have soldiered side-by-side in IBI yet apart. Godfrey joined straight after school in Blackrock College and a commerce degree in UCD. He was hired by Richard Hooper, the first chief executive of IBI, and is younger than Webb.

Webb never worked with Hooper, a skilled dealmaker who had been involved in great corporate tussles like the battle for Irish Distillers Group and the controversial floatation of Greencore in 1991. He did, however, work closely with his successor Richard Keatinge.

Both Webb and Godfrey then worked for Peter Crowley and Roisin Brennan before they jointly took over.

I ask Webb what he learned from his predecessors? “Richard gave you any amount of freedom. One thing I learned from was, if you make a mistake, own up to it,” he said.

“We find our way to consensus pretty quickly is probably the right way to think of it,” Webb said.

“If you brought forward the problem, Richard asked for the solution. That said if you brought in the same problem a second time, you probably had a problem! I learned a lot by osmosis. Richard loved business. I had huge respect for him. He led by example. He had a huge intellect.

“I was a people person, prepared to hustle. He had come from a journalism background so was really well connected. He was fantastic.”

In June 1999, Peter Crowley was appointed chief executive of IBI, returning to the business from Sigma Wireless. A new role was created as managing director for Keatinge, who planned to stay on for a transitional period to oversee the proposed floatation of ACC and TSB banks for the Department of Finance.

“Peter Crowley was a ball of energy. He wanted to make his mark. He was 24/7. He really lived it. He was one of those guys,” Webb said. In 2006 Crowley set up FL Partners along with Neil Hughes, who left IBI after only a year there, having previously worked for Denis O’Brien’s Island Capital.

FL Partners was interested in buying businesses and then scaling them, so it wasn’t competition to IBI. Crowley and Huges went on to buy businesses like luxury motor yacht maker Sunseeker, The Racing Post, and high-end mattress manufacturer Kayfoam. 

FL not only put their client’s money into deals, but they also invested themselves, so it was a different level of risk, and potential reward, compared to IBI.

When Crowley left, Roisin Brennan took over. She was just 41 and had worked with IBI since 1990. She was a qualified chartered accountant and a law graduate. “Roisin (Brennan) was much more reflective. She was more public company orientated. She brought a lot of discipline and shape,” Webb said.

Brennan led the business until 2011 when she left to become one of Ireland’s most sought after non-executive directors. Bank of Ireland then had a decision to make between Webb and Godfrey. Both men were seen as essential to the business, only three years after the crash when most of Irish business was on its knees. Making them joint leaders of the business was the best way of ensuring they both stayed with it.  

I ask Webb about Godfrey. “Tom is a fantastic guy but we are very different. It is chalk and cheese,” he said.

“Tom is much more bright than I am. He is more deliberate. He has come through the public company, semi-state, professional manager type route so excellence is expected.

“It is not like the entrepreneur who wants to know you before you do a deal. The reason we get on so well is that we target different markets. We recognise our attributes are quite different.

“There is a huge amount of trust. I really built a different business. Tom sustained a different business. It was a happy set of circumstances which allowed us to come together,” Webb explained. “We have never had a row.”

Never? “We find our way to consensus pretty quickly is probably the right way to think of it,” Webb said.

Bank of Ireland and the MBO

On September 22, 2017, Bank of Ireland announced that it had sold IBI to its senior management team. No price was put on the deal publicly but it was reported to be about €10 million. Bank of Ireland said the deal was spurred by IBI management and the decision to sell was “an attractive commercial proposition.”

In the run-up to the close of this sale IBI had been hit by defections, and holding on to staff was a big reason behind the MBO. The government had placed a €500,000 cap on salaries of bankers so IBI was unable to pay the kind of bonuses its rivals could for pulling off big deals.

It got harder and harder to keep their team together. Maybe, IBI should have done its MBO earlier, but this would have required Bank of Ireland’s approval, and the bank really needed it at the time.

In 2017, Leo Casey, a director of IBI, left the business after 17 years to lead growth capital fund BGF in Ireland. Reflecting on his decision to leave IBI, Casey told The Sunday Times recently that while the MBO was attractive, “I wanted to put my own stamp on things.”

That same year in 2017 Ger Heffernan, a 20-year veteran, left to go out on his own with Heffernan Financial Advisory. In early 2018 Jan Fitzell left IBI after four years to become a partner in Deloitte working in its M&A team.

“We had four or five guys leave around the same period,” Webb said. “We couldn’t keep them as there was no variable pay. We said it to Richie (Boucher). It was probably one of the last things he did (as he resigned as chief executive in October 2017). He sponsored us to get out. Tom led the charge. He had the relationship and he had obviously been advising BoI through the whole restructuring. I don’t think it would have gotten done without Tom.”

Bank of Ireland didn’t run a traditional process to sell IBI. It was a small talent-based business that needed its senior team on board to be worth anything. “Tom worked very closely with Richie on it all,” Webb recalled. “Richie was empathetic to the needs of the business. He felt it was the right thing to do in order to save it.”

“Myself and Tom were getting older. We were losing the guys below us and we were scrambling to hold onto our really bright people. The deal got done.”

How has IBI been going since the buyout? “We really have had a fantastic time since. It re-energised me,” Webb said. “We are now infilling. We have brought two or three guys up to having shareholdings. And we have an eye for another group to come up after that.”

Webb said IBI was transparent with its team about the business’s performance. “People can see pretty much everything that goes on. It is a flat structure.”

How did IBI replace its team that left? “We had a great hire in Laurence O’Shaughnessy who joined us from London. He had 12 years of experience in energy and infrastructure. He has filled out the team and helped Tom with deals like NTR, the bank book sales, that kind of area.”

O’Shaughnessy came from Nomura in London, having previously worked in Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank. For IBI he has also worked on deals with Irish semi-states like Coillte and big energy firms like Bord Gais.

On Webb’s private business side, he said David Lyons, head of debt advisory, and Raymond Donegan, head of family businesses worked closely with him. Another area on this side of the business was selling technology companies.

He said IBI often worked with venture capital firms Kernel Capital and Delta Partners, which were both backed in part at least by Bank of Ireland. “We got a lot of tech M&A work particularly from Kernel,” Webb said. “In the past, we didn’t spend a whole lot of time on fundraising.”

I asked Webb had IBI missed out on advising the more recent breed of Irish tech companies. The sale of Openet in July was done by Capnua, Pegasus advised Learnupon on its $56 million fundraise in October.

Webb said that IBI was putting more effort into working with these types of firms. IBI, he said, had appointed James Doody as its head of equity fundraising and put him working in this area with Conor Meighan, who joined IBI in 2016 from Deloitte.

“We went to all the universities and incubation hubs, spent time with all the VCs, and we broke it down what was out there,” Webb said. “We tried to figure out which start-ups were more interesting.”

Webb said IBI was strong with tech firms backed by venture capital firms financed with institutional money, but a few years ago it realised it needed to work more with high net worth individuals who often first discover new break-out businesses.

“There are speciality tech houses that are now our competitors. Our challenge is to ensure that we know that ecosystem as well or better than they do.”

“We have spent a lot of time with high net worths. It is a tricky game. Personalities. Families. All that good stuff. We found out who has made money, who might reinvest, who is going on the boards of start-ups and who are the influencers.”

An example of the new breed of tech companies that IBI has advised is managed cloud company Internet Corp, which has since rebranded as Ekco. IBI advised the Malahide based firm co-founded by Eoin Blacklock and Jonathan Crowe on raising €25 million made up of equity and debt. The deal brought together family offices including Sencheer, the investment vehicle of the family of the late Feargal Quinn, and Pageant Holdings, the Furlong family investment firm, as well as funding from John Flynn in ACT Venture Capital and debt from Ulster Bank.

“Ekco has a great model,” Webb said. “Its founders had done it before in the US, and now they had come back to Europe. It is a Tom client. They wanted to build out their business. We got some funding for them and now they are flying.”

Identifying break-out start-ups however is hard. Young companies often have very little cash and can take years to come good, if they ever do. It takes a lot of work, and luck, to find winners. Does IBI have the time to do this?

“We have to find the time,” Webb said. “If you are not working you’re marketing. We try to emphasise that to our associate directors who are in their late 20s or early 30s who may know their peers starting businesses better.”

IBI, Webb said, mentored many young businesses pro bono. “You have to be judicious with your time, brutally pragmatic, able to say no, figure out all the things we are not used to…But I would personally have 8 or 10 companies off the books.”

Webb said IBI’s hope was that having built these relationships they would then be used by the firms strong enough to do an institutional funding round. “The big issue we have is that a lot of the high profile tech companies because of their scale can get recognised globally,” he said.

“There are speciality tech houses that are now our competitors. Our challenge is to ensure that we know that ecosystem as well or better than they do. That takes time and we have to be able to convince them that we are on the ground, can be trusted and we know where the money lies.”

Webb said he saw a lot of good start-ups being founded by people in their 40s or 50s who had consultancy or industry experience rather than the classic 20-something tech whizz founder. IBI’s track-record put it at an advantage, he said, as often it had come across these kinds of founders before in business. There was trust already there.

Winning the mandate, building the book

“You are your own best marketeer and that is how you keep yourself relevant.”

I ask Ted Webb about how a corporate finance advisor wins new business. Corporate finance is competitive, where nothing can be taken for granted.

“We get our work through referrals from people who have had a good experience. You never know who that it is. Our principal is to always keep the door open even if you don’t succeed do it gracefully,” Webb said.

Deals, he said, could fall through for different reasons. “We have a motto in here that we finish it out even if we are not successful,” he said.

“Hopefully most of the time we are. Off the back of that I would say 50 per cent of our business comes from people who have had a good experience before or who have non-executive directors or advisors who know us. You are your own best marketeer and that is how you keep yourself relevant.”

We start chatting about how deals happen and Webb gives the example of how IBI has worked with an IT procurement and services company called Arkphire. Founded in 1981 the Dublin-based business is a relatively secret success story.

The deal started with IBI meeting a private equity firm called Bregal Milestone which had identified Arkphire as a firm that fit its investment profile. Arkphire had been bought by a German company in 2006 and then bought back by its management in 2009.

By 2018 the business was at a crossroads with chief executive Paschal Naylor wanting to push the business on, but other shareholders in the business wanting an exit.

IBI made the initial introduction to Bregal Milestone. “We figured out pretty quickly the private equity guys could look after themselves,” Webb said. “We got talking to the principal (Naylor) and we helped cut a deal between the principal and the PE guys.”

“I jumped in the car and went down there. Jimmy didn’t quite remember the backstory but I was West of Ireland, he was West of Ireland.”

Arkphire and Bregal decided to pursue a buy-and-build model, so post the deal IBI advised the business on acquiring an Irish rival called Trilogy Technologies. Combined with Trilogy, Arkphire grew its revenue by 50 per cent to €150 million and had a team of 220 people.

Arkphire now had the bigger team and access to capital it needed to expand. In August it secured an initial £50 million contract with the London Clinic, as its IT transformation partner for the next seven years. The London Clinic is a full service independent private hospital operating across seven sites around Harley Street.

It is the kind of contract that is likely to lead to more deals. Arkphire could have been forgiven for running out of steam after 40 years and putting itself up for sale, but instead, it is more ambitious than ever. Good corporate finance advice, as in this case, can help businesses make step changes rather than sellout.

Webb said the sale of Athlone Extrusions was another example of how deals happened. He said he got a call asking him to meet James McGee, the chief executive of the business, who was thinking of selling the company in 2016.

As McGee explained in 2017 to The Irish Times: “We invested about €6 million in the business over the last few years and, as part of our plan, we were looking to grow turnover to €100 million at this site. But we started thinking about what our options were and how we might expand, and ultimately it led to us deciding that selling would be the best for the future of the company.”

Webb felt a connection to Athlone after working with it early in his career. “I jumped in the car and went down there. Jimmy didn’t quite remember the backstory but I was West of Ireland, he was West of Ireland,” Webb recalled. “It was a competitive process, but we got the gig.”

One of the reasons he said IBI won was it is the Irish member of Oaklins, an international network of mid-market advisors, which it can tap into when buying or selling businesses.

“There were a number of offers on the table which we felt were considerably less than we thought the business was worth if it was positioned correctly,” Webb recalled. “In the middle of all that Brexit happened. Athlone sold a big chunk of their stuff into the UK and so overnight they had had a pretty fundamental problem.”

Athlone’s product was so good however, he said, IBI believed that the right buyer would see the value in the business and allow it to grow outside Britain. “In the end, we would sell it to a Swiss-German listed business which was looking for a platform in Western Europe that could see different products across Europe.”

For McGee, who started working with Athlone 45 years earlier as a forklift driver the sale to Schweiter Technologies represented €48 million for him and his fellow shareholders. It also secured Athlone’s future as part of a stronger company firmly embedded in markets beyond Britain.

In six decades of business, IBI has tended to keep a low profile. It was entangled in the aborted sale of Denis O’Brien’s radio station Newstalk to Independent News & Media, where O’Brien was at the time a significant shareholder.

IBI valued the radio station at between €30 million and €35 million, versus INM’s advisor Davy which put a price tag of €14 million on it. Placing a very high value on a business on the sell-side of a corporate transaction is not that unusual.

The real issue, if there is one, is what happened or didn’t happen between INM’s chief executive Robert Pitt and INM’s chairman Leslie Buckley, a long-term associate of O’Brien. Pitt later said in court he had a dispute with Buckley about what was a fair price for Newstalk.

That is a story that still has some way to play out in the High Court which has appointed inspectors to INM to investigate the matter, as well as other unrelated issues.

Succession, expansion and the future

IBI today employs 23 people. Within one hundred yards are several competitors. Down the street is Capnua cofounded by Paul Keenan, the ex-managing partner of BDO, in 2010.

Directly behind IBI is Pegasus Capital founded in 2011. Two of Pegasus’ three co-founders, David Lawrence and Donal O’Connell, once worked with IBI.

On the opposite of the street to IBI is the Irish arm of Clearwater International led by John Sheridan, a former managing partner of Key Capital Corporate Finance. A few doors from Clearwater is Cathal Friel’s Raglan Capital, best known recently for establishing Open Orphan.  

Going a little further overlooking St Stephen’s Green on opposite sides is Jonathan Dalton in Key Capital and Conor McKeon in Cantor Fitzgerald. On Dawson Street, there is Ivan Murphy in Davy, whose senior team includes Ronan Godrey, Tom Godfrey’s brother.  

Then there is Liam Booth in Investec, Paddy Dillon in Grant Thornton, Michele Connolly in KPMG, Jan Fitzell in Deloitte, Finbarr Griffin in Goodbody, Mark McEnroe in PwC, John Bowe in Mazars, Conor Kelly in Rubicon, Conor Sheahan in CKS, Ann-Marie Reddy in Blackthorn Capital to name but some of the players.

This doesn’t include overseas advisors who occasionally swing in to do specific deals here. The competition from overseas, while less regular, is also fierce. For smaller to mid-sized deals, DC Advisory, KBW, Arrowpoint Advisory, Canaccord Genuity, Arma Partners are all active in Ireland sometimes specialising in niche areas.

For bigger deals Lazard, William Blair, Rothschild, Goldman Sachs and Jefferies among others can work on anything from a single deal to a couple of transactions a year here.    

Despite all this Experian still named IBI as its top Irish dealmaker in 2019, with 17 completed deals, but the competition it faces is unprecedented compared to its origins.

Is deal-making addictive? “It is with a small a,” Webb says.

Webb readily acknowledges this. “Our competitors have strong franchises. We know them well. Sometimes we see them on the other side of deals. We are competitive…but we keep dialogues open.”

What is different about IBI? “Our differentiators are hopefully brand. Hopefully, the fact that myself and Tom are in the market for a long time and we have got really good progressive people like Laurence, Raymond and David coming through.”

Webb said IBI had seven senior people in the market, seven people coming behind them, and seven people working as analysts. “There is a continuous reassessment of how we are doing,” he said. “We try to get rid of defensiveness and always learn. Not everybody is going to use us.

“Sometimes it will be the third time you meet a company before they will even contemplate using you but over time you build trust, energy, competence and connection,” Webb said.

IBI was part of Bank of Ireland for years. Could it ever see itself teaming up with a bank again? AIB is, after all, looking to reacquire Goodbody after selling it post the last financial crash. 

“The big issue is pay. With an overseas bank, there is no issue. But if the government is a shareholder there are no bonuses. IBI is probably at the market, or a little below market on base pay and our challenge is how can we collectively put money into a bonus pool that gets us well above market.”

“To get people to work weekends and for extended periods it can’t just be the quality of the work. There has to be reward and a career path. That is what we have now that we have absolute freedom. We can bring the people that we want through.”

Ted Webb turned 60 in September. Tom Godfrey is 54. Both are far from old, but corporate finance is a relentless business. Has IBI thought about succession?

“There is a natural evolution. I consciously try to keep myself energised. I still love what I do,” Webb said. “I love people. My role could maybe get into more of a development role rather than necessarily a processing role.”

“Part of the challenge is to bring relationships along and give them confidence that the team is sufficiently robust to be able to do the work,” Webb said. “After the second meeting, they figure out pretty quickly that they are probably a lot more qualified than me.”

Would IBI ever partner with another investment advisor, say, from London? “That is a possibility if there was a strategic rationale for it. We are open to anything that can sustain, maintain, grow, revitalise. Brands are brands but they are only as good as who is in the place.”

“We are very conscious of that. I spend a lot of time with Tom thinking of who are the next leaders. I won’t be here forever. Tom won’t be here forever. If we are not partnered or somewhere else leadership will come from within. That is typically what has happened. Peter (Crowley) is the anomaly in that he left and came back.”

Where does Webb want IBI to be in five years’ time? “I think I would like IBI to have driven on from where we are today. I don’t think we can get much bigger in this market place. Maybe we could bring other products to IBI. We have contemplated what that might be. Other people have equity funds and we have thought about whether that should be something. We are always thinking about whether there are things we could do with the brand and with our people.”

Is deal-making addictive? “It is with a small a,” he said, adding that to succeed in corporate finance required curiosity, energy, humility and trustworthiness. 

“If you want to build a career in IBI you have to be able to build your own book,” he added. “You have to build relationships. Ultimately this is a fee business so at the end of the day if you can’t generate your own fees it is a tough business to get to the top of and have a career in.”

Dealmaking in a time of crisis

“I always had an independent streak. I didn’t want to be part of the crowd.”

How has Covid-19 impacted dealmaking? “The key issue is travel. The deals that we have closed…say Budget Energy was in-market. The buyer DCC knew the business.” The sale of Terra Solar’s 200 MW portfolio of auction ready solar projects to the ESB in April was another example he said where both buyer and seller were in Ireland.

In July IBI advised Irish consulting firm Pathfinder on its sale to international firm Sia Partners. “The deal got done because they knew each other beforehand. They could do it virtually,” Webb explained. 

“Going back to March (pre-Covid-19) we had a full book and we were out the door,” Webb recalled. He said getting deals done that required travel was very difficult because of travel restrictions, especially for US buyers.

IBI he said had focused over the summer on strategic reviews which may in time lead to transactions.  “Our P&L might not have ticked over as heavily as we would have liked but we were busy doing desktop research, Webb said. “We did a lot of work with senior management thinking through not so much debt but more about what was non-core.”

“I like people. I hope I am empathic. I am intrigued by the team in IBI. They are super smart.”

How does this crisis differ from the financial crash? “There are two worlds. Food, technology pharma, healthcare, some retail are flying it ahead of their numbers. The savings rate is much higher and debt levels aren’t as high. We think we are looking at another year of disruption. In the last crash, we didn’t know where the bottom was.

“We were the bold boys in Ireland. We are now doing all the right things from a competence perspective. There is a pent up level of desire to do things, there is no question about that.”

“Part of what we are trying to do is work with people to work out what strategically might be available to pick up post-pandemic.”

Brexit, Webb acknowledged, was another issue for Irish business. IBI had advised companies like Dawn Meats and Monaghan Mushrooms on making acquisitions in Britain to offset the impact on Brexit. He said an issue was that too many companies were looking at buying the same businesses in Britain so it was hard to get value. Many companies he said were just keeping their “powder dry,” and waiting to see what happens.

Who is the best business person you have come across? “That is a tough question. Some people have laser-like focus but there is an empathy factor that is brutal. When I look at the people I like working with most, it is people who are more holistic about what it takes.”

Webb said he was intrigued by what motivates entrepreneurs to take risks. “It can be proving it to a parent who hasn’t given them affirmation. Sometimes they’ve come from a relatively poor background and want to not be poor again. The people who can do this with calmness and a degree of reflection and focus are the people I admire most. I don’t want to say who that is and isn’t.”

“There are people where nothing will ever be enough. They may have made X amount of money but they will never be happy or content. That is ok as that is the make-up of the individual.”

“Sometimes people are fearless, while others are too risk-averse to get a deal done and then there are guys who just see it. They have a vision. Sometimes there is a happiness quotient that is missing. That motivation piece is incredibly interesting.”

“I have a huge admiration for entrepreneurs. I am maybe an entrepreneur with a small e now but I couldn’t do what they do. I am much better at assessing things and moving on. I like the adrenaline of deals as opposed to running something.”

And what motivates Ted Webb? “There are two things. One is work and one is home. I have a very stable home life and that allows you to do things. I played Gaelic football all my life. I loved it. I was captain of my team and I learned about leadership. I could see it was important to lead but I wasn’t an out-front leader. I wasn’t overly assertive.”

“But I always had an independent streak. I didn’t want to be part of the crowd. I like people. I hope I am empathic. I am intrigued by the team in IBI. They are super smart. I like trying to guide them. I want to let them go but to be able to come back when there is a problem or if experience is required. You have to have the ability to get onto the next deal. I still think about deals every day. It is part of my DNA.”

Postscript: Nine hours after the publication of our Ted Webb interview on Thursday, New York-based IT solutions provider Presidio announced it had bought Arkphire for €120 million. IBI had advised the company on bringing in private equity backer Bregal Milestone as an investor in late 2018 and then advised the firm on acquiring rival Trilogy Technologies. New financial backing, a good acquisition, and an overseas expansion story had allowed chief executive Paschal Naylor and his management team to transform Arkphire. In three years Arkphire had increased its value by three or four times. When it came to the sale Bregal appointed Chicago-based William Blair to sell the business, but IBI stayed on board advising Arkphire’s management and helping with the many steps required to sell a company. While there are always various reasons why businesses increase in value, undoubtedly strategic corporate finance advice can make the difference between being a valuable, and a very valuable business.