A good head for hard business;Profile;Brendan O'Sullivan;Education

15th May 1998 at 01:00
Brendan O'Sullivan cut his computing teeth with Guinness. His move to education went down as smoothly as the dark stuff, he told Chris Abbott

Brendan O'Sullivan, managing director of Xemplar since its formation two years ago, is no newcomer to computers. "It's all I've ever done - I've had 24 years in the ICT industry. This is my patch and I've enjoyed every second of it. ICT changes so often that it never gets dull."

More surprising is that, for much of that time, Brendan's employer was Guinness in Ireland. No surprise to Brendan's family, however: "We're a Guinness family - everyone works for the company. I could have been in kegging or something but I joined data processing as a programmer."

Then, of course, things were very different. "We had a mainframe computer which cost pound;3 million and had to be kept in a hermetically sealed room - and it took eight of us, full time, to keep it running."

Brendan's job as chief operator was to manage areas such as finance, payroll and the crucial area of keg dockets. "If a pub in County Sligo placed an order, that came to us as punched cards or paper tape - although we were later excited to move on to magnetic tape."

Guinness was leader in this area then, and soon realised it had expertise to sell. With the arrival of minicomputers, which could be custom made for as little as pound;500,000, Brendan O'Sullivan found himself selling these together with customised software to other companies. Guinness remained in the IT solutions business until the arrival of the personal computer totally changed things, but Brendan knew there would always be a job for him at Guinness.

That changed when Apple Computer opened a base in Ireland and they head-hunted the MD of Data General. He knew Brendan, and offered him a job with Apple. It was, says Brendan, the hardest decision of his life. "I had to go back to my father and say I was walking away from one of the best jobs in Ireland for a fruit company that made computers." Brendan worked for Apple Ireland for 10 years, eventually becoming managing director.

The next biggest decision came in 1996, when he was asked to lead Xemplar, the new venture formed to market ICT solutions for Apple and Acorn computers (it now sells PCs, giving customers whatever technology they want). Having made the decision and moved to England, Brendan soon worked out what was needed. "We had to produce software that would make an Acorn or Apple computer useful in the classroom. And we had to do this at a time when many people said we were built on rocky foundations. Our competitors. like RM, were not shy of saying that Xemplar wouldn't be around in six months' time."

The cynicism may have abated now, as Xemplar celebrates its second birthday, in profit by 1997 rather than the target of 1998. "We have turned a loss-making business into a profit-making one; and we have continued to invest by sponsorship and other initiatives at the same time. It's been a turbulent two years but we've come through strongly."

rendan is particularly pleased with the Xemplar Junior Toolbox - ready-to-use computers pre-loaded with curriculum software - created through partnerships with developers. Partnership is the key factor. "The chances are that someone is better at it than we are, so we have partnerships with all kinds of companies and individuals. And a huge number of our employees are former teachers or ICT co-ordinators."

Xemplar has also built up a strategic partnership with Tesco, first through the voucher scheme for parents to help schools get computers and software. This has not been without its critics, but Brendan is convinced that software developers have not suffered through the scheme, at least if they got involved. "The effect on them has been good as long as they join in." Critics who point to the amount of groceries that have to be purchased to get enough vouchers also get short shrift. "Tesco and Xemplar both invest an enormous amount in this scheme. We have full-time people employed all year round running it, and 80 or even 100 per cent of the shopping would be happening anyway. I'm sure Tesco people lie awake at night wondering if they are getting a single extra penny of income from the scheme."

Xemplar was founded when many in educational ICT were still busily arguing about the relative merits of Windows, Apple Macs and Acorn computers, but Brendan feels this is much less the case now. "We are still in the Stone Age of technology, but at least we have stopped arguing over whose rock is sharper. And the Internet is the great underpinning for compatibility across the platforms."

In five years' time, Brendan aims to have achieved even more with the company he has helped to create. "We will be successful if we are the number one ICT solutions specialist company in schools in the UK. That's my goal: to move from a start-up position to become the leading player. Joining Xemplar was a big move - although not as big as leaving Guinness - but I enjoy my work and I enjoy living in England. Perhaps that is what I have enjoyed most; living in Cambridge has shown me how warm and friendly English people can be to someone from another country."

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