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Boss is so Well Connected
Boss is so Well Connected
Working with some of the world’s top scientists has helped Donald Fitzmaurice in his mission to link big brands with consumers.

The following article by Gavin Daly appeared in the Sunday Times on 8th May 2016.

It was May 2010 when Donald Fitzmaurice first decided to test his “vague idea” for a company that would combine emerging markets, mobile technology and big brands. A background in tech investment got him in front of John Coombs, managing director of Unilever Ventures, an investment wing of the brand giant.

Coombs liked the idea of using mobile phones to connect consumers directly to brands but wanted to see it work. “He said, ‘I have some good friends in South Africa. Go down there, show them this idea and see what they say,’” says Fitzmaurice.

He jumped on the plane to meet Unilever South Africa, and told them Coombs had agreed to fund the new venture if they liked the premise. “They bought this off three PowerPoint slides in the Mugg & Bean coffee shop in Johannesburg airport,” he says.

Then, with a purchase order in his pocket, he went back and turned the tables on Coombs. “We pushed it very, very close to the wind,” he says.

Unilever put up an initial €3.5m and Brandtone was born. Six years on, the company has operations in 12 countries, all emerging markets, from Kenya and Nigeria to Russia and Brazil. It runs marketing campaigns for big brands, including Unilever and PepsiCo, where consumers who hand over personal data are rewarded with phone credit top-ups and other goodies.

The opt-in rates from consumers typically surpass 80%, says Fitzmaurice, showing off the analytics behind some of the campaigns in Brandtone HQ in Dublin. In developed markets such as Ireland, he says, big brands have virtually no direct relationship with customers because retailers are stuck in the middle. “Brands have been disintermediated by big retailers, who kill them on [profit] margin. They are absolutely determined this is not going to happen to them in developing markets.”

Brandtone delivers the relationship with the customer, as well as analysis on their demographics and spending habits. Its database of millions of “profiled” consumers is clearly valuable. Since his Mugg & Bean visit, Brandtone has raised €38m in funding, with Verlinvest, an investment group founded by the owners of Anheuser-Busch, and agritech group Syngenta joining Unilever Ventures on the shareholder register.

Revenues are running at more than €20m a year and the company employs 130 people, including 70 in Dublin. Last year, Fitzmaurice and Brandtone co-founder Padraig McBride picked up an EY Entrepreneur of the Year award. The 52-year-old has had a varied entrepreneurial path and he starts at the start — the very start.

One grandfather, Gerald Fitzmaurice, fought in the 1916 Rising and was later interned in Wales, he says. The other was the chief engineer in the ESB. “Growing up, we were given a sense that you’re here to contribute to building Ireland, not just for yourself, but for others,” he says. His late father, Vincent, worked in various businesses and at the forerunner to Enterprise Ireland. His mother, Eithne, a hale and hearty 79-year-old, was a singer and musician.

One of three children, Fitzmaurice grew up in Raheny, a solidly middle-class Dublin suburb, and went to University College Dublin (UCD) for a degree and PhD in chemistry. A professor there, Hector Rubalcava, a California native who had worked at jet propulsion labs in the US, was an early and lasting influence.“He was very thoughtful and very brilliant,” he says. “He gave great training in logical thought.”

Rubalcava encouraged Fitzmaurice “to look further afield” after he graduated from UCD in 1988, when the unemployment rate was close to 20%. At 25, Fitzmaurice landed as a post-doctoral fellow at Berkeley University in California, one of the best chemistry schools in the world. “It’s the only place I know that has a special car park for Nobel prize winners,” he says. He worked under George Pimentel, “a giant of chemical physics” who invented the chemical laser.

Pimentel had worked on the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, served on US submarines and done two years of astronaut training before being ruled out for a retina defect. “He won everything bar the Nobel prize — and he was red-hot favourite for that,” says Fitzmaurice.

After Pimentel died in 1989, Fitzmaurice worked with Heinz Frei, who did pioneering work on low-energy photochemistry. He rates the top scientists on a par with artists for genius and creativity.

For three years, he lived in the north Berkeley hills, overlooking San Francisco Bay, and played softball and rugby — and worked hard.

“Berkeley is like an Olympic village for chemists. It’s only when you leave that you realise how hard you were pushed, and how
hard you worked.”

He came back to the UCD chemistry department in the early 1990s, via a year at a research university in Lausanne, Switzerland. At UCD, he assembled a sizeable research group of 25 staff, post-doctoral researchers and students, and proved adept at pulling in research funding. “People will tell you we don’t have the resources for great research,” he says.“That’s bollocks, that’s an excuse.”

He has more than 150 publications and several patents to his name, and is still the most cited scientist in UCD chemistry school research. In 2005, he was awarded the Institute of Chemistry’s Boyle Higgins gold medal for an outstanding contribution to the advancement of chemistry. “On balance, the university got good value out of me,” he says. After a pause: “Well, it was at least a draw.”

At UCD, he found time for other ventures, public and private. He sat on the government’s advisory council for science, technology and innovation, whose report triggered the foundation of Science Foundation Ireland. And he set up his first company, Ntera, a UCD nanotechnology spinout.

Founded in 1997, Ntera raised about €40m backing to develop “electronic paper” for low-power displays. It went into liquidation in 2011, however, after failing to find commercial success.

“We were all learning — the academics, the executives, the funders,” says Fitzmaurice. “Everybody has so much more experience in spinouts now, but we were the first to do it.”

His Ntera involvement led directly to his next role, as a tech venture capitalist. Draper Fisher Jurvetson (DFJ), a US venture funder, looked at investing in Ntera early on, but instead offered Fitzmaurice a job. In 2000, he joined DFJ’s ePlanet fund, which had invested in Skype and Chinese internet giant Baidu. The fund’s brief was to ignore Silicon Valley companies and dotcoms, in favour of companies taking proven technologies to developing markets.

By 2007, ePlanet had largely invested its early-stage fund and was shifting its focus to later-stage funding. “My skillset was no longer at a premium,” says Fitzmaurice.

The DFJ job introduced him to Intivation, a Dutch company developing solar-powered mobile phones. He became executive chairman and rolled up his sleeves. “It took three months to work out who owned it, and another three months to get them to agree the best way forward,” he says. “We raised €5m to recapitalise the business and get the technology up and running.”

A breakthrough was an order for 300,000 solar-powered handsets — from Digicel, the Caribbean mobile operator owned by Denis O’Brien. “I am forever grateful to him for that,” says Fitzmaurice.

By 2010, three years of commuting between his Dublin home and the Netherlands was taking its toll. He is still a “shareholder and friend” of Intivation. “It has had tough years but it is in good shape and making money,” he says.

He met McBride, a former chief financial officer of Digicel, in the autumn of 2009, and they launched Brandtone the following year. “Padraig is inherently conservative, which complements my willingness to spend money to try things out,” says Fitzmaurice.

Family and friends invested in the start-up. “No pressure, Donald,” he says.

Its first campaign for Unilever South Africa ran on July 12, 2010, the day after the World Cup finished and brands were clamouring to get on the air. A success, it was “a bridgehead into Unilever and a
bridgehead into the South African market”, says Fitzmaurice.

Brandtone now has about 40 clients, including many of the world’s biggest brands, and will start working in Mexico and Burma this year. “Our shareholders have deep pockets and are very supportive — and we have given them good reason to be,” he says.

“Revenues are growing and we have new products that will accelerate our profit margins. It’s a very, very exciting time.” The core product, aimed at consumers, has been supplemented with a product for retailers in the developing markets. They scan a barcode on a product delivery and supply some information about themselves; in return, they are set sales targets and rewards.

“The salesman can be incentivised to sell exactly what the consumer is incentivised to buy,” says Fitzmaurice, in full evangelical mode. “We are collapsing sales and marketing into a single activity.”

The final piece of the jigsaw is around warehousing and distribution — if you know what traders are selling and people are going to buy, you can eliminate waste. That would complete what Fitzmaurice head-spinningly calls “a continuum of real-time data-driven activity”.

It all sounds a bit Big Brother but he makes a convincing case it’s the future. “It’s fantastic — we’re an Irish company having such a big impact on global organisations,” he says.

“Six years in, I’m just as enthusiastic as I was in 2010.”

The life of Donald Fitzmaurice

Vital statistics

Age: 52

Home: Rathmines, Dublin

Family: Married to Isabel; three children — Chris, 20;
Hugo, 13, and Aimee, 11

Education: Secondary school at St Paul’s College, Raheny; chemistry degree and PhD from University College Dublin

Favourite book: Spook Country, by William Gibson

Favourite film: I’m a huge movie fan; Blade Runner has to be up there

Working day: If I’m in Dublin, I get up about 6.30am and do yoga at 7am. I come home for breakfast, drop the kids to school and get in to the office around 9am. I have meetings and calls, and work with the various teams. I take advantage of the light traffic to clear the office by 3pm and go to Cinnamon cafe in Ranelagh until 5.30pm or 6pm. I get quality work done there — I’m not locked in an office but I know nobody will come near me. I spend about one-third of my time travelling. I was in London last week, Moscow the week before, Singapore the week before that, and Mumbai the week before that.

Downtime: My hobbies are movies, politics and yoga. I listen to a lot of podcasts from America. I don’t work at weekends if I can avoid it — I’m so engrossed in Brandtone from Monday-Friday that the weekend is time for family. I like to write about things I’m thinking about, so I write for Adweek and the FT and various blogs.