Since setting up business in 2009, Norman Crowley’s company – his third since he retired at 29 – has built up revenues of €30m.
CROWLEY Carbon is located in the magnificent Powerscourt House and Gardens in Enniskerry, Co Wicklow. Set up in 2009, by Norman Crowley, the company helps businesses and organisations reduce their energy usage.
It’s not Norman Crowley’s first enterprise. In fact, this is the fourth business he has set up. He even made enough money from the sale of his first company to enable him to retire. That was when he was only 29. He later set up and sold a further two businesses before establishing Crowley Carbon.
I am fascinated to learn what drives him, what special ingredient he has that seems to guarantee success in business and why he has chosen the energy-efficiency sector for his latest venture.
“Crowley Carbon is a new type of energy-services company,” Norman explains. “We have developed a new heating boiler system and building management software which, together, dramatically improves efficiency and can help reduce energy usage in buildings, by as much as 80 per cent.”
Norman explains that he has worked hard to assemble some of the brightest and most experienced staff in the industry. “Some of these guys are literally geniuses within the energy-reduction sector,” Norman tells me proudly.
The company seems to have identified a real need in the marketplace. “Irish companies are increasingly competing in a global market, and against products from countries where energy and other costs are much lower. So Irish businesses now have to focus proactively on reducing their own energy costs if they want to remain competitive,” he says.
Some of the company’s current customers include Vodafone, Dawn Meats, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Intel. They are also beginning to work with schools, universities, hospitals, hotels and government departments.
“The Government is spending €850m on energy within schools, hospitals and government departments,” Norman tells me. “We believe we could dramatically reduce that figure using our cutting-edge technologies.”
With offices in Ireland, the UK and Australia, the company currently employs 40 full-time staff globally. This figure regularly increases, to as many as 150, depending on the number and type of projects the company is working on.
The company’s turnover has been growing steadily too, and this year it will see revenues cross €30m.
Before Christmas, they began working in Dubai. “We are installing energy-management systems in structures such as the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, the Princess Tower, the tallest residential building in the world and Dubai Mall, the largest shopping centre in the world,” Norman tells me. The contract is worth a hefty €64m in revenues to the company over the next three years.
However, for Norman, there’s more to the business than just making money. He is incredibly proud to be Irish and, while the Dubai contract alone will create an additional 35 jobs in Ireland, Norman wants to create even more jobs.
In addition, it frustrates him to see energy being wasted unnecessarily when the world is facing the prospect of dwindling energy resources. “My journey as an entrepreneur has brought me great success, but it has also made me realise that I want to do something which can have a positive impact on the world,” says Norman. “With Crowley Carbon, I believe we are doing that.”
Norman grew up on a farm in Clonakilty in west Cork. He initially trained to become a welder. In his early 20s, he set a goal for himself that he would make enough money, by the age of 30, to be able to retire. In 1996, at the age of 26, he founded his first technology business, Trinity Commerce, one of the first e-commerce service companies in the world.
Three years later, the company had grown to more than 150 staff, spread across five countries. Shortly afterwards, he sold the business to Eircom, making enough money in the process to achieve his ambition to retire. He was then 29.
However, his retirement was short lived. Restlessness and boredom quickly set in. Within months, he was itching to start a new venture. It was a chance meeting with a branch manager of one of the William Hill betting offices in the UK that gave him the idea for his next business.
The branch manager explained to Norman that they had four gaming or slot machines in each of the company’s 3,000 branches. To prevent customers getting bored, the company would move these machines around to other branches every two months and replace them with different ones.
Doing that for 3,000 branches seemed like such a waste of time and money, Norman thought to himself. He suggested to the betting chain that he could develop software-based games that could be loaded on to to the existing machines. Because they would be hosted on a remote server, they could be changed regularly without having to move the machines.
He got the go-ahead and so Inspired Gaming was born. Located in the UK, the business was a runaway success. In 2005, in a daring move to expand more rapidly, he borrowed £150m (€174m) and bought the largest operator of gaming machines in the UK which, at the time, was 80 times bigger than his own company. By 2006, Inspired Gaming had become the largest player in the world in the area of server-based gaming and was employing 2,500 staff. The company was also generating annual sales of €350m and a whopping profit of €100m. That year Norman floated his company on the London Stock Exchange.
It was a real rollercoaster lifestyle for the young Cork man. He spent the weekends at home in Ireland and the weekdays in London. Every third week he flew to Hong Kong, by private jet, to visit customers throughout Asia and every 12 weeks he flew to Australia.
In 2007, Norman thought “he had arrived”. He received an offer from an Icelandic firm to buy his company for €1bn. Months of negotiations then followed. December 20, 2007 is a day that Norman will never forget. “I was nervously sitting in the lobby of a London hotel waiting for the phone to ring to say that the papers had eventually been signed by the buyers and that the deal had gone through,” he says. However, when the phone finally rang, it was not the news Norman either wanted or expected to hear.
The Icelandic company explained that Iceland had effectively gone bust and that their company did not, now, have the money to conclude the deal. He had been two hours away from getting one billion euro.
The following months were traumatic. The share price of his business dropped and a mix of the smoking ban and the downturn in the economy, only added to his woes. Determined to fight on, he secured contracts with both the Italian and Brazilian lotteries for their gaming machines.
Within six months the company was back on track. Shortly afterwards, Inspired Gaming was sold, this time to a UK-based private equity firm. He had now retired for the second time.
At the same time as he set up Inspired Gaming, Norman also co-founded another company, The Cloud, which developed public WiFi hotspots across the UK. He also sold that business in 2005 to venture-capital firm 3i. It was subsequently bought, in 2011, by Rupert Murdoch’s BSkyB for around €80m.
Not everything went perfectly for Norman, however. His less than healthy lifestyle caused his weight to balloon by more than four stone. A health scare, which saw him suffer temporary paralysis of his left arm, was a wake-up call to the fact that he was simply living too fast. A period of reflection followed and Norman adjusted to a healthier pace, a healthier diet and even took up running. Like many, his scare turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
So what’s next for Carbon Crowley?
“I want to grow the company to become the largest energy-efficiency company in the world,” he says confidently.
“And ultimately sell it?” I ask. “Of course,” he laughs.
“I am also excited about a new venture-capital fund we have just set up to help incubate start-ups in the clean tech sector,” he tells me.
So what has been the secret to his success? His advice comes quickly and with a, sort of, knowing smile. “Be optimistic” he tells me.
“Think big. Find a solution to a big problem. Believe in yourself and what you want to achieve. Build a great team around you to help you. Tell the world what you want to accomplish and then just go and do it,” he says.
He now looks relaxed, lean and fit. And though his pace may have slowed a little, it’s clear that he has lost none of his focus, ambition or determination. If success leaves clues, then I think there is much that we can learn from Norman Crowley.