' My biggest mistake' : Les O'Reilly

The chairman of The Database Group, a database marketing organisation, worked in two large companies before setting up on his own. It is a move he wis hes he had made much sooner, as he relates here.
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MY BIGGEST MISTAKE was allowing my thorough management training to suppress my more inspirational tendencies in business - and so delay my start on my own.

For much of my career, I worked for big companies in Ireland - in the 1960s at a large earth-moving equipment company and from then until the mid-1980s for the Geest computer services organisation.

When I joined Geest, it was a large private company run basically as a family concern by the Van Geest brothers. But in the late 1960s a new chief executive was brought in to set it up along more professional lines. As part of this, a leading firm of consultants was hired to help implement the new management structure. Consequently, I had a lot of management training in such areas as accounting, marketing, production and distribution.

With my Irish background, I was a very intuitive person, but was taught to look at things in an objective way. I gained an enormous amount from this training, but where I perhaps went wrong was in emphasising the objective side and not giving so much attention to the "gut-feel" side. My approach became too scientific and regimented. After a while, I felt that I was suppressing something. Even when I recognised the force of my instincts, I did not always act on them - even though on a number of occasionsthey indicated what would have been the most effective course of action to take.

It was frustrating. At one stage, I asked the consultants working on the Geest restructuring what were the most auspicious circumstances for setting up your own business. They said that, if you're going to do it, you'll just do it. But I didn't do it then.

Instead, I was made head of a company division, which led to further difficulties. I found myself in almost constant conflict with another divisional head who was in many ways my opposite: I was analytical and methodical but suppressed my more intuitive side, and my division was profitable; he was more inspirational, and enjoyed the admiration of other senior Geest managers, but showed little method in his implementation of that inspiration - with the result that his division was not profitable.

At this point, I was headhunted by another comany, but this, too, added to my frustrations and led me, at last, to set up on my own.

What I have found is that "gut feel" is really my own instincts, with experience on top. And generally I find that the decisions based on them are the ones that take off.

Whether they take off because I make them work out, or whether they were the right decisions, is another matter. But, now that I am running my own company, I have started to follow my instincts more.

The lesson I have learned is that you cannot measure inspiration. You can only measure the effects of it.

It is extremely difficult to run a business without new ideas. Without them, you cannot progress. Obviously, you need a balance.

Some of the best relationships in my earlier career were where I had people who had ideas and somebody to do the analysis. Because I was trying to look at things objectively, I might have appeared negative then. But you need both types.

Now, however, I have people to do what I was doing, while I spend time on such things as thinking of new ways of doing business.

I have turned it around. But if I had done so earlier - when my instincts told me to - I would have avoided years of frustration. Instead, I had to wait until the mid-1980s, when I bought what is now known as The Database Group with a Swedish businessman.

My partner suggested that we buy what was then the Datema Group (the company which had hired me away from Geest) and run it by using a combination of the inspirational and the methodical approaches.

After we acquired the company in 1986, my intuitive side was given the room to prosper. And by being among the first to promote ourselves as a database marketing organisation, rather than a data processing company, we have helped establish a new market.