Honorary Conferrings Speeches Archive

    at Aula Maxima, UCC

  • 02 Nov 2016






Professor CIARAN MURPHY, Head of the Cork University Business School in University College Cork, on 2 November 2016, on the occasion of the conferring of the Degree of Doctor of Economic Science, honoris causa, on KIERAN CALNAN


A Sheansailéir agus a mhuintir uilig na hOllscoile,


In 1958, the movie “The Long Hot Summer” starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward was premiered to critical acclaim.  The summer of 1958 in Ireland was certainly not hot but was characterised by periods of rain and occasional sunshine.


In West Cork, four teenage boys spent that summer going to the Warren Beach in Rosscarbery as often as they could and when there, would discuss their future hopes and plans and shared their dreams of what they would do when they left school and how all of them would help their local Carberry Rangers win a junior County Football championship.


Three of the four were definite that they would stay close to home but the fourth had already set his eyes on going to America because that was where the greatest opportunities lay. On the night of December 31st 1999, the eve of the millennium this man returned to the Warren Beach accompanied by one of his sons, drawn there by the memories seared in his brain of those halcyon days of 1958 with his friends.

All three of them had died in the intervening years but his sense of community meant that he could never forget those who had shared his formative years.

As his spoke to his son about his past and future plans, his West Cork accent was as strong as ever -  he had never left there. This is his story and it is one that at one level, could be a  typical story of someone in rural Ireland whose goal of leaving to live their dreams in America does not happen but this is certainly a life less ordinary and one that has made an enormous contribution to the local community and to the development of an extraordinary cadre of entrepreneurial talent, all from the wellspring of West Cork.


This is Kieran Calnan’s story – who in his own words is an ordinary West Cork man but if we accept that description then, as we shall see, this is an ordinary man who has achieved extraordinary things.  I will focus on just a small few facets of this great  business leader who has made a sustained contribution to this region.



Kieran Calnan was born in Rosscarbery in 1942. Having attended primary school there, he then cycled every day to secondary school in Clonakilty – a round trip of 24 kms. He joined South Western Cattle Breeding society in Bandon in 1964 - it later became South Western Co-operative Society Ltd. (SWS)- as an AI technician. This was not a case of Ireland getting a head-start on the world in artificial intelligence - AI, in this context meant artificial insemination. This was a very small but well regarded operation in West Cork owned by a group of Co-ops and whose standing at that time is best summed up by the words of one local  who told Kieran “you won’t be rich coming out of South Western but you will be guaranteed a big funeral.”


A fellow technician who started with Kieran on the same day was the late Joe Walsh, who served with great distinction in a number of Government Cabinets, especially as Minister for Agriculture and who was a life-long friend of Kieran’s. It would seem as if the AI role was a breeding ground for future leaders of business and government.


In 1966, Kieran married Mary and they have five children: Siobhan, Denis, Connor, Eoghan and Louise.


At work, Kieran’s innate ability to plan, manage and motivate people quickly manifested itself and under the watchful eye of Dr Sean Crowley, his mentor and CEO, Kieran rose through the ranks and in 1989, was appointed Deputy CEO.

Kieran took over as CEO of SWS in 1996 and set about developing a business plan to ensure SWS was ready for the 21st century.

As well as the core agri-business, Kieran identified three areas where he saw huge potential for the company:

  1. Data Services/Business Process Outsourcing
  2. Renewable Energy
  3. Corporate Services


The SWS logo was changed to a forward looking eye i.e, look forward at what’s in front of you, don’t look back.  A proverb that Kieran adopted was:  “great oaks from little acorns grow”- a saying that he often used to motivate his team.


Kieran’s major contribution to SWS really spanned a 20 year period from the mid-1980s to 2006 when it was sold. His accomplishments during that time were phenomenal for a small rural based cooperative.  It is worth recalling a few of them.


After the introduction of the Common Agricultural Policy, Kieran saw that the increasing wealth of farmers offered opportunities to invest in developments in the 1980s and to broaden the activities of SWS. He developed one of the first Business Expansion Schemes in the country and built clusters of holiday homes in Baltimore, Kinsale, and Schull. Not alone did these provide investment opportunities in rural areas but they also provided jobs and additional tourism income.


At the same time, he developed their first forestry project and did it without relying on any government subsidy – he spotted the opportunity, saw that it could be beneficial to the rural community of West Cork and went ahead. South Western Forestry became one of the leading forestry companies in Ireland and expanded nationwide from its Cork base.


Cattle Registration

In the early 1990’sThe Department of Agriculture ran a competition to manage all the data around the national herd. South Western, while it had some experience in managing large volumes of data, had never done anything of this scale. It is a testament to Kieran’s drive and enthusiasm that not only did South Western win the contract but they kept adding to and improving the database such that Ireland now has one of the best herd management systems in the world. It is easier to find cattle in Ireland than it is people!


Leader Programme

SWS won the contract to run one of four EU funded LEADER pilot programmes in Ireland and Kieran was appointed its first manager. The LEADER programme is an EU initiative to support rural development projects initiated at local level in order to revitalise rural areas. LEADER was given discretion on how it could distribute funds in its local area and again, Kieran set this programme up in such a way that it became the reference for many other areas in the country. One of Kieran’s brain child’s in LEADER was the development of the Fuchsia brand for food and tourism in West Cork. Many regions in Ireland have now followed on in branding their own region.


REIO (Renewable Energy Information Office)

In 1992, Kieran met a sales woman for Danish wind turbines at the official opening of the Kinsale holiday village. Wind energy development was largely unheard of in Ireland at that stage. He accepted an invite to Denmark to see turbines being made. When he came home, he thought this was the way of the future. He applied for a Thermie grant from the EU to build Ireland’s first demonstration project of 500kw turbines. He won this grant in 1993 and the wind farm was built in 1996. It was the first wind farm in Ireland to be funded by an Irish bank. 


Kieran also convinced Sustainable Energy Ireland that they should be disseminating information about renewable energy. They ran a competition and SWS won the contract to establish the Renewable Energy Information Office which had the task of informing the public of the benefits of renewables. The valuable work of this office has resulted in Ireland now producing 25 percent of our electricity from renewables and is a figure that continues to rise.


When Kieran took over SWS, there were 50 people employed there and it made an annual profit of approx. €150,000.

In 2005, SWS was selected by Cork Chamber of Commerce as the overall winner of the best company in Cork.


He had grown the company in a ten-year period so that by 2006, it employed 650 people and had annual profits of €8.5 million. For any company to achieve such growth would be extraordinary but to do so in a rural community  is truly unique.


By then SWS had built a pipeline of projects that required an equity injection of over €100m.  The existing shareholders, the West Cork Co-ops and Dairygold decided they would sell on the business and realise asset value and let the business go on to its next stage of development with new shareholders.

Kieran negotiated the sale of the company in 2006 but he stayed on as President –he was determined that all of the jobs that were created by SWS in West Cork would stay there – which they have to this day.


Kieran had realised a net value of over €350 million for its shareholders. He stayed on as President until 2008 and remained a Director of South Western – the Data Services/Business Process Outsourcing subsidiary where he was again joined as a fellow Director by Joe Walsh. Both resigned as Directors on the same day in 2014, completing an engagement and commitment of just over 50 years to SWS by the two great colleagues and friends.


Recruiter, Developer and Motivator of Managerial Talent

Peter Drucker the greatest and most influential thinker on management has stated that:


“Executives spend more time on managing people and making people decisions than on anything else—and they should. No other decisions are so long lasting in their consequences or so difficult to unmake. And yet, by and large, executives make poor promotion and staffing decisions. By all accounts, only one third of such decisions turn out right. In no other area of management would we put up with such miserable performance.

Drucker, based on his research suggested that great leaders personally selected all of their key people, recruited or promoted younger talent and then guided, motivated, encouraged them to make their own decisions and protected them from political or vested interest interference.


Executives who have worked with Kieran Calnan refer to him in similar terms – all of them have described his commitment to recruiting the very best talent, motivating them and encouraging them to be bold visionaries, thinkers and to action their vision. Here, in their words are their observations of Kieran’s people management:

  • “He attracted high fliers from Wall Street, London, Dublin and the South Mall to the wilds of West Cork to what was essentially a start-up through a mixture of charm, persuasion, and made it the most dynamic place to work in.
  • The atmosphere of the SWS Christmas party was better than anything experienced in the City of London or Wall Street! He is a man of the people and referred to the people in gratitude so often in his Christmas speech, that staff would take bets on the number of times it was said!
  • He knew everybody’s name and their children’s names and ailments and would always ask about their welfare.
  • He was a brilliant motivator for his teams and for all around him. He achieved this through always being involved. He would ask a simple question "how’s things?" And what would follow from there usually solved a problem, provided further motivation or inspired success. He is a superb negotiator of the most complex of situations and this has helped SWS to great success over the years. “


SWS has been the kernel for a number of follow up companies and clusters of expertise in renewable energies, data services/BPO.


This is reflected in the large number of CEO’s and Directors of companies both in Ireland and the US who all started with Kieran and all credit him with mentoring and encouraging them and in financially investing in them.


Contribution to Community

Over the years, as Kieran worked in Bandon, he had observed that there were three educational institutions in the town and continually asked himself who would create jobs for the school leavers of Bandon.  Indeed how would you create jobs in West Cork for all of the School Leavers from that region? It irritated him to think that so many of them had to leave his beloved West Cork to get a job in Cork or Dublin. He concluded that if West Cork were to depend on Dublin for its survival then it would become a place denuded of too many of its younger people.


He and his great friend Joe Walsh, together with John Fleming, decided that they should do something – and that something should be the development of a business park for West Cork. Without any government support, they embarked on a drive to create such a  park. They established a task force under Kieran’s chairmanship and with assistance from the LEADER programme and expertise from UCC, proceeded to plan and develop the park. There was no support forthcoming from the state so Kieran and his two colleagues decided that they should build it anyway. The West Cork Technology Park was born just outside of Clonakilty. Knowing that they were going ahead with it, the state agencies then advised Kieran to build one building and see if he could get a company to lease part of it. 


Kieran’s response was to get a full technology park designed. He put financing in place and had three buildings in construction within two years of setting up the task force. He set up a team to market the Park and to attract companies to its state-of-the-art facilities.

Today, there are over 1,000 people working in that park. To put this achievement in perspective, it would be the equivalent of a private individual creating a park in Cork city that employed 22,000.


The importance of the Park to the hinterland of West Cork has been enormous and has given great careers to young people from the area. Most of those working there are from West Cork and it begs the question where would this young people be, if there was no Technology Park?  It serves as a living monument to what a few people with a passion, vision and real commitment can achieve but in particular, it testifies to the great practical results of Kieran Calnan’s leadership.


His “I Will Never Die” Period

One day in 2001, one of Kieran’s young but senior managers was walking with him, discussing future plans when Kieran turned around and said to him “you know, I will never die”. This took his colleague by surprise so Kieran reiterated his comment and then told him to reflect on it.


He realised that Kieran was telling him that he would never retire.


For Kieran, the thrill of pursuing new opportunities, working with and helping his former associates and with his family are a great driver as he seeks to explore his continuous goal of increasing Ireland’s use of renewable energy.


Today, Kieran is the Chairman of the Irish Sea Fisheries Board, Bord Iascaigh Mhara. This state board has responsibility for the development of the Irish seafood industry.


Kieran is also a member of the Advisory Board of UCC’s Ignite programme, an initiative that aims to promote entrepreneurship with the student-body here at UCC and amongst our graduates. Kieran has been a member of the Ignite programme since its foundation and along with his fellow board members, has served as a mentor, expert adviser and exemplar to our students. To date, companies set up by Ignite participants have created jobs in the hundreds.

Kieran continues to play an active role in the development of renewable energy through his involvement in a number of companies. These range from Lakeview Energies in Chicago to Kilronan Wind Farms, a Calnan family owned company.


Kieran Calnan’s overwhelming goal is to increase employment in West Cork. As those closest to him have described him – he has been very successful in financial terms but this does not mean much to him; he has little interest in money, his only vices are that he likes to own a powerful car and to buy nice clothes, particularly shirts, of which his favourite colour is blue!

Kieran is at his happiest when he is home in Rosscarbery with the family, and serving the parish through his involvement with the Finance Committee and his support of Carbery Rangers – where he served as Chairman for many years.





Kieran Calnan follows in the tradition of West Cork people who have made an outstanding contribution to Ireland.

His contribution to West Cork in terms of the jobs that he has created and his leadership in rural development are unique.

He has accomplished this through his reliance on the talented management team that surrounded him, through his ability to negotiate with both private and public organisations and especially through the great support he has received from his family and particularly from his wife, Mary.


His vision, his ability to operationalise that vision and his recruitment, development and ongoing mentoring of his protégés, together with his contribution to UCC and to the state, serve as an example of what a great community-focussed business leader can accomplish and make him a worthy and outstanding candidate for recognition by the National University of Ireland.


Praehonorabilis Cancellarie, totaque universitas!

Praesento vobis hunc meum filium, quem scio tam moribus quam doctrina habilem et idoneum esse qui admittatur, honoris causa, ad gradum Doctoratus in Scientia Oeconomica, idque tibi fide mea testor ac spondeo totique Academiae.


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