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Driving the Tiger by John Travers (OH)

This book is a testament to seventeen remarkable Irish men and women. They have built creative, enduring enterprises through their talent, energy and initiative. They have brought pleasure to others and profit to themselves. Sixteen of them are profiled inside ‘Driving the Tiger’-the seventeenth is our distinguished fellow-student John Travers, who did much of the research, interviews and writing for this book as a full-time Harvard MBA student. While most of spent our evenings thinking up weak reasons to avoid doing even weaker study group write-ups, John wrote a whole book. It is an outstanding book, and I urge you to hurry now to the Coop to buy it. I guarantee you will be excited, inspired and delighted.

This is the story of a genuine economic miracle (remember those from BGIE?). For decades, Ireland was the poor man of Europe. Many people had reason to leave and never return if they wanted to improve their prosperity. In recent years, by contrast, Ireland has become known as Europe’s ‘Tiger Economy’. For good reason. A combination of trade liberalisation and tax incentives has seen the rate of growth of Ireland’s GDP average 9% in the 1990s- three times the European average. A once insular, protectionist economy has turned itself into one of the world’s most open and competitive, and become a magnet for foreign direct investment. US high-tech firms like Dell and Microsoft have flocked to its shores, creating jobs and transferring skills. Many of the entrepreneurs here got their start through US firms.

Simultaneously, developments in capital markets and higher education have enabled the extraordinary flowering of what Travers calls ‘Irish Enterprise Spirit’ -the entrepreneurs who ride this tiger. It is these entrepreneurs he has interviewed and profiled here – a fantastic collection of people ranging from the creator of Riverdance to the manager of Westlife, from top Formula One racing boss Eddie Jordan, to Ireland’s only full-time (and extremely successful!) body artist. Some embody the diversity of Irish enterprise in one individual-like Padraig O’Ceidigh, who started both a national air carrier and Ireland’s largest Irish-language newspaper. And for the geeks among us, over a third are high-tech multi-millionaires (yes, multi-millionaires).

Out of their varied stories, narrated by the subjects and re-told by Travers, some interesting themes emerge. Some are familiar to us from the recent tales of 1990s entrepreneurs. All have limitless energy. Many are ardent dreamers. Several suffered major failures and reversals, including bankruptcy and long periods of unemployment. All have a strong social commitment, especially to education. But two things make this a very Irish book.

First, the striking creativity on display – as one would expect, perhaps, from the land of Joyce, Yeats and Shaw. Travers has clearly had fun with this theme -fashion designers compete with telecoms magnates and sandwich bar franchisers. Yet unlike the creative Irish of a century ago, none of these men and women have fled their native shores. Instead, all are determinedly committed to making a creative success in Ireland. This ‘nationalism’ is the second distinctive feature of Travers’s work.
The voices are loud and proud: “Irish people certainly have creative flair”; “Being Irish is a big help in business. Irish people…have an ability to talk in any type of circumstance and to any nature of person”; “Irish people have a great work ethic…[they] are prepared to give anything a go and work hard enough to make a success of it. It is a characteristic that stands out in the world. I would not live anywhere else”. Some might dispute Brody Sweeney’s claim that “the Irish brand … conveys an image of health and good living” but the sentiment is indisputable – this is a nation on the rise, and very proud of it too.
John Travers has produced a superb portrait of this rising nation, and of the entrepreneurship dynamically transforming it. At the start of the book John argues that three qualities unite all these successful entrepreneurs: ability, imagination and passion. His book demonstrates how much of all three he himself possesses. And he’ll have to use these precious qualities to select between the many different jobs he has undoubtedly been offered by all his protagonists. Congratulations, John-we wish you well.

December 3, 2001
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