Interview with Mr. Conor O’Kelly – CEO of the NTMA

By Victoria O’Connor

The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the global community on the broadest of spectrums. One area that has increasingly been overlooked is the impact the crisis is having on student entrepreneurs, their motivations to launch businesses and their ability to establish new enterprises. I recently interviewed Mr. Conor O’Kelly to discuss how new and evolving hurdles have challenged youth-led enterprises as they learn to sink or swim.

Conor, a proud Trinity alumni, is the Chief Executive of the National Treasury Management Agency. He has an extensive range of experience ranging from former Chairman of Investec Holdings (Ireland) Ltd to Chief Executive of NCB Group. He is also a former director of the Irish Stock Exchange. Conor studied ESS (today’s BESS) in Trinity. During his college years, Conor embraced student life representing Trinity in both rugby and golf, two passions which he still holds today. He graduated from Trinity College Dublin in 1982 and the first student to be awarded a prestigious scholarship to Senshu University in Tokyo, Japan, where he completed a master’s degree.

The outbreak of COVID-19 is having a profound impact on the global economy, commercial markets and consumer behaviour. I asked Conor his thoughts on the repercussions of lockdowns and if we’re moving towards a society where the average consumer will no longer shop on the high street. He sees the issue as two fold, firstly, the pandemic’s role in shifting consumer behaviour and secondly, the trends that are developing from the global remote working experience.

It is important for young entrepreneurs to separate and identify the short-term repercussions of the pandemic from the permanent trends that are materialising. Businesses are either on the “right side or wrong side of the digital divide”. Conor sees the challenge for businesses as keeping up with the acceleration of the market shift from “bricks” to “clicks”.  As the pandemic unfolds, existing trends in the market have been accelerated dramatically, Conor describes it as “time traveling forward to 2030”.  Young entrepreneurs must respond and be experimental and innovative in not only with what their enterprise can offer the consumer but also how they can connect, engage and sustain a customer base.

Shifts in Consumer Spending and Attitudes

The pandemic is changing city centres around the world in irreversible ways. The global “working-from-home experiment” has meant consumer spending has shifted from city centres to local communities. City centre businesses whose success is based on a commuter workforce are going to be adversely impacted by this crisis. One strategy for centrally located enterprises is to focus less on their traditional presence and increase efforts towards driving consumers towards their online channels.

Young entrepreneurs aspiring to operate in retail outlets, must take steps to build consumer trust by adapting to the new health and safety expectations in the community. It is both a responsibility as well as an opportunity for business owners to provide a “safe environment” where consumers are comfortable with the risk, thereby encouraging shoppers to return. Conor opines that emerging technology is likely to be a prominent method in which business owners can confidently deliver on this. Scientists at Oxford University have developed a COVID-19 test that can produce a result in less than 5 minutes. While logistically implementing this at scale may be difficult, it demonstrates the potential for businesses to establish COVID-free spaces.

Opportunities and Challenges Facing Young Entrepreneurs

As the pandemic increasingly pushes consumers towards the world of e-commerce, Conor considers this as a golden opportunity for young entrepreneurs to maximize the opportunity presented by changing consumer behaviours.  A report by Digital Business Ireland found that 74 per cent of shoppers surveyed have been put off by the queues, capacity limits and social distancing requirements in stores. Most young entrepreneurs form the large part of the digital generation, Conor sees them as possessing an “intuitive sense” of how to understand the online spending pattern and behaviours of today’s consumer.

Overall, the pandemic has had a tremendously adverse impact on SME’s who face a unique and difficult challenge for survival. In spite of the turbulence caused by the crisis, a number of companies have improvised, adapted and thrived. Conor provides insight into the ways in which student enterprises can mirror the resilience and success of global companies – “if a business has a good product, they will be able to access distribution channels and will be encouraged to do so”.  Amazons “shop local scheme” is just one example of a global platform opening up access to local businesses.

Reimagining Business – The Role of Technology

Young entrepreneurs must seek opportunity for reinvention and differentiation in times of market disruption. Zoom, an app that was available 9 years ago and largely unknown, has emerged as one of the leading platforms for businesses to ensure their teams can function and communicate effectively and is now worth approximately €25bn.

Encouraging consumers to adopt new products is one of the most challenging obstacles for new businesses to overcome according to Conor. The world has experienced a simultaneous collective grief like no other, and consumer behaviour has changed as a result of it.  We’re living through “seismic societal change “, and the opportunities are endless for the entrepreneurs who successfully identify opportunities and react to consumer demands and expectations living in the “new normal”.

Technology is playing a key role in reducing barriers to business entry for young entrepreneurs launching businesses, it opens a window towards perpetual innovation. Before the internet, start-ups faced costly processes of finding and operating a premise, ordering stock and paying for licenses etc. Now, with an ability to eliminate the majority of traditional overhead costs, online opportunities are increasingly available and more accessible than ever.

Risks Facing Young Entrepreneurs

The short-comings of e-commerce are exposing the difficulties many entrepreneurs face in connecting emotionally with their consumer base to establish loyalty. One recommendation Conor offers is for young entrepreneurs to enhance, augment and personalize the online shopping experience for their consumers.

Providing consumers with an enriched experience by connecting with them is likely to establish both brand loyalty and brand awareness, these can be developed as competitive tools for new and adapting enterprises.

Creativity, imagination and innovative marketing ideas can be driving factors that enable organisations to connect with their target market, and are crucial constituents for young entrepreneurs in 2020.  In the dawn of the internet, any brand can instantly become a viral sensation or a viral nightmare. Companies must prioritise developing and protecting their online reputation as the image of an enterprise is more pertinent than ever before. Citing being on the “wrong side” of a sustainability issue or exercising “greenwashing” as examples,  Conor explains how reputational risk can threaten the survival of the business itself. With a global audience comes a global risk. Money talks, but it’s the consumer who decides where that money goes. In an increasingly cashless society,  a transaction is only a click away with the consumer in ultimate control – that’s a powerful concept at scale.


Most young entrepreneurs with innovative business concepts face obstacles without the benefit of having a lived experience. Against the backdrop of the current pandemic, youth-led enterprises should adapt and find experience and partners that can help. Conor advises them to take advantage of opportunities to learn from others, whether it’s through a mentor, alumni or listening to podcasts from industry leaders. The perspective and insight of others added to the imagination and creativity of student entrepreneurs is a powerful combination.

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