The picture shows Adrian Daly with child (Olga) and brainchild (Solmon). A million pound investment in the bespectacled brain is heading towards break-even. Christine Seib reports.
You're the CEO of a plc that's one of the leaders in its industry, when it is bought by an international corporate giant. Logic says you cruise along in an executive capacity for a couple of years, then retire with a hefty payout. Right? Not if you're Adrian Daly.
Daly found himself in exactly this situation when Hibernian plc, of which he was chief executive, was bought by CGNU in 1999. But instead of resting on the laurels of an illustrious career, he decided to start a completely new venture in a medium about which he knew little. Daly, his actuary daughter Olga (both pictured above), former Hibernian IT director Matt Carolan and pensions consultant Geoff Needham set up Solmon Holdings at the beginning of last year.
The Dublin company runs solmon.com, a financial advice website where consumers can research, compare, apply for or buy mortgages, investments and car insurance.
The team collects information from financial institutions, compares prices, performance and service levels, then makes the advice available for free to those who log-on. They make their money from the institutions, who pay a commission on every order Solmon.com processes for them.
The website is personified by Solmon himself, a pinky-yellow human brain wearing Blues Brothers-style sunglasses. The gimmick was thought up by an advertising agency in response to all the boring Y2K-style punchy names that were fashionable at the time.
Daly, a renowned figure in the Irish life industry after stints as managing director of ICI Life and Prudential Life as well as Hibernian, says the idea for solmon.com came as he tried to estimate the impact of the internet on financial services. He realised that a "financial supermarket" was needed, which would allow the consumer to look at several different products on the same site.
A visionary or a crazy man? Daly is in no doubt that there were several in the industry who went for the latter when he first mooted his idea, which was the only site of its kind in Ireland at the time. "I've no doubt people thought privately that the man's off his rocker," he says. However, he put his money where his mouth was, convinced Carolan to come with him and Needham to merge his consultancy with the new venture. "Happily, I had a few bob myself so that was certainly the first finance," Daly says.
It wasn't the first time Daly had kickstarted a venture or made big moves. At the end of the 1980s he set up Prudential's life business in Milan. He then moved to London to work as European director of the Pru's international division, before returning to Dublin in 1991. So Daly and his cohorts decided what they wanted on the site, which is hosted by Eircom, then liaised with a site development company. They also made a deal with software company Relay to use its search engine on the site. "This means the public sees what a broker would see when they use Relay," Daly says.
The next move was intensive testing, followed by some serious marketing in preparation for the launch last October. "We tested the site very thoroughly before we marketed it. We had a few teething problems but it's a robust site," Daly says. "Then we mounted a fairly substantial advertising campaign in the press and on the radio, though online ads weren't very cost effective."
Solmon.com was well accepted by the industry, which Daly attributes partly to good will toward himself and his colleagues from their previous careers. "We were coming from a fortunate standpoint because we'd been around and had a good name as individuals, so we weren't coming in as unknowns," he says.
Just over six months after its launch, the site is getting 4,000 visitors a month, which Daly says is more impressive than it sounds, given that the Irish market is one-twentieth the size of the UK market. "There's a big IT community here and it's quite clear that a lot of people coming on to the site come from that industry so they're comfortable with it.
"People are coming on to research and compare products but conversion rates into sales are lower than we'd hoped for." The group is already looking into ways to improve the figures, through e-marketing the 16,000 prospective customers who have put their email on a data bank, offering more investment products - "We've got most of the Irish fund managers on the site but we're going to add some from London and Luxembourg" - and securing more broker partners who can be accessed through the site.
Daly believes they've got some breathing space in which to improve. "There are two companies that we would have considered to be strong competitors but they seem to have gone quiet for the last couple of weeks," he said. "We've got the field to ourselves and it looks like we'll have a clear run for the next six to nine months." However, Daly is too smart to entirely remove the "people factor" from the site. Solmon Holdings will continue to operate by phone as well because, as most major insurers have found, even those who buy on the web want to be able to call for further advice if needed and find a friendly voice at the end of the phone.
Daly's not quite sure where he got the drive to start a new business at a time when he should have been slowing down. Nor is he certain where the energy needed to continue to push solmon.com ahead of the market will come from, but he's in no doubt that it will be there. "I've always been inclined to get involved in starting things, there's something in the genes that propels me in that direction," Daly says. "I expect to hang in for another few years but I'm not looking to keep going into my 70s."
But given the fact that he's proved time and again unable to resist the excitement of a new venture, it's hard to imagine Daly retiring quietly.