For Tom Begley, named as one of the “Top 100 Irish Americans” for two years in a row by Irish America Magazine, becoming dean of an Irish business school with global aspirations has a certain synergy.

Prof Begley was appointed dean of University College Dublin’s two business schools in January this year. They are the postgraduate Smurfit school of business in Blackrock, just south of Dublin, and the Quinn school, which runs the undergraduate degrees. As well as being the supremo for both schools, he has retained hands-on management of the Smurfit school, while delegating day-to-day running of the Quinn school to director Martin Butler.

For Prof Begley, who has a PhD from Cornell and has taught in Singapore, Indonesia and France as well as America, running a business school in Ireland is very different from running one back in the US. “In Ireland we see ourselves as contributing to the Irish economy. Coming from the US this is strange. There we assume the economy will develop whatever we do.”

In particular Prof Begley, 55, is looking for ways to help develop the Irish economy while building on the Smurfit school’s strengths, especially in finance.

Ireland has traditionally been a country that has attracted back-office functions and manufacturing investment – nine of the world’s top 10 pharmaceutical companies have a manufacturing plant in Ireland, he says. “Ireland needs more front-office services in finance, because the back-office functions will go offshore. We need to develop niche areas where we as a school can develop a global reputation and where Ireland as a country could develop a global reputation.”

In manufacturing, too, companies need to “move up the value-added chain”, he says, into areas such as treasury management. “Unless we have these front-office skills, why would a company want to move to Ireland?”

Smurfit already punches above its weight when it comes to the contacts in the worlds of finance, business and politics through its alumni and its board of governors. The Irish board includes such folk as Peter Sutherland, former attorney general for Ireland and now a non-executive director of the Royal Bank of Scotland; Pat Cox, retired president of the European Parliament; and Gillian Bowler, chairman of Fāilte Ireland – the Irish tourist board – and Irish Life and Permanent. The US board is equally impressive, and is headed by the president of Tiffany, James Quinn.

Now Prof Begley is hoping to build on those – the Wall Street contacts in particular – to develop programmes that showcase the school’s finance skills and expand its portfolio of programmes. Smurfit has recently developed a masters of science programme in risk management and is in the throes of setting up a Global Finance Academy.

All of these are dependent on attracting the right faculty to the school – something about which Prof Begley is particularly excited. At the moment more than half the school’s chaired professorships are vacant.

One of Prof Begley’s priorities is to fill the 10 chairs, which are in a range of subjects.

He has instigated a global search and, perhaps surprisingly, the candidates are not the traditional Irish returning home, but are from the US, Australia, south-east Asia and elsewhere in Europe. Prof Begley believes he has the flexibility to offer competitive salaries. “We have more flexibility than a few years ago, so I’m more able to say that if it is the right person, salaries are negotiable.”

Getting the right people will be critical to the development of the school, he believes. “We can create a sea-change in the research of the school. If we attracted the right people it would have a real effect on research.”

As well as research these faculty will be essential to building the executive education portfolio of the school, Prof Begley’s second priority. The market for short non-degree courses is hotting up in Ireland, with the merger announced just over a year ago between rival business school Trinity College Dublin and the Irish Institute of Management. Prof Begley describes the market as “wide open”.

To compete, he has appointed an executive director for executive education, Philip Matthews, famous among Irish sports aficionados as the former rugby player who captained the Lions squad. Mr Matthews’ job will be to help increase the turnover in these non-degree programmes to €10m within five years.

Prof Begley is expecting to see the number of programmes grow in both open enrolment and customised programmes. In open enrolment, he says. the school will stick to its niche market, developing programmes in finance and executive leadership, rather than taking a broad brush approach.

“We want to say to Irish managers that they don’t have to go overseas any more, to London Business School or Insead.”

Expansion is on the cards throughout the school. Prof Begley plans to double the size of the full-time MBA programme from 40 to 80 students a year and to double the size of the executive MBA programme from 180 to 350 students in its various formats.

With a population of just over 1m in Dublin, and 4m in the Republic of Ireland as a whole, he is acutely aware that Smurfit has to be an international not just a national school. He believes this is already the case. “We don’t look at Dublin as our competition; we look internationally.”

His international expansion plans are ambitious. In this year’s European business school ranking, Smurfit stands at 20. Prof Begley’s target is to make it one of the top 20 to 25 schools in the world, not just Europe. He may well be betting on the luck of the Irish to achieve that.

Della Bradshaw

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