“It was an amazing ride. In five years, we went from just myself to having 200 employees on board and from zero revenue to sales of half a million dollars a day.”
Having struck gold with the sale of his day trading software firm Cybercorp at the peak of the dotcom boom in 2000, Philip Berber swapped the challenges of building a financial software business for those of fighting poverty in Ethiopia.
He’s just back from shaking hands, clinking wine glasses and hob-nobbing with the global philanthropy jetset who attended the Clinton Global Initiative in New York. But unlike Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates, Virgin founder Richard Branson, or fellow Irishmen Bono and Bob Geldof who still have commitments to their respective businesses, running his foundation, A Glimmer of Hope, is his full-time job from now on.
Berber sold his day trading software company Cybercorp to trading firm Charles Schwab just before the dotcom crash that made infamous companies like Boo.com worthless. Since then he hasn’t been tempted to found a new startup, fund one or even take a non-executive directorship. “I’d never say never though,” he reveals.
“All my time and energy is devoted to A Glimmer of Hope at the moment,” he adds, speaking on the phone from his home in Austin, Texas. He has pledged $100 million to the foundation, which “takes a pragmatic, entrepreneurial…innovative and direct approach to development and aid,” according to its website.
Having pocketed $488m back in 2000, one rich list estimates he’s sitting on a €303m fortune at the moment. “I’ve got two reasonably large private stock portfolios. But they’re made up of highly indexed global stocks rather than investments in individual companies,” he says.
The endowment to his foundation – $20m of which has been spent in Ethiopia in the last seven years – has also been invested wisely in a broad portfolio of equities, fixed income bonds and managed futures should secure high returns so the charity can continue its projects.
Charity work in the fields of Ethiopia and a home in Texas are a long way from Donnybrook in Dublin, the affluent area of the capital where he grew up. National school in nearby Booterstown was followed by Wesley College in Rathgar before studying Commerce at UCD.
Although his father, who ran a number of clothing factories in the capital, also undoubtedly passed on his entrepreneurial spirit, Berber’s education also proved to be a valuable investment.
“Dr Frank Roche, who is now a professor of entrepreneurship, opened my mind as did Frank Bradley in the field of marketing. Tim Brosnan, who went on to join Gandon Securities was also a mentor at the time,” he says. Gandon Securities earned the distinction of being the first company to secure an IFSC licence in 1987 and was later sold to finance firm Investec Ireland.
Like many of his peers, Berber’s career began in the multinational sector. He moved to London in 1979 to work in the European headquarters of the Ford Motor Company, before joining Avon Cosmetics and finally sunglasses maker Bausch and Lomb.
He met his wife Donna in London in 1983, and later married before joining his first startup software business where he got a taste of disruptive technology. Northern Ireland-based Expert Information Systems began to change the face of the insurance business by enabling insurance brokers to dial in over the phone to get quotes from all motor insurers in the market.
Joining another software company, FD-Icon, he recognised the potential of artificial intelligence (AI) being applied in computer systems. The firm initially designed military technology before applying AI to computer systems for the financial markets. Perhaps a sign of what was to come, the company was later bought by oil giant BP who then sold it to US software giant EDS for $200m.
Along with three other people, he formed his first startup, Financia in 1988. “We piggybacked on leading edge US firms and their technology, using their staff and development teams,” says Berber. Financia’s software provided intelligent technology enabled traders and investment managers to predict the markets and manage their portfolios.
The company was sold in 1991 to financial technology firm Frontier Financial. “That was a big personal step for me – a little boy from Dublin getting his chance to move to America, the land of opportunity and entrepreneurship,” he says.
He moved to Houston, Texas, managing the company for two years before a stint with GK Capital, a foreign currency exchange technology firm. By 1995, the internet was emerging in the US and with it the phenomenon of day trading.
“People would sit in trading rooms, making thousands of dollars a day buying and selling stocks over the internet.” The method they were using had one key flaw, however. “Whereas Wall Street traded in real time, pricing data for day traders was delayed by 20 seconds delay and executions took up to two minutes. There was an opportunity to level the playing field for day traders by using an online platform that dispensed with those delays.”
Cybercorp was formed, charging $19.95 per trade against investment banking giant Merrill Lynch’s $99 a trade for delayed pricing and trades. It beat online competitors E-Trade and Charles Schwab – which later bought the company – to become the leading day trading software in US.
“We had over 3,000 people trading online every day, some were at home in their pyjamas and others pretending to work in their office jobs. They were trading in a rising US stock market and making money. The Nasdaq rose from 2,500 to 5,000. The Dow Jones rose through 10,000 and kept going. It was like riding three waves,” he enthuses. “Those 5 years were the most exciting and creative and successful of my commercial career. That’s not going to be repeated in this lifetime,” he adds.
Having taken it upon himself to empower day traders, the sale of Cybercorp gave him the opportunity to do his bit for rural Ethiopians. “Having left her sales and marketing job, Donna visited the country and brought back a video. I was so moved that I resigned from Charles Schwab and Cybercorp and Donna and I committed ourselves to running A Glimmer of Hope,” says Berber.
More than two million Ethiopians have benefited from its work, and costs have been kept at less than $10 a head. “We’ve built water wells, schools, health clinics and veterinary clinics. When people’s animals get sick they can’t toil the land or carry water, so vet’s clinics are a vital service as well.”
Having changed the world for thousands of online traders and millions of people in Ethiopia, it can only be a matter of time before another challenge catches his eye.