In the seventh episode of the Red Cube Podcast, Great Place to Work CEO Cathal Divilly is joined by Alan Cox, former CEO of Core.
Alan Cox is the recently departed CEO of Core and soon to be CEO of a software startup. For the Red Cube Podcast, he shared all about how his career led him to be leading Core, the media company and Core's journey through the Great Place to Work Programme, with all benefits and challenges it entails. You will also discover his best lessons learned and advice in terms of organisational culture and transformation, leadership and communication and action planning; along with how trust has helped Core overcome the recent pandemic we all faced.
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Recently departed CEO
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Cathal Divilly: OK, welcome Red Cube listeners to today's episode. I am delighted to be joined by the CEO of Core, Alan Cox. Alan, you are very welcome.
Alan Cox: Thank you for having me Cathal, good morning to you.
Cathal Divilly: How are you keeping these strange times, Alan?
Alan Cox: Very good, yeah. I'm full of energy, full of optimism - despite what's going on in the world. You know, I think we will always come through. We've demonstrated that as a world over the last two years, so we'll navigate whatever is in front of us.
Cathal Divilly: Fantastic, Alan. Alan, just for the listeners, you might share some insights in terms of your own career to date, background and roles that you've had.
Alan Cox: Sure, well, I've worked in advertising and marketing communications my whole career, starting off when I was 18, I joined a full-service advertising agency and as most people did in those days, you kind of started in the lower rungs of the ladder, you know. The dispatch department in my case, which was a great way to learn the business from the ground up.
Then I moved around various full-service agencies for the first few years of my career and then I started to become more senior in terms of responsibility when I got to an organisation called Bell, which is part of Ogilvy, and eventually became Ogilvy in Ireland, which is part of WPP. So I was there in that group for a number of years, about eight or nine years. Eventually became Managing Director of a media company called The Network within that group, and then after that I left and went to become Chief Executive of Carat which is now called Dentsu.
And then 15 years ago I made the best decision in my career in joining what is now called Core, and I've been Chief Executive of Core for the last 15 years. But as you know, in the last four weeks, I've announced that I'll be leaving Core in order to pursue a new venture in the area of business transformation. But I'm leaving with some sadness but also a lot of excitement and it's a fantastic business and a wonderful wonderful culture.
Cathal Divilly: Great Alan and we might, we might touch on kind of what's next for Alan during the conversation, which is exciting. Alan, perhaps we're showing our age here, but if we could go back to 2005/2006 and you're in the CEO role within Core, I guess you're thinking about your culture. You and the leadership team made a decision to go on this Great Place To Work journey. Why bother? What did you hear that encouraged you to kind of take part in the journey?
Alan Cox: Well, I think I'm always very open to learning and, you know, hearing from people what works and from other people’s experience. So it was another person within the organisation, I think it was Padraig Moran actually who was our Chief Financial Officer at the time and also our HR Director, Catherine Fitzgibbon, who came to us with the idea of actually, you know, engaging with the Great Place to Work Institute.
So initially I was just very curious to know, you know, what are the benefits? What are the learnings? And how do we implement plans around that? And the more I started to listen to advice in relation to this, the one sort of silver bullet for me that made sure that this was something that we were going to do, was the relationship between strong workplace cultures, supportive cultures within the workplace, and company performance. You know, there's a lot of information out there that goes to prove that companies that do well in terms of their culture and the strength of their work ways of working actually have higher performance, both in terms of financial performance and customer satisfaction, and also retention. So those were the areas really that kind of jumped out at me as being really strong advantages of engaging in this journey, over and above the obvious strengths and advantages of having a happy bunch of people working together.
Cathal Divilly: So, so we think of the first year then right, Core part of the programme was we activated the survey, everyone got a chance to give their thoughts and opinions on the workplace and I don't know why, but I can still remember that first sort of session we had with yourself and the leadership team feeding back the results, right? So for the first time then, I guess we're looking at our data, we're getting to, I guess, hear how people feel in terms of strengths and opportunities of our culture. What was your initial reaction back then when you saw the results for the first time?
Alan Cox: Well, you know, I think when you see the first set of results, there's always a sense of disappointment. Because you tend to feel that you're doing better than you are, you know, particularly around the area of communication. And when you think about the fact that we are a Communications business, you'd think that that's something that we would absolutely have nailed from Day One, but the results actually proved that we had an awful lot to learn in terms of Communication, but that then sort of disappointment that one feels initially, is then turned into a sense of, you know, excitement I suppose, because gosh, isn't this fantastic information. Isn't this, isn't it brilliant that we have all of these results across, you know, the 65/70 odd questions, I can't remember how many questions there are now in the survey, but look at the wealth and quality of information that we now have, that identifies for us the levers that we need to pull to be better at what we do and better in supporting our incredible people and building a stronger culture in our workplace.
So initial disappointment and then excitement. And I've always given that to advice to people, you know, when we've been speaking to various other companies over the years and telling them about our experience, I always say to them, “Listen, when you see the first set of results, don't be disappointed. Just be excited to say, isn't it fantastic that we have this knowledge now?”
Cathal Divilly: So it's excited about the opportunity, I guess, Alan is a thing there. What about any sceptics that might be there within the leadership team? Is there anything you had to manage there in terms of scepticism around this journey or the improvement piece?
Alan Cox: Yeah, there are sceptics. There weren't too many in our place, but there were a few and I think the evidence that I spoke about earlier on, and people can Google, you know, and have a look online at the relationship between the best-performing companies in the world or indeed by country, be it America or the UK. And compared to stock market indices for those companies, you can see the tremendous advantage of being part of this Great Place to Work journey. So once you keep talking to people about the rational benefit to the business, scepticism starts to ebb away, and that's been my experience. That's the greatest defence that you can always have when you're discussing this with people who are sceptics.
Cathal Divilly: Fantastic Alan, and then OK so, everyone has given their opinion within the survey, you know, in terms of what they like, what they’d like to see improved, talk to me about data then into an action plan. You mentioned Communication possibly there as an area that we needed to focus on. How do you do that in Core? Data into action?
Alan Cox: Well what we do is every time we get the set of results, we have a look in detail at what it's telling us, and then we engage with what we call the Great Place To Work Committee within the organisation, which is a cross-section, you know, membership of that committee’s from a cross-section of the organisation, so that the people on that committee you know are not Directors of the organisation. They are people who are from all different parts of Core. We discuss with them the results, they take those results away, they do their own exercise of engaging with other stakeholders within the organisation, they listen to their opinion and then they come back with some advice to us as to what we can do in the next twelve months to improve our position.
And then what happens is their presentation is made to the Board of Core. And we then look at this advice and then go back and re-engage with the committee with a view to hatching a plan for the next twelve months, and that's been the process that has, we have followed every year over the entire journey.
Cathal Divilly: Fantastic, so there’s great ownership from the business around the action plan?
Alan Cox: Yeah, yeah, and it's a great tool. It's a brilliant management tool, because it shows you every year how you're doing across the full spectrum of what it is to run a business, and you can then compare and contrast different parts of the organisation, if your organisation is big enough to allow you to compare without losing the confidentiality of the data, because as you know, you can't… All of the data that is available to the organisation is entirely anonymised, and so as long as you have departments within a company that allows you to compare the data, you are in a position of tremendous strength to see “well that part of the organisation is doing very well on these metrics and this part of the organisation is doing less well. What are we doing here that we're not doing there?” So it's very rich in terms of the actions that can be established from the data.
Cathal Divilly: Great Alan, so communication - I remember being quite nervous actually about going into a communication company talking about communication being an area for opportunity, right? Can you remember when you got underneath it or when the team got underneath the Communication area? What sort of things were you not doing? Or kind of what came back to you around what could be improved?
Alan Cox: We weren't listening enough. That’s, you know, I think communication starts with listening. There's a feeling that you're communicating with your employees or your stakeholders if you're sending them emails, or if you're doing, you know, Town Halls and this and that. But you can hide behind emails, you know, you can feel that you're doing a good job of communicating, when in fact you're just talking at people. And so the most important aspect of communication is listening, and being available to answer the difficult questions.
So one of the big changes that we made is, we have always done these Town Hall events every couple of months, but we introduced anonymous questions. Initially, we asked people to ask questions, you know, at the end of the presentation you'd say “anybody in the room got any questions?” And of course, there’d be a wall of silence because the difficult and important questions wouldn't be asked in that forum. So we introduced a forum called Ask Alan where people were able to email their questions anonymised into a particular portal, if you like, which I had access to and then we would read out all of those questions, every single one of them and we would answer them all at the Town Hall presentation. That made a big difference. We only had one rule – we would answer, we would read out every single question unless it was a question about a person. That was off-limits. Everything else was on the table, so that way it made a big difference because, I think, when you're a leader of an organisation, you have to show a sense of vulnerability. If you like, being a bit naked, in front – metaphorically of course – in front of the organisation, and I think that builds tremendous trust. Because we were answering every question, in real-time, people really develop trust in the leadership of the company and I think that was the most important thing we did.
Cathal Divilly: Wow, and I guess you've got a spectrum of questions, some difficult topics, right?
Alan Cox: Oh yeah, and actually that level of trust I think probably was enhanced during the pandemic because prior to the pandemic, people would send in the emails in advance and I would read them out and then answer them at the meeting. But there was always a sense, there could have been a sense that I had enough time to prepare the answer. Whereas during the pandemic it was absolutely in real-time. Because we did it, you know virtually, so the chat line on the Teams, the live event call, meant people were asking the questions absolutely in real-time, anonymised, so there was no time to prepare any answers. And I think that made a big difference.
And so you've got very difficult questions about all kinds of operational issues, financial issues. Issues about, you know, people’s job security. You know, very challenging questions, but we answered them and I think people appreciated that.
Cathal Divilly: So a real sense of vulnerability there, and so we're putting out action plans, we’re improving. We're improving the trust levels within the organisation. Core went through quite a large transformation then, a few years back. What was that transformation? I suppose, why did you take that on and can you talk to us a bit about that?
Alan Cox: Yeah, well we decided, you know, about seven years ago now, that we needed to do a strategic review and look into the future to see what kind of organisation would thrive in our sector? So we did a very full strategic review and as a result of that we decided we needed to change the type of structure of the organisation and our proposition to be more future-focused and relevant to clients. So before that period we were a group of eight companies, eight or nine different organisations different P&Ls, you know, different ways of working albeit under one sort of cultural umbrella. And we decided that we needed to change from that organisation of eight companies into one company of eight practices. So we did away with a lot of the sub-brands and we rebranded the organisation from Core Media to Core. Wow, what a big change!
But, we then brought all of the other elements of the business under the same roof if you like, broke down all the physical barriers, all the psychological barriers to make the organisation into one team. We did away with the P&Ls, so we only need one P&L, we introduced ways and means of collaborating better together and our proposition then became, you know, offering clients everything that they may need to achieve their business ambitions in one unified organisation. So that's really the journey in a nutshell that we went through. That was challenging because again, we learned that we weren't communicating as effectively as we thought.
And in fact, you gave me one of the best pieces of advice that I heard during all of that time, Cathal. You said to me that in your experience that… and I remember this 'cause I'm quoting you directly now. You said that in your experience in talking to companies that have successfully transformed, the ones that were most successful were the ones that were obsessive about communicating at the granular level because, you know, it's not just about communicating to all of the organisation, even if you're allowing them to ask anonymous questions. You have to bring that right down to individual teams, and individuals themselves to tell them what their role is going to be in the organisation and the transformation. What does success look like for them, and to really bring it all the way through the organisation and not just have all company events, no matter how interactive they are. Empower the middle management team as well to ensure that you know when they're asked questions by their people that they are not looking like rabbits caught in headlights. That they believe and understand why we're doing it. So that belief and understanding is then very reassuring to everybody who works with them. So I have to thank you because it helped us course correct 'cause we weren't doing enough of that granular communication. Ours was too much at the all-company level, but we changed and became better at that as a result of that insight that you shared with me Cathal.
Cathal Divilly: Great Alan, and the creative were on full steam there, Core Media to Core and within all of that there was changes in peoples’ job roles at a senior level, right? There was lots of movement, anything specific you did Alan to bring the leadership team along with you, because there was lots of changes with that transformation?
Alan Cox: Yeah, lots and lots of consultation but the most important to remember about co-creation is that you can't go to people throughout the organisation, even the leadership group, you know, because we have maybe 45 people in the senior management team across the whole organisation, you can't go to those 45 people and say “OK, this is the kind of company we want to become. What should we do to get to become that company?” Because even though you might think that's the right approach, what that communicates at a human level, psychological level of people is that the leadership don't know what they're doing. They haven't a clue. So what you have to do, is you have to do a lot of the initial thinking to give sort of a wireframe, if you like, of the strategic plan that has been developed by, you know, the board of the organisation and various consultancy, if you like, both internally and externally. And then you bring that wireframe to your wider group. And then you ask for them to help co-create the remainder. Or, you know, talk through options. That's an insight that a lot of people don't realise.
And we've learned, we got that piece right. Because we had made mistakes in a smaller sense where we wanted to change a particular part of the organisation previously and we came with too much of a blank sheet of paper, it actually really scared people. So that lesson helped us I suppose, improve our way of working with the management team from that point on.
Cathal Divilly: That's a really interesting insight Alan because I think the natural urge would be co-create at the start, get as many people involved. But if we do that, then it can give that sense that maybe we're unsure around direction and where we're going?
Alan Cox: Yeah, and that's counterintuitive, right? Until you've actually experienced it and you realise shit, we got that wrong. But once you get underneath the surface of it, it's very clear, isn't it, that it's a mistake? Because people look to the leadership to lead.
Cathal Divilly: You can feel almost it's a mistake if you've gone too early around the co-creation, you just know it straight away almost. So building trust every year, focusing on improvement and an action plan – any specific moments, Alan, that stand out where the fact that you've been building trust has been useful as the business navigates its way forward?
Alan Cox: Definitely during the pandemic because we had to make some difficult decisions quickly at the outset, because when the pandemic hit two years ago, it hit our industry like a freight train. So, you know, overnight, levels of activity declined by 40% plus. And we had no idea as to how long that would last for, you know, was it going to be a V-shaped recovery as they call it, or was it going to be, you know, a bath-shaped recovery, as Martin Sorrell famously described the last global financial crisis? So we had no idea what we were facing and we had to make quick decisions and we had to cut back on our overheads and we had to reduce salaries and that was a very very challenging period. And I think the trust that we had built in the previous decade or more helped us enormously, because people really trusted us to make the right decision. And they knew that we would only be making those decisions as a last resort, and that there would be no sense of, you know, us being opportunistic. So that was the single biggest example I could share with you of where trust helped enormously an organisation navigate a crisis.
Cathal Divilly: Of course you have a proven track record of showing vulnerability not weakness, right? Or nakedness, in the metaphorical sense, with the team. You've proven you're up for dealing with the difficult questions, handling them as best you can. So did you feel you were in a rhythm already in terms of going into those communication challenges?
Alan Cox: Yeah, I feel not so much a rhythm but I feel certainly that we had built up a level of trust that I knew that would help us. And actually, that was further cemented by, during the presentations where we had to share this news about the salary cuts, you know, we again were allowing people in real time to ask really challenging questions around them. And again, so the way that those questions were answered, I think reaffirmed that level of trust. But one thing I want to say too Cathal is that, and it's very important in the journey of being a great place to work is that you can never be complacent. And you have to keep improving. Keep looking at every set of results with fresh eyes. Never feel that this is the same cycle repeating itself. There is always hugely valuable information in the survey that needs to be looked at as if it's the first time.
People sometimes focus on the league table, you know, and then you know they share “Oh look, we're a top ten company or we came #1 or we came #3, aren't we great?” I always felt that that was the wrong message because it seemed that we were doing it for a different reason, to become famous. Do you know what I mean? Or to achieve a great goal that would be, you know, we could put on our credentials presentation or CVs. I always felt that was unhelpful. It was very exciting on the night, don't get me wrong and I understand that, but in how we then communicated it to our stakeholders afterwards, I always try to turn that volume down and say that's not what's important. What's important is that every year we're trying to be a better company to work for.
Cathal Divilly: Completely agree and I actually think the ranking gets in the way of that continuous improvement mindset, which is what it's all about. Just one thing actually that just sparked there Alan, as you were chatting. There's lots of chat now about remote working, hybrid working, virtual, physical type of working and of course wellbeing is something that's come up as part of that. How do we switch on, switch off, all of that good stuff? Many years ago, Core actually got some feedback around the wellbeing piece in terms of, like, people were finding difficult to switch off sometimes. Late emails, things like that. You actually did something really simple, but was quite ahead of the curve at that stage. Could you share what that was Alan?
Alan Cox: Yeah it was, we decided… and actually I was quite sceptical, I didn't think that this small change would have such a big impact, but it did. So we I decided, and it wasn't – like I think was probably an idea that maybe you shared with us at the time, because most of the ideas that we have implemented in Core came from you sharing with us examples of how other companies address certain issues. But we decided to implement a 7 to 7 policy in relation to emails – internal emails. So we said listen, feel free to send emails to your colleagues between 7 AM and 7 PM, but don't send any emails after 7 PM unless both parties agree. You know, so if you're working on a pitch and both parties are happy to do that, fine. But by and large, no emails after 7 and it had an immediate and long-lasting effect because, even though a lot of the emails that were sent after 7 PM, people didn't expect a response to, it was a ping of stress. You know, every time your phone would make a noise. Or you'd look at it and you see a new email there. Whether you chose to read it or not, it was a ping of stress, it brought you back into the working frame of mind.
Removing that, I think, enhanced people’s work-life balance if that's an expression we still use enormously, and clients started to, even though it was never intended to be, you know, for clients, because we are in-service business and you'd be very nervous about telling clients they can't communicate with you after 7, but it just began to seep out. That this was our way of working and clients started to, you know, to follow that code as well, when they were communicating with us. It's been enormously helpful.
And you know, people who still want to do emails in the evening. All they have to do is go into their, you know, Microsoft Office and delay the email being sent until 7 o'clock the following morning – so it doesn't stop people, you know, trying to clear their desk of emails they want to send, but that was enormously helpful. Such a small change that had a big impact.
And works both sides 'cause you can still stick with your rhythm if you're getting to emails late at night, it just doesn't land the other side until that set time.
Yeah, the only problem is if you're… for whatever reason Apple doesn't have that facility in its platform, which is really weird. Whereas, you know, if you're using a PC, Windows-based machine, you can delay your emails being sent, but you can't on an Apple Mac, so I hope Tim Cook is listening.
Cathal Divilly: Tim, I hope you’re listening! We might have to go back to the house phone. Remember the days of the house phone Alan? They were great days.
Alan Cox: And you know what, it’s actually funny you say that Cathal because I was talking to a 16-year-old the other day and she said to me – and she really meant this – she said “when you were our age you didn't have telephones, isn't that right?” She actually felt that we had no telephones. There was no such thing as a telephone. No, I'm not talking about mobile phones now. Any telephone. And I thought that was a real window into the echo chamber that, you know, younger people are living in now and that it's all about the now and they're, you know, they're just exposed to whatever is in their sphere. Their social media sphere and there's very little looking back. Which does worry me a little bit, but that's just an aside.
Yeah, there should be Reeling Back The Years course, I think, in terms of education for young people, just to show we're not as old as perhaps they think.
But do you imagine what that… if you take that beyond just the telephone? I think, well, well, how did we get to the moon then? And, you know, nuclear power that was developed in the 1940s? How did all of those initiatives happen without communication? It just, went for me beyond that particular piece on the telephone into “Gosh, that's really weird that there would be that lack of understanding as to history”, and I think we always have to think about the past and remember as we now are seeing in the Ukraine, you know, we have to always remember what went before, because if we don't, history can repeat itself. I'm becoming very philosophical, sorry. I'm going off brief.
Cathal Divilly: No, you’re absolutely right, Alan. And thinking about the past, but actually thinking about the future. What's next for Alan Cox?
Alan Cox: Well, I'm looking forward very much to setting up my own business later on this year. It's in the area of business transformation, surprise, surprise, and actually during the process of transforming or being involved in the journey within Core, the change programme, discovered that there's a real gap in the market, particularly for SMEs for having some sort of software that can actually help you on your change management journey. So the software I'm developing allows organisations to measure their change readiness across 10 different criteria of transformation. And then provide solutions so that they can improve their position and start implementing effective plans. So that's what the software will achieve. So I'm very excited about that and I'm aiming it at the SME market because I feel that the larger organisations will still go to the big consultancy firms but one of the other insights about transformation or change is that most of the advice out there is about technological change and about the structure of an organisation, but not so much around aligning the stakeholders.
You know, I read a very interesting report – it’s funny whenever you look at an issue like this, there always seems to be a 70% figure you know, you often hear like “70% of mergers and acquisitions fail because of actual cultural misfit”. But I also came across a report from McKinsey that said that 70% of business transformations fail because of a lack of stakeholder alignment. So that's the piece that I'm focusing on.
Cathal Divilly: 70% is the magic number, it seems Alan. Just to end maybe on some – sorry, is it too early for the name of that new venture, Alan, or has that been…?
Alan Cox: Yeah, because I’m still building the website. I have registered the company name and all of that, but I suppose until such time as there's a website, I'll just keep that under wraps.
Cathal Divilly: No problem, well, we're excited to see what comes next there Alan. Maybe to end on some philosophical questions, right? Are you a Netflix or a TV person or what's your…?
Alan Cox: I’m both. Yeah, and you know, television is still, I think the most powerful marketing communications tool available. You know, people think that we don't watch television, live television, anymore or linear television. But we do, you know, well over half of all viewing now is done still to linear television. But you know times are changing, of course. And the amount of viewing to online platforms is growing. And so I've the full spectrum: I have Disney +. I have Amazon Prime. I have Netflix and I also have the Sky Go app on my phone, you know – so I have everything. I watch linear television and a whole range of other platforms depending on what my mood is or what I'm after.
Cathal Divilly: And a different password for each platform, perhaps, no?
Alan Cox: Yes! And actually it usen’t to be the case, but I did something – I’m going to give an advertisement for a company called Dashlane. So we all have multiple subscriptions and multiple sort of registrations on various services, and we tend to often use the same password all the time, very dangerous. This company called Dashlane, you have to pay a fee for it every month. Provides you with a secure place to store all of your passwords. So I have, I think I have about 80 different registrations. You know, not subscriptions, but like you know where you might be registered with Aer Lingus or you know, whatever or Irish. Rail for tickets, you know. And I have a different password for every single one automatically generated by Dashlane and securely held there so you know, that's a top tip. Because, you know, it's very easy. You're basically giving an opportunity on a plate to hackers. If you have the same password for all of your services.
Cathal Divilly: Great shout out for Dashlane there. I think I might be getting onto that. Any hobbies or interests Alan? Outside of this work thing.
Alan Cox: Well, I have a lot of a lot of things that I do you know at the weekends with the kids and everything like that, and particularly around the equestrian world, with one of my daughters. But the thing that I actually get the most out of personally, in terms of my personal development, is reading books but also listening to books. And I think, again, a top tip that I would leave you with is that for me a gamechanger was when I started to listen to business books by using audible.com because business books aren't page turners, right? You're not going to jump into bed at night and read a business book. However, most business books are about 8 to 10 hours long. In terms of listening. And you know, I would do 10 hours in the car, you know, at least every week or every week and a half. So I can get through a business book, listening to a business book in the car, about once every 10 days. Now I've been doing that for about four years. You can build up an enormous amount of knowledge and it's really exciting and it becomes addictive. You could, might just get one nugget of information from the book that was well worth the 10 hours you invested in listening to it, so that's a top tip. I think it's been transformational for me in terms of my understanding of things on the periphery of what I do for a living, but are still very helpful in building connections and joining the dots. In relation to being good at strategy, business strategy.
Cathal Divilly: Fantastic and you can bring stimulus in from different areas, different codes of life and it's always useful, and an enjoyable way to consume information as well. Alan, I just want to say thank you very much for joining us today. Congratulate you on the role that you played within, in terms of building such a high-trust culture within Core and all the different ups and downs of that journey. And I've learned a huge amount from seeing you in action with your leadership team and really appreciate your partnership, so thanks for joining us Alan.
Alan Cox: Not at all, if I could just echo that and say to you, Cathal, that you've been a really important stakeholder in our success in helping us and guiding us and giving us advice. And you know, and examples and connecting us with other companies who are on the journey too. And I'd also like to really call out Catherine Fitzgibbon, our HR Director, who has been, you know, hugely important in our growth and in the success of Core. And you know, I think she's the single most important person within the organisation in helping us get to where we are now in terms of our workplace culture. So thanks, Catherine.
Cathal Divilly: Thank you, well done, Catherine. Every journey needs a warrior and I think Catherine has really led the charge there in terms of the great work she has done. Alan, thanks a lot for joining us.
Alan Cox: Thank you Cathal.