“Do we give people a solution to implement or give them a problem to solve”–60 Seconds with Barry Downes, Country Manager of Affidea Ireland

60 Seconds With, Business, Interviews | Wed 8 Aug | Author – Business & Finance
Barry Downes, Country Manager, Affidea Ireland.

Barry Downes, Country Manager of Affidea Ireland, on change management, pairing a vision with a plan of action and when to trust your gut.

Q. What was your first job?

Growing up, I was out working at the earliest opportunity. On Saturday mornings I was caddying in The K Club and then moved to working in a bar. From 16 onwards, I spent my summers working as a general operative / labourer in CRH Roadstone. I made decorative ridge tiles! 

After graduating, my first professional job was as a Projects / Maintenance Engineer with CRH Roadstone at their brick plant in Kilkenny. It was a really fantastic learning opportunity. I was exposed to all aspects of engineering, production, union relations, health and safety management as well as the purchasing of new plant and equipment in Europe and overseeing its installation.

It was also my first “real” job where I had to manage teams of people that were older and significantly more experienced and knowledgeable than I was. No third level course can prepare you for that. It was a really steep learning curve and I made plenty of mistakes but I had a fantastic General Manager who was always nearby to make sure that I could never cause too much damage!

Q. What would you regard as your greatest achievement to date?

One achievement that I am extremely satisfied with related to my time working with an infrastructure firm in Canada. I was in charge of a region that had the worst safety record both in the company and within its industry. When I arrived, the TIR (total incident rate) was 74. Essentially people were getting injured every day. In Ontario when you call an ambulance for a work-related accident, the police are automatically dispatched, as are the Ministry of Labour who, similar to our own Health & Safety Authority, who have the ability to shut down your location. 

This was a company who were previously listed but had acquired significant assets at the wrong time and with the downturn in the industry they could no longer meet their covenants. The firm was made private by a large PE firm and our task was to clean it up for an eventual sale. It was a toxic environment, no trust between employees and management, the labour unions and management weren’t communicating, the product we were producing was poor quality and our financials were abysmal.

When I left two years later, our TIR was the lowest in the country (<10), there was a significant increase in engagement and a more open and trusting culture. Product quality increased, management and union officials met weekly and we went from being the worst business unit in the company to becoming the best. Other companies would often visit us to ask how we achieved what we did.

My proudest moment was when I was finishing up in this role prior to moving home to take up my position in Affidea and one of our general labourers came to shake my hand and say “Thank you. We now have a job because of what you have helped us achieve.” That was a very proud and emotional moment for me.

Q. In three words or less, how do you define success?

Family, Friendship and Health–nothing is more important than your health.

Q. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

That’s a difficult one. I have been fortunate to have worked for some great people over the course of my career. From nuggets such as “trust but verify”, to one seasoned CEO telling me that following your gut instinct is often the right thing to do. If you have doubts and they are constantly playing on your mind then you already know what needs to be actioned.

One of my former CEOs left a lasting impression on me. We had spent weeks preparing a transformation plan, looking at everything from operations, through to labour relations, procurement and production. We presented this plan to the board. The CEO told us that he really liked the presentation, appreciated all the work that we put into it but that even though he understood from our presentation where we were currently and where we were going to and why we wanted to change, he still didn’t understand “the what and the how”. What exactly were we changing and how exactly we were going to achieve that desired outcome. A vision without a structured and organised plan of action is often worse than no vision at all.

Q. How do you motivate yourself and your staff?

For me, it’s about reaching a goal or ambition, knowing that each day we are getting closer to achieving what we set out to deliver. Leaders need to bring energy and vision to any business setting – particularly if that business is undergoing significant change. Change management can be both very interesting and very challenging but it requires a lot of energy to happen. My philosophy is, do we give people a solution to implement or give them a problem to solve? Most people desire three things–Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose. Good leaders set and communicate the vision, ensure the environment provided can assist staff to realise the vision and then offer support as required.

Q. If you could step into the shoes of one businessperson for a day, who would it be and why?

I would be a great admirer of people who have managed to build their own successful companies or who have faced adversity in the workplace as they rebuilt an existing underperforming company and brought them to a successful position. I think stepping into the shoes of Archie Normans in the 1990’s when he was working in ASDA would have been a very interesting experience. Over the course of eight or nine years he managed to bring the almost bankrupt retailer back to a leadership position before its eventual sale to Walmart. 

Q. How do you relax?

I still hurl with my local club in Kildare–every year is my last year! I also like to run, I find boxing is a great stress reliever. I really enjoy reading. Last thing in the evening I find reading is the best way to wind down and switch off.

Q. What’s your motto?

We are not here to compete–we are here to win!

Q. What are your aspirations for the future of the business?

From a commercial view our objective at Affidea is to become one of the leading providers of healthcare in Ireland. From a personal view, it is to create a company where people want to work, and a company that other companies and institutions want to work with. If we can accomplish both of those objectives then our commercial objective will be self-realising.


We’re not here to compete–we are here to win!