Anne Dooley tells Niamh Mac Sweeney how the downturn strengthened Winthrop Engineering and Contracting to become a more experienced and stronger company.
The Irish engineering sector is an important industry for infrastructural development and the economy in general. The sector in Ireland comprises over 1,200 companies employing over 38,000 people.
One company that has been to the fore in establishing a trusted name in the mechanical and electrical (M&E) engineering construction sector is Winthrop Engineering. The company was started in 1995 and 20 years later is ranked as the sixth largest in the sector when measured by turnover, which was €53m in 2014 and is forecasted to reach €70m in 2015.
This is a significant achievement for a firm that is still considered a young company in comparison to its competitors, which in most cases are at least 50 years old. It is not so surprising given that the team of experienced directors – led by Group managing director Barry English and Dublin director James Brophy, and Waterford directors Ger O’Leary and Bernard Keane.
Winthrop install all the electrical, plumbing, heating, lighting, ventilation, air-conditioning, security services and industrial applications in large commercial buildings such as factories, hotels, office blocks, shopping centres and hospitals.
They use the example of an empty building being a human body in which they install the vital organs and the interconnecting veins of the building to give it life. Specialists in specific areas including pharma, healthcare and data centres, Winthrop’s clients include Google, Facebook, Apple, Bausch & Lomb, the Blackrock Clinic, Beacon Hospital, Mater Private, Alkermes, Interxion, GSK, MSD, Teva and Regeneron, to mention a few.
Anne Dooley, managing director, Winthrop Engineering and Contracting joined the company in the early days. “Working for a start-up was exciting and fulfilling, while also a way to stay in Ireland since most of our peers could only progress their careers abroad,” she recalls.
“The aim was to reach €1m turnover in the first year, but Winthrop outstripped that easily with revenues rising year on year: €5m in year two, to €9m in year three and €14m in year four.”
According to the managing director, being the ‘new kids on the block’ was challenging, especially as they were competing with established firms. “We had to work very hard to convince clients to put their faith in our ability, and award us projects. Our USP was that we were an engineering-led contractor, which differentiates us from many of our competitors. But it was very difficult to get on tender lists, which required us to be convincing in terms of both efficiency and proficiency.”
Not only did Winthrop have to deliver excellent, safe, well-priced work, but they also had to offer a better, more intelligent service. “We had to convince clients that taking a risk on Winthrop meant that they actually de-risked their project overall and saved money in the long-term,” Dooley says.
Despite the obvious challenges, in the first 10 years Winthrop’s client acquisition rate and project sizes grew every year. As a result, every project Winthrop completed continually built its credibility and reputation.
Dooley says that as this happened, every job became “the biggest job so far” in the company’s history, so they had to continually convince clients that they were making a decision on the safest and best-value contractor whose experience and skill set fitted their needs. “Now, 20 years later, we haven’t slowed down,” Dooley enthuses. “The Winthrop team still works incredibly hard. The successful completion of client projects is as important today as it was when we started in 1995.”
Given her experience working for an emerging engineering firm, what advice does Dooley have for other companies at the start-up stage?
“The most important thing I could say to a start-up is to be really tight on costs. Often an entrepreneur will think they need much more money than they actually do; there’s a difference between what you need and what you would like.”
I wouldn’t waste time on aspirational projections and endless spreadsheets and instead focus completely on winning work and maximising the profit out of it
According to Dooley, many start-ups focus attention on areas that aren’t as important as doing the work and getting the money in.
“I wouldn’t waste time on aspirational projections and endless spreadsheets and instead focus completely on winning work and maximising the profit out of it,” she advises. “And if you find that cash-flow isn’t positive from the start, then the model is wrong and needs to be revised.”
FACING DOWN CHALLENGES
Starting a company in a competitive sector is tough, but growing the firm during an economic downturn is especially challenging.
“The biggest challenge in the company’s history was the downturn,” Dooley says. “Not only was there a big reduction in the work available out there, but work which had been won was being postponed or cancelled and potential clients were under serious financial constraints.”
Reacting to changes across the economic landscape, Winthrop developed new revenue streams and services, focusing on the quality and safety of their product, and upgrading services.
“Overall our turnover reduced by 40% from our peak level. In industry terms that was still successful but it was a huge drop for any company to deal with.” But by identifying and accepting the changes, Winthrop was able to respond to the economic climate and this agility was its saving grace.
Dooley recalls: “At the time we considered going abroad but decided it would dilute our management structure too severely across multiple markets. So instead we decided to work at becoming the best in-class in our sector in Ireland. It was the right decision because as a result we won some very nice projects at home during the downturn.”
During the boom, Winthrop’s focus was on commercial work. “We had always intended to go into the industrial/pharma area, but accelerated that plan in the downturn. As a result we developed a new specialist revenue stream and have acquired and retained prestigious clients such as Regeneron, Teva and GSK.”
By focusing on safety and quality systems, Winthrop has won some very prestigious safety awards – not just in the construction sector, but right across different industries. And in 2008 the company identified and brought Building Information Modelling (BIM), or advanced 3D modelling, to its clients.
“Today we continue to invest heavily in equipment and specific technical training in this sector,” Dooley says. “We see the industry move towards adopting common BIM standards on larger projects because it makes the sharing of information easier and more streamlined. Not only does it give clients a clear understanding of their proposed installation prior to any site works, it also offers a better quality end product with more possibilities for prefabrication in a controlled environment.”
With regard to the industry in general, Dooley says that the sector has shrunk and, in some cases, consolidated, but that the remaining firms are stronger and more stable than before.
“As a result the sector is well positioned for the large volume of work we anticipate over the next five years. A large influx of work will pose its own challenges in terms of resources and suppliers. The biggest daily challenge is to economically and safely provide a quality product for clients, every time. Producing environmentally friendly buildings is also a challenge since businesses such as ours need to assist in the selection, design and installation of systems which reduce energy running costs for clients.”
Winthrop’s standards are high, and its priorities are to maintain and improve its position in the marketplace while also seeking to continually improve on quality, safety and sustainability.
Winthrop is investing heavily in technology and concentrating on the continuous professional development of its staff. This is to ensure that staff are fully equipped to efficiently manage and build high-standard projects.
“Lean management principles are applied to all our projects in a practical manner – analysing how we approach day-to-day tasks to maximise actual production time has given significant productivity improvements on site,” Dooley says.
“From a broader perspective there are changes underway in the economy which will change the landscape in the M&E and construction sectors. In a balanced economy there tends to be a seven-year cycle. The downturn created a shortage in the supply of infrastructural development. As a result of both this and increased FDI investment in Ireland we’re looking at three-to-five year catch-up, but then I anticipate it will level off.”
Dooley says that for economic stability we need to ensure that construction stays as a byproduct of the economy, not the economy itself. “Construction should be 9-10% of the GDP of a stable economy, not 25% which is what it was during the boom,” Dooley concludes.