“Client satisfaction is always one of my top priorities,” — CEO Q&A with Richard O’Farrell of Engineering Design Consultants

By Business & Finance
05 July 2023
Photograph: Eamon Ward

Richard O’Farrell is the founder and Managing Director of Engineering Design Consultants (EDC), which was founded in Cork in 2003. 

Furthermore, client satisfaction is always one of my top priorities. Meeting and, wherever possible, exceeding our client’s expectations is at the core of everything we do. 

What are your main priorities and goals in your role?

In recent years, one of my main priorities has been to develop high-performing teams with exceptional leaders. I believe that investing in our people is the key to the continued success of EDC.

I am dedicated to nurturing talent and providing ample opportunities for growth while fostering a culture of shared learning and development.

This is key to enabling us to deliver the best services to our valued clients and, importantly, ensures that we learn from mistakes and not shy away from pushing ourselves to always be innovating. 

When it comes to building high-performing teams and leadership, I have learnt that it goes beyond just technical expertise. Cultivating a strong sense of camaraderie and collaboration among our employees is key.

We now have six offices, and that brings with it its own challenges, so a priority for me is encouraging open communication, innovation, and creativity, to empower our teams to tackle complex challenges and consistently deliver outstanding results.

Furthermore, client satisfaction is always one of my top priorities. Meeting and, wherever possible, exceeding our client’s expectations is at the core of everything we do. 

We have built enduring relationships and earned the trust of our clients as a reliable partner because of this. Over the next 12–18 months, the aim is to continue to drive our Nationwide growth in Ireland, as well as expand our presence in the UK. 

What are your biggest challenges as CEO?

As the Managing Director, I face a range of challenges that require resilience and adaptability. External factors such as inflation, war, and bank meltdowns, can impact our workflow and the construction sector as a whole, making it essential to navigate uncertainty successfully.

Managing stakeholders and understanding clients’ drivers for project success is a crucial aspect, as effective communication and collaboration are key to meeting expectations. Balancing risk and reward, while seizing growth opportunities, requires constant assessment and informed decision-making.

Additionally, building and retaining talent is a top priority. Creating a positive work culture and providing opportunities for employee growth and advancement are daily discussions as we recognise the value of our people.

These challenges shape my role as Managing Director and drive me to overcome obstacles, ensuring the continued success of our organisation in the dynamic construction industry.

How do you keep your team/staff motivated?

Our staff are our business, and we ensure we listen to them as carefully as we listen to our clients. Recently, we have made significant investments in a comprehensive staff-based business review.

This review focuses on total rewards and performance development, recognising and rewarding their contributions to the company’s success.

In addition, I firmly believe in maintaining open lines of communication with our staff. I am transparent about the challenges and wins we have as a business. By fostering good communication, we eliminate any false information that can be demotivating.

Every month, we hold a lively and informative company-wide communication session, where we share updates, celebrate achievements, and create a positive and engaging atmosphere.

The personal and professional development of our staff is important, and as such we encourage continuous learning to enhance both their soft skills and technical expertise.

We engage with each employee’s progress and development on a monthly basis, through a dedicated one-to-one programme. Through these one-to-ones we ensure that our people have the tools and skills they require to be successful.

We firmly believe that an engaged team is a motivated team.

Overall, we keep our team motivated by actively listening to their feedback, providing recognition and rewards, maintaining transparent communication, and fostering a culture of continuous personal and professional development.

By prioritising their growth and well-being, we cultivate a motivated and high-performing team that drives our business forward.

In Ireland, the planning system has emerged as a significant obstacle to progress. Delays and inefficiencies within the system can impede project timelines and hinder overall development. Addressing these challenges and streamlining the planning process will be crucial for the industry’s growth and success.

What are the challenges facing the industry going forward?

The challenges facing the industry going forward are multifaceted and require careful navigation. One of the most prominent challenges is ensuring project viability.

The cost of building and developing projects across Ireland and the UK has significantly increased in recent years. This surge in costs places immense pressure on businesses, making it essential to find innovative solutions to maintain project feasibility.

In Ireland, the planning system has emerged as a significant obstacle to progress. Delays and inefficiencies within the system can impede project timelines and hinder overall development. Addressing these challenges and streamlining the planning process will be crucial for the industry’s growth and success.

Additionally, the cost of finance and interest rates poses a real impact on the industry. High borrowing costs and fluctuating interest rates can strain the financial feasibility of projects, making it essential to carefully manage financial resources and seek favourable financing options.

From an Engineering Consultancy perspective, the professional indemnity (PI) insurance industry has faced significant challenges following the Grenfell disaster. The increased scrutiny and tighter regulations surrounding fire safety have led to heightened insurance requirements.

As a result, the PI insurance industry has transformed from being a mere cost of doing business, to a genuine business challenge. Navigating this evolving insurance landscape and ensuring adequate coverage has become a crucial aspect for designers in the industry.

What new trends are emerging in your industry?

In our industry, several new trends are emerging that are shaping the way we operate and deliver projects. One significant trend is the focus on carbon reduction and embodied carbon reduction in construction projects. 

Sustainability is a major driver in construction currently, and this is driving demand for efficient low-carbon, energy-efficient solutions. This has led to refurbishment projects gaining more momentum, as well as a surge in mechanical and energy upgrades aimed at reducing energy consumption.

Another trend that has been gaining traction year after year is offsite construction. This method, widely adopted in both the UK and Irish markets, aligns well with our capabilities at EDC.

As detailed designers with a history of producing fabrication-level engineering designs, we are well-suited to take advantage of the offsite construction trend.

This approach offers benefits such as increased efficiency, reduction in waste, reduced construction time, and enhanced quality control.

Additionally, there is a growing emphasis on digitalisation and the integration of these technologies in the engineering and construction industry.

Building Information Modeling (BIM) has become a standard practice, enabling better collaboration and coordination among project stakeholders. 

Are there any major changes you would like to see in your sector?

One significant change I would like to see is the increased adoption of offsite construction solutions by the industry. This approach has shown tremendous potential in accelerating project delivery and overcoming bottlenecks.

The benefits it offers are remarkable, ranging from improved speed and quality to enhanced health and safety measures, waste reduction, and carbon footprint reduction.

Embracing offsite construction can not only lead to cost savings for clients but also enable shorter construction programs, allowing them to generate revenue faster. It’s a win-win situation that combines both financial advantages and sustainable practices.

By embracing these changes and trends, the construction sector can not only meet the evolving needs of clients but also contribute to a more efficient, sustainable, and resilient built environment.

Rapid advancements in technology are reshaping the skills required in the engineering field.

As an employer are you finding any skill gaps in the market?

The combination of the economic crash, the ongoing impact of the pandemic, and changes in career development patterns have led to a decline in the level of experience within the industry.

This shortage of experienced professionals has posed a real challenge for our organisation.

One notable consequence of this skill gap is that projects have become increasingly complex to deliver. While the engineering aspects may be relatively straightforward, the real difficulty lies in effectively managing the construction process on site.

This requires a range of transversal skills beyond technical expertise. Engineers now need to be proficient in managing client relationships and effectively collaborating with the wider design team.

The success of a project is highly dependent on the ability to navigate these relationships and ensure seamless coordination.

Rapid advancements in technology are reshaping the skills required in the engineering field. Professionals need to adapt and upskill themselves to keep pace with these technological shifts.

Additionally, sustainability and environmental considerations are gaining prominence, requiring engineers to possess knowledge and expertise in sustainable design and construction practices.

As an employer, we are actively addressing the skill gaps by striving to stay ahead of the rapidly evolving demands of the market, investing in training programs, and promoting a culture of continuous learning and development.

By doing so, we strive to ensure our employees possess the diverse skill set required to tackle the complexities of modern engineering projects and drive overall project success.

How did your strategy develop in the context of the banking crisis and economic crisis?

In the challenging context of the banking crisis and economic downturn, our strategy underwent a significant transformation to ensure resilience and continued growth.

Recognising the need for adaptability, we focused on diversifying our sectors of operation. By broadening the range of sectors and geographics we serve, we mitigated the risks associated with relying heavily on a single sector.

This strategic move allowed us to tap into new markets, maintain a steady workflow, and create a more robust business model.

Simultaneously, we expanded our services offered to cater to changing market demands and client needs. By leveraging our expertise and identifying emerging trends, we diversified our service portfolio.

This enabled us to provide comprehensive solutions that encompassed a wider scope, meeting the evolving requirements of our clients. By staying attuned to market shifts and aligning our services accordingly, we maintained a competitive edge and ensured long-term sustainability.

Cost management played a pivotal role in navigating the crisis. We implemented rigorous cost control measures and optimised our operational efficiency.

This involved streamlining processes, adopting lean practices, and leveraging technology to drive productivity and reduce overheads.

By closely monitoring expenditures and making informed decisions, we ensured the effective utilisation of resources while maintaining financial stability.

How has the COVID-19 crisis affected your business/sector?

The COVID-19 crisis has undoubtedly presented numerous challenges for our business and the construction sector as a whole. However, at EDC, we were fortunate in one aspect: we were already well-equipped with communication solutions that facilitated seamless collaboration between our offices.

Prior to the pandemic, we had implemented a hybrid working model that allowed our team members to choose between working from home or the office, depending on their preferences and needs.

Additionally, we introduced a flexible arrangement where employees could work remotely for an entire month, providing them with greater flexibility and enabling a better work-life balance.

The pandemic has also brought to light the importance of maintaining a healthy work-life balance. As a response to this growing need, we introduced ‘Life Balance days’ within our organisation.

These days serve as dedicated time for our employees to focus on their personal well-being and rejuvenation. Whether it’s pursuing hobbies, spending quality time with family, or simply taking a break from work, these days offer our team members the opportunity to prioritise self-care and achieve a healthier balance between their personal and professional lives.

The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated certain trends within our industry.

We have witnessed increased adoption of digital technologies and virtual collaboration tools, allowing us to conduct virtual meetings, site inspections, and project reviews. Remote project management has become more prevalent, with teams leveraging cloud-based platforms and project management software to ensure smooth coordination and communication.

Sustainability and resilience have also emerged as significant trends. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of designing and constructing buildings that can withstand unforeseen challenges, such as health crises and climate change.

Our focus has shifted towards incorporating sustainable practices and resilient design principles into our projects, ensuring the long-term viability and adaptability of the structures we create.

How do you define success and what drives you to succeed?

For me, success is defined by several key factors. One crucial measure we use at EDC is repeat work from our clients, which stands at an impressive 94%. When our clients continue to choose us for their projects, it is a clear indication that we are delivering exceptional results and meeting their expectations.

This level of repeat work not only showcases our ability to consistently deliver high-quality projects but also demonstrates the trust and satisfaction our clients have in our services.

Another important aspect of success, especially in the competitive market we operate in, is staff retention and continuity.

Retaining talented professionals and fostering continuity within our teams is a testament to our success in building a strong workforce. It ensures that we can maintain consistent project delivery and leverage the collective expertise and experience of our employees.

Additionally, staying ahead of industry trends and embracing new technologies is crucial to our success. The construction industry is rapidly evolving, and we continuously strive to be at the forefront of innovation.

By adopting emerging trends such as sustainable construction practices, digitalisation, and off-site manufacturing, we can provide cutting-edge solutions that align with the evolving needs of our clients.

What drives me to succeed is the inherent passion I have for our industry and the desire to make a positive impact. Seeing our projects come to life, creating spaces that enhance people’s lives, and contributing to the development of communities is incredibly rewarding.

I am also motivated by the opportunity to lead and inspire our teams, fostering a culture of excellence, collaboration, and continuous improvement.

In the business landscape, not every day goes according to plan, but it’s crucial to maintain perspective. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business?

When it comes to the best advice I’ve received or would give, in the business world, it boils down to a simple yet powerful philosophy:

‘Sometimes we win and sometimes we learn!’ This perspective emphasises the value of embracing both successes and setbacks as opportunities for growth. In the business landscape, not every day goes according to plan, but it’s crucial to maintain perspective. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

This advice reminds us that challenges and failures are not the end of the road but rather stepping stones on the path to success. Each setback presents a chance to learn, adapt, and improve.

By embracing these experiences and applying the lessons learned, we can continuously refine our strategies, expand our knowledge, and enhance our skills.

It reminds us that setbacks are not indicative of our capabilities or worth as individuals or organisations. Instead, they serve as opportunities to reassess, innovate, and discover new approaches.

By embracing this mindset, we develop the resilience necessary to overcome obstacles and thrive in an ever-changing business landscape.

What have been your highlights in business over the past year?

Over the past year, our business has experienced several remarkable highlights. We’ve come to realise that while some growth can occur organically, sustaining it requires a dedicated focus on optimising our processes.

At EDC, we have taken this challenge head-on and executed a comprehensive review of our processes to support the next phase of our company’s growth along with expanding our Nationwide presence in Ireland by opening a 4th office in Galway.

Witnessing this effort come together has been truly fantastic.

We were also thrilled to receive the prestigious ICE (Irish Construction Excellence) award for design innovation. It was a nice testament to the hard work and creativity of our talented team!

Innovation will remain a key driver for us. We aim to foster a culture that encourages creative thinking and empowers our employees to contribute innovative ideas.

What’s next for your company?

The next phase for our company is centred around expanding our market share in the industrial and life science sectors. Currently, these sectors make up approximately 30% of our revenue, and our goal is to increase this to 50%.

We see a strong potential for growth and innovation in this sector and we are determined to capitalise on the opportunities they present.

One of the strengths of our company lies in its diverse geographies and sectors. This diversity has proven to be a significant advantage, especially during challenging times.

It provides us with a level of resilience and protection against uncertainties that can impact the business landscape. By maintaining a diverse portfolio and expanding our presence in different sectors, we can navigate through tough periods with greater stability and flexibility.

Where do you want your business/brand to be this time next year?

We have ambitious goals for where I want us to be this time next year. Expanding our market presence by securing more industrial and life science projects is a priority.

This growth will not only increase our revenue but also allow us to explore new sectors and diversify our portfolio.

To achieve this, we aim to become the MEP consultant of choice for off-site production, 

We are committed to continuously improving our processes and efficiency for the benefit of our clients. By optimising our workflows, leveraging automation, and embracing innovative solutions, we can deliver projects faster, reduce costs, and provide even greater value to our clients.

Diversity is also a crucial aspect of EDC that we are deeply passionate about. We want to create an inclusive and diverse work environment that celebrates differences and fosters creativity.

By promoting diversity in our teams, we can access a broader range of perspectives, ideas, and expertise, ultimately driving innovation and enabling us to better serve our clients.

Innovation will remain a key driver for us. We aim to foster a culture that encourages creative thinking and empowers our employees to contribute innovative ideas.

By staying at the forefront of industry trends and exploring emerging technologies, we can develop groundbreaking solutions that address our clients’ evolving needs and challenges.


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