“I try to keep a reasonably narrow span of control” – CEO Q&A with Sean O’Toole, CEO of Standard Control Systems

By Business & Finance
24 February 2021
Sean O'Toole, CEO Standard Control Systems
Pictured: Sean O’Toole, CEO of Standard Control Systems

Sean O’Toole is CEO of Standard Control Systems, a provider of integrated building energy management systems, a critical component to managing the energy demand of large scale buildings in the data centre, pharmaceutical, healthcare and large international retail sector. Sean has overseen growth in the business of over 50% in the last five years.

What are your main priorities and goals in your role?

In the short term, the priority is the need to steer the organisation through the current pandemic and deal with all the new challenges that we face. Above all, it’s about keeping our people safe, particularly important, given our need to travel. Thereafter, we hope to be well positioned to develop and to grow alongside our partners.  We are continually endeavouring to innovate and hone our offering. I see this as paramount to our success. We always assume our competitors are doing this so our motto is “if we are not moving forward, we are moving backwards”.

What are your biggest challenges as CEO? 

I try to keep a reasonably narrow span of control. I cannot have my fingers in every pie – nor do I want to. It is difficult sometimes to fully appreciate the strengths and capabilities of people within an organisation as it grows – but it is essential. I have seen the stultifying effects on organisations where a founder or MD supervises everything from sales to accounts to putting out the bins – these are small organisations to begin with and they generally stay that way. I know it’s a cliché, but you have to foster talent and intervene only where necessary. It’s about delegation without abdication.

How do you keep your team/ staff motivated?

Through a process of continuous engagement. I think if staff see senior management treading water then they will do likewise. Every member of staff has to witness and be involved in the evolution of an organisation. In the case of Standard Control Systems, all staff have seen significant change over the past few years and they have all bought into it. They have supported & benefitted from our move towards focussing more on the Data Centre and Life Science sectors across multiple jurisdictions.

What are the challenges facing the industry going forward?

Whilst we conduct all of our system engineering in our Dublin and Belfast offices and we procure our principal components on the island of Ireland, we must attend site to conduct detailed system commissioning and handover post-installation. So, as we internationalise the business exponentially we must partner with local support providers. The challenge is selecting the right like-minded partners to work alongside our commissioning staff.

What new trends are emerging in your industry?

Rightly, there is a now huge focus on the sustainable use of energy across all sectors. The data centre builders for example have come under immense pressure of late to reduce their carbon footprints and they are rising to the challenge. We are working closely with them to deliver on this. Designing Building Energy Management Systems (BEMS) was regarded as a dark art 25 years ago but not anymore. We are now entering a new phase where the system employed is less important than the way it is deployed and how it is utilised upon completion. End-users are more informed and want to utilise these systems to drive down their energy bills and move towards net-zero emissions. They are also becoming more system agnostic as open protocols mean they are not ‘locked in’ with a system forever. This, along with the increased scale of projects and the speed of delivery will greatly increase barriers to entry so in Standard Control Systems we foresee a likelihood of some consolidation in the market.

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

We would like to see the development of Control Systems Engineering courses to degree level in 3rd level institutions. We hire many qualified electricians and electrical engineers but it can take years for them to become skilled BEMS Controls Engineers. We are using complex software and electronics to manage and monitor all building utilities including electrical and mechanical plant, so our comfort zone is somewhere between the two.

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

In the engineering sector generally, there is a huge skills gap. We took the decision a number of years ago to focus on in-house development of our own BMS engineers. To that end, we now have a purpose-built training centre with a fulltime training manager. We are always interested in hearing from qualified Electricians and Electrical Engineers  who want to move to this industry. Furthermore, we are involved with the graduate trainee programme with TU Dublin. Every year we offer 6-month internships to 3rd year students who get to see what we do and how we do it. Many of these students, upon graduating, have come to work for us. So yes, there is a skills deficit and as an SME we have to continually think about how to attract and retain staff. It may seem obvious, but the very customers we train our staff to serve, are the very people who are most interested in recruiting our staff.

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

We were lucky in that it had little effect. We were working across many sectors: Pharmaceutical, Healthcare & Educational. We don’t do residential projects but we were involved in some commercial & hotel builds – these being the sectors that suffered most. So, we had ‘many legs supporting our table’. To continue pushing the company in the right direction, we sought and secured contracts in the Middle East and in The UK.  Also, it was around this time that we opened our offices in Belfast and we completed a major project in Bombardier Aerospace for John Sisk & Son. This was our steppingstone into Northern Ireland and we have gone from strength to strength there since. Furthermore, it’s a great launching pad into Great Britain. We are working with some major NI contractors who are very ambitious and forward looking – they in turn want to work with local companies who they know and trust.

How will Brexit affect you, or have you started to feel the effects already?

It has already started to affect us but we are determined not to let it distract us. We hope that any issues around duty etc will be quickly resolved and that things will settle to a new norm. Over the past year we put a lot of effort into working with suppliers, both old and new, to source critical items within the EU.  Trading between NI, GB and Ireland is throwing up new challenges on a daily basis, but we will climb that steep learning curve quickly.

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

Like any SME there is an imperative to focus on the bottom line. No matter what we do, we have to make a profit and always ensure we maintain a sustainable business. For me, a key metric of success and, of paramount importance for sustainability, is customer retention. Even today, after more than 35 years, there are Pharmaceutical & Healthcare companies in Ireland with whom we still have very close relationships: they trust us to deliver. There are very large Mechanical & Electrical contractors for whom we have worked for decades in many jurisdictions. Nobody is ever going to write you a blank cheque, but certainly the important business relationships, for us, are most definitely way beyond a pure commercial transaction. Like most businesses, the pareto rule applies: you get 80% of your business from 20% of your customers! So, in essence, success is about winning and retaining customers by giving them what they want at a price that’s fair. We like people to do business with us because they want to, not because they have to.

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

Never lose sight of what business is all about. It’s not a mystery: you have to have something that somebody wants to buy and you have to sell it at a margin. It seems obvious, but I have seen quite a few business owners lose sight of 1st principals. I have seen them take their eye off the ball and focus on financial ‘reengineering’ or on activities tangential to their core business about which they know nothing. I have seen this occur many times to the detriment of the core business. Stick to what you’re good at and get better at it! Try to emulate those you know or admire, who have succeeded and remember, overnight success usually doesn’t happen in the real world.

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

It’s been a tough year for everyone. It is of course very sectoral dependent and I suppose we have been fortunate in that our Data Centre, Pharmaceutical & Healthcare works were and are deemed essential. A highlight for us was keeping our promises to customers in Ireland, Sweden and in the Middle East and surmounting countless COVID-19 challenges along the way. It’s a testament to our wonderful staff at home and abroad who really have blossomed in the face of adversity.

What’s next for your company?

We are very active in Sweden at present and we see tremendous growth potential in that area over the coming years, so I foresee us establishing an office there. We are focussing more than ever on R&D to utilise artificial intelligence in our software configuration tools to drive down design costs. We have an ambitious growth target over the next 5 years and this will involve significant recruitment and training. We know this business is scalable both domestically and internationally.

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

We want to continue to be regarded as a foremost solutions provider to the aforementioned sectors. The market is there for the taking so we have to ensure we continually innovate and grow to meet demand. Above all, we have to maintain the trust of our existing clients.