“The successful implications of what we do will have a beneficial impact on every adult, child and all other life on earth” – CEO Q&A with Don McLean from IES

By Business & Finance
09 February 2022

Pictured: Don McLean, CEO at IES

Over the last 25 years, IES has built a solid reputation as the leading global innovator in integrated performance-based analysis for the built environment. Its Digital Twin technology facilitates the creation of resource-efficient, healthy and cost-effective built-environments of any size or purpose – supporting citizens, companies, campuses, communities, cities and even countries.

What are your main priorities and goals in your role?

Ensuring our technology will be a significant tool to facilitate the decarbonisation of the built environment. That requires that we have the appropriate technology and we ensure that we continue to grow to respond to the demand. We’ve been in a growth spell now since the 2008 financial crash, so we are doing well and I want to ensure we continue growing. Achieving the company mission is most important to me: getting our technology used globally by all market segments to effectively decarbonise the built environment. Whilst turning a profit and sustaining growth are important, the goal and the mission is why people work with us and enjoy what they’re doing.

How do you keep your team/ staff motivated?

By continually reminding them of our purpose and mission as a company. To be honest, I’ve got it pretty easy when it comes to this. IES staff are extremely motivated by what they are doing to combat humanity’s biggest threat – climate change.  

They are reminded every day when there is a new report of a climate disaster somewhere, whether that be a forest fire, flooding, or hurricanes, and at the same time it is being reported that governments are still not doing enough to cut emissions. So, I encourage staff to talk to their friends and families about what they do and how it is contributing to this global cause. I try to remind them as often as possible of the magnitude of the company mission and the part that each play. And by sharing this with family and friends, they get a real sense of pride in what they are doing. 

What are the challenges facing the industry going forward?

Climate Tech and especially Digital Twins for decarbonising the built environment is a relatively new industry. There is a lot of misinformation and disinformation kicking about that makes it extremely confusing and leaves people feeling like they don’t know where to start. There is a strong understanding that the built environment needs to be decarbonised, but little understanding as to how. Our challenge is to communicate that the solutions are available now to lay out a road map to net-zero carbon and ensure net-zero targets are met. 

What new trends are emerging in your industry?

People are becoming much more aware of climate change and the imminent dangers it presents. The need to decarbonise has never been greater and built environment professionals are coming under increasing pressure to introduce net-zero strategies and ensure buildings are as sustainable as possible. 

With the pandemic, healthy buildings with good ventilation have become a priority, so things like the WELL Building Standard and Air Quality Building standards are on more building agendas. IES digital twin technology can address all these issues to help make buildings meet the requirements to pass these standards. 

ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) is another trend that people are starting to pay more attention to. Although there is the challenge of helping people understand how to make their buildings more sustainable and to achieve net-zero carbon, we’re seeing them try to do this through these kinds of secondary approaches because investors are putting on pressure to focus on ESG. I would say that the main new trend is that people are beginning to look at the need to decarbonise because of these external factors.

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

Yes, we need to get new technologies and solutions, such as our Digital Twin, up front and centre in decarbonisation strategies as it’s the only way to properly address how we decarbonise the built environment. Governments need to do more to endorse the tools and solutions that are available and start taking real action instead of just making pledges. By taking a coordinated approach, governments can help vulnerable countries that are going to feel the worst of climate change first if we don’t meet net-zero targets on time. 

I attended COP26 this year and people were applauding the announcement that 18 countries have introduced new building regulations in order to make their buildings sustainable. This made me shudder as every single person in the construction industry knows of something called the performance gap. This is where buildings don’t perform the way they’re designed. Building regulations are a major cause of this problem because they don’t account for unregulated energy use such as that used in the operation of a building. This means that buildings end up consuming far more energy than they were designed to consume, resulting in those buildings being much more expensive to decarbonise. 

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

Yes, we are seeing many skill gaps through our recruitment; it can be very difficult to find the skills we need, especially in software development roles. This is a new market with many sub-markets. Looking at the bigger picture from a decarbonisation point of view, we estimate that if we’re going to decarbonise 10,000 medium-to-large buildings we would require a thousand people to do that over the course of a year. There are maybe at most fifteen to twenty thousand people in the world that have the skills to work on this, meaning you’re talking about only being able to tackle 150,000 buildings a year, which is nowhere near enough at the rate that we need to make a significant difference. 

How has Brexit affected you?

Overall, we have not been significantly affected by Brexit. We planned ahead and put a lot of contingencies in place to ensure we got around any possible road blocks and I’m pleased to say they have worked well. I would say, if anything, it has slightly affected recruitment and skills as it’s now not as easy to employ staff from Europe.

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

We have been lucky to have got through the pandemic relatively unscathed so far. Being a technology company, we were able to react very quickly and get everyone up and running at home with ease. Despite lockdowns, our staff worked really well, and in some ways even more productively than if in the office. So, we are looking at how we retain some of that and strike a good balance going forward. In terms of our sector, business is still thriving and things are still evolving all the time, so I’ve really seen no major impact caused by the pandemic in the sector.

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

For me success is very easy to define: the decarbonisation of the built environment. And the way I would measure success is knowing that IES technology and knowledge has been used to save a large proportion of the CO2 emissions caused by the built environment. Our technology has been used on over a million medium to large sized buildings so far and has saved the need for 38,500MW power stations to be built.

What is encouraging is that we are starting to see many new and existing markets looking for our technology. For example, companies are looking for decarbonisation roadmaps, increasing operational efficiency of buildings, sustainability, staff health and wellbeing and a number of other solutions that we are in a unique position to supply.

In terms of what drives me to succeed, well that’s simple: the successful implications of what we do will have a beneficial impact on every adult, child and all other life on earth. How many people can say that about their job? To know IES is making a massive difference to our children’s and their children’s future is all the motivation I need.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given, or would give, in business?
You’ve got to believe in what you’re doing and know that it’s 100% right. Be honest with yourself, look in the mirror and say: is this the right thing? Am I kidding myself or am I right? And if you can do that, then fight for what you believe in because you then know that is what you were born to do.

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

I’m extremely proud of the way that IES staff have rallied and responded through the pandemic, that’s been a definite highlight. Also, we’ve seen a notably increased understanding of what we do by very major companies around the world that are now looking to partner with us. And what’s really nice is that we’re not only able to help them achieve their objectives, but we are helping them to help their customers achieve their objectives as well.

What’s next for your company?

We want to continue the momentum to make a difference. Our mission is the most important thing. We have a huge opportunity to make a significant difference globally and we need to ramp up our efforts and make sure those that look after buildings, campuses and cities etc. are aware of our technology and how it can help them meet their net-zero goals. The market is now beginning to understand the significance of what we are doing and these companies are looking to partner with us or asking for our help to plan their routes to net-zero. So, overall, I see massive growth for us in the next few years and more big collaborations to facilitate our mission.

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

I’d like to see our ICL Digital Twin technology frequently discussed in governments, the public sector, industry and for more people to understand the significance of what IES can do, so that they start to look for us instead of us for them.