Gary Byrne says the last 12 months for Designer Group, like almost all businesses, was challenging but the Group’s long history of success saw it weather that storm. Now the Operations Director at the firm says its proven ability to complete projects during that testing period will be the gateway to even more success this year and next.
Established in 1992, Designer Group, an MEP contracting business, has key markets in Ireland, Europe, Africa and beyond. Its portfolio of work spans several sectors including pharmaceuticals, data centres, manufacturing, commercial and infrastructure.
Designer Group’s turnover was more than €265m as reported in its most recent 2019 financial statement and while its 2020 revenue was reduced on the previous year, it was merely a reflection of the impact of Covid lockdown.
“We are now growing again and have a strong pipeline,” Gary says. The industry is used to having a number of balls in the air, multiple variables and challenges, but 9 times out of 10 you can find solutions to a particular challenge, figure things out and get on with delivering. “In 2020 there was a huge degree that was out of the construction industry’s control,” he adds.
A hiatus from working on site meant a slowdown in work. Gary says 60% of the sites closed during the first lockdown, with 50% closing during the second and “that had an impact on our turnover and business generally.” But because off our great team and strong financials we were able to respond quickly and we’re still in very good shape. We have an excellent and diverse book of work heading into the remainder of 2021 and into 2022.”
Gary informs Irish building that the business’ pre-pandemic growth trajectory followed a 16% increase in turnover year on year and he’s positive that pattern will resume, especially after the downtime afforded by the pandemic allowed for some streamlining of operations. “The time during Covid was not wasted, we used that time to reflect. We’ve had an extremely successful growth pattern over the past 10 years and when you grow like that, you rarely get that time to reflect, so now we have.
“We’ve launched our Engineering Our Future Business Improvement initiative and we’re already seeing the benefits. We’ve sharpened our Values, bringing more structure into the business and that’s been a very motivational for the team, all of whom are involved in the rollout of this initiative. It’s something we’re very proud of and it has set the foundations for a more collaborative next phase.”
Gary, whose main role in the business is overseeing its industrial and African portfolio, says processes that were no longer working have been removed and support functions were reviewed to significantly improve our operations and our business communications and engagement.
“We have also embarked on a new strategy for 2025 which is underpinned by our Core Values; Safe, Respect, Trust, Challenge, Deliver. We have significantly strengthened the Senior Leadership Team and time was also used to launch a superb new website for the business; designergrp.com,” he adds.
“It is all about refocusing and that revolves around delivering successful projects for our clients. As you grow you tend to bolt on different initiatives and sometimes you need to sit back and reflect, relook at things, and correct them and for us, that’s been the best thing to come out of Covid.”
Focusing on clients has always been Designer Group’s priority and Gary is confident that mantra will continue to see the business outperform for our clients. He recalls the firm’s recent work on a data centre project, where this client focused approach was vital.
The first phase of the Oslo based project, which was completed during the peak of the pandemic, allowed the client (a global provider of data centre services that adheres to strict standards of sustainability) to experience the professionalism, efficiency and globally acclaimed reputation of Designer Group. The project is a 36MW mission critical data centre facility, all powered by 100% renewable energy.
“That was a significant project,” Gary continues. “It kicked off around the time when Covid was peaking. Despite this we still delivered the project on programme and within budget. We worked hard and delivered and it was a positive experience. Some of our team, on their time off, were able to explore Norway when the opportunity to come home wasn’t available and such has been the success of that job, we are now looking forward to the next phase of the project.”
Among its other high profile works during the pandemic was the Grangegorman project, a scheme consisting of two key buildings: the Central Quad and the East Quad which are at the heart of the new Technological University Campus, Dublin.
The Central Quad accommodates academic activities and facilities required for a total of nine schools from the Colleges of Sciences and Health, Engineering and the Built Environment, and Arts and Tourism. The East Quad accommodates academic activities and facilities required for a total of three schools from the College of Arts and Tourism. It was completed this year and Gary describes the scheme as a “really high-quality installation”.
“The Grangegorman project is a testament to the guys that worked on it all the way through Covid. What they achieved on that site, in terms of a university campus, the biggest single structural university project undertaken by the State is immense. A lot of the future leaders of the industry are going to come through that facility, over the next number of years, it’s a world-class facility,” he added.
Among Designer Group’s other notable activities is the State Forensic Laboratories in Celbridge, County Kildare, where it will carry out the Mechanical, Electrical and Cleanroom installations for the OPW. This is due for completion next summer.
Meanwhile renewable energy is a growing area for the business, both in Ireland and Internationally. “Three sites we are working on at present in Africa are renewable projects and their impact on the local communities will be significant. They will use biomass from things like pineapple heads and by-products of the sugar cane industry and it means that what money would have gone to oil companies will now be diverted to subsistence farmers,” Gary explains.
“We have also completed a large solar project in Kenya,” says Gary. Africa is a big client for the firm. “We have been operating there for 10 years and completed 20 projects across six different countries and we really look forward to expanding our African client base thanks to a strong pedigree and history of working in the region. We have built strong partnerships and an extremely loyal supply chain.”
He adds: “When our client’s ultimate goal is to become net Zero Carbon, it becomes our mission to make that happen. We’ve been very active in terms of renewable energy at home too and that’s supported by the Government’s plans to support the renewables industry through the RESS (Renewable Energy Support Scheme). We’ve been making progress in that area over the past 12 months and there are other associated electrical infrastructural projects that we’re working on,” he reveals.
Meanwhile in-house, Gary says; “engraining sustainability within our own business is well advanced. As a business we are looking at moving all our vehicles to electric models, we’re looking at our carbon footprint and see ourselves offering sustainable solutions to all sectors. I think it would be hypocritical to work in that area and not follow that mantra ourselves,” he adds.
At the last count, there were 1,000 directly employed members of the Designer Group team including more than 100 apprentices at various stages of their training. Gary praises management for their leadership of the team over the past 16 months. “Our people have always been the key priority for the business, which will celebrate its 30th anniversary next year. Our business is all about people and service delivery,” he says.
Challenging, motivating, and inspiring the team is key to our success and this includes in-house training and development which supports individuals to progress within the business.
“We’ve just commenced a Leadership Academy for a number of our team within the business and that will bring them to the next level. It’s another part of our business initiative; to generate and grow and engage.”
Looking ahead he says optimism is “palpable” among the team. “People were used to building for a living, getting up and going out in the morning and it’s been a tough year for those people who are used to having that level of job satisfaction, but since the rest of the sites opened up there’s been a buzz around the place. There’s a positive energy and we look forward to what the future brings.”