Ambition, Innovation, And Commitment To Excellence
Eoin Vaughan, Chief Executive Officer, Mercury Engineering, tells Barry McCall about the key contributors to the company’s recent success.
Mercury Engineering is one of Ireland’s great international success stories. Over the years its distinctive logo and red and blue livery could be found on sites throughout Ireland, the UK, Europe, the Middle East and beyond. Today, its list of global clients reads like a ‘who’s who’ of the world’s most technologically advanced businesses.
From its foundation by Frank O’Kane and Joe Morgan in 1972, the company has been characterised by ambition, innovation, and an uncompromising commitment to excellence. This was the legacy taken on by Eoin Vaughan when he became Chief Executive Officer of the company in 2014.
He speaks of his current role with considerable self-deprecation.
“I have been very fortunate in my career with Mercury,” Eoin Vaughan explains. “I was lucky enough to be given leadership positions while still quite young. This was probably more due to circumstances than it was to my own ability.”
Ability clearly has something to do with it though. Eoin Vaughan holds a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering from CIT; a Postgraduate Diploma in Project Management from UL; an MBA from the University of Manchester; and is an alumnus of Harvard Business School, having completed its Executive Education Leadership Programme. However, he had already earned his spurs in the industry before joining Mercury in 2005.
Having graduated from college in the late 1990s, he began his career working with a small engineering company in Limerick. “It was a great place to learn all aspects of business,” Eoin Vaughan recalls. “I might not have had the same opportunities in a larger company. I learned a lot about management and decision-making.”
Eoin Vaughan joined Mercury at a time of rapid expansion both for the business and the global economy.
“The business was growing massively at the time. The country and the world were in the middle of an economic boom, and it was a time of great opportunity for people in Mercury. Anyone willing to work hard was given opportunities to manage projects and business units and to get experience internationally.”
Eoin Vaughan started out as Munster Contracts Manager before moving on to head up Mercury’s Polish and Middle East operations, and he then returned home in 2014 to take on his current position as Chief Executive Officer.
The scale of Mercury Engineering’s business is vast. “At present, we employ 2,800 professionals and tradespeople, as well as about 1,500 sub-contractors and our current turnover is in excess of €600m,” Eoin Vaughan explains.
“Our ambition is to have the business as steady as possible,” he adds. “In an industry like construction, which is subject to ebbs and flows, we are more focused on meeting the demands of key clients, three of whom are Fortune 500-listed companies, rather than hitting headline numbers. Seventy per cent of our business comes from repeat business with those key clients, and they are very important to us. From our home market, we have also managed to secure works in Europe, further strengthening relationships with clients.”
Being a privately held business, owned by its management and its founders since last year’s MBO, means that the company doesn’t have external shareholders to satisfy, and is, therefore, able to adopt strategic positions in the best interest of its people and clients.
Success Based on People
Eoin Vaughan believes that the company’s success is absolutely bound up with the quality of its people. “Most people at the top level in this business are here longer than me,” he notes.
“We’re very fortunate to have those people. I’m here 13 years, and I’m still considered a new arrival. Construction companies, in general, would see people move around and change jobs quite often. There is quite a high turnover at the professional level of the industry. We are very proud that Mercury has a lot of divisional and business unit managers who have 20 years or more experience with us. That gives a great sense of comfort to our clients.”
While blessed with a strong and experienced senior management team, Eoin Vaughan has introduced some changes since his appointment, none more profound than Mercury 2021 – a group-wide strategy aligning all the company’s people with the strategic objectives of the business over the next five years and beyond.
“Becoming a more centralised business has given us the ability to become really strong in the core areas of focus for our activities.”
This has seen the company move from being a geographically-based business to a sector-based organisation with management centralised in Dublin. This will enable Mercury to focus more on its key strengths.
“We had a tough time during the recession and the financial crisis,” he explains. “There had been a bit of a vacuum in leadership after the death of Frank O’Kane in 2007. Becoming a more centralised business has given us the ability to become really strong in the core areas of focus for our activities.”
These areas of focus include data centre, healthcare, life sciences and semiconductor industries.
Leading in all Core Sectors
“We want to be a leader in all of these core sectors. We realise that we can’t be all things to all people. Clients don’t want that; they want to deal with experts in what they want to build.”
Eoin Vaughan’s leadership style is open and consensus-based.
“There is no hierarchical structure here,” he points out. “We have a board of directors with a chairperson, of course, but we maintain an open-door policy. We have a ‘no bullshit rule’ on the executive management team and throughout the company. We are open with each other, and we share our problems and successes. Our success is built on that.”
Eoin Vaughan believes the best way to prevent things from going wrong is to share problems early.
“There is a fine line between success and failure in a lot of projects,” he says. “If someone comes to us and tells us something has gone wrong, we don’t scapegoat. We look at the problem, analyse it, and fix it. If our teams highlight things going wrong quickly, that’s good. It makes it much easier to solve a problem if you know about it early enough. We have a philosophy of protecting the downside. Things are never as bad or as good as you think.”
Looking ahead to the challenges facing the industry in Ireland Eoin Vaughan cites wage costs and human resources as key issues.
“Wage inflation is a major issue in Ireland as is demand for trades,” he believes. “What really concerns me is the training and development of both tradespeople and the future leaders of the industry. I am concerned that we are not doing enough as a country to train people in the latest practices and technologies. We need to do that to stay ahead as a country. Ireland always had a justified reputation for the high-quality professional and tradespeople it produced and the ability of those people to deliver demanding projects. We can’t afford to lose that. We also need to invest in digital transformation.”
Eoin Vaughan believes a change in attitude is required when it comes to trades.
“In Germany and other countries, there is more of a recognition of the practical side of the industry. Last year, apprenticeship numbers were very low nationally in Ireland. The industry needs to change the image and perception of apprenticeships nationally; all contractors should contribute to this. We have our own apprenticeship development programme in Mercury, so it is not a problem for us, but it is for the industry.
“We also offer a scholarship programme and a graduate programme run in conjunction with Engineers Ireland, and we have a leadership development programme for our people in conjunction with the IMI.”
According to Eoin Vaughan, says Mercury doesn’t have numbers-driven ambitions. “We want to remain very strong in some sectors, and there are some in which we want to be stronger. The expectations of clients are changing, and demands on construction are changing. We want to stay ahead of those changes and continue to meet our clients’ needs.”