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Micheál O’Connor, Deputy MD, Dornan – “Covid-19 Is The Catalyst Needed To Usher In Digital Transition”

Micheál O’Connor, Deputy Managing Director, Dornan Engineering

Micheál O’Connor, recently appointed Deputy Managing Director of Dornan Engineering, speaks with Mimi Murray about why all stakeholders should grasp the opportunities presented by Covid-19.

 

Readjusting to remote working was a challenge for most as Covid-19 measures were put in place in March, but commencing a new job in a senior role while in lockdown was something Micheál O’Connor. Having joined the company in late March, just days after the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced closures and stringent measures to stop the spread of the virus, Micheál O’Connor went about getting to know staff and clients remotely.

Having come from Jacobs, where he was Vice President and General Manager for Ireland and Northern Europe, he will take over the role of Managing Director from Oliver Lonergan when he steps down from the role in May of next year. As a mechanical and electrical contractor, Dornan has both feet firmly planted in the life science, data, energy and commercial development sectors, and had a turnover of €330m in 2019, with the turnover in 2020 expected to be €500m. Business in Ireland represents about 25% of its revenue, the UK 25%, and Europe 50%.

Covid-19 response

While Covid-19 has presented the company with many challenges, several opportunities have also arisen, and Dornan is meeting both directly.

During the recession the bold decision was taken to look at international opportunities, which proved highly successful, seeing the company gain a foothold in Europe and the UK; primarily around life sciences and data centre work in Europe and high-rise office developments in London.

With the data-centre sector on a growth trajectory, and no sign of it shrinking any time soon, together with the consolidation and establishment of business in the UK, as well as availing of opportunities in Ireland around the life-sciences sector, revenue has gone up by about 50% in the past 12 to 18 months, Micheál O’Connor says.

“We believe this will continue even in light of Covid. We are going to see challenges around the office sector in terms of densities and work practices. We don’t know how that is going to pan out yet. However, office designs were changing in any event, towards a hot-desk-type environment. We’ll see more of that in the future, with ultra-flexible spaces.

“We are happy with our life sciences and data centre operation at the moment. Covid is boosting both of these sectors in the sense that there is already greater demand for data storage, with so many people working from home, together with continued advancements in AI. Our clients are continuing very aggressive expansions in that sector. In life sciences, there is going to be a lot of growth around vaccines in Ireland and Europe,” he says.

Health and safety

One of the greatest challenges facing both the industry and its people is health and safety. Covid-19 has impacted on overall health and safety indirectly, he says.

“There has been a lot of attention given to Covid measures on sites. But we also need to maintain focus on the risks that were there before Covid, and not run the risk that people are distracted from those. We need to constantly remind our people that we can’t afford to take our eye off that ball. Covid-19 isn’t just a physical distraction, but it is also a mental distraction. It’s at the back of people’s minds; how is it the impacting on their family, their colleagues and themselves. The biggest enemies to safety are complacency and distraction, so we are always looking to be on top of that,” he comments.

Aside from this, health and wellbeing have taken on a greater focus.

“The construction industry is a demanding sector, and it’s great to see companies opening the lid on various issues affecting people and being able to support people around that.”

Oliver Lonergan, Managing Director, Dornan Engineering, and Micheál O’Connor, Deputy Managing Director, Dornan Engineering.

Digital transition

The move towards digital has been evolving, but this has escalated since March, with Covid-19 becoming a catalyst for many contractors to pursue digital transition earlier than planned. Stakeholders have had to adapt quickly to a level of remote working that is now the norm.

“That transition has been going quite well, but there are challenges, again in terms of health and wellbeing. Many roles have become more segregated, with communication becoming primarily digitised. People are now more remote from one another, and human contact is less. That being said, it has worked well in this industry. Engineering teams are still working collaboratively across digital platforms; construction and operation teams are also working quite well. The industry still has a way to go in terms of digitisation, but I would expect that Covid will be a catalyst for this and will drive change,” he says.

Foreign direct investment

“The FDI clients we engage with in Ireland have taken well to digitisation. They structure projects really well, engaging the various stakeholders on collaborative platforms utilising BIM, and they are looking to procure specialist contractors into the overall design process and team at an early stage, so as to optimise the opportunities for off-site fabrication and modern methods of construction. I think that needs to continue and needs investment and training,” Micheál O’Connor comments.

Early contractor involvement

“In other sectors of the industry, the procurement process needs to facilitate that. In recent history, as digital transformation has happened, projects have been designed and constructed based on an opportunistic approach to off-site fabrication and off-site assembly. What needs to happen now is for clients to procure their design team and specialist contractors at an earlier stage and set their project up with modularisation in mind from day one. This will give the best opportunity to project stakeholders to optimise their solutions and present opportunities for parallel activities on multiple fronts. This is of greater importance with Covid in mind when site densities can be constrained,” he says. Clients are now looking for holistic, end-to-end solutions, something Dornan is engaging in much more. “A lot of our work is on services-driven projects. Clients are looking for specialist contractors to offer a more holistic approach,” he says.

Unique construction skill set

While Ireland has an excellent reputation and is much lauded in the FDI sector, in terms of education standards and manpower to work those highly skilled jobs, Micheál O’Connor says that the skill set around the construction and engineering of those plants is not publicised enough.

“Irish contractors have developed a unique skill set over the past 40 to 50 years. In terms of FDI and life sciences, Ireland is one of eight hubs globally that has such a high level of expertise. International clients target Ireland because of the certainty that we offer. This certainty affords those clients a comfort factor for the delivery of mega-scale projects. In terms of engineering and construction firms across Europe, this skill set isn’t broadly available. That’s why Irish firms are very successful in going into Europe and exporting that skill set out of Ireland. The clients we’re dealing with have been very appreciative of that,” he says.

Diversity

Driving diversity is key to the industry’s future success, but stakeholders need to go back to grassroots; in other words, primary-level education.

“At Dornan, we’re helping to support that, sponsoring science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) projects in schools, to demystify STEM subjects across all genders. We need to focus on primary as well as post-primary students. College is too late. Our recruitment policy is merely a function of the throughput of schools from the various courses, and we’re not seeing enough broad gender diversity coming through. However, we are an equal opportunities employer and treat all genders equally and support them in their career development.”

Career development

Putting in place strong supports around training and encouraging employees to take on additional college courses are some of the proactive ways Dornan is supporting career progression.

“We are actively offering those opportunities now. In terms of equal opportunities, it’s not just from a gender perspective, but also a skill set perspective. As a company, people in management come from the trades as well as third-level education. Diverse input and a broad range of opinions lead to more successful outcomes,” he says.

While Micheál O’Connor has been encouraged by stimulus and investment packages for the construction sector coming from both the EU and the Irish Government, far more is needed as firms are impacted by the additional cost of operating in a Covid environment.

“We’ve seen a lot of potentially good strategy and policy documents from the Government in the past, but what we need is for them to act on those policies and plans. These must come to fruition now,” he concludes.