CJK Engineering Managing Director Vincent Bruen speaks with BARRY MCCALL about how the company’s 2021 acquisition of McGrattan & Kenny has placed it in an ideal position to expand into new sectors and markets.
CJK Engineering is one of the few companies in the construction sector to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic stronger and with more employees than entering it. This achievement was due to various factors, but managing director Vincent Bruen places the company’s people at the top of the list.
CJK Engineering people
“Our people are our key competitive differentiator,” he explains. “The people we have in the company are the reason for our success. Many of them have been with the company for over 20 years, and three of the people who came into the business with our recent McGrattan & Kenny acquisition have been with that firm for over 40 years. These people know our business, our clients and our supply chains. That’s why clients keep coming back to us, and our supply chain continues to work with and support us.”
CJK Engineering service
Founded by Conor Kearney in 1998, CJK Engineering is now a fully integrated services contractor, specialising in electrical, mechanical and instrumentation engineering services. That comprehensive service offering has been enabled by the acquisition of McGrattan & Kenny in 2021, as Bruen explains. “We were a specialist electrical contractor up until that point. We realised we might be missing out on quite a lot of opportunities because of that narrow focus. Many clients want a single M&E point of contact for their projects. They want a one-stop shop for them.
“M&E services contractors are now the lead contractors on many projects. It’s not the main contractor anymore. The old 80:10:10 rule, where 80% of the value of the project was the structure and building fabric, and mechanical and electrical services accounted for 10% each, has been reversed with the lion’s share being taken by M&E on many projects.”
This prompted the decision to offer mechanical engineering services.
He continues, “We initially tried to develop an offering in-house, but we realised early on that it wasn’t going to work. At the time, we had already been working with McGrattan & Kenny on several projects and had developed a very good working relationship with them. We initially started talking about a partnership arrangement, and that moved on to a full acquisition. We are now that one-stop shop that clients are looking for.”
CJK recently unveiled its [Y]Our Opportunity strategy.
“[Y]Our Opportunity is the pathway to achieve the next phase of growth and development for the company,” Vincent Bruen explains. “It gives us an overview of how we will develop in the years ahead. We have set several goals for ourselves, which will be achieved by three key growth factors:
- Expansion of our services and markets
- Leveraging our key strengths, relationships, culture and expertise
- An increased focus on innovation across our operations.
“Prior to the acquisition of McGrattan & Kenny, we were an electrical services contractor, and we have now expanded into mechanical services. We are talking to people who we have worked with for the past 20 years or more and telling them about this new opportunity, which will bring an element of growth. Now, we are fully concentrated on Ireland, but we will begin to expand overseas during the next 12 to 18 months.”
The strategy will be to follow clients into new locations.
“If you have a client here and you are doing good work for them, and they are developing new facilities overseas, it makes sense to work for them there as well. Ireland has quite a number of FDI companies that have locations around Europe, and they work with companies that they trust. We have developed close relationships with clients in this space over the years, and we plan to be in a position to work with them abroad. It’s a more sensible business model than trying to win new clients in new markets. Our existing clients are the ones who got us to where we are today.”
The strategy has also identified several sectors of interest for the company. CJK has traditionally been very strong in the commercial, education, and public sectors, and the company is now actively targeting data centres, pharma, and the large industrial sector in addition to these.
“When developing the strategy, we looked at paths for the company to grow and paths for our people to grow professionally,” explains Bruen. “We want to offer everyone an opportunity to work in different areas. Fifty per cent of our staff are apprentices, and operating in three sectors, this made us too narrow for them and us as a company to grow and develop.”
Each of these critical sectors has a dedicated team with its own business unit leads, project managers, site management and trade staff.
“Each team has specific expertise for their sector,” Bruen adds. “Data centres are different to other sectors, for example. This sector needs managers with experience and a deep understanding of the specifics relating to that market and the expertise required. It’s the same with the pharma sector, which is heavily regulated in terms of quality and safety requirements, and it is vitally important to accommodate the specific requirements of individual clients within our operation. We are always trying to innovate, and we are constantly looking for better ways to help them achieve their goals.”
Innovation at CJK Engineering
Change is in the DNA of the business.
“Every business has to adapt and change, and CJK is no different,” Vincent Bruen points out. “Whatever way clients want to develop strategically, we will follow that.”
Offsite and modern methods of construction (MMC) are also part of the future.
“We are moving to a newly expanded facility in the next six months, and that will have a dedicated workshop to support our offsite construction offering. We are digitising our operations now. The days of having paper on site are gone. All our people carry iPads and work in real-time in the cloud. Ideally, we want everybody to have access to all the information they need to do the job wherever they are.”
Training and apprenticeships at CJK Engineering
Ongoing training is essential.
Vincent Bruen explains, “We have a dedicated training centre where all our apprentices are trained on health and safety, the correct use of hand and power tools and the materials they will be utilising in their trade. Recently, one of our apprentices, Cian Wilson Griffin was nominated for the Irish national heat of the World Skills competition. It’s brilliant to have someone of that calibre in the company.”
Bruen describes the apprenticeship programme as the lifeblood of the organisation and the future of the construction industry.
“They are going to be the industry leaders in 20 years,” he says. “We always grow our apprentice numbers in line with the growth of the company. We make sure to offer them diversified work. No one is posted in any one sector for more than 12 months. We also have a full-time apprentice liaison officer, Brian Nolan, who meets the apprentices regularly and finds out how they are getting on. This continues throughout their four years. We want our apprentices to say that CJK is the best place to do an apprenticeship.”
Talent shortages present a challenge, however.
“The skills gap has been a big problem for everyone in the industry for the past 10 years, and it has been exacerbated over the past 18 months,” he says. “When the industry came out of the lockdown, companies had to finish projects at the same time as new work was coming in. That was a major challenge. We were positioned to deal with this better than some of our competitors because a lot of our work continued during the pandemic, as many of the projects were considered essential. This meant that we were able to maintain employment for all of our staff during both lockdowns.
“We had 200 employees before the first lockdown and emerged from the last one with 250,” he adds. “Having a base of direct employees meant we were able to continue to serve our clients. We are also lucky to have many specialist subcontractors who work for us on a regular basis. They were able to come in and support our direct labour force at the busiest times.”
He puts the company’s success in recruiting talent down to its reputation.
“A lot of it is word of mouth,” he comments. “We have a very high profile on LinkedIn, and people hear about us through Solas as well. We don’t do direct recruitment advertising. Our apprenticeship programme is well recognised, and we try to ensure that we give them the best training possible. We have a target of recruiting 40 apprentices a year, and when they qualify, they tend to stay with us.”
He continues, “There are challenges with people wanting to go abroad, of course. People completing their apprenticeship are at the right age to travel, and they want to go abroad, having been prevented from going anywhere for the past three years.”
CJK Engineering outlook
Vincent Bruen believes the outlook for the company for the next three years is very positive.
“When the acquisition took place, we had 220 people and €44m in turnover,” he says. “Now we have 300 and are on target for a turnover of €55m for this year. The main challenges are people and the cost and availability of materials. I don’t see us growing as rapidly next year. It’s time to take a breath. The past two years have been very busy, and we need to slow down a bit and consolidate. We are very aware of our span of control; hence we are focused on delivery through quality and collaborative means. Clients will be able to get a better service, and our people will enjoy an improved work-life balance. We will start expanding overseas and will continue to focus on the key sectors of interest.”
Vincent Bruen is also looking forward to the move to the new premises.
“We are moving to a single building in the North City Business Park, Dublin. We will have enough office space there to cater for everyone. The next two years will be very positive for CJK. I think the industry will be busy again next year, just maybe not as hectic as it has been. This might be a welcome breather for M&E firms by giving us an opportunity to review operations before momentum picks up again,” he concludes.