Wednesday 29 March 2017

The sky's the limit for Delmec's vision

Adapting to market forces has made a Carlow-based company the global leader in the telecoms infrastructure sector

Delmec CEO Kealan Delaney, Sean Gallagher and managing director Ivan Daly Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Delmec CEO Kealan Delaney, Sean Gallagher and managing director Ivan Daly Photo: Dylan Vaughan
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Managing change is a reality we all live with on a daily basis. For individuals, such change constantly challenges us to face new situations, learn new skills and stretch ourselves beyond our comfort zone. But for businesses too, change is also a constant reality. And it is often this very change that forces companies to adapt their organisations and value offerings in order to stay relevant to the needs of the market and to avoid the risk of otherwise becoming obsolete.

For this reason, those businesses that survive into the next generation often have, as part of their DNA, the ability to carve out new opportunities and new niches that help sustain them over the longer term.

Looking back to where many businesses first start out, it is easy to see just how far these have travelled and how much they have evolved over that time. Most who successfully achieve long- evity do so on the back of having developed a high degree of competency in a chosen area and have become experts in that field.

This week's business - Delmec - is one such example. Set up in 1972 as D & P Delaney, the company began its life as a general steel engineering and fabrication business. Today, it has grown to become one of the world's leaders in the design, manufacture and installation of towers, dishes, antennas and base stations used by mobile telecommunications companies throughout the world. From humble beginnings, the company now employs 115 staff and this year will see its revenues exceed €12m.

Headquartered in Carlow town, Delmec is now headed by CEO Kealan Delaney, the son of one of the original founders.

"We often find that the best way to explain to people what we do is to ask them if they have ever seen tall telecommunications towers with mobile phone dishes and antennas on them. If so, the chances are that it was probably our company that manufactured and installed them," says Kealan. "In fact, we have supplied about 70pc of such structures in Ireland."

The company designs and manufactures these tall steel structures in its workshop in Carlow. They vary in height from 20 metres for standard structures to more than 150 metres for larger broadcast-type towers. They erect and install these on site as well as commissioning and integrating the hardware used to receive and transmit mobile phone signals.

"The advances have been at such a pace in recent years that it requires considerable expertise to manage the complexity of technologies that must now co-exist on many of these sites, including 2G, 3G and 4G," says Kealan.

At home, Delmec's list of customers includes Vodafone, Three, Meteor, RTE, ESB, Ericsson, Mosaic and BT. And with four offices abroad (one in the UK, two in Africa and one in Poland, plus one due to open soon in the Democratic Republic of Congo), much of what they do now is international. It has been an exciting journey for the company, and one that its founders could never have envisaged when they first started out more than 40 years ago.

The company was originally set up by Kealan's father, Danny, and Danny's two brothers, Patrick and Liam. From Carlow, Danny had worked in steel fabrication for years with Irish Sugar, while his brothers worked for local engineering firms. Spotting a gap in the market to manufacture agricultural machinery, the brothers started D&P Delaney.

Their first product range focused on what they knew best - machines for harvesting sugar beet. As they grew, they diversified into manufacturing high-quality waste water and effluent treatment plants.

In 1990, and recognising the need to diversify even further, they began to research the market in the hope of finding a niche sector that had growth potential, was not overcrowded and where they could put their vast combined engineering experience to good effect. The rapidly growing mobile telecommunications sector emerged as the one that best fitted their criteria.

"Their big break eventually came in 1995 when they won the contract to supply towers to Esat Digifone, which was really taking off back then," says Kealan. "For the last 20 years the company has been involved in the roll-out of towers and equipment for all major mobile operators here.

Kealan remembers as a teenager helping out in the company's workshop, where he did everything from sweeping the floor to drilling holes in large steel plates. After school, and inspired by the work of his father and uncles, he joined CRH Roadstone where he worked as an engineer for five years, eventually running one of its plants in Limerick.

When an opportunity to join the family business as managing director arose in 2000, Kealan jumped at the chance. Around that time too, the company decided to focus its efforts exclusively on the telecoms sector, and to reflect this shift in focus it was re-branded as Delmec.

"Business grew steadily for the next few years as we built our reputation among the key players - until 2009, when the downturn hit," says Kealan. "At that time we were doing €5m in turnover and had 40 employees. However, the downturn hit the telecoms sector hard and we suffered badly as a result."

By 2011, turnover had dropped to €1.8m and staff numbers to 16. It was a challenging time. However, it forced the company to look outside Ireland for future growth opportunities.

"In many ways, what started out as a survival strategy became the basis of our success today," says Kealan.

In 2010, and with support from Enterprise Ireland, the company completed its first overseas contract, in Ghana. On one of their first exploratory visits to the country, the Delmec team were informed that two large telecoms towers had collapsed, and they were invited to go to the site to see what they could do to help.

Unfamiliar with the terrain and unused to the local culture, they nevertheless got to work on fixing the problem. Their expertise quickly became apparent and their reputation soon spread.

As a result, they began winning contracts in Nigeria, Chad, Kenya, Uganda and Mozambique. Since then, they have worked in more than 20 countries worldwide, including the UK, the Czech Republic and Poland as well as Libya, Iraq, Kuwait, Oman, Dubai and Qatar.

"What gave us a great advantage was that we'd been working in the mobile telecoms sector in Ireland when it was just getting started, so we had grown with it. Because of this, we were well-placed to bring our expertise to regions where the roll-out was just beginning," says Kealan.

The opportunities for the company into the future are huge. With hundreds of thousands of tower sites now on the African continent and many more being added continuously, the demand for Delmec's services in this region alone looks set to continue for many years.

In addition, the company is working on opening new markets in Asia and has already visited India, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and Cambodia. It's about the opportunity and the technology, not the location.

"While we initially started out manufacturing towers and over time progressed to looking after the installation, integration and commissioning of hardware on site, today our focus is on becoming complete asset managers for mobile telecommunications companies," says Kealan.

"We see ourselves doing everything for these companies, from concept design and construction through to commissioning, maintenance and ongoing management of their entire infrastructural sites. And we are also now training staff in these new countries to help increase expertise locally. It's something that is hugely rewarding for us to be able to do."

And does he have targets for the business?

"We want to grow the business to €50m over the next 10 years," he says.

Given the company's tenacity and what it has come through in recent years, and considering that this year turnover will likely exceed €12m, I see no reason to doubt that they will hit their targets.

In the boardroom, Kealan introduces me to members of his management team. He wants the interview not to be about him, but about the team.

"Without everyone here and everyone who works for the company, we wouldn't be where we are," he says Kealan.

His uncle, Liam, who still works in the business, also drops in to say hello.

"My father and my other uncle, Patrick, both drop in most days, have a cup of tea and keep in touch with what's going on. Having seen so much over the years, they remain a constant source of advice and insight," says Kealan.

As I prepare to leave, he invites me to inspect one of the tower structures in the yard. Before I have time to answer, I find myself in the basket of a very tall cherry picker, fitted out with safety harness and hard hat. I am joined by Kealan and the company's managing director, Ivan Daly. Suspended 30 metres above Carlow town, I immediately gain a greater respect for those who work at such heights.

Saying goodbye to Kealan and the staff at Delmec who kindly come out to wave me off, I leave impressed with what he, his colleagues and the original founders of the company have achieved.

They embraced change, found a niche they could excel in and, when the downturn in the economy came, they took their experience and expertise to new markets that needed them.

Whatever they have achieved to date, I suspect they will reach even greater heights in their now truly global business.

For further information: Delmec Engineering Ltd, Barrowside Business Park, Sleaty Road, Graiguecullen, Carlow, Ireland. Web: www.delmec.ie

Kealan's advice for other businesses

1. Get the right  people on board

"It's important that you get the right people working for you who have the right attitude, expertise and skills. In particular, if you are in a services industry, these people will be the key to your company’s success."

2. Define your core business

"Be clear about what space you are in. Focus on developing expertise in this space and on being best in what you do. Focus too on making sure that you are adding value to your customers and their businesses."

3 Don’t compromise on quality

"Your brand and reputation are important to your success. They take time and effort to build. Whatever you do, do it with an eye on enhancing your reputation. If you’re not going to do it well, don’t do it at all."

Sunday Indo Business

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