'When the crash came, we had to take a serious look at what we were going to do'
He used to sell shirts at his parents' drapery shop, and always thought he'd end up in retail. But as group chief executive of Linesight, Gerry Campbell is now building a global business in the construction sector, he tells John Mulligan
Gerry Campbell had thought about retiring when he hit 50. But nine years later, the group chief executive of construction project management firm Linesight (which was until this week known as Bruce Shaw) is still punching his card. And he says he's never been happier.
"The best decision I ever made was not to retire. I've had nine great years," he says, sitting in a board room at the company's Dublin headquarters on one of those warm, sunny September mornings that have been making a mockery of autumn.
"I was going to find something else to do. I wasn't going to sit on the grass," he says.
He has worked at Linesight since 1981, having joined soon after earning a degree in surveying at Bolton Street.
"I had been involved with some of the best projects in the country. I was made a partner in 1988 to look after the development of the IFSC (Dublin's International Financial Services Centre)," he recalls. "We delivered every project on budget. These were buildings the likes of which had never been built in the country before."
Since then, Linesight has grown to become one of the biggest project management firms in the country, employing 500 across the group.
Its clients include bluechip firms such as Microsoft, Dell, Xerox, Hewlett-Packard and IBM. The projects the company works on are frequently huge - both in scale and in terms of financial commitment.
"We tender for the project and tell the client how much it's going to cost, and we benchmark the bids to make sure they're getting value for money," says Campbell. The firm then project manages the development, ensuring it's on track and keeping to budget.
But the company has also started offering clients additional services, such as supply chain management, risk management, procurement and audit work - all part of its effort to broaden its revenue base.
Turnover this year is expected to hit around €60m. Kiabay, the company behind the group, is unlimited, and so doesn't have to file publicly-available accounts.
Campbell won't reveal the profits it's making, but says they're small because the money is being reinvested in the business.
A decade ago, 90pc of the firm's business was in Ireland, where it controls about 20pc of the market. Now Ireland accounts for 25pc of its business, as the company continues its internationalisation.
"When the crash came, we had to take a serious look at what we were going to do and how we were going to survive," says Campbell. The construction industry in Ireland went from being a €38bn market to €8bn within the space of two years from 2008.
While it had some redundancies, the firm tried to redeploy staff to new foreign offices as it tried to wean itself from its reliance on Ireland.
"The core team - six of us - sat around the table and we had to come up with a plan," explains Campbell. "We knew that if we came up with a redundancy-only plan, we would lose too many good people. So in 2008, we decided to internationalise."
But it was bad timing.
The firm had set its eyes on Dubai as the first foreign target. But the United Arab Emirates' bling city was about to see its property market collapse.
"The week we arrived into Dubai, it crashed. It was a bit like Canary Wharf (the London district became the casualty of a 1992 property crash). Hammers were left on the scaffolding. It was that bad," he says.
But just an hour away by road, Abu Dhabi was then faring better, with its more measured development still moving along.
"We moved up very quickly to Abu Dhabi, and got a year-and-a-half out of it before they stopped building. But that got us a foothold into the Middle East. Then we opened an office in Bahrain and another in Riyadh. We're back in Dubai now and have a very successful office there."
Campbell says that clients in the Middle East were very open to new players. The firm worked on residential schemes there, and when it expanded to Riyadh it became involved in programme management - working on a range of projects for single clients.
They included telecoms firm Mobily, with Linesight helping it to construct 23 data centres, a one-million sq ft head office, and rebranding 250 retail units.
Now, Linesight has 16 offices around the world, in cities such as New York, San Francisco, Singapore, Shanghai, Tel Aviv, London, Dusseldorf. And they more than just brass plates, says Campbell.
He insists that it wasn't the downturn that prompted his decision not to retire - he hit 50 just as the financial and property worlds imploded in 2008 - but just that the business presented a new set of opportunities. "It went from being the same old, same old, to being a challenge," says Campbell, whose family ran what was a well-known drapery shop - Campbells - on Dublin's Northside in Drumcondra for many years.
"I wasn't the only one. Our founding partner, Brendan O'Mara (68), had long since retired from the business per se. He's working harder now for the company than he's ever worked in his life," he jokes.
Six partners own the majority of the firm, with most of the staff who head up its offices also owning stakes (including, presumably, the new managing director of the group's Irish arm, Richard Joyce).
But Campbell won't reveal how the ownership is precisely split.
"Six guys stood around the table and said, we're going to crack this. We've survived. So, our new strategy now is focusing on the four international regions, getting them to be independently viable businesses, and attracting more good staff so we can expand services. We've recruited over 120 people alone this year."
Half of those 120 were hired in Dublin. "We're very conscious of the difficult time everyone has gone through. Not everybody has come out the other end well. You don't want to go around saying 'We're doing great'."
It's a peculiarly Irish trait, not wanting to shout success from the rooftops. If Linesight had been an American firm, it probably would be.
"Maybe. Americans have a better attitude towards people failing though, and if you have a better attitude towards that, then you can have a better attitude towards success."
Campbell - whose mother was from Limerick and father from Clare - always enjoyed business, but had set himself on a course for accountancy when he was leaving school, before opting instead for surveying. He says he spent a lot of time working at the family store in his youth.
"My father was the manager of Murphy's bar in Rathgar, and my parents also rented a shop in Drumcondra and we lived over it for 20 years," he recalls.
"Campbells was a famous drapery. I worked there at Christmas, selling men's shirts. As a teenager, I used to go down to Arnotts wholesale outlet in August, which was behind the department store, and buy the stock for the men's department. I actually thought I'd end up in the retail business. The buzz you got from someone coming in to buy a shirt and sending them off with two."
He still gets that buzz, just in a different way. And no more so than by breaking into the US market.
"When we were in Ireland only, we'd go over to see IBM in America, say, and they'd tell us they have nothing planned in Ireland this year and that was the end of the conversation," he says.
"Now we go over and we talk to the multinationals and we ask them where are they building? They might be doing something in Singapore, and we can help. It's been a great adventure for the past 10 years expanding in the US and being able to develop the business around the world on the back of existing clients," he adds.
Campbell jokes that he kept meeting executives from other Irish companies, such as Sisk and PM Group, as they too expanded their overseas presence.
Meanwhile, Campbell's daughter, Fiona, has also joined the firm. She qualified from Bolton Street eight years ago in quantity surveying. She then worked in London for a number of years as a project manager with Harrods.
So, what happens to the company as the partners get that bit older? Campbell says a sale isn't on the agenda.
"I wouldn't write me off just yet," he laughs.
Seems there's at least another nine years to go then.