Monday 5 December 2016

Engineers to entrepreneurs

Shay McConnell and Aidan Conway tell Sean Gallagher how they went from being employees to business owners

Published 27/11/2016 | 02:30

Sean Gallagher with Aidan Conway of Masterair Services with Chris Crowley and Shay McConnell in the background. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher with Aidan Conway of Masterair Services with Chris Crowley and Shay McConnell in the background. Photo: David Conachy

Modern commercial and industrial buildings have become more intelligent than ever with computer-based systems now controlling everything from heating and cooling to hot water and ventilation. Not only do these complex systems require expertise in their design and installation, they also require highly skilled staff to maintain and service them. Such advances have given rise to a range of engineering firms that specialise in this area. Among them is Dublin-based Masterair. With its office in Whitestown Business Park, in Tallaght, the company employs 40 staff and has an annual turnover of €5m.

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This week, I met up with the company's owners, Shay McConnell & Aidan Conway to see how their business is doing as a result of the recent upturn in the construction sector.

"We specialise in the installation and maintenance of all types of mechanical and electrical systems," says Shay as we inspect one of the company's installations on the roof of the Liberty building in Blanchardstown. "The company was actually set up in 1989 by its previous owners who were involved in manufacturing air handling units as well as operating a maintenance and aftercare service. Aidan and I joined in 2001 and 2007, respectively and, in 2014, we successfully led a management buy-out of the business and have been expanding it since," he adds.

The company operates two divisions. One focuses on the installation of commercial and industrial boilers and HVAC/air conditioning systems as well as fire and smoke extract systems and solar, biomass and heat pumps. The other provides a 24/7 reactive and maintenance service for all thing mechanical and heating and cooling related.

"Our customers are drawn from across a wide range of sectors such as the HSE, Garda Siochana and universities as well as from the private sector where we look after everything from office blocks and financial institutions to leisure facilities and pharma plants," says Aidan. "While we work directly with many customers, we also get a lot of our work from property developers, consulting engineers, tender list specifiers, construction contractors, office fit-out specialists and project management consultants."

After school, McConnell, from Tallaght, completed an apprenticeship in plumbing and pipefitting with Lynskey Engineering. He remained there for 11 years, becoming a foreman on their Dublin Airport site. In 2007, he joined Masterair with a view to developing his technical maintenance and systems commissioning skills. Soon afterwards he progressed to become head of the company's heating and plumbing division.

As with most firms involved in the construction sector at the time, the economic downturn had a dramatic effect. Facility managers and property owners struggled to maintain even vital maintenance, and no new building saw the installations side of the business all but dry up.

"When the recession hit and the company needed to boost its revenues, the managing director at the time, Larry Mellon, asked me if I would try my hand at sales and new business development and I jumped at the chance. Despite the recession and with a lot of hard work by the entire team, we actually managed to grow the servicing side of the business," Shay adds.

Aidan Conway, from Enniscorthy in Co Wexford, studied electrical engineering at Waterford Institute of Technology before training as an apprentice electrician with Iarnrod Eireann. In 2001, he joined Masterair to look after the commissioning and maintenance of the company's HVAC and Building Management Controls systems. His leadership qualities soon saw him promoted to divisional manager, then director.

In 2014, with backing from Bank of Ireland, the pair moved from being employees to business owners with 30 staff overnight. "We committed ourselves to reach the forefront of our industry by building a quality, professional and reliable service," says Aidan.

"Sourcing the right talent has always been a challenge in this industry but we managed to slowly broaden our range of services and added new skill sets in areas such as estimation, purchasing, and project management."

From their Dublin base, the firm built a national network for service technicians. "Our staff all wear branded uniforms and company identification badges. They are Garda-vetted and have been trained to the highest regulatory standards and are registered with the various industry bodies," says Shay. "As a company we are also ISO9001 accredited." Masterair went on to win a Public Sector magazine award for Best HVAC and Engineering Services, a year after the pair took over.

Introducing me to the company's business development manager, Chris Crowley, the pair tell me he has been key to the development of their installations business.

"We attribute the stability of the business to the calibre of our team," says Shay. "Capable HVAC technicians, in particular, are scarce and so we invest a lot of time and money in training our staff. This, coupled with ensuring that we have a continuous conveyor belt of apprentices, has helped us sustain the multi-disciplined approach that is required to satisfy our clients," he adds.

Is it a different feeling now being an owner of the business rather than an employee?

"It's very different. Moving from being electrical and plumbing engineers to entrepreneurs has given us greater control over the business as well as our own future. You feel more in control of your own destiny," says Aidan. "We are fortunate to have built up a very young and committed team and it's great to watch how the company is continuing to grow and develop. It's particularly rewarding when we win new business and bring on new customers," says Shay. "You never lose that buzz of converting an enquiry into a customer."

The pair now aim to maintain a trajectory of steady growth. With the recent increase in the number of new buildings, both at planning and construction stages, things are looking brighter than ever for the company. In addition, those who had put a freeze on vital maintenance on their buildings are now back spending on servicing and upgrading plant. "Our objective now is to increase annual revenues to over €8m within the next three years by which time we would hope to be employing over 50 employees," says Aidan.

There is no standard route to becoming an entrepreneur. Some start out in life with the objective of owning their own business. Others, like Shay and Aidan, grow into that role by working hard and being prepared to take the opportunities that present themselves. What is clear is that it is seldom easy but always satisfying and rewarding, especially when things are looking on the up.

www.masterair.ie

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