Monday 5 December 2016

A roller-coaster of a journey for Byrne Looby as they go global

John Byrne and Michael Looby share how ambition, great staff and smart designs helped them grow internationally

Published 14/06/2015 | 02:30

John Byrne and Michael Looby with Sean Gallagher
John Byrne and Michael Looby with Sean Gallagher

Byrne Looby Partners is a leading international consulting engineering practice. Set up in 1998, by business partners John Byrne and Michael Looby, the company provides complex engineering solutions to water, infrastructure, marine, building and energy projects across Ireland, Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.

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Today they employ 110 people and have offices in Dublin, Cork, Galway and Belfast in Ireland as well as in London and Manchester in the UK and Dubai, Doha, Saudi and Bahrain in the Middle East. Impressively too, their turnover this year will exceed €12m, with much of that coming from outside Ireland.

With key skills in the areas of geotechnical, civil, structural and water engineering, the company's work includes everything from designing roads, bridges and basement structures to pumping stations and large scale water treatment plants and distribution systems. Theirs is a great story of how an Irish company took the expertise it had developed here and exported it around the world to where some of the largest and most complex construction projects are taking place.

"We produce the drawings and specifications that enable contractors to build these types of projects including the sequencing of works to be carried out as well as the best methodology and the best materials to be used," explains John.

"Part of what makes us different from our competitors is our focus on smart and innovative designs," he adds.

"We work mostly on large projects and often on the most difficult elements of these. In fact, this is where we really excel," explains Michael. "We have built up a strong reputation for designing value-driven solutions to these complex projects that are both practical and highly implementable," he adds.

Their Irish customers span the public and private divide, with developers and contractors such as SISK, BAM, PJ Hegarty, Murphy International, Veolia, EPS and PJ Edwards - while on the public side, they work with agencies such as the Office of Public Works and Irish Water. Some of the best-known irish projects they have worked on include the M50, Aviva Stadium, Swords waste water treatment plant and the M1 motorway.

Today though, 60pc of the company's work is international. These include large- scale projects such as the Terminal 2 buildings in London's Heathrow Airport, the London Shard - a huge 95-storey skyscraper in London's Bridge Quarter - and the London Crossrail project, which is one of Europe's largest railway and infrastructure projects, with a new 40km rail tunnel that runs underground from east to west across Greater London.

In the Middle East, the company has completed projects such as the Hodariyat Bridge, an incredible superstructure, which with six lanes of traffic connects the Abu Dhabi western coastline to the Hodariyat Island coastline.

Others include a major Jordanian sea port, the marina in Abu Dhabi, major waste water treatment plants in Doha and the impressive Lusail expressway in Doha - a $960m roadway that consists of a series of complex underpasses, flyovers and multi-level interchanges.

Looking at photos of these projects, I am taken aback by their sheer size and scale. I also feel a great sense of pride that two Irish men have been involved in the design and construction of such international landmark developments.

John Byrne grew up in Co Wicklow. It was while attending technical secondary school in nearby Carlow that he first developed an interest in engineering. After school, and like so many of his peers in the late 1980s, John left Ireland for London in search of work. He got his first start as a tea boy on a construction site there.

Keen to learn and to progress, he worked his way up to becoming an engineer's assistant over the next year. He also saved hard and soon had earned enough money to enable him to go to college full-time. Four years later, he graduated with a degree in civil engineering. Once qualified, he returned home to Ireland where he worked for a number of different building and civil engineering companies before landing his dream job with Arup, one of the country's leading engineering firms.

It was here that he met Michael Looby. From Tullamore, in Co Offaly, Michael had developed a liking for maths and physics during his school years. The fact too, that his father worked as an engineer helped to further develop his interest in the sector. He attended Trinity, where he took a degree in civil engineering and a masters in geotechnical engineering.

Throughout college, he spent summer holidays working on building sites in London, Germany and the USA. After college, he got his first job with Waterford County Council as a site engineer before going on to join Arup.

For the next four years, the pair worked together in Arup's infrastructure department and also shared an apartment. And while they loved the company and the work they were doing, both were still only in their late 20s and were not thinking of settling into long-term permanent and pensionable jobs.

Over a pint one Friday evening, each shared with the other their desire to do something on their own. Soon after, in 1998, they left to set up Byrne Looby Partners.

"We started by specialising in geotechnical engineering, because that's the areas we had most expertise in," explains John.

So what is geotechnical engineering? I ask.

"It's engineering in the ground," explains Michael. "Everything that is built is built either in or on the ground and geotechnical engineering covers works that are carried out from ground level down such as foundations for big building and major earth-moving and excavation works.

"And most experienced engineers will tell you that that's where most of the really difficult problems occur in large-scale construction projects," he adds.

For the next five years this area of expertise became the backbone of the business and still remains an important part of their business today.

"It turned out to be a fantastic time to set up in business as the construction sector in Ireland was beginning to really take off," explains John.

But the pace of that activity also brought its own challenges. For a time they struggled to find the right staff to provide the high level of customer engagement that running a consultancy business required.

However, the pair focused much of their energies at that time on building not only core competencies in the business, but also on a strong and cohesive team that would lay the foundation for their future success.

It was an investment that would later pay off.

"The downturn turned out to be a pivotal time in the company's story," explains Michael. "It forced us to totally re-evaluate our focus and our strategy. The old ways simply no longer worked. Faced with a new reality, we had to make some serious decisions about where we wanted to go," he adds.

The pair then made three key strategic moves. Firstly, they broadened the company's engineering capability from geotechnical to include civil, structural and water works. Next, and with a view to looking outside Ireland for future growth, they opened an office in Belfast. The following year, in 2008, their London office was opened.

John spent three days a week there for the next five years helping to establish the company's foothold in the UK market.

Michael, on the other hand, focused his attention on breaking into the Middle Eastern and North Africa market where huge investment in infrastructure was also beginning to take place. Over the next two years, they set up offices in Libya, Dubai and Saudi Arabia.

Now they were on a roll.

During that time too, and in an effort to support their own management development capabilities, John completed an MBA through Henley Business School, while Michael participated in the Enterprise Ireland-supported Leadership for Growth programme at Duke University in the USA.

"These things definitely gave us a better understanding of how to build a business, grow an effective organisation and manage our people and our finances better," explains John.

"And it also definitely increased our ability to think and act more strategically," he adds.

It was this thinking that led them to acquire PH McCarthy Consulting Engineers - one of the oldest and most respected engineering businesses in the water and infrastructure sector. While this strategic acquisition brought increased turnover, additional highly-skilled staff and customers, one of its key benefits was that the company already had existing contracts with local authorities - something that would later help the pair win significant business with such government agencies as Irish Water and the OPW.

In keeping with their ambition to continue to grow the company, they opened additional offices in Doha, Saudi, Manchester, and most recently in Bahrain. Opening and staffing a single international office can in itself be challenging, but to open a new one almost every year is nothing short of incredible.

"Looking back, the downturn in the Irish economy forced us to change tack and ultimately led to us doubling the size of the company during one of the most difficult financial crises," explains Michael with some pride.

Today, with John looking after the UK and Michael the Middle East, the pair remain every bit as focused on continuing to grow and expand their business.

"We definitely see Ireland as an exciting place to do business and are hugely optimistic for Ireland's future," explains John.

"So much so that we are actively recruiting engineers at the moment," adds Michael.

John Byrne and Michael Looby are both experienced engineers who have amassed considerable global expertise across a wide range of sectors and territories. They are ambitious and highly focused entrepreneurs who have demonstrated both the ability to spot market opportunities and the courage to pursue them.

They have shown that they are highly strategic in how they have faced challenges, opened new markets and consistently grown their business. To add to that, they have succeeded in building strong and cohesive teams and remained focused on delivering results for their many clients around the world.

What an inspiring company, and what inspirational entrepreneurs these two men are.

So if you happen to be driving along the M50, sitting in Aviva Stadium, or even find yourself on the Lusail Expressway in Doha, take a moment to remember and be proud of these two great Irish entrepreneurs and their staff who helped make these landmark projects a reality.

More information: Byrne Looby Partners, H5 Centrepoint Business Park, Oak Rd, Dublin 12. Tel: (01) 456 4370 or online at www.blpge.com

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