Tuesday 6 December 2016

Your Business: It's always about the people

Aidan Harte tells Sean Gallagher about the challenges and triumphs of growing an international training firm

Published 19/06/2016 | 02:30

Sean Gallagher with Aidan Harte at the Optimum Results HQ in Dundalk. Photo: Tom Conachy
Sean Gallagher with Aidan Harte at the Optimum Results HQ in Dundalk. Photo: Tom Conachy

Most business owners and managers will tell you that staff training and development are essential to achieving success in their businesses. Most will also acknowledge that in tough times, these are often the very first budgets that are cut.

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But with the economy back in recovery and companies moving from a place of survival to one of growth, firms who provide training and development programmes are once again in demand.

Last week I travelled to Dundalk to meet Aidan Harte, founder and managing director of Optimum Results, one of Ireland's most successful training companies. Set up in 1995, his business employs 20 staff and has an annual turnover of €2m.

"We still have the same mission statement we always had," says Aidan. "To improve the business performance of our client companies through improving the performance of their people."

Today, the company operates across four key divisions. Their training and business performance consulting division delivers a wide range of tailored people-management programmes to owners and managers of SMEs, staff of agencies such as Enterprise Ireland, Local Enterprise Offices, Skillsnets and Invest Northern Ireland as well as to HR departments of large organisations.

They also have a division that specialises in delivering similar programmes to SMEs and business development agencies internationally, and to date have worked in 11 different countries across Central and Eastern Europe, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Bahrain.

The third part of their business is their Customer Perceptions division which provides mystery shopping and consumer research services to retail, hospitality and service sector clients, among them, AIB, Tesco, the DAA, Applegreen, a number of leading hotel chains and hundreds of restaurants.

Finally, their on-line training services division - SeamsCloud.com - offers a mix of e-learning and blended modules. "These are especially relevant to larger type firms where compliance and validation of learning outcomes are important, such as in food and health and safety standards," explains Aidan. "For example, one of our clients is a large food manufacturer with over 1,400 staff. Every year they have to undergo 20 separate audits from large customers or health inspection agencies. As part of these audits, they are required to produce training records for all their staff on topics such as food safety. This would normally be a huge administrative task - but with our online system, we can not only deliver the training, but also maintain all their training records," he adds.

The journey associated with growing an ­international training business, from scratch, has not been without its challenges - yet it's a journey that Aidan Harte has relished.

The son of a carpenter, Aidan grew up in Cork. Following school, he graduated in marketing from the Marketing Institute while at the same time working full-time with C&C. "It was a great training ground because the company was tough on traditional standards and would regularly inspect how clean your car was or if your shoes were polished. If you were going to represent the company to customers, they expected you to do it properly," recalls Aidan.

His next job was as a medical sales rep with pharma giant Upjohn - and it was here that he gained insights into how large companies went about their HR training and development - something that impressed him greatly. Following additional roles in the telecoms and hospitality sectors, in 1990 Aidan joined Monaghan-based timber frame manufacturer IJM as a marketing consultant - and within a year, was made marketing director.

"Five years later, I found myself at a crossroads. I wanted to start my own training company and sensed it was a case of now or never," admits Aidan. "I felt that little was being done to develop the management skills of small business owners and their managers.

"A lot of training up to that point had been poor and often delivered by academically qualified staff who had no real business experience. Most were treating small business as smaller versions of big ones - which they certainly are not. I wanted to offer something more relevant, so Optimum Results was born," he adds.

He began targeting County Enterprise Boards which had just been set up by the Government to support local start-ups - quickly establishing his company as the leading provider of training services in the East, North East and Midlands. As his reputation spread, so too did the size and value of the contracts he won from organisations such as FAS, Leader, LEDU as well as a number of innovative cross-Border SME programmes.

"With the experience we had built up, we were then invited to deliver 'train the trainer'-type programmes to staff in similar SME support organisations in a number of Central and Eastern European countries as part of their pre-accession process in joining the EU. The business was on fire at that stage," explains Aidan.

With business booming, he decided to branch out. With many companies fighting hard to compete, he realised that there was an opening, in the retail and hospitality sectors for an independent provider of honest and objective feedback on what their customers really thought of their products and their levels of customer service. So a new division was set up to provide mystery shopping and market research solutions, under the name Customer Perceptions. Today, that part of the business is managed by his daughter Emma. But then the downturn hit.

"When the crash came in 2008, we lost over 70pc of our main training business. If we didn't have Customer Perceptions, the downturn would have put our lights out," admits Aidan. "It was this that paid the wages in the lean years," he adds.

With the recovery underway, he is now confident about the future. In particular, he sees significant potential in the online and blended learning services area of the business.

"Online will now allow us to scale the business again through delivering SME development programmes anywhere in the world. Our strategy will be to partner with local delivery providers in each country while we concentrate on building the content and central technology platform," he adds.

Looking around the walls of his office, it is hard not to be impressed by his many qualifications and awards. But Aidan Harte is more than just a trainer. He is also a seasoned entrepreneur. Like the clients he works with, he too has faced many challenges. Like them, he too has survived.

"We have had the classic roller-coaster ride," explains Aidan. "We went from fledging start-up to becoming one of Ireland's largest training companies, to almost going over the cliff in 2008. But we have managed to re-engineer our ­business model - and today we are again focusing on growth through our online capability. The future looks bright again," he adds.

If we were to examine what success really looks like, if we were to ponder what truly makes our lives meaningful, we might come to the conclusion that success is measured by the positive impact we have on the world around us.

If that is so, then Aidan Harte can surely be satisfied that through his work he is having a significant impact on thousands of individuals and companies in Ireland and throughout the developing world.

For further information: www.optimumresults.ie

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