Sunday 16 June 2019

Creating smart buildings a clever move

Seamus McGlade started as a farmer, and today he heads up one of Ireland and the UK's leading building automation firms

SMARTS: Sean Gallagher with Seamus McGlade of Ashdown Controls Group. Photo: Gerry
SMARTS: Sean Gallagher with Seamus McGlade of Ashdown Controls Group. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

One of the major developments in Ireland in recent years has been the size and scale of the many commercial buildings that now form part of our modern architecture and way of life. From large open-plan offices and factories to multi-storey hospitals, universities and shopping centres, these buildings now require complex mechanical and electrical systems to effectively manage how they are heated in the winter and cooled throughout the summer.

Given, too, the magnitude of many of these buildings it is now no longer practical to use simple on and off switches to control all of the lights at the one time. Many use low-consumption LED-type lights, which are automatically controlled by sensors that operate only when activity is detected in an area. Heating in these buildings is now mostly zoned and controlled by way of temperature stats on the wall locally and central controllers that automatically call for heat from large gas boilers, as and when required.

In terms of ventilation, gone too are the days of opening windows to let in fresh air. Complex ventilation systems have become essential in many buildings due to the air-tight and air-conditioned nature of these modern structures. Elaborate air-to-air energy recovery systems have also become commonplace where thermal heat is recovered from warm exhaust air and transferred to the incoming fresh air supply.

Our buildings have now become living and intelligent environments capable of adapting to the changing needs of those who use, work in or inhabit them. The challenge for those who own or run these buildings is how best to control these complex systems and how to manage them in a cost-effective and energy-efficient manner.

Today's solution comes in the form of software-based Building and Energy Management Systems (or BEMS) and one Irish company that specialises in the design, installation and servicing of these systems is Dublin-based Ashdown Controls. Twenty-five years in business and with a staff of 55 and a turnover of over €5m, it has now become one of the largest installers and service providers of Building Management Systems in both Ireland and the UK. This week, I visit the company's founder and CEO, Seamus McGlade, to learn about how he has grown a successful business in this rapidly expanding but highly specialised sector.

Surprisingly, Seamus McGlade didn't study engineering or electronics in college. In fact, he has never had third-level education. Yet because of his drive, ambition and willingness to work hard, his achievements serve as an inspiring example of how success in life and in business is not about having qualifications but more about having the right attitude and motivation.

Seamus grew up just outside Draperstown in Co Derry, where his family had a small farm. After leaving school, he opted to work full time on the farm.

"It was a great education and a great way of life that instilled in me important values of hard work and perseverance - traits that have stood to me ever since," explains Seamus.

While he thoroughly enjoyed working on the farm over the next 10 years, he also came to realise that his farm was simply not large enough to sustain himself and his growing family. Gradually, he began to investigate other business opportunities and seeing an advertisement in a local newspaper looking for Irish distributors for new energy-saving devices for domestic boilers, he and a colleague signed up as agents and, in 1990, Ashdown Controls was born. While the jobs the pair were doing back then were much smaller than anything Seamus and his company currently do, the experience, nonetheless, turned out to be the perfect learning ground for Seamus to gain knowledge and experience of this emerging sector.

In 1995, the company became agents and system integrators for TAC Building Management Systems (now part of Schneider Electric) and began installing larger control systems for commercial buildings. Over the next 10 years, he grew the business to become the largest supplier of these systems in both Ireland and the UK.

In 2010, he bought out the other shareholder in the business and embarked on taking the company forward himself.

"My biggest challenge at that time was that the Schneider product was new to the market and I constantly found myself competing directly with the two largest and most established brands which were dominating the sector at that time: Cylon Controls and Trend Control Systems," admits Seamus.

As a relative newcomer to the industry, he found that he was having to build both his own and the new company's reputation from scratch. It was then that he established a firm rule for himself that he continues to follow to this day - he committed to follow up on every sales lead he received and to always deliver on the promises he made to customers.

"It was a tough period, but I was absolutely determined to succeed and would go and visit potential customers wherever they were and whenever they wanted," explains Seamus.

His tenacity paid off, and shortly afterwards he won his first large fit-out project with Norbrook Laboratories in Newry. A major breakthrough came for the business when in 2010 both Cylon Controls and Trend Control Systems approached him to become System Integrators for them.

This new relationship offered the company the platform it needed to grow and since then the company has outgrown many of its competitors to become the second largest integrator of these systems in the country. In 2013, and keen to expand overseas, Seamus won his first major contract in the UK. Today, he has a dedicated office in London, with five full-time staff.

"Our Irish and UK customers are typically large commercial buildings that include everything from offices, industrial buildings and pharmaceutical facilities to data centres, universities and hospitals as well as hotels, leisure centres and large retail outlets," explains Seamus. "Some of the better-known projects we have completed include Google's headquarters in Barrow Street, the New Mater Hospital and University College Dublin, Ericsson Data Centre in Athlone, the Titanic signature building in Belfast, Lough Erne Resort in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, and Hertfordshire and Essex Universities and London's Blackfriars Hotel in the UK."

Seamus's is an interesting business model where he works directly with a range of building owners as well as developers, contractors and mechanical and electrical consulting engineers on both existing and new build projects. He and his colleagues design and programme the systems while the manufacturing of the electrical and other panels is outsourced to local manufacturers, and the installation of the hardware and equipment is usually carried out by the customer's on-site electrical contracting firm.

Seamus has been a long-time believer in the importance of adopting a positive attitude to life and business. "I am a great believer that we attract whatever we think about or focus on - whether this is negative or positive," explains Seamus.

For example, he points out that during the recent downturn, the word 'recession' was not allowed to be used in the company. Instead of complaining about what couldn't be done, Seamus directed his staff to focus increasingly on finding whatever work there was available at the time.

"When commercial building slowed down during this time, we realised that those buildings that already existed needed to be serviced and maintained and we decided to go after this work which not only sustained us, but also enabled us to continue to grow," explains Seamus.

Although Seamus sets the overall vision for the business, he prefers to give his staff much of the credit for delivering the company's key goals.

"Our staff are all important to our success and we constantly strive to develop a family and team-type approach," insists Seamus.

To this end, the company has adopted the acronym STAR as a model, with S standing for delivering the highest Standards in their work and service, T for working Together, A for taking personal Accountability for the quality of their work and R for Respect towards others on the team, their customers and suppliers.

"Our philosophy is to continuously strive to differentiate ourselves from our competitors by partnering with our customers rather than simply supplying services to them," explains Seamus. "By listening to their needs, we have managed to build excellent relationships with our customers most of whom have stayed with us over the last 25 years," he adds proudly.

What about the future?

"We are very confident about the future and we can already see a recovery beginning to take place on the ground with many new construction projects now underway," explains Seamus.

Always ambitious and keen to move forward, he expects to double his turnover in Ireland and the UK to €10m over the next three years.

After 25 years in business does he still enjoy it all?

"More than ever," he replies smiling. "I am now at a point where I have more confidence in the business and more confidence in myself. And I now have a great team," he adds.

Before I leave he tells me that he also has exciting plans to develop new business opportunities in the home automation space but despite much probing and prodding, refuses to be drawn on the nature of these opportunities - for now at least.

"Watch this space," he says with a big smile.

For further information: Ashdown Controls, Unit 1, Damastown Walk, Damastown Technology Park, Dublin 15. Tel: 01 8991812


Seamus's advice for other businesses

1 Don’t just be a supplier - be a partner

Don’t just supply to your customers - partner with them. In turn, help them to deliver on their promises to their customers. This builds trust and long-term relationships which will result in repeat business as well as positive referrals to other potential customers.

2 Value relationships with your bank and suppliers

Having a strong relationship with your bank and key suppliers is critical to long-term business success. This becomes particularly important when you are in growth mode when you most require credit facilities from your bank and good credit terms from suppliers.

3  Your staff ARE your business

Staff are the heart and soul of your business and vital to driving success. Having the right skills is a given, but it is also equally important that your staff have the right attitude, motivation and passion and a belief in and commitment to what you are trying to accomplish.

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