Business Irish

Wednesday 21 August 2019

Eaton Corp chief Kane powers ahead

The electric giant may be one of Ireland's largest firms by turnover but it blends quietly into its D4 surroundings

Phil Kane, country manager of Eaton Ireland, pictured at Eaton House on Dublin’s Pembroke Road. Photo: Frank McGrath
Phil Kane, country manager of Eaton Ireland, pictured at Eaton House on Dublin’s Pembroke Road. Photo: Frank McGrath

Fearghal O'Connor

From the roof of the Pembroke Road global headquarters of Eaton Corporation - one of Ireland's biggest companies by turnover - it is possible to see more than 60 cranes. On a cloudless autumn day, it provides a fair view of Irish economic activity.

Phil Kane, country manager for Eaton in Ireland, says that a tour of the building, starting on the roof, is about the best way to explain Eaton's role here. It's a tour that also provides an interesting view into the often intensely private multinational sector, as well as into a company that dwarfs most of the well-known brands whose offices dot the surrounding Dublin 4 panorama.

Kane has started the tour on the roof for good reason: it is crammed with the impressive array of Eaton-manufactured electrical and hydraulic items that keep this building, and thousands like it, warm, secure, well-lit and safe. "All of this is Eaton," she says, leading the way into a rooftop enclosure containing a baffling, but sparkling array of pipes, wires, cabinets, panels and buttons. "Every one of those buttons is Eaton product. Our pumps, our mains lighting, fire alarms, and signalling devices. Our switches and sockets."

Indeed, Eaton product - made in factories in the UK, Romania, Turkey, France and a host of other countries - is incorporated throughout the building, itself an immaculate showcase for a gigantic global business that also includes the provision of systems for aviation and other vehicles.

Eaton Corporation is an Irish-headquartered, Cleveland, Ohio-born multinational with 95,000 employees, a presence in 60 countries, net sales of $19.7bn in 2016, and gross profit of $6.3bn. Its 2016 tax expense on income was $304,000, $2,000 of which was owed in Ireland, according to accounts filed to the Irish company's office in recent weeks.

After becoming an Irish firm in 2012, Eaton bought IBM's old headquarters on Pembroke Road, knocking it to basement level and rebuilding it to the very highest standards.

The new building does not shout about its presence on the street. Like Eaton itself, it blends discreetly into the Georgian Dublin streetscape. But closer inspection reveals a subtly-rendered granite face with huge windows that flood the interior with natural light. Inside and out, it is as opulent as any of the very highest grade commercial developments springing up around the city.

IBM at one stage accommodated up to 600 staff in the original building. Currently, 50 Eaton staff are stationed in the new headquarters, in generously proportioned, attractively appointed desks installed across five identical storeys.

"We've the capacity to go to a hundred employees and we're actively trying to grow to that. We have a lot of new initiatives starting and we're constantly evolving," says Kane.

But recruitment has been slow, she says, because the right people can be hard to find.

"We do an awful lot of work on talent acquisition to employ the right people to fit the Eaton culture. Our employment process can be quite lengthy from start to finish but when people actually come to join Eaton, they want to stay with us."

The company would rather wait to find "the right staff that fit into our culture than just fill headcount", she says. Nevertheless, available roles include legal, treasury, IP, IPO, tech, internal audit, finance and some sales positions.

For now, many desks throughout the quiet building are unoccupied. But the building itself also plays a number of other roles for the global giant. As its worldwide headquarters, Pembroke Road is home to Eaton's legal counsel and, periodically, the company's directors fly in from across the US for Eaton board meetings. And, says Kane, the building is also used as a showcase for potential customers from around the world.

"It showcases our expertise in the electrical industry, the products we can offer, the solutions we can provide to manage people's power criteria and, you know, it's just wonderful to be able to have such a fabulous footprint in the centre of Dublin."

Central to the image that Eaton seeks to portray is one of environmental sustainability: recycling, minimal use of landfills and the office has even supported a local community garden.

"We're a very ethical-driven company and I think it just comes from the top down and every manager, every employee is very conscious of our environment around us and we do a lot of environmental work. We're encouraged to give back to the communities in each country that we're in."

Each floor is dominated by an identical large kitchen and open meeting area where recycling is prioritised. A green winter garden adorns one roof terrace. Beautiful artwork hangs on the walls, including a beautiful sequence of recycled MDF by Dublin artist David Quinn, and another beautiful large painting by Elizabeth Magill that will go on loan to a Dublin gallery after Christmas.

Each of the numerous conference and meeting rooms in the building are named after Irish writers. Seated in the Elizabeth Bowen room, Kane explains that taxation matters are dealt with by the board and outside the remit of her role.

"I don't look after it to be honest, but you can rest assured we're very ethical and we follow the rules of law, the rules of the land."

Kane's day-to-day role as Ireland country head is focused on Eaton's electrical equipment sales business in Ireland and she spends a lot of her time at the company's distribution centre in Maynooth. Despite its global status in the sector, Eaton is not a major player in the Irish market but Kane says it is working on that, particularly in the booming data centre market and through a contract it has supplying equipment to the new National Forensic Mental Health Hospital in Portrane, Co Dublin: "We're evolving. We're going to get there," she says.

Kane began her career in the early 1990s in the tech industry in London. At the time Ireland was just becoming a hotbed for American multinationals and she got a call asking her to come back to work in the sector in Ireland in a distribution business. She was then headhunted by a large American IT distributor called Ingram Micro that wanted to establish an operation in Ireland.

"I established them here from zero. Then in 2008 I got a phone call from Cooper Industries to say that they were looking at incorporating and expanding their operation in Ireland and would I come and talk to them."

Cooper was a major US player in the global electrical equipment industry and owned Kerry-based Menvier. Kane helped Cooper incorporate in Ireland and established its offices in Fitzwilliam Square where it held its board meetings.

Then in 2012, Cooper was acquired by 100-year-old Cleveland giant Eaton for $11.8bn. Central to the acquisition was Eaton shifting its own incorporation to Ireland to save on taxes - a so-called tax inversion. Several other US industrial companies, including Ingersoll Rand and Tyco International, had made the same move and it was estimated at the time that Eaton would save $160m in tax every year from the deal. Jumping from the fast-paced, innovation-focused tech industry was a big choice for Kane. But she quickly took to the new role and says she soon developed a habit of instinctively looking up when she walked into a building.

"I would be just checking out to see what emergency lighting and fire equipment they'd installed. My friends would say 'oh, my God your life has gone so sad'."

She admits that she hasn't quite shaken the habit. "When I go into hotels now, I check to see if it's our lighting controls that's running their whole lighting system, their mood lighting and all of that. We like to use the hotels that support us so if we've any conferences going on we'll always go to a hotel that has our products installed. The same goes for the cars we drive. Unless they're supporting Eaton, we don't drive those cars," she says.

Kane still lives in Killucan and is a neighbour of Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary. Her husband Aidan Flynn runs his own farm-machinery business locally and they have a uniquely busy household. The couple have three sets of twins, all girls. The older twins are 19 and 18 respectively but the youngest are just 21 months.

"They tell me it's a million-to-one chance. I'm blessed to have three sets of twin girls," she says. "They keep me on my toes and I have a very busy life. But we are blessed to be surrounded by a very supportive family. It's one of the advantages of coming from and living in the country. We're lucky to have plenty of people to call upon if needed and great community spirit."

Indeed, Kane believes that her ability to multitask has been key to her own professional development and this was something she had proven when she set up the Ingram operation.

"I'd taken an American global company and I'd started them from scratch with just myself and I was able to co-ordinate everything," she says. "You need to be an all-rounder. So, I deal with all-round issues even though I have a support team that I can pull in for expertise in every sector.

"So, if the forklift needs to be driven and the truck needs to be loaded, I can do that too. And if there's HR issues, I can deal with them. You need to be able to adapt and turn your hand to whatever needs to be done and I've no problem rolling up my sleeves. I mightn't always do it the right way but it's easier to ask for forgiveness than to seek permission."

The tour ends on the ground floor just off the tastefully appointed reception area in the Oscar Wilde conference room. Today the room - like the other five floors of the sumptuously rebuilt building - is quiet and immaculately clean, with just a small sign in the corner that reads 'Eaton University' to hint at the groups of staff that Kane says from time to time gather here from the firm's facilities across Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

But there are rumblings in the distance. Last month the company's results warned that the change of administration in the US could have a negative impact on the company's tax position "if proposals were enacted that had the effect of disregarding the incorporation in Ireland or limiting Eaton's ability as an Irish company to take advantage of tax treaties with the US". This, it warned, could see it subject to increased taxation "and/or potentially significant expense".

For now, Eaton's Pembroke Road building remains an oasis of calm in a fast-changing world.

Sunday Indo Business

Also in Business