Saturday 17 March 2018

'Some of the best answers come from the guys on the ground'

Aramark Ireland CEO Donal O'Brien talks to Louise McBride about working 'outside the Irish bubble', the lack of city office space, and his plans to transform services at Croke Park

Donal O'Brien
Donal O'Brien
Donal O'Brien cartoon
Louise McBride

Louise McBride

FIVE minutes into my interview with Donal O'Brien, the ceo of Aramark Ireland, the fire alarm goes off. The building, in Dublin's Northern Cross, is evacuated and I find myself standing out in the company car park on a sunny April morning along with O'Brien and his staff.

But there's no sign of a fire – it's a routine safety drill.

O'Brien jokes that I'm getting the "full Aramark experience". He chats to me about what he believes are the challenges faced by newspapers today – and is keen to hear my thoughts. Unlike many of the bosses of large organisations, he doesn't come across as self-absorbed. Indeed, for the head of what he describes as "the biggest American employer in Ireland", he seems incredibly down to earth.

O'Brien, who lives in Ratoath, Co Meath, was born in Clontarf in Dublin in 1958. He lived in Clondalkin for many years. His father was a policeman and his mother came from a farming family in Newcastle, Co Dublin. Asked if his parents had anything to do with his career path, O'Brien says: "I suppose on my mum's side they were successful farmers, so somewhere along there, the trader came through. Since I was a youngster, I've always wanted to run a company in Ireland."

O'Brien, who has been ceo of Aramark Ireland for about three years, has been with the company for 10 years.

He previously was chief operating officer of Irish biotech company Alltracel Pharmaceuticals. He ran Bewley's coffee shops and hotels from 1998 to 2000, and Bewley's tea and coffee retail business until November 2001. In the Eighties, he was a marketing director for Baileys.

"I've had a very varied career over the years," he says. "I worked with Baileys right at the very outset when it just took off. I was the company's marketing director for Australia, New Zealand and the Far East. So I had a lovely time travelling around those countries in the Eighties when people were finding it very difficult here. I managed all the distribution arrangements and it was really exciting."

O'Brien believes his experiences travelling abroad played a big part in helping him to realise his dream of running a company here. "I'm one of those guys who left Ireland for work for seven or eight years and then came back," he tells me.

"I lived in Switzerland, Germany, Sweden and Britain and now I'm back here – so I've been around. While I was abroad, I learnt to speak another language – German – and that's been of huge benefit to me.

"People shouldn't be afraid about having to move away [for work]. Some people stay away but an awful lot of people do come back – and what they bring back with them is hugely invaluable. For me, it brought in a whole new way of thinking. It makes you see outside the Irish bubble. It makes you understand how people see Ireland and helps you navigate your way through having a trading relationship with people in other countries.

"Because sometimes it's the very simple things that turn people off. We all think that we're all European and we all know what everybody wants, but you've got to understand that there's an etiquette and a way of doing things – and the more insight you have into that, the more successful you can be."

In the mid-Noughties, the American corporation Aramark bought a majority shareholding in Campbell Catering, and by 2007 it had bought the entire company. That company is now Aramark Ireland.

"There were three very large players in the food service market at that time – and this is still the case," says O'Brien. "Aramark is one of those players. The merger was important because Campbell Catering was just a food service company and it was important for it to be aligned to a large corporate for obvious reasons: it could leverage its buying power, it would get international exposure and it would be recognised by major international companies based here."

Aramark Ireland has over 4,000 employees. As well as providing catering services, it specialises in facilities management – helping businesses, hospitals and others to organise their offices and to cater for staff and visitors.

So what exactly does "facilities management" mean? Aramark helps companies to build an office environment where "everything works from the minute an employee looks to find a car parking space to the walk into the building" he explains.

"Our ambition is that an employee would understand where everything is within five minutes of entering a building," he adds.

The workplaces which Aramark caters for range from the ordinary to the extreme.

"We are refurbishing some of the oil platforms in the North Sea," explains O'Brien.

"We have developed a system of refitting the accommodation blocks on oil rigs and we do that for companies there, and we also provide food services. Because these are remote sites, basically you have to take care of everything from cleaning, laundry and so on, and then make sure that everything works – the wi-fi systems, the TV, the gym and so on. There's a small piece of business in Ireland around that – based out in the Kinsale Field – and we have managed that from the outset."

The fight for talented staff means there is a big demand for Aramark's facilities management services; the workplace environment offered by a company can be the difference between attracting and retaining valuable staff and losing them, according to O'Brien. It can also boost productivity.

"The type of companies coming into Ireland now – these born-on-the-web companies, the Googles and so on, they are looking for very specific types of property," says O'Brien. "They are very focused on green, lean buildings that are sustainable.

"They want their offices to be places that will attract the employees they're looking for – and that are in the right locations so that's it's easy for employees to get there.

"The greater Leinster area has an enormous group of companies which have their European headquarters here, and they are all fighting for the same types of people – whether that be pharma, medical devices, financial, whatever. Companies want to hold on to their staff and attract the right calibre of people.

"If you look at the way offices are designed and managed today, and all the facilities around that, they're very different to the office blocks of just a mere 20 years ago."

O'Brien cites research which has found that workers have on average "a 20 per cent discretionary level of effort which they can choose to leave in the company or take away with them to do other things".

"What the savvy companies are at is making the working environment for their employees appropriate to allow them leave that 20 per cent discretionary effort there," says O'Brien. "And that's the X-factor that drives companies way out past others in terms of competitive advantage."

So who are Aramark's clients? O'Brien is tight-lipped. However, the Sunday Independent understands they include the likes of Google, Apple, Intel and Abbott – as well as Irish companies and healthcare organisations.

"We touch every single aspect of the Irish economy, whether it's government, generic Irish companies, education, healthcare and foreign multinationals here," says O'Brien. "We are in every corner of the country. We have 1,000 customers spread across the island of Ireland – north and south."

Earlier this year, Aramark won the contract to provide catering services to Croke Park. The seven-year contract is worth over €9m a year. With One Direction set to perform in the stadium this May, and five Garth Brooks concerts coming up in July, the company will be busy.

"The contract is worth a lot more than €9m this year with all these Garth Brooks concerts," says O'Brien. "The value of the contract will ebb and flow each year – it's not every year that Garth Brooks concerts happen."

The contract is not without its challenges.

"One of the big problems on All-Ireland final day or during a concert is that you have 82,000 people there and everyone wants to get served in 15 or 20 minutes," says O'Brien. "You can just imagine the number of staff that you need to facilitate that.

"You have to spend an awful lot of time analysing where you place things, what is it exactly that you make available to people, and how many outlets you need to have. We're going to up the number of outlets by between 30 and 40 per cent so we can get to more people more effectively and more efficiently."

Over the next year-and-a-half, Aramark plans to transform the experience which fans have when they visit Croke Park. "We are investing a lot in new systems which will help us analyse the needs and wants of the fans when they arrive in Croke Park," says O'Brien.

O'Brien is also very excited about the growth in the company's export business.

"We now are in effect exporting as the companies that we work with export overseas," says O'Brien. "As our customers move out into EMEA (Europe, the Middle East and Africa), we move with them. Over 20 per cent of our revenues are now generated outside of Ireland – and this is coming from a very small base.

"The main reason for the growth is that we now offer a much wider range of services that are exportable. We started from a hospitality background offering food services and now we offer a plethora of services from food services, to facilities management, property management, energy management and environmental management services."

Aramark manages the Dundrum Town Centre, the English Market in Cork, office projects such as George's Quay, the Irish Life Centre, and parts of the IFSC in Dublin.

"We have the largest property management company in the country – we manage 22 million square feet and collect €400m in rent," he says. "Some people find it hard to believe that there's €400m in rent to be collected – but there is."

O'Brien's foothold in property management has given him an insight into the demand for office space in certain parts of the capital. He warns that the dearth of office accommodation in central Dublin could dissuade perspective employers from setting up in Ireland.

"The demand for appropriate office accommodation in the central Dublin area is at fever pitch," said O'Brien. "There aren't enough buildings to deliver to the need that's there. There needs to be further construction in that space within central Dublin and probably Cork – and in very specific areas."

I ask O'Brien – who has spent much of his career in senior positions – if it is lonely at the top.

"It can be if you allow it happen," he answers. "What you have to do is create a network. Here, I'm a guy at the top – but I've 22 other country presidents that I can talk to. I've built up a network of people around Ireland as well that I can stress test my own thoughts with.

"And by the way, some of the best answers come from the guys on the ground. If you're having a really bad day, going down to the front line and sharing your concerns can lead to some really amazing answers and simple solutions."

Being down to earth in business clearly pays off.

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