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Sonica builds for a post-Covid world

Founder Donnacha Neary built a €70m business and is now overseeing the creation of an office fit for the future

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Donnacha Neary. Photo: Mark Condren

Donnacha Neary. Photo: Mark Condren

Donnacha Neary. Photo: Mark Condren

In recent months, a new type of message has been filling up Donnacha Neary's inbox.

"I've been bombarded with emails from opportunistic perspex manufacturers," says the founder and CEO of Sonica, one of Ireland's largest - and newest - high-end commercial interiors fitout contractors.

"Fair play to them. But everything is now a perspex screen and your office feels like you are going to visit someone in prison."

Sonica has doubled its business in the past year and will post turnover north of €70m for 2020. And despite the disruption of the pandemic to the business this year, Neary, who left one of the established players in the industry in 2013 to set up his own firm, remains confident Sonica will hit the €100m mark over the next two years. This will be helped by the addition of a new German operation, which has just completed an eight-storey office for HubSpot in Berlin and is about to start on a new pharma facility in Dusseldorf.

But the coronavirus has certainly given a company which has designed and outfitted some of the highest profile office and commercial premises in the country, plenty to think about.

"We need to get away from that," says Neary of the rush to perspex. "It will kill interaction and collaboration. We need offices that are well thought out, well laid out and technologically agile enough to integrate remote workers."

Sonica is largely focused for its business on big multinationals. It has designed and fitted plush new offices for a roll call of high-profile companies such as Intercom , Huawei and GlaxoSmithKline.

Before the pandemic, Sonica had begun a €3.5m project in his native Skerries, Co Dublin, to create the office of the future. First Landings, as it is called, had been designed to showcase the very best of what Sonica could provide. But with the lockdown, Neary and his team had to quickly rethink the plan for a post-Covid world.

"The initial concept of First Landings was to attract new companies," he says, standing in the sunlit double-height lobby of First Landings with orange-clad workers buzzing around and construction noise at times drowning out his voice.

First Landings will be the headquarters for Sonica's more than 50 staff, but will have space for as many as 300 workers. Sonica will offer new overseas clients the space and technology to set up an initial Irish operation while they source, design and prepare a permanent location. Existing clients will also be given access if they want to provide remote options for workers from the area who might ordinarily commute across the city.

"It was a case of how do we attract the next HubSpot? Or if Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg were coming to Ireland for the first time, what space do we want to show them to get their business?" he says.

Skerries Point - the neighbourhood shopping mall above which First Landings is located - was originally built at the very height of the Celtic Tiger and, on the face of it, the seaside town seems an unlikely place to find a Silicon Valley executive. When the economy collapsed the whole development went into Nama before being bought by a Boston-based property company four years ago.

"The idea for Skerries Point was good, but their timing was terrible. But when I walked into it I just knew it was perfect.

"I've a million ideas of what we want to do in this place and it starts here," says Neary, sweeping his arm around a double height 125-seat auditorium that will soon contain the biggest LED screen in Ireland. It will be equipped to host TED talks for the design industry and will double as a virtual reality suite to allow clients walk through life-sized versions of their plans and blueprints.

Upstairs, the main floor of the office is being readied for a finish of glass and sleek steel. Everything has been rethought with social distancing in mind: double-width corridors, open-plan collaboration areas with screens to bring remote colleagues into the conversation, Eddie Rockets-style booth seating and touch-free coffee machines controlled via phone app.

Other features will only appeal to a certain type of manager: a Zen room, a podcast studio, a day bed, a games room and a golf simulator to play the world's great courses.

"If this looks and feels like an office we've failed. It has to look like something that has never been done before," says Neary. "The office is changing. The challenge for employers is how to bring people into a healthy and safe environment without the need to have so many screens that they feel like they are visiting someone in prison. It's about proper design, conceptual layouts, plenty of space and not defining people by putting them into designated desks. At First Landings we're changing the way the office is laid out. While there are desks, the bulk of our space is now going to be in breakout and collaboration areas."

The growth of remote and flexible working means the purpose of the office has changed for a lot of Sonica's key clients. Change had already been in the air, but Covid has accelerated the move to a different way of working.

"The office is a hub of collaboration and a vehicle for a company to attract and engage talent. So I really don't think this pandemic heralds the end of the office. Instead, it will sit at the core of a hub-and-spoke model that can provide flexibility and integrate remote workers using technology."

Neary is aware of just one big fitout project that has been pulled since March, a legal firm entering into "a heavy lease" in the docklands. Elsewhere the pipeline of potential projects remains strong. There's a €10m project for Indeed in St Stephens Green, a new Microsoft project, a €10m project at Guidewire's new facilities in Blanchardstown, Google's new facility in Sandyford. Sonica is in the hunt for all of them.

"We're in a very strong position trading wise with cash on the balance sheet and First Landings is our statement of intent. We're very positive."

Shyness was never something that was going to hold Neary back. Growing up in Skerries, music was a big passion and he performed in everything from a Metallica tribute band to a wedding band. He enjoyed science in school and went to DCU to study biotechnology. But a placement with Jones Engineering to help test wastewater on a major water treatment plant project opened his eyes to the construction industry. "I should have been thinking about trying to cure cancer, make cheese or brew beer, but the process of construction really grabbed me."

The placement turned into a full-time job and he stayed for four happy years before joining American office fitout firm Structuretone. It had been set up by two Irish builders in New York and had become one of the biggest office fitout companies in the world. Neary rose through the ranks to become project manager.

"My boss at the time, Paul McKenna, left and wanted to set up his own company and I left to join him in what is now the Mac Group. I worked with them for 10 years and got to group director level. But I always had the ambition to work for myself and to be my own boss." And so, in 2013, to the surprise of friends and colleagues, and with the recession still under way, Sonica was born.

"It was equal measures of excitement and sheer bloody terror," he says. "We had a brand new offering, no clients and €75,000 that myself and my wife had saved as seed capital. So I was going into meetings knowing that I didn't have the war chest or the financial resources to go toe to toe with the established players, but I never let that come through in my attitude. So when we went in to talk about projects, we made sure we knew more about the project than the designer knew because we were just so into the nuts and bolts of it. We were eight weeks old when we pitched to redesign two floors of the Guinness Storehouse job and we basically compelled them to work with us by our attitude."

The project was worth €450,000 but, more importantly, it put Sonica on the map. The company then won the contract to strip everything O2 related from the Point Theatre and replace it with its new Three Arena brand.

"We knew we had the ability to deliver these projects but we just needed to break that €1m single project ceiling. Once we could do that the floodgates would open."

That big breakthrough came with a high-spec fitout of GlaxoSmithKline's Irish headquarters.

"We threw the kitchen sink at it. Glaxo liked it, the architect liked it. That allowed us to leverage our first big office projects."

After that, growth came easily. In year one turnover was €2.5m, but three years later it was €20m.

"The next year we jumped to €30m and that was a real eye opener. We realised the profit wasn't there because we had been running around being busy fools. I had the self awareness to stop, put the handbrake up and take a look at it. We invested heavily in the process and functions of the business, as well as in people."

The following year turnover fell back to €20m but net profit was much stronger. With new more streamlined structures in place, Neary felt much more comfortable about pushing for growth and in 2019 turnover was back up to €36m.

"We're heading for €70m this year with a pipeline of confirmed orders in the books. In the next two years we'll be heading north of €100m."

With a host of high-tech docklands projects, as well as fitouts for Calvin Klein, Ticketmaster and the new Explorium museum now under his belt, Neary remains positive about the future, despite undoubted challenges ahead. "People want the power to choose the where, the when and the how of their work. The office is still at the core of that. Technology cannot replace having coffee with someone or reading a room full of people for their body language. The office will become a hybrid of the best of what working from home can be and what working in an office should be."

The office, he says, needs to remain the central nervous system for a company and its brand. Out in Skerries, Neary is busy building a prototype.

 

CURRICULUM VITAE

Name

Donnacha Neary

Age

44

Position

Founder & managing director of Sonica Fitout Ltd

Family

Married to Sonia with two children, Zach (11) and Lara (8)

Lives

Skerries, Co Dublin

Education

Skerries Community College

Bachelor of Science in biotechnology from DCU

Pastimes

Golf, hockey and golf coach, playing guitar in his band, Mine Road, working out in the gym

Favourite movie

Metallica: Some Kind of Monster

Favourite book

Shoe Dog: A memoir by the creator of Nike by Phil Knight

Favourite album

Metallica's Master of Puppets

 

BUSINESS LESSONS

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs trying to build a business in today’s climate?

For me, it’s all about belief. It is an overused word, but it’s such a key word. If you can work a plan and sell it to yourself and believe it yourself, then you’re going to be able to sell that to anybody. When we started, we went into meetings and there was certainly a self awareness from me that I was a startup going into these meetings. But that was never portrayed in how I talked to people or to my clients upstream.

 

What is the concept behind your €3.5m First Landings project?

First Landings is a way to help us win new multinational business from overseas, as well as to offer a facility for use by remote workers from our existing clients. But post-Covid we also want to get involved with startups and companies that have been shut or stalled or hamstrung by Covid. We want to be able to say ‘come to our space and we’ll give you a breather’. We have tonnes of space upstairs.

Sunday Indo Business