Sunday 18 February 2018

Tommy Drumm still marching to the same quiet and steady beat at Collen

The Dublin half back helped the Twelve Apostles through crisis and at the historic family firm he is still captain, writes Fearghal O'Connor

Photo: David Conachy
Photo: David Conachy

Fearghal O'Connor

For Gaelic football fans around the country the Dublin team captained to All-Ireland glory by Tommy Drumm in 1983 is forever labelled 'The Dirty Dozen'. But, in the city that surrounds the roof terrace of Collen Construction's East Wall headquarters, where Drumm stands in the fading January light, he and his teammates will always be fondly known as 'The Twelve Apostles'.

Drumm, now managing director of the 210-year-old firm, gestures across the huddled rows of old tile at the new city rushing outwards from the docklands, cranes rising up like the spears of a conquering army on the march.

He points out a red crane in Abbey Street where the building firm is carrying out an intricate restoration job on a church, partially wrapping it in a stunning mesh of glass. Just out of sight is Collen's extension and refurbishment of Blackrock's Frascati shopping centre, past which Drumm cycles each Sunday morning on his way for a swim in the Forty Foot.

Collen's other major contracts ring the city: ultra-modern south Dublin office buildings, student accommodation and, right next door, the recently completed 170,000 square foot office for 1,000 ESB workers, adding new life to the fast-changing area.

But Collen's most intriguing job is three huge data centres in the city's western and northern suburbs for one of the world's biggest internet giants. The deal has been worth €700m to Collen since 2010 - including data centres in Germany and Sweden. Drumm cannot name the client because of strict non-disclosure agreements.

"We will go anywhere in Europe for an existing client," he says. "We are now pricing other work in Europe and actively pursuing a second data centre client. We are also pursuing a third pharma client."

As a young engineer just out of Trinity in 1978, Drumm worked with Collen for four years, coinciding with his time as a central cog of Kevin Heffernan's legendary Dublin football team. He left both outfits just a few years later to travel the world, working abroad on and off for decades, only returning to Collen in 2015 as managing director.

"I have to pinch myself every day I come in here," he says. "Genuinely, I am so happy. I don't think I have ever been so happy."

Interviewing Drumm involves a leisurely tour of Collen's office. He has an easy word for everyone, patiently explaining the importance of the role of each staff member that passes by. He is a quietly spoken man, with a generous laugh, and it is hard to imagine him banging a dressing room table or roaring instructions as an enforcer on Heffo's famous team.

"I was never very comfortable in the limelight. I'm still not. I was very shy in school but the football changed my life. It still helps me today. I can go to Australia or the Middle East and Irish people still want to talk to me about matches I played in 40 years ago. It's incredible."

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Drumm describes himself as a very private individual but his second-storey office curves out from the building towards the footpath in a huge floor to ceiling window, making it feel like it hangs over one of the busiest junctions on the northside. It's an effort not to make eye contact with the pedestrians that stream past below.

"I was sitting here one morning and suddenly I hear outside 'Drummer! Drummer!' It was Brian Mullins on his bike. I brought him up for a coffee."

The two famous former Dublin footballers had plenty on which to reminisce. Together they played in six All-Ireland finals, winning three, with Mullins having already won one in 1974. Drumm, a four-time All-star recipient, sees huge similarities between running a business and playing in a team.

"You learn you are only as strong as the weakest link. The work that goes in to convert a football campaign into success is a bit like success in construction. If you want to win a particular project it requires the input of so many different people."

In 1983, with the glory days seemingly a fading memory for the Dubs, Heffernan had pulled together a new young, unfancied team with just a few familiar faces, including Drumm, who he made captain. After playing exciting football all summer, by half time in the final Drumm and his teammates were in complete crisis.

Mullins, who had battled back to football from a car accident, had been sent off for a wild swing. He was followed by Ray Hazley - who would go on to become a senior Pepsi executive - and Kieran Duff, leaving 12 Dubs facing 14 Galway men and a raging gale. "We had to raise our game. It was an incredible experience ... trying to score in the second half against that breeze. When the chips are down how much do you want win it? Whoever wants it the most generally wins it."

Afterwards, Drumm was named player of the year but controversy raged for years.

"One game doesn't define you. It was very bad weather on the day. The semi-final replay in Cork a few weeks earlier had been incredible. A beautiful day, incredible crowd and a special atmosphere. That was my takeaway from that season."

Ask Drumm about his football days and he invariably responds with colourful tales of his teammates: Pat Canavan's magnificence in the 1983 final, the great but then unknown Mick Holden's audacious gatecrashing of Dublin team training in the early '70s to show Heffernan what he could do.

Drumm was the opposite. Back in 1976, on the number 3 bus home from Trinity, a friend shouted: "Tommy you're named in the Dublin substitutes for Sunday!" He thought it was a wind-up but ran home to check the newspaper: "There was my name, misspelt. So I turned up at Croke Park on Sunday. But I wasn't a sub. Heffo threw me a jersey to start at left half-back. I will never forget it. The whole experience was absolutely life-changing for me."

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Redundancy is a terrible blow for anyone but particularly difficult after giving much of your adult life to a firm. It was August 13, 2008. Drumm rattles off the date like it is burned in his brain and recalls sitting in an office with McInerney's managing director after 25 years with the building giant. "He told me there wasn't room for us all and asked would I consider an exit. I was actually one of the lucky ones. I left when the company was still intact. But I found it really, really hard. I had given 25 years of my life to something and to be asked then to move on, I found that personally very difficult. To give something everything and for it still not to be good enough ... I had to deal with that."

But Drumm learned a huge amount about himself from the experience: "I give more of myself away now then I would have before. If you are going to make a connection with people I learned that you need to share a little about yourself. I'm a very private person but I felt very exposed after being made redundant and I had to recreate myself and rebuild my confidence."

He did not have to wait long for an opportunity. Engineering firm Kentz asked him to go to Australia on a four-year project to build a AUS$900m accommodation village for 4,000 workers at Chevron's massive Gorgan gas field. Anxious to get home, Drumm then moved to London to head Laing O'Rourke's construction business in southern England before taking over at Collen in 2015.

As he talks there is a knock at the door of his office and and a young man briefly sticks his head around the door: "That's the eighth generation of Collen in the company - Jack Collen," says Drumm. "He started four-and-a-half months ago."

Jack's father Neil is chairman of the company and sets its tone: "We are a very flat organisation. There is no middle management as such. We are all part of it and we all just muck in together. That's the culture and it suits my own personality. I've only ever worked for family businesses and there is a special ingredient you get with them."

Collen, he says, had a very different model to other Irish building companies pre-recession, including that of his then employer McInerney.

"Neil is conservative. People said to him before the recession that he was unwise not to invest and buy land and avail of opportunities others were participating in. But he didn't. If it didn't make sense to him he wouldn't do something."

As the Irish construction industry imploded in the early days of the recession there was, of course, pain for Collen too. But the company won a €50m housing scheme for voluntary housing body NABCO for 250 houses in Tyrellstown and a 100 apartment social housing project on Gardiner Street for Dublin City Council.

"That allowed the company to keep the team together. We got projects at the right value and the costs fell away as we went into recession. Then we won our first data centre contract in 2010 and that sustained us right through the recession."

Coming out of recession is also a dangerous time in the building trade, he says: "You pick up work at a certain value but then your costs in a recovery tend to go up. So we have been equally conservative in the recovery."

Drumm has a simple philosophy when it comes to developing new client relationships: "When you start with a new client its OK to start with a small job. You don't know them, they don't know you. Generally we find clients want us back. Amgen are a good example of that. We did a car park for them for €200,000. They liked what they saw and now we are doing a €23m fit-out to their Pottery Road facility. It's a complex job and a great client."

When Drumm took the MD role in 2015, Collen had turnover of €190m.

"I pulled it back from that. We came second on an awful lot of tenders and turnover dropped to €120m. But we kept the nerve and slowly it rose to €130m, to €150m and now €200m. We try to do the right thing and only commit to what we can deliver. We don't go mad because we are not in it just to grow turnover. Our goal is to match our offering to clients that are good to work for and I'm very happy where we are with that."

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After their 1983 victory, the young Dublin team was hotly tipped to win again the next year, the GAA's centenary. Drumm, still captain, had started to think about the future, about settling down. Before the All Ireland final he broke the news to Heffernan: it would be his last game for Dublin. Building giant McInerneys had offered him a job in Qatar. For a young engineer in blighted, decrepit '80s Dublin it was impossible to turn down.

"I wanted to go abroad. I wanted to buy a house. I'd been playing football for 10 years and I didn't have a bob. It took four years abroad to buy the house I still live in in Sutton. It was really hard. But that is why I gave up the football, to buy a home."

He was determined to go out on a high. But Mick O'Dwyer's Kerry team had regrouped for one final three-year run of greatness, beating and finishing Heffernan's team forever.

"I was 28 at the time and could have played a few more years. It was a big thing to give it up. I went out to the Middle East and most people I was working with didn't have a clue about Gaelic Football. It was an eye-opener and I had to reinvent myself. I found out that I loved building because it also meant working on a team."

Drumm initially worked for McInerney on a Qatari government contract providing rapid-build timber frame accommodation at onshore and offshore oil rigs.

"People out there didn't know me and I didn't know them so I had to build their trust."

But he quickly made close friends amongst the largely Indian workforce. His wife Rosemary was pregnant at the time and was told she was going to lose the baby. The owner of a client company, on hearing of the couple's troubles, told Drumm to send Rosemary to his wife, a professor in the university hospital. The professor sent Rosemary home to Ireland but went with her, staying with her for a month, to make sure everything was OK.

"Ciara, our daughter, is now 26 and thriving. Out of that we developed one of the strongest friendships we have," he says.

After seven years in the Middle East the Drumms returned to Ireland: "It was great to come home. But things here in the early '90s were still tough enough." And so the Drumms were soon off again, this time to Spain, where McInerneys had a business. "Things were quiet here. I was delighted to get the opportunity."

By the time Drumm returned to head McInerney's housebuilding arm, boom-time Ireland was rolling in money. At the peak, he had responsibility for turning out 2,200 residential units a year, half in Ireland, half in the UK. It's the type of numbers he believes must now be achieved by builders if the current housing crisis is to be solved but doubts is possible in the current environment. He fears land prices and other indicators are starting to show the beginnings of a new bubble in the market - and has bitter memories of the last time.

"In McInerneys we leveraged off a hugely successful Irish business to buy companies in the UK to fuel our growth as a PLC. In hindsight, to allow the debt to grow to what it did was unwise. I remember we did a rights issue in 2007 and really we should have seen the signs. We should have ramped down and not acquired the number of companies we did in the UK. And, really, we probably didn't have a right to be over in Spain at that time. We should have just consolidated the Irish business. Generic growth is better growth. When you buy companies it is very, very demanding."

For Drumm the approach adopted by Collen - now and then - was what McInerney should have adopted: "It is about being measured about your growth. If you are jumping ahead too quickly it is not good. In a PLC environment they love to show growth quarter on quarter. But in the context of trying to maintain a sustainable business I think steady growth is a far better place to be."

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A quarter of a century after the fractious '83 final, it fell to Drumm and Mullins to organise a celebratory holiday for the team ahead of the traditional 25th anniversary pre-All Ireland parade in Croke Park for the jubilee victors.

"I had no interest in going off to Portugal on a holiday. I told Brian I wanted to go west and meet the Galway team and he agreed."

The pair met two of the former Galway players in Naas to put it to them and they were up for it. "Mullins told the president of the GAA at the time that if the Galway team were not also invited to come out on to the pitch at Croke Park to celebrate 25 years that the Dublin team would not turn up. So we had this amazing event where we stayed in Westport and played golf against the Galway team and then both teams went to Croke Park together on the Sunday. That had never been done before."

So who won the golf in Westport? Did Galway finally get their revenge? Did the Dubs, once again, hold out against all the odds?

With the lights of the teeming traffic outside catching his eye, Drumm looks up with a cheeky smile: "That," he says, every inch the captain, "would be telling."

Name: Tommy Drumm

Age: 62

Position: Managing director, Collen Construction. Former left half-back and centre half-back for the Dublin Gaelic Football team 1976-1984

Lives: From Whitehall, lives in Sutton

Education: St Aidan's CBS;

Engineering at Trinity College Dublin

Family: Married to college sweetheart Rosemary. One daughter, Ciara

Pastimes: Cycling

Favourite book: Failure is not an option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond by Gene Kranz

Favourite movie: Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Favourite holiday: Cable Beach, Western Australia

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