Wednesday 13 November 2019

'We're only coming down from the high now' - Irish couple overcome recession by scooping major award in Australia

McDonald Surveys in Australia. Photo: Monique Louise Photography
McDonald Surveys in Australia. Photo: Monique Louise Photography

Sean Pollock

An Irish couple who moved to Australia following the recession's "devastating" effect on their Irish business have won an award for their new venture after years of growth.

McDonald Surveys, headed up by Sally Ann and Andrew McDonald, won the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce award in the established business category, pictured, having secured a series of rail surveying contracts with large companies across Western Australia.

The business grew from a team of six in 2012 to 25 last year, with revenue hitting AU$9m (€5.5m). It expects to grow its team to 35 people next year, forecasting revenue of more than AU$12m.

The couple formed the Australian business in 2012, having moved Down Under following the Irish arm of the company struggling to grow under the economic cloud of the recession.

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At its height, the couple's Irish business employed 30 surveyors and completed work on many of the major motor networks on the east coast of the country, including the M50.

Once the recession hit, McDonald Surveys' pipeline of contracts began to dry up, leading the couple to explore other markets with a brighter economic outlook.

In 2011, current chief executive Sally Ann examined the sunnier climes of Perth, Australia. It was not long on her journey back from the other side of the world that she decided it was the right time for the business, and her family, to make a move. "We are the business. That's our lifeline, that's where our income comes from, and my husband and I were both in the same business. We had to make a really drastic decision and, having looked at London, Canada and Sydney, we ended up moving to Perth," she recalls.

When they got back to Heathrow, London following a business trip, they read in a newspaper that the last job they thought they were going to win - the M11 to Wexford - had been shelved.

"We went back into the office on Monday and told everyone, 'we are moving to Australia, hands up who wants to come with us'. Four people put their hands up."

Sally Ann said she decided to keep the Irish company going despite moving to Australia, changing its name to McDs Geo Surveyors. The couple then moved over in stages, with Andrew heading over first in January 2012 to look for potential business and networking.

Sally Ann finished her masters in business administration at Dublin City University, moving out later that year with two of her four children.

The couple were forced to leave their two adult children behind. Both had apartments in Ireland and wanted to complete university here.

"God, we were devastated," Sally Ann said. "At the same time, we were a bit excited about [the move]. We were in our mid-40s; we had energy and felt we could make a go at it. We are optimistic people when it comes to business, and we know how to work hard."

Once the couple got set up, they soon spotted a gap in the market which offered McDonald Surveys the opportunity to stand out.

It became the first engineering surveying company to introduce the GEDO Vorsys technology to Australia for rail surveying, which helps the firm to measure rail assets, produce data sets for the position of rails, and also track rail geometry.

The firm soon started winning significant contracts with mining companies. Rio Tinto, an Anglo-Australian metals mining business, soon started utilising the firm for its rail projects for delivering iron ore from its mines.

Sally Ann said her experience of the recession helped to prepare her when growth in the Australian metal mining sector began to slow down, affecting her clients.

"I used to laugh at my clients when they were all stressed out about a recession," she said. "I'd tell them they had no idea what a recession is like. This was just a slowdown.

"We knew how to knuckle down, hold on and keep it going. Now, in the last 18 months, particularly in rail, the value of iron ore has risen significantly. The companies are trying to fix the railway lines to get more ore to the ports, and then off to China. The quicker they can get along the railway line, the quicker they can get the product away and get paid. That's key for us."

The business has been booming for the couple, with Sally Ann referencing McDonald Surveys' role in developing the rail link to the new 60,000-capacity Optus Stadium in Perth as a particularly proud moment.

The company now plans on targeting new opportunities in the east of Australia, where Sally Ann said it could open a new office.

In Ireland, McDs, which had revenues of nearly €2m last year, has also been performing well. Sally Ann recognises, however, that the revenues will never compare with the levels in Australia.

Colleagues Pauric McKenna and Ann Callan are currently running the Irish company, alongside a team of surveyors.

"They form the backbone of the business," said Sally Ann. "They have achieved significant growth, particularly in the last two years, resulting in a viable, thriving organisation once again. We are very proud of them."

Sally Ann said she was elated with the award from the Irish Australian Chamber of Commerce, the first time a company from the west of Australia has won the accolade, feeling it was recognition of the couple's hard work and sacrifice following the recession.

"To be able to say to the staff, 'look, the hard work has paid off, you have been brilliant' ... gives them pride working for us. To be honest, we are only coming down from the high now."

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