Your Business: Making the right career move

John Fitzgerald tells Sean Gallagher about his innovative consulting company - and his diverse job history

Sean Gallagher with John Fitzgerald from Harmonics Picture by David Conachy

Sean Gallagher

The world of work has changed dramatically in recent years, driven in no small measure by advances in technology and the rise in globalisation. Traditional hierarchical structures have also changed. Once dominated by now outdated control and command regimes, these have largely been replaced with flatter, more flexible, structures where managers seek to maximise employee engagement and retention.

This week's entrepreneur, John Fitzgerald, is founder and MD of Harmonics, a specialist career consulting firm that helps organisations manage their employees through periods of change. Set up in 2006, the company employs 13 staff directly and has a further 20 associate coaches nationwide. It has an annual turnover of €2.5m.

"Whether an organisation is growing, downsizing or simply changing, we help support their people through a range of career management, outplacement and organisational change programmes," says John.

"Today's employees are more transient, with many having the tendency to move companies regularly. For them, it's not all about money. It's about wanting to work in an environment where they are challenged and have the opportunity to increase their knowledge and develop new skills. Even long-serving employees who value job security are not exempt from change as they are now increasingly put under pressure to adapt to new technologies and new ways of working.

"This poses challenges to both the employees themselves and those whose responsibility it is to manage them. That's where we come in. We work both employees and their leadership teams to help them develop the skills and the mindset required to flourish in the modern work environment, ranging from personal development and self-awareness to collaboration, creativity and communication," he adds.

In addition, John and his colleagues work with organisations that are downsizing. For those losing their jobs or taking voluntary redundancy, it's about preparing for their next opportunity.

John's clients are drawn from sectors such as financial services and pharma/medical devices to shared services, telecommunications and FMCG, and include well-known names such as Bank of Ireland, Permanent TSB, Central Bank, Regeneron, GlaxoSmithKline, Nestlé, Roche, Three, Musgrave, and University of Limerick.

Now helping to manage other people's careers, John's own background is varied and diverse. After completing his Leaving Cert and because he was an only son, John made the decision to stay at home and take over the family farm in Knockainey, near Bruff in Co Limerick - a decision he quickly realised was a mistake.

"I realised that I was falling into the same trap as my father," says John. "He had to come back to run the family farm after his father died. But it was never his passion or what he really wanted to do. Growing up, I recall seeing him being unhappy and, as far back as I can remember, I promised myself to only ever work at something that I enjoyed."

At the age of 20, John got a job in the men's outfitting department in Roches Stores in Limerick, something he feels helped him develop the ability to relate to people from all walks of life.

After three years there, he felt ready for a change and moved to the US, where he got a job selling golfing holidays to wealthy Americans. However, when it was discovered that he was one of the many undocumented Irish in the US, John was forced to move on.

After a period working in construction, he returned home to Ireland, where he got a job with Aer Lingus in its customer service and ticketing office at Shannon Airport. While a permanent and pensionable job, John felt unfulfilled and so decided to leave, taking up a job instead in field sales with a health and safety company. While there, his natural talents emerged as soon as he began coaching and mentoring colleagues. He had now found his real passion and his calling.

However, when John began seeing his old school friends finish college, he decided that it was time for him to return to education and so went on to complete a business studies course, part-time, in University of Limerick. From there, he became a partner in a new career management startup before eventually striking out on his own to set up Harmonics.

"I chose the name Harmonics because it means being in tune with yourself, your career, your business and your life. And, for us as coaches, it means being in tune with our clients," says John.

Married by then and with a young child, John took out two €20,000 loans from the bank, one to cover the family's living expenses and the other to help start the business. Before long, he had secured his first clients - the University of Limerick, O2 and Specsavers. Further referrals then followed.

In 2008, he set up a recruitment division of the business focusing on helping clients attract the right mix of technical, financial and commercial staff. Two years later, he and Liam Croke set up Harmonics Financial.

"The recession had really kicked in by that point and I saw a gap in the market to provide financial advice to employees who were exiting their jobs because of downsizing or restructuring," says John. "Having teamed up with personal financial planning expert Liam Croke, who is MD of that division, we now offer a complete turnkey solution for employees and their partners at a time of great stress for them."

The same year, the company received a boost in profile when John starred in RTE One TV series Rising after Redundancy, where he worked with six individuals who had lost their jobs.

His next move saw him appoint a GM, Fiachra Driscoll, to help systemise the business and prepare it for further growth and profitability.

"By 2015, I had come to realise that many managers simply didn't have the time to coach all the people who reported to them and so there seemed to be a growing need to help employees become more self-directed in their careers. That led us to launch our new online career management portal, where we offer all the resources employees need to self-manage their careers," says John.

For his own business, it means that he is less dependent on project only-led business, with its usual peaks and troughs, and now has a recurring revenue stream on which to build.

Having come so far, what are his plans for the future of the company? "I want to continue to grow holistically and this means adding complementary divisions to the business, such as employee wellness and employee engagement," says John. "I also see us continuing to leverage technology to develop a global platform that will transform how people around the world think about their future careers - something that will enable us to grow outside of Ireland."

John has shown great courage in leaving jobs that he did not find fulfilling in pursuit of ones that were. When working for others no longer felt right, he took the brave decision to set up his own business. His story serves as an example of how we all have the capability to determine our own career path, so long as we are willing to constantly challenge ourselves, develop new skills, trust our gut instincts and follow our passions.

John's advice for other businesses

1 You have to fully commit

To be successful at anything, you have to be willing to commit. With commitment comes the focus and intensity that is required to get you closer to your goals. Commitment is easier when you have a "why" that comes from within. But you do have to take a leap of faith and believe in yourself no matter what.

2 It takes patience

Success seldom comes overnight. It takes time to become the very best in your field. This process usually involves making mistakes and learning from them. It also involves developing yourself both personally and professionally as well as developing a reputation for yourself and your business within your particular sector.

3 You have to stand out

This is very often difficult to achieve, but you have to learn how to stand out from others in your field. To achieve this, you have to be willing to stand up for what you passionately believe in. With this comes the risk of failing and the risk of isolation. However, it also provides you with the opportunity to achieve the most remarkable and unexpected wins. And that takes great personal courage.


Company: Harmonics

Business: Career consultancy

Set up: 2006

Founder: John Fitzgerald

Turnover: €2.5m

No of Employees: 13 employees with over 20 associate coaches nationwide

Location: Headquartered in the National Technology Park, Limerick with satellite offices in Sandyford, Dublin and Mahon in Cork