Thursday 24 January 2019

IT experts take on tech big guns

Sean Gallagher meets owners of small and medium-sized businesses and shares the lessons they've learnt in building their companies

Sean Gallagher with Aspira co-founder Pat Lucey. Photo: Mark Condren
Sean Gallagher with Aspira co-founder Pat Lucey. Photo: Mark Condren
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Deciding to launch a new business can be daunting, let alone launching one in a sector dominated by large global competitors. Project management software and consulting firm Aspira has done just that and is now on its own journey towards internationalisation.

Fast-growing consulting and enterprise IT company Aspira was set up by Pat Lucey and Colum Horgan in 2007. With offices in Cork and Dublin, the company has already grown to over 110 employees and has an annual turnover of more than €10m."Our key focus is helping other companies successfully manage their own projects," says Pat. "Any company can manage a small project. But once these become larger or more complex, a greater degree of expertise is required to ensure the process runs smoothly and efficiently, on time, within agreed budgets and that desired outcomes are achieved. That's where we come in.

"We provide a one-stop shop for clients, whether that is a short-term consulting engagement, training to upskill a company's own team or the provision of specialist project managers, business analysts and technical staff to work on their projects," he adds.

Given the diversity of the services offered by the company, it's not surprising that they have built up an impressive base of both public and private customers across a range of sectors that includes IT, energy and utilities, financial services, banking, pharma and medical devices.

"While projects have a beginning and an end, they all have a number of stages that they must go through," says Pat.

"These start with initiation. This is where a company moves beyond just having a concept to having an actual idea that is supported by a strong business case. The next is the planning stage. This is where the rubber meets the road. Like baking a cake, this is where you have to get the recipe right before you start.

"Then it's on to the execution and implementation stage, where managing risk become increasingly important. Then it's on to the monitoring stage. Here the focus is on making sure that the project is developing in line with what has been agreed and taking action where this is not the case.

"The final stage is an important one, but one which is often ignored by many companies - the closing. Here, the project is brought to a successful conclusion and where all matters from handover of closing documentation and training takes place and where there is a final assessment of the lessons learned throughout the project."

It's a straightforward, yet complex, process that requires considerable expertise and experience - traits that the founders have in spades.

Pat grew up in Patrickswell in Co Limerick where his family ran a shop, restaurant and service station. Open 364 days a year, it was here he got his first introduction to what is involved in running your own business. After completing a masters' degree in electronic engineering in the University of Limerick, he got his first job with Siemens Telecoms in Munich and after a time there returned home to join Motorola as a software engineer.

There, he worked his way up the ranks to become head of the company's global project management division, by which time he had built up expertise from overseeing projects and teams all over the world. It was here, too, where he met his future business partner Colum, who at the time was heading up a software development division in the same company.

Like Pat, Colum had also grown up in a family business, a caravan and mobile home company in Waterville in Co Kerry. "I think our exposure to business from an early age meant we were better prepared to go out on our own when the opportunity presented itself," says Pat.

And present itself, it did. In 2007, when Motorola closed its Irish operation, the duo decided to take the plunge and set up their own company. The pair had built up expertise running technical projects in a global environment and wanted to use that knowledge to create their own business.

"Much like Apple's famous challenge to IBM in 1984, we felt we could build an Irish-owned company that could take on and beat major international players in the project management sector," says Pat. "Thanks to the skills, expertise, loyalty and creativity of our staff, we've now managed to do just that," he adds.

In the beginning, like many other tech companies, Pat and Colum made the mistake of falling in love with building really cool software systems, but didn't give enough time to finding an actual market for them. "Some customers began asking if we could provide them with people to run their projects while others asked if we would train or upskill their own staff. As a result, we added resourcing and training to our company offering," says Pat. "In addition to these, we now also offer a wide range of IT services from cloud expertise and business analysis to software development and testing. This means our clients don't have to deal with multiple suppliers to get a job done."

Such was the positive impact on their business that the company has been named among Deloitte's 50 fastest-growing companies in Ireland over each of the last five years and has even made it into the 2017 Financial Times Top 500 technology growth companies in Europe.

The pair also recently opened a new office in Sir John Rogerson's Quay in Dublin and in the past three months alone, have delivered consulting and IT services across the USA, Europe and China - mainly for Irish-based multinationals whose parent companies invited them to do so.

"We are very lucky to have a talented and loyal team," says Pat, who in addition to his day job, has recently been elected as President of the Ireland Chapter of the Project Management Institute.

"When we celebrated our 10th anniversary in 2017, it was gratifying to see that 80pc of our original team of 10 people were still working with us".

With over 30pc growth in sales earmarked for the year ahead, Pat wants to continue to increase the company's international client base - a European and possibly a Singaporean office are on the cards in the near future.

"We chose the name Aspira because we have always aspired to build an Irish company that can take on the biggest players globally. Our aim now is to become globally recognised for excellence in solving problems for companies as well as helping train them to solve their own problems."

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