IT is a strange experience to walk around the proposed new Quad building on DIT’S Grangegorman campus, knowing that it does not really exist. Michael Stone’s powerful north Dublin voice comes booming from the real world beyond the 3D virtual reality headset. “This is the future of the construction sector,” says the chief executive of the Designer Group with obvious pride.
All around is the proposed building, only missing the students that will throng it when it is finally built in Dublin 7, a few miles from where we stand in the company’s Blanchardstown office.
“Point the controller to wherever you want to go,” he says, from beyond the all-enveloping blueprints.
Stone’s rapidly-expanding mechanical and electrical contracting company is involved in many of the highest profile construction jobs ongoing in Ireland: Capital Dock, the ESB’S headquarters, the Leinster House upgrade and a huge just-completed project for Bristol-myers Squibb.
For Stone, innovation and international expansion were the only sensible ways for both Designer Group and the deeply-damaged construction sector to react after the recession.
“The industry needs to stop worrying about what other people are going to do,” says Stone, a former Construction Industry Federation president. “I’m sick of hearing people in the industry saying ‘The budget wasn’t good enough’ and ‘We need more help’. What about helping yourself?”
As part of its innovation drive, Designer Group has installed the six-metre by seven-metre curved virtual reality screen in its impressive new Blanchardstown headquarters.
“Our 3D designers design the job in-house and we can bring a client in and walk them through it,” says Stone. “They can see and stand in their office or laboratory or hospital surgery and see how it is going to look and change it if needs be.”
The approach appears to be working and business has boomed. Turnover will hit €160m this year, with a strategy of international expansion that will see it grow to €350m within three years. Over the past two years staff numbers have grown from 400 to 750, necessitating a move to the new headquarters in Blanchardstown earlier this year.
As if to remind visitors that the company is in fact an electrical and mechanical contractor, a swathe of the floor in the gleaming reception area is glass, revealing the neat lines of power, plumbing and broadband circuits beneath.
“I wanted our clients to be able to see exactly what we do when they walk in,” says Stone.
But in many other ways the Blanchardstown office feels like the home of a multinational tech firm rather than an Irish construction company: open plan, full of natural light, with a pool table, an Xbox and a live map showing a large fleet of vans moving around the city, live status updates from building sites across the city and further afield.
“It is all about balancing our risk,” says Stone, of his embrace of innovation. “We can never allow what happened to us in the recession happen again. In 2006, 98pc of our business was Irish. We lost 85pc of our business in the two years between 2008 and 2010. If we hadn’t got business in the UK, we wouldn’t have survived.”
It would have been a sad end to a dream that began when Stone left ESB in 1992 aged just 24. At the time he was part of a Dublin hurling team that threatened but never made a breakthrough. But the lure of his own business was too hard to resist.
“If I’d stayed another couple of years it probably would have become a job for life. But the opportunity was there and I’m very ambitious. I love work. A semi-state body was probably a bit restrictive for me. I wanted that feeling of being my own boss. I had just got married and not long afterwards my first child was born. If I had left it until after that I would have been too afraid.”
But leave he did. He began to teach himself the basics of doing business to add to the electrical skills he had acquired at ESB. Before he knew it he had 10 people working for him. For 16 years he enjoyed continuous growth.
“And then bang! In the space of six months we had two or three builders go wallop, who took us for millions of euros. We had €40m or €50m worth of work stopped. Just stopped. That was frightening. It scared the living daylights out of me.”
With business almost non-existent in Ireland, he began a year-long course with Enterprise Ire-