IN­TER­VIEW

Sunday Independent (Ireland) - Business & Appointments - - FRONT PAGE -

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-

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