Engineering firm boss on building for the future
Do ran consulting’s ian long talks about fighting through the recession and why leaving theeu will ham per long-term investment in the province
Belfast firm Doran Consulting is the engineering team behind huge UK projects worth as much as £450m.
But managing director Ian Long, who has been with the company since 1987, said he doesn’t see any “positives” emanating from Brexit, and says it remains a concern whether UK and EU trade “keeps up”.
And he said he feels the uncertainty of Brexit is hampering long-term investment in Northern Ireland.
The 52-year-old heads the civil and construction engineering business, which dates back more than 60 years to 1953.
It started in south Belfast, with a smaller team, but has grown its team to more than 100 staff at its Great Victoria Street office.
“We cover a range of sectors within the construction industry and one of our key areas would be buildings,” he said.
“We have a lot of work in the health sector. We have just finished Omagh Hospital, and we are working on Altnagelvin Hospital.
“We also do a lot of schools, private developments, apartment and office blocks. We also have specialism in bridge design.
“There is also a lot of marine work — ports and harbours.
“We do water and waste water, and other civil engineering such as sports pitches and road.”
The business has also seen an uptake in work in the energy and renewables sector, with a growth towards green — or greener — energy.
Mr Long said around 90% of the company’s business is from repeat customers, either through tenders or negotiations.
At the moment, its workload at home in Northern Ireland includes a £40m project at Altnagelvin Hospital in Londonderry.
“We would be working with an architect, a building services engineer, and we would do anything that is related to the structure, which is the foundations, the frame, we also do the drainage ... we don’t generally sub-contract out.”
The company has 1,300 “active commissions” for work, including multi-million pound projects, as well as general small maintenance deals.
“The biggest we have the moment is £450m, on site, in Woking in London. It’s a mixed use, a bit of a Victoria Square-type project.
“It’s a lot of retail, three highrise blocks, and a lot of car parking. That is keeping us busy at the moment.”
That significant project is worth a seven-figure sum for Doran Consulting, Ian reveals.
The company is working with other firms, including a construction business, to deliver the scheme.
And other ongoing projects include an energy-from-waste plant in the north of England, which has a total value of around £200m, an electricity inter-connector, for SSE, in the north of Scotland, and it has just finished Omagh Hospital, in a deal worth £75m.
But while the business relies on the UK for much of its work, the concern is that its work for EU clients — which is actually taking place in the UK — could be hit, causing a slowdown.
“Probably around 5% of our work, is from the Republic of Ireland. We would like to do more, but it’s a very competitive market in the south.
“Being a professional services organisation, we are not transporting things across borders, material and things like that.
“If a tariff appeared, it might cause us a bit of a problem, but it’s a relatively small part of the business.
“In the UK, my concern — and I don’t think we have been impacted by it yet — is the uncertainty.
“It would appear to be ham- pering long-term investment in Northern Ireland.”
And he said that factor will inhibit the pipeline of work which Doran Consulting will face in the home market — and international clients who have work in the UK will also be feeling the strain.
“We have clients based in Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Switzerland, but we are doing projects for them in the UK.
“How easy it will be for the them to invest and carry out work in the UK is a bit of a concern.”
“Most of our clients are European-based — the sort of argument that we are going to develop all of these new relationships with Brazil and the Far East ... we don’t have a client base there, we don’t see those people coming in for the most part, and investing.
“I’m struggling to see the positive from our point of view. I’m just hoping that trade between the UK and Europe will keep up, post-brexit.”
Doran Consulting is also behind all the civil and structural work for the City Quays development at Belfast Harbour.
That includes the two current office buildings, the new AC by Marriott hotel, and a large 900-space car park.
Ian says that work could be worth roughly £200,000 for his firm.
In London, Doran is also working on a new project at Luton airport — the total value of the scheme is worth around £40m to £50m.
Around 50% of the firm’s business is in Northern Ireland, with around 40% elsewhere in the UK.
“Our main competitors would
❝ If a tariff appeared, it might cause us a bit of a problem, but it’s a small part of the business
be multi-nationals. And with around 100 staff, we are in a good position to compete with them,” Ian said.
“We provide a good service, and that’s reflected in our repeat business.”
Looking back, the firm, like many other companies, was hit by the ravages of recession.
“It was quite dramatic. We would have had 80 or 90 staff in 2007. We dropped down to just over 60. Our turnover plummeted.
“But what saved us was the breadth of our skill-set.”
He said work in areas such as apartments and office block development “disappeared almost overnight”.
“But some of the staff I had were redeployed into the bridge sector, which was strong during the recession ... where we lost work in some sectors, we were able to compensate in others.”
“Unfortunately, we had to make people redundant. That was just a necessary step to keep us afloat at the time.
Speaking about the company’s post-recession turnaround, he said: “In five years, our turnover has increased by around 120% and our staff numbers have increased by around 50%.
“At the end of the recession, we would have had about 60-65 staff, and now we are up to around 100.”
Doran Consulting now turns over between £7m and £8m a year.
Ian grew up in east Belfast, his father, William, a shipyard worker. “My late mother was called Emily, and came from east Belfast. It was a very typical working-class family,” he said.
Ian attended the then Grosvenor High School, before moving on to study engineering at Queen’s University.
“My father was quite keen that we go to university,” he said.
He started out working in the industry at the age of 22, starting with Dr I G Doran Partners — as it was known — at its former base at Derryvolgie Avenue.
The business then incorporated in 2005.
He is married to Alison, who had worked as a teacher, and has two children, son Michael (24) and daughter Sarah, aged 21.
A keen runner and Arsenal fan, Ian is also an elder in Knock Presbyterian Church.
“Outside of work I am very involved in my church,” Ian said. “I am an elder in the church and heavily involved.
“They are considering a development project. Some of their halls and accommodation are from the 1960s and 1970s, so I’m taking a lead in that, with the expertise I have to make a bit of a contribution to that.”
And while Belfast is witnessing a raft of building and development, including several hotels and office schemes, Ian takes a different view and says it’s a “mixed picture”.
“I’m not quite sure it’s as positive as the estate agents are saying,” he said.
“There is a reasonably strong demand for office space ... the other stuff going on around the city is encouraging. I don’t think we are back to pre-recession, and I don’t think we ever will be back to that level.
“I would describe it as a bit fragile, and I don’t think it would take much to push it one way, or the other.
“It’s confidence in terms of people wanting to spend money. I’m looking at a lot of press coverage of big companies in England, going to Dublin, Luxembourg and Frankfurt.
Traditionally, we would have the likes of Citi coming in here, and businesses like (global law firm) Baker Mckenzie, and the question is, will they continue to come in after we have left the EU? Will it be as attractive?”
And while a number of major hotels and ambitious office developments have been earmarked for Belfast, Ian doesn’t believe all of them will actually get over the line.
“I think it’s people with sites, who are trying to gauge interest and get a bit of traction behind it. I’m not overly confident that all those developments will take place.”
❝ I don’t think we are back to pre-recession, and I don’t think we ever will be back at that level
Ian Long at his Great Victoria Street office
Ian Long , managing director of Belfast-based company Doran Consulting
Ian Long of Doran Consulting at his desk and (inset) with his son at Arsenal’s Emirates stadium
Ian Long with his wife Alison, and their children Michael and Sarah