The Business Spotlight – interview with Aidan McCarthy

30 May 2024

Our MD, Aidan McCarthy, recently took part in the ActionCOACH UK ‘Business Spotlight’ series which talks to local business owners about what they have learned on their entrepreneurial journey.

Key sound bites from Aidan’s interview with Richard Craythorne:

OUR STRENGTHS: (1) Consulting Engineers with a breadth and depth of technical knowledge. (2) Building relationships with partners and clients.

ADVICE FOR STARTING A BUSINESS: “Do it! Nobody ever looks back and regrets the things they did. You regret things you don’t do. So, if you’re thinking about it, you must have some level of confidence that you can make a go of it.”

BIGGEST LEARNING: (1) Importance of planning for scale from day one (2) Building relationships and trust is key to success (3) Newfound respect for shared/business services, accountancy, marketing, HR, and day-to-day running of a business.

BIGGEST CHALLENGE: (1) Getting the right people (2) Planning for growth.

INSPIRATION: (1) People that lead by example. (2) People that advocate for developing people.

Video Transcription: Richard Craythorne (RC) and Aidan McCarthy (AMcC)

RC: Hello and welcome to the latest edition of The Business Spotlight interview. Today it is my pleasure to have Aidan McCarthy with me. Aidan is the Founder and Managing Director of AM Consulting Engineers. Aidan, great to have you with us. Why don’t you take a minute and tell us a little bit about yourself, what you do, etc?

AMcC: Thanks Richard, nice to be here. Pleased to meet you. So AM Consulting Engineers, I suppose it’s a bit of a Ronseal title. We are consulting engineers. We provide civil, structural and geotechnical consultancy services, which is, effectively we design things in the civil engineering industry. So anything from roads and drainage and water mains, to buildings, to bridges, to major earth works, things like that. Anything that you would see being built, we can design it for you.

RC: OK. So in terms of that, and to narrow it down a wee bit, who is your ideal customer?

AMcC: That’s a strange one. We don’t have an ideal customer. We work with everything from individual property owners that are doing extensions, to multinational contractors, to multinational insurance companies. And we are working with all them in a range of capacities. Some we are designing a beam for somebody’s house who is doing an extension. Some we’re designing loads of structures and pipelines in a water treatment plant. Some we’re doing expert witness stuff for insurance companies. So anything in the built environment. Because it’s such a broad spectrum, there’s loads of different client types. I suppose, the ideal client is the one that pays the bill, isn’t it, like? As long as they tick that box, we will work with anybody, really.

RC: Very good. So, since starting the business and being the business owner, what’s been your biggest learning?

AMcC: I would say building relationships is key to success in any business, not just what we do. And I suppose, I’ve been fortunate enough where I’ve worked at fairly senior levels and director levels in a couple of multinational organisations. And getting something done in an organisation like that, and in your own organisation, or in any organisation, it comes down to people. And it comes down to working with people. So I think the key thing, the biggest learning anybody can do, is build relationships with people and build that trust with them. It helps in terms of tendering and winning work. It helps in terms of getting paid and all that type of stuff. But it helps even more so when the inevitable difficult conversations have to happen, that come up from time to time. If you have that relationship and you have that trust with your client, and there is a need for a difficult conversation around something… they may want to do one thing and it won’t work, you need to do another… or whatever it is, when you have that relationship, you have that trust, it makes those difficult conversations a bit less difficult. So I think, people do business with people, biggest learning outcome, build relationships with people. At all levels. There’s no point … you know, at all levels in an organisation. There’s no point in just knowing the person at the top of the tree or the person at the bottom of the tree. You need to work with a range of people at different levels in organisations. Just build relationships with people, is what I think is key.

RC: Great share. Great learning. So when you were growing up, Aidan, is this something that you always wanted to do? Have your own business? Run your own business? Or was it the furthest thing from your mind?

AMcC: I suppose… growing up I probably didn’t really know what civil engineering was. In school I always gravitated towards the maths and physics and science type subjects. So that sort of being the way the careers system worked, they push you towards engineering or accountancy or something like that. And I went to Queen’s University open day when I was looking at a range of presentations from the schools of engineering, and the civil engineering one interested me, and that’s why I ended up doing it.

After graduating and starting working, I would say within two years I did have a notion that I want to have my own business someday, doing this. So I didn’t set out on any sort of real plan or career path. I was lucky that I got lots of opportunities. I managed to develop my career technically, commercially… As I say, I’ve worked at senior levels in organisations. And then at one stage I just decided, I’m going to have a crack at this. And I suppose… the thought process was, if I’m operating at director level in somebody else’s organisation and running a business unit and running a P&L and winning work and responsible for people and all this type of stuff that you end up responsible for in any case, you may as well have a crack and do it yourself. I suppose, what’s the worst will happen? If it doesn’t work, you’ve got skills that are transferrable. And I’m sure you’d find somebody else to give you a job at some stage down the line. So I suppose that was the way it panned out.

RC: Very good. And congratulations for taking the big step. Many people want to do it and never do take that step. So congratulations on doing that.

AMcC: It was one of those things where I’d sort of thought about it and thought about it. So my wife Sarah has her own business… or had her own business, she now works full time in AM Consulting Engineers… but she had her own business as well. So I suppose she was pretty au fait with what was needed in terms of the operational side of things. And as I say, we took the view … what’s the worst will happen?

RC: So on this journey, what’s been the biggest issue that you’ve had to overcome?

AMcC: The biggest issue, it’s actually a positive one. We’ve grown quickly and I suppose, like most industries and most sectors at the minute, finding people, good people especially, is quite difficult. So we’ve gone from just me to … you know, there was one of us, then there were three of us and now there’s fourteen of us, in the space of two years. That’s meant we’ve had to move offices twice. Last year we took the step, we moved to an office which we thought would do us for a good few years. And it maybe still will. We’ve put a lot of money into refurbing it and all that type of stuff. But we’re now full.

RC: Well done!

AMcC: We’ve got significant growth plans. We opened an office down outside Limerick, a place called Newcastle West, there at the tail end of last year. So we have opened a business in the Republic of Ireland as well. We’ve got a Technical Director heading that up. And the plan is to put people in there as well. So the biggest challenges are going to be getting the right people, and maybe planning for that growth. I don’t think we did it badly. And we are looking at the space we have here, we can probably fit another four or six people in with a bit of … a bit of moving desks about and different sized desks and all that type of stuff. But you don’t want to shoehorn people into a place either. It needs to be a comfortable place for people to work. So we’ve had to… we’ll maybe have another eighteen, twenty four months, possibly, we might outgrow this place, which …

RC: Excellent!

AMcC: It’s a challenge, but it’s a good challenge, I suppose.

RC: Yeah, that’s good. It sounds great. Sounds like you’re doing excellently. Well done. So in this short period of time, going from one to fourteen, what did you learn about yourself? Earlier you shared about relationships and some of the things when you were going through the progress of your career. What would be the key thing you have learned about yourself?

AMcC: I’m probably more ambitious than I thought I was. I know when we started this, I was saying… maybe fifteen to twenty people, that would be a nice number. Easy to manage. And I’m now thinking fifty! And I would know when I get to fifty, I would be saying a hundred. Now is that doable? I’m not sure. But it’s something that’s there in the back of my head that, you know, push it on and growing the thing and being ambitious, and going for the bigger projects and trying to compete with the bigger players is something that I would be keen to do.

And I suppose I’ve been lucky in my career that I’ve had lots of different types of opportunities to do lots of different things. And I suppose that has laid the [foundation]… you know, there’s nothing we look at really, and say, we can’t do that. You know?

I’m lucky the guys that I’m working with, they are all technically very, very good. So in terms of just general consultancy engineering, it’s about designing things. So the way I would nearly always try and dumb down the civil engineering and construction sector for people is like, generally consultants, which is what we are, we design things. And contractors, they build things. Now contractors do more than just build. They manage lots of safety risks and commercial risks and all that jazz… and they manage entire projects and all that stuff. Our clients are all… 99% of our clients are contractors and we work with them to design the things they are building. But in general, consultants design things and contractors build things. And we are lucky with the guys that we have that we have a huge amount of experience. And there’s nothing that we look at and we would say, we don’t know how to do that, or we are incapable of doing that. So that helps with… that helps in terms of the business development side of things. That helps in terms of when we are talking to prospective clients that we have that breadth and depth of technical knowledge. And once you get over that hurdle, the commercial side of things and talking about money and all those types of things, it is nearly secondary. The first hurdle is giving people that confidence that if you ask me to do X, I can get X done for you… or we can get X, it’s not just me. There’s a team of people there, it’s not just me. You know?

RC: Fantastic. So tell me this Aidan, who inspires you in life or in business?

AMcC: There’s probably no one person that I would say or name. What I would say is that I’ve worked with several quite inspirational people. I’ve worked in Northern Ireland, Ireland, GB, Middle East. Lived and worked in the Middle East for a number of years. And in all of those places, I’ve been quite fortunate that I’ve been able to work with some quite… just real leaders, if you know what I mean. People that lead by example. People that know what they’re doing. People that advocate for developing people. And when you see people do that, and you see the success that they have, and you see that they’re leading high performing teams… I remember one of them saying to me… being a good leader is not actually that difficult. You just have to listen to people. And you work with them and help people see how they are contributing and valuing. And all of a sudden you can take somebody that’s underperforming to overperforming by just listening to them and talking to them. So I’ve worked with several people like that. And I suppose they’ve been a bit of an inspiration that you can see…  If you’ve ever worked in a high performing team compared to working in an underperforming team, the difference is usually the person that’s leading it. It’s not the competence of the individuals, generally. Maybe there’s one or two that are dragging everything down, but certainly from my perspective, by having the right person leading a thing and driving a thing, that will get… the results that that generates are night and day compared to somebody that’s not leading a thing right. And I suppose … and I’ve been lucky in that I’ve worked with several people like that, and I have learned.

RC: Excellent. And do you feed that learning with any sort of supplementary business books or podcasts or anything like that there?

AMcC: I don’t. If l listen to a podcast I tend to listen to some of the local comedians, would be the podcasts I would listen to. When it gets to listening to a podcast or reading a book, I’m doing it to switch off. So it’s the last thing… now obviously you flick through LinkedIn and you’ll see videos and you’ll read articles and all that type of stuff. But if I’m just going to go and read a book or listen to a podcast, it will be non-work related. It will be a switch off time, sort of.

RC: Just to have that relaxation and your own headspace.

AMcC: Yeah, yeah. I suppose, when you’re running a business, you are constantly… something is always in your head about… I don’t know… whether it’s people issues, finance, business development, projects, pipeline… you know, VAT bills… there’s so many things that … and I suppose, one of the questions earlier was about the big learning, or something, from me starting my own business. I suppose there’s probably a newfound respect for the shared services, business services, accountancy, marketing, HR sections of a business, where, when you’re running a P&L in a delivery capacity, you’re always saying, why am I being charged so much for all that? They’re not even fee earning, etc… When you start running it yourself you realise, actually, they do a lot of work!

RC: Yeah, good. A good realisation and a good appreciation developing there. So what does the future look like and what are the main challenges? Now you did mention this growth curve you’re on and the office space. Anything else?

AMcC: It’s just going to be people. Like, you know, we are lucky in that we’ve got a good spread of clients, key clients that we do a lot of work with and it’s a lot of repeat business. So we have built relationships and we’ve built that trust for delivery with them. And they are all growing and they’re all busy and they’re in sectors that we have a lot of experience in. So we continue to grow in that sector. We are looking at a couple of different sectors to branch out into. But it’s all going to be down to people. And it has to be the right people. We are quite a small organisation. As I say, there’s fourteen of us. A lot of our competitors in Northern Ireland alone are a hundred plus. So we are very much on the smaller side of things. But we are competing with some of those bigger guys at project level. And so the challenge is going to be getting the right people.

And then, I suppose, because a lot of what we do is in the water sector, that’s governed by public sector finances and all that type of stuff. Now I don’t know if you heard something on the news earlier that Northern Ireland Water discharge twenty million tonnes of raw sewage every year into water courses. Northern Ireland Water is significantly underfunded. But everything in Northern Ireland seems to be significantly underfunded, so I’m not sure how the politicians are going to square the circle. But I suppose what we see is, within the construction sector and built environment, there’s a lot of development that could unlock economic potential in Northern Ireland which is held up because there’s not sufficient water supply or sewage capacity and stuff like that. So the politicians are going to need to have a serious look at things and make some tough decisions. Like water charges are something that get bandied about here quite a bit. Some people say we already pay and some people don’t, and whatever else. But somebody needs to make a decision to finance and fund Northern Ireland Water properly, and unlock huge amounts of development potential. And we’ve got Invest NI trying to sell dual market access and benefits and the advantages of Brexit. But it’s only until they actually come here and build a factory, because they can’t deal with the waste water or they can’t get a water supply to it, it’s all just talk. I think some of the politicians need to go and start ruling a few things in, instead of ruling things out, because it seems to be a lot of, we’re not going to do this and we’re not going to do that. And that’s all fine, lads, but what are you going to do here? Any chance of you making a bit of a decision here and help the place grow? Because there’s huge potential. Regardless of what your view was on Brexit, there seems to be an opportunity there to help boost the economy, and that will help everybody. It will help the education sector, it will help everybody from joiners and plumbers to people like me, to people that run coffee shops, to people like yourself, you know? There seems to be a potential there that we’re not exploiting.

RC: It looks like you’ve shone a spotlight on one of the critical areas that could be a bottleneck to that.

AMcC: Yeah. And it’s not even just Brexit. It’s something as simple as housing…housing developments, like… so there’s that side of things that needs… oh, I don’t know! It’s above what I do, but somebody, somewhere, needs to go and make a decision and sort it out, really, would be my view on it.

RC: OK. A good challenge to raise. Thank you. As we draw to an end, two questions. One is, what’s the advice, or what would you say to anybody thinking about going into business for themselves today?

AMcC: Do it.

Short and sweet. Just do it.

AMcC: Yeah, do it. If you’re already thinking about that, you must have some level of confidence that you can make it work. And … I don’t know… I saw something on the TV last week where somebody said something about, nobody ever looks back and regrets the things they did. You regret things you don’t do. So, if you’re thinking about it, you must have some level of confidence that you can make a go of it. So you must have something to offer. So have a crack at it. If it doesn’t work out, you’ll get a job somewhere else. Instead of ten or fifteen or fifty years down the line saying, I wish I had…

RC: Yeah, exactly. Good advice. Last one, if you could wind the clock back to when you were that eighteen year old, maybe going to the Queen’s open day, what advice would you give to an eighteen year old Aidan?

AMcC: What advice? Possibly travel more and experience as much, in different types of cultures, as possible. As I said earlier, I had an opportunity where I lived and worked in Abu Dhabi in the Middle East for a while. Whilst I was based there, I was in Saudia Arabia, Dubai, Dakar, Oman… and just seeing how different people … how different cultures work, how different cultures communicate, how different people form relationships, how different people deal with problems and adversities. You know, you learn a lot by just… you don’t have to… you just learn by osmosis. There’s no formal, this is how you deal with a problem in Saudi Arabia type thing. Different cultures deal with things in different ways, and you can learn a bit from things like that. So I would probably have travelled more. I would have maybe gone to Australia. And I suppose, in what we do, it’s very transferrable. You know what I mean? Water behaves the same way in Australia as it does in Belfast. And the same with concrete and the same with steel. There’s parts of the world where engineering staff are in short supply, so you could probably make a decent bit of money by doing it. So possibly do that. But then the flip side of that is, if you went back and changed something because of the advice I gave eighteen year old Aidan, would I be sitting here today? Might I be sitting in some business working for somebody else? You know? It’s a hard one, because you don’t know, if you went and changed something away at the start, would you be where you are now?

RC: Yeah. Great things to ponder. Great advice, great learnings. And it’s been a really great experience meeting you and talking with you today, Aidan. Really appreciate your time. Thank you so much, and every success going forwards as your business continues to have speedy growth, which is great.

AMcC: Thank you very much.

RC: Every success to you and Sarah and the team.

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