Engineering an empire as world economy crumbles

The dramatic growth of Philip O’Doherty’s engineering empire is a real breath of fresh air in these economically challenging times. Ian Cullen reports.

E and I Engineering Ltd enjoyed record growth in 2012 with a turnover of £62m and this year the firm predicts even more impressive returns with plans to boost its 600-strong workforce, explains Managing Director Philip O’Doherty.

“We’ve been up year on year since the beginning of the economic downturn in 2007 and we’re expecting that to continue. We hope to take on between 40 and 50 new staff this year.”

Since the expansion of the company from Springtown in Derry in 2003 to a seven acre site at Burnfoot, the local workforce has ballooned from 65 to 410 while at the firm’s United Arab Emirates plant a further 200 people are employed.

Mr O’Doherty founded the company 25 years ago and the innovative firm has since set the standard for electrical switchgear and power distribution solutions throughout the UK, Ireland, mainland Europe and Asia.

Although an electrical engineering company, E and I has not felt the pain of the economic crisis crippling the Irish building trade as 98% of its product is exported. In recent years, the company has been making a big splash in Europe and the Middle East but further expansion is now on the cards with a well planned foray into the US marketplace already underway.

With the company’s curriculum vitae packed with high profile projects - such as Wembley Stadium, London’s Shard skyscraper, the Aviva Stadium, Heathrow Terminal 5 and Canary Wharf - the USA now presents a “great opportunity”, says Mr O’Doherty. “We may well make the move ourselves under the E and I Engineering brand but we’re also looking at three potential targets for a possible acquisition in the US. It could be 12 to 18 months before we get moving but there is a lot of potential for us in the US.”

The dramatic growth of E and I Engineering has seen the company become one of the North West’s biggest employers in recent years. “We employ 410 people in Burnfoot, where we carry out all of our research and development and manufacture everything for the European market. We also employ 200 people in our plant in Dubai, which is for manufacturing only and supplies everything for the Asian market.”

The Donegal village is perfect placed for his company headquarters, says the MD.

“The lower rate of corporation tax south of the border is a great help but the Government in doing that has also seen the benefit of increased employment through the growth of the company. It also suits us to be operating in the eurozone while it does no harm to have the plant outside of town.”

But the skills of the staff at the Burnfoot factory- the vast majority are from Donegal and Derry - have been a key factor in the firm’s success.

“We have visitors here all the time and one thing that really makes me proud is the number of people who say our workforce is first class, very technically competent and pleasant. Our guys are real ambassadors and it really makes me proud that they have got the message that everyone has to play their part.”

He believes there could be other local businesses following in the successful footsteps of E and I Engineering, with the help of some hard graft and “a bit of luck”.

“I certainly think there is a wee bit of an entrepreneurial spirit - there are four or five people coming through who I would be in contact with and giving advice to in this area. It’s a pity there are not 25 people rather than four or five but at least some people are willing to take the risk.

“What we need in Ireland are a lot more people prepared to take a risk with their ideas and go for it,” he adds.

As for those willing to take the risk but unable to get the banks to play ball, the E and I boss says alternative methods can be available.

“Enterprise Ireland is now encouraging the banks, and getting ministers to put pressure on the banks and threatening the banks, they also now have a private equity arm which sees them bring in private investors - it may cost 8% rather than 5% but they are investors with track records in industry.

“That’s the American model and I think Europe is moving more towards that now.”

As well as being a keen sports fan steering Derry City Football Club to FAI Cup success as its Chairman, Mr O’Doherty is a key figure in promoting entrepreneurship in the North West. He has a particular focus on forging the right attitudes in the business leaders of the future.

He was part of a group of business leaders who - in partnership with the local chamber of commerce - produced a DVD to promote entrepreneurship in schools in the Derry area several years ago.

“It’s very important that the seeds of entrepreneurship are planted early on.

“The only way this region is going to prosper is if we encourage people to create employment for the population,” he says.

And he’s keen to highlight the fact that “no-one else is going to solve our problems. We can’t sit back and expect Invest NI and others to go around the world cap in hand saying we can’t manage ourselves, it’s up to us to create prosperity for the region.”

As a central figure in the University For Derry (U4D) campaign, he believes that education will be a key driver of the economy. “I think of the university as a driver for economy but it needs to refocus on producing graduates who are needed by employers.

“There are too many graduates who are quite unemployable and are badly equipped for the way the economy is going - universities need to focus more on STEM subjects to allow graduates to grasp the opportunities in the knowledge-based and digital economy.”

Mr O’Doherty, a former St Columb’s College pupil and Queen’s University graduate in Electrical and Electronic Engineering, cut his teeth in the workforce with a post in the ESB before spending almost five years at Du Pont’s Derry plant where he carried out “a lot of innovative design work”.

He recalls the state of the economy during that period was “not much better” than it is today.

“The economy wasn’t in great shape but I knew that with the right idea and the determination the state of the economy was irrelevant.” He’s certainly put his money where his mouth is and led by example, having driven his company forward to enjoy unprecedented growth in the midst of the most devastating global recession since the 1930s.