In a career punctuated by ongoing education, Greg Hayden has been making good use of that learning to ensure the survival and subsequent return to growth of Ethos Engineering, the mechanical and electrical engineering firm he founded in 2005. In 2016, the company won a number of awards, while Hayden was named European CEO of the Year by the Association for Consultancy and Engineering (ACE).
About Greg Hayden
Tell us about your education
Since doing the Leaving Cert all my third level education has been part-time. After leaving school in the late 1980s I did a short drafting course that got me into mechanical and electrical engineering at DIT Bolton Street and then I went to the UK and finished my BEng (Hons).
When I returned to Ireland after eight years or so I did the MBA in Smurfit School. I wasn’t finished either: I suppose I was making up for not having qualifications when I started work. I did a post grad diploma in advanced training in pharmaceutical engineering by distance learning at the University of Manchester.
And since 2012, I have been an accredited tier designer through the Uptime Institute, the data centre authority. I think I’m probably one of just eight people in Ireland with that.
And then in 2010 I did the Enterprise Ireland leadership for growth programme, which was delivered by Duke Corporate Education.
At the time there was no work here so we took a long, hard look at ourselves. Enterprise Ireland picked a number of CEOs from around the industry to do the programme, which was very similar to the MBA apart from the fact that the whole focus was your business and coming up with a plan for survival and growth.
And how did your career develop?
I started as a trainee design engineer and then I moved to UK where I stayed with engineering but veered away from design and worked with a main contractor as an M&E co-ordinator and then with a mechanical and electrical contractor heading up a commissioning division. Then I got into research and development, providing guidance for building services engineers for the industry.
When I returned to Ireland I went back to the company I had originally started with all those years ago as a design engineer. Then the company was sold. I was one of 12 senior project managers at the time and we were told that one of us would be the managing director. With the help of the MBA, which I had at that stage, I was able to put the case across that that person should be me.
So I became managing director of a company with a turnover of around €24m and 300 people. And I was there until we started Ethos Engineering in 2005.
Why did you decide to set up Ethos Engineering?
The company I was managing director of was moving away from mechanical and electrical engineering and I had the option to move with it. I had a long hard think about and decided I’d prefer to stick with something I felt I was good at. I also felt there was a real opportunity because M&E consulting at the time had something of a bad name in the industry. I believed that by getting a number of like-minded people together we could do it better and that’s why we started Ethos Engineering.
We were very lucky at the start. Our first job was a private hospital, a €180m project. The next one was a €450m mixed used development. They were really big jobs so we went from six of us to 30 in the space of three years. And then the industry went into recession.
To survive, we had to go to North Africa and the Middle East to win work and keep bums on seats back home. But unfortunately we had to trim back to 10 people just to survive.
We pushed quite hard to get business abroad, Enterprise Ireland was very helpful, and we had quite an aggressive business plan to have 500% growth within a period of five years in terms of headcount and turnover. We managed to achieve that in four years. We were one of the first companies, certainly in our sector, to start employing again in around 2010.
After being through that, we never want to go back there again. So we’re being very careful about how we grow and trying to make it sustainable. We looked at ourselves and saw there was probably an overreliance on the Irish market and we’re trying not to do that again.
Where is the company focused now?
We’re focused on healthcare, data centres, pharmaceuticals, corporate headquarters, retail and fit outs. We’ve also done schools, prisons and third level institutions. I think being from a small country, it’s important you’re in all different sectors.
Around 80% of our business at the moment is back in Ireland. We’d like to be less dependent on the Irish market but it’s easier to do business here. However, many of our clients here are foreign direct investment companies and we’re really trying to follow them across Europe and trying to win work that way rather than setting up in other markets.
Ethos is the Irish member (and founding member) and honorary treasurer of a European mechanical and electrical consultancy network consisting of 2,300 engineers in 12 countries that was set up to share knowledge and help its members do work abroad.
What does your role involve?
On a day-to-day basis it’s about bidding for and winning work. It also involves ensuring with the management team that everything is in place so we can deliver the work successfully and win repeat business as a result. And it’s about making sure all the resources – people, software, support services – are in place at the right time. It’s quite hard to win a new client and what you want to do when you do manage it is to exceed their expectations so you win their future work.
My role also involves setting the strategy for the company.
What motivates you in business?
I suppose success does. There’s probably nothing better than when you put a lot of effort into trying to win a project and you do get it across the line.
We’re constantly challenged with different things and overcoming those challenges also motivates us.
Also, we have quite a young workforce and it’s great to create opportunities for people and to see them then grab those opportunities and make it a better company.
What is your leadership style?
I think it’s changed quite a bit over the years. When you start a company, you try to do absolutely everything yourself. And maybe a little part of you thinks other people can’t do things as well as you can. A lot of the time they can, and maybe even a lot better than you.
After a lot of 360s and different courses, the learnings from the MBA and the leadership for growth programme, my style has evolved. The company has got bigger so I don’t have to do as much of everything myself any more. But I also now have a huge amount of belief in the people within the company.
I think my style is inclusive: I try to create an open environment where everyone has a say and everyone’s ideas are welcome. I’m happy delegating to people and have faith that they will deliver.
But I’m also always trying to transform things and look at how we can do things better and operate smarter. And trying to get everyone to have an open mind and to challenge the way we’re doing things to try to improve it going forward.
Who or what inspires you?
I was very lucky in my upbringing. My mother and father are both really hardworking, dedicated people and inspiration has come from them.
I have two co-owners within Ethos and we try to inspire each other. They’re two excellent guys and we also have a strong management team of operations and associate directors and we help each other.
And my wife who I met on the MBA (the priest who married us was also in the same group) has inspired me and she really helped me starting off.
There’s probably no one person externally I’d look at and say, that’s who inspires me.
Any failures you want to talk about?
The industry failed and that had a big impact on us after we’d grown to 30 people. I think if we were to look at how we might have contributed to that failure it was probably having an overreliance on the Irish industry.
There have been other challenges – I purchased the office at the height of the boom and we’re still in huge negative equity. But we’ll hopefully be here for the next 40 or 50 years so I’m not letting it get to me.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
I think starting Ethos, the brand we’ve created and the people within it, who have a passion to get things right. The company really has a win culture. It’s a serious, hardworking place but also a lot of fun. We’re all quite proud of what we’ve achieved here.
We’ve also got a lot of external recognition. Last year alone, we won Consultancy of the Year in the Irish Construction Industry Awards 2016; Innovation in Project Design in the Fit Out Awards; and the ACE [Association of Consulting Engineers] European CEO Award. We feel we’re getting things right and to get a bit of external recognition as well reinforces that we’re on the right path.
What are your tips and advice for success?
Believe in your ability to turn things around when they do go bad. And things will always go bad and, rather than letting it get to you, it’s how you work on it as a challenge.
Surround yourself with really good people. I think I’ve done that.
And really enjoy yourself and make the work fun. We do fun events with clients and we take our staff to Christmas trips abroad. And at any of these social events, whether it’s with clients or staff, we never talk about work. It’s always about team bonding and getting to know each other.
Any plans for the future?
We’re going to open an office in Cork and potentially in the west of Ireland as well. And we’re also looking at the UK with a view to opening an office in London.
We have a 2020 plan and we’re probably a bit ahead of that at the moment. The aim is to have 100 people and we have 80 now. We see ourselves getting there. But, while we’re looking for growth, we’re looking for sustainable growth.
What are your interests outside work?
I’m mad into skiing. I’ve always been interested in keeping fit and gyms and I’ve just found Crossfit and I have to say it’s absolutely superb. And then of course I enjoy spending quality time with my family. I have two young kids, a three-year old and a two-year old and spending time with them is a priority.
How has your education benefited your career and/or personal life?
My degree, MBA and all other further education has given me the tools to help create a successful company with strong foundations.
What are your fondest memories from your time in UCD Smurfit/Quinn School?
Meeting people on a Friday evening and Saturday morning in a similar situation as me in UCD. Working with the MBA students from the University of Maryland when they travelled to study on a week-long course in UCD.
How important is your UCD alumni network to you?
I wish the network was stronger for our year.
What is your pet hate?
Giving up too easily.
What piece of technology can you not live without?
My mobile phone.
What would you bring to a desert island?
My family – my two boys are crazy lads and I get great fun from them
Do you have a favourite book or author?
It's all kids bedtime reading now: Julia Donaldson – The Gruffalo, The Gruffalo's Child, A Squash and A Squeeze, Tiddler, Zog, Tabby McTat, etc, etc, etc.
What’s your favourite band or musician?
Now I'm showing my age: Depeche Mode, Sting, U2 and Coldplay.
What’s the last gig/play/film/exhibition you went to that you loved?
Taking my two boys to the children's interactive museum in Boston on my recent St Paddy's weekend trip there.
What is your favourite dish to cook?
I make a mean healthy omelette with so many ingredients that it looks more like a deep pan pizza.
What teams do you support?
Ireland rugby, Ireland football (actually , Ireland taking part in anything), Leinster rugby, Dublin GAA football and Liverpool.
Name three things on your bucket list
A ski chalet in the Austrian alps, a sun family villa with pool where we can also take our two dogs and a live-on scuba dive boat (for warmer climates).
What charities or causes are closest to your heart?
We mainly support children's (Temple Street, Laura Lynn and Make A Wish), cancer (Movember) and homeless (Dublin Simon Community) charities.