An engineer by profession, Seán Keating decided 10 years ago to focus on developing his management skills rather than further specialising in niche technical areas. In 2011, a year after completing an executive MBA, he was appointed Chief Executive of Dublin-based wireless consultancy and systems integrator, Vilicom.
About Seán Keating
Tell us about your education and early career
I did my primary degree in electronics engineering at DCU and have spent the last 20 years working in telecoms. Straight after college I started in Esat Digifone – it was very early days for the company and a very interesting and entrepreneurial place to be. I then did stints in Chicago, working for Lucent Technologies, and in the UK, where I was with Three. I came back to Ireland in 2002 to start working with Vilicom and have served in a number of roles since then, eventually becoming CEO in 2011.
Tell us about your company and your role
We are a wireless consultancy and systems integrator and we currently employ around 75 people. It’s a knowledge-based company so we’re very focused on keeping ahead of the technical curve and on developing people.
I started as lead RF consultant and gradually worked my way up to chief executive.
We have a great leadership team in here and we work together very collaboratively. I manage that team and also try to keep in touch with our people who are spread across a lot of offices.
I’m also quite involved in the sales area. That’s been one of the changes since I became CEO. Before that, I worked much more on the operations side of things. Vilicom’s contracts are generally quite short – from a few weeks to a couple of years – so the sales function is really important and there’s a big focus on going after new opportunities. It also means we live by our reputation.
Why did you decide to do an MBA?
I’d got to the stage where I was leading teams and a department and I just wanted to be as good as I possibly could be at that. In DCU we had to do a management subject every year and I found that very interesting. A lot of engineers get to a point where they have to choose between developing down a real technology niche route and going with the bigger picture. I just found I preferred managing projects, developing teams and broadening the scope of the company and I thought I should really go and get trained for it properly.
So I did my executive MBA at UCD from 2008 to 2010. It was a great course overall but one of the real highlights for me was the executive coaching and mentoring. It was a good time to sit down and really think about where I wanted to go career wise. My mentor was Eadine Hickey and I worked through different ideas with her. Sometimes it helps to be able to talk things through with somebody outside the company. But I was also very fortunate that I was able to come back to the office and chat with the directors about my career path and how we wanted the company to develop. A year after completing my MBA I was appointed CEO.
What motivates you?
A big motivator for me is spending time with customers. One of the reasons I joined Vilicom was the chance to work on lots of projects for lots of customers. It’s a much wider experience. With the telecoms companies you tend to work on the same project for two to four years and go all the way through their life cycle. Here in Vilicom we may be working on strategies for new technologies one week and on expanding the network the next. So there’s huge diversity in it and we’re involved in some great projects. We were lucky enough to work on the London Olympics, for example, and we’ve done national network rollouts in the UK, Ireland, Saudi Arabia, Austria and New Zealand.
How would you describe your leadership style?
At the beginning it was probably quite project management oriented. As you develop, it’s important to delegate effectively and to do that, you need to have good people you trust around you. I enjoy working with the leadership team in Vilicom exploring broad ideas and narrowing down to decisions and strategies to achieve our goals. I find that the dialogue within the team works to get the best results for us and ultimately the company.
Who has influenced or inspired you?
My wife Miriam has been a very important influence and she’s been very supportive. When you’re doing an MBA there’s a huge time commitment – you’re working nine or 10 hours a day and then studying another three or four hours. We had a young family at home. So, my wife’s support was particularly important at that time.
On the inspiration side, there are some great engineers out there behind great companies, like John Malone and Liberty and Elon Musk and Tesla. What they’ve done is just fantastic and they’re a great inspiration to me.
What has been your biggest achievement to date?
Vilicom was spun out of a parent company in summer 2008 when the economy was really tanking. The recession in telecoms was three times worse than the general recession but during that time we trebled the size of the company. We now have a leading position in a niche area: I think we’re now the biggest systems integrator, delivering special coverage solutions in the UK and Ireland. I’m very proud of what the people in Vilicom have achieved during that time.
Any failures or mistakes you have learnt from?
I started a master’s in engineering in the early 2000s but five or six months into it realised it wasn’t for me and I was going further into that technical niche. Rather than just plodding on and getting the qualification and hating it, I decided to stop and a couple of years later did the MBA instead. It was a key realisation for me: I was always very techie before that but I realised that was enough and I had to change direction.
What are your tips or advice for success?
Have a plan and stick to it. Whether it’s your personal or business life, it’s good to have that plan.
Also, people talk about the importance of having work life balance and think the more time you spend on work, the more your personal life suffers and vice versa. I don’t see it like that. I think if you do well in work it supports your family and personal life. And if you have a good personal and family life, it supports your ability to work better. If you can work those two elements together it can be a very positive thing.
It’s important to choose your team really wisely. A bad hire, particularly at senior level, is very expensive.
And then just stay on top of the figures – daily, weekly and monthly.
What are your plans for the future?
We’ve started to do internet of things projects – around smart buildings, the energy sector and smart cities, for example – and it’s an absolute game changer. We are still mostly in telecoms and that will always be the foundation of our business. But we also have a new investment plan in place to expand into these new industry verticals. We’ve had good success in this area in the last 18 months and we want to push on with it.
What are your interests outside work?
I’ve started cycling again after a break of about 20 years. I used to race but had an injury and just stopped. I recently got fed up with running and got back into cycling at the end of last year, joined the local cycling club and am having a ball. I’ve also always been into the GAA. And of course I love spending time with the family.
How has your degree benefited your career?
It has equipped me with the leadership skills I need and given me the confidence to pursue new opportunities
What is your fondest memory from your time in UCD Smurfit School?
The international study trip to Brazil was amazing.
How important is your UCD alumni network to you?
Very, our class still gets together a couple of times a year and the events run by UCD are very good.
Tell us one thing that most people don’t know about you
I used to play the bagpipes (no kilt jokes please).
What piece of technology can you not live without?
If you ever see me crash my bike, please pause my Strava!
What’s your favourite book?
The Catcher in the Rye would be one of my favourites.
And what is your favourite band?
What’s the last exhibition you went to that you loved?
This year’s Venice Biennale was amazing.
What team do you support?
Dublin, but more particularly the hurling team. I can’t wait to see who will replace Ger Cunningham.
What is your favourite place in the world to visit and why?
New York – it’s a city that just has amazing energy.
Name three things on your bucket list
I’d love to climb in the Himalayas, sail around the world and see the Northern Lights.
What charities or causes are closest to your heart?
The Society of St. Vincent de Paul is brilliant. And in Vilicom we do a lot of work on promoting engineering with young kids through the Engineers Ireland STEPS programme.