Across the finish line at the Olympics
For three years, Derry-born Gerry Walsh has worked to make sure that the London 2012 Olympics has everything it needs – a job he says it has been a privilege to do, writes MARK HENNESSY,London Editor
COPING WITH the crisis caused by security firm G4S’s failure to honour its contracts to supply thousands of staff to protect the Olympic Games in London has kept Gerry Walsh busy in recent days.
It’s a far cry from what Walsh expected to be doing three years ago after retiring, as planned, just after 50 years of age from a career in procurement that had seen him work with a handful of household names across corporate Britain.
When recruitment consultant Odgers came calling “for a chat”, he was in no hurry to get back to work.
“My initial reaction was that I was quite happy being retired and, therefore, I didn’t really fancy having any discussion with them. I suggested that I give them some names of people who might be interested.
“It was at that point that they said, ‘This is not just an ordinary organisation, this is the London Olympics’,” Walsh, procurement director for the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, tells The Irish Times.
Having joined in July 2009, Walsh, a veteran in procurement, had to establish “a brand new supply base” to handle the £1.2 billion that Locog had to spend to provide everything bar the buildings needed for the Games.
“It was an easy organisation to join. People appreciated that they needed help,” says Walsh, who grew up on a farm near Bellaghy and went to school in St Patrick’s Grammar School, Maghera. He studied business administration and philosophy – “a strange choice, but there you go” – in Queen’s from 1975 to 1978.
Unlike some past business challenges, the Olympics date could not be moved. “The immovable deadline. When you start out, the clock is ticking. In other times, the launch date can be put back – quite often, but not every time,” says Walsh.
“In the Olympics you can’t, so it does create a challenge, but it also creates a focus because everybody knows that one of the solutions isn’t that the date can be put back. That helps focus people’s minds.”
Like many others, Walsh left Northern Ireland after college, joining the Ford Motor Company, as he always calls it, as a graduate trainee. “With all that was going on with the Troubles, I thought it would be particularly difficult to find the right kind of job.”
Starting off in Brentwood in Essex, Walsh thrived in the Ford culture. “They had an absolutely fantastic programme there for developing people, training people on the job. You were thrown into the deep end and you were expected to learn pretty fast.”
From the off, trainees were expected to toughen up. “I can remember very early on in my first couple of weeks, being in a position where an existing supplier came in and demanded a price increase on components which they were supplying.
“Inflation was in the high teens at that time, it was quite a challenge. I had to do everything I could to resist paying a significantly inflated price for that product. So you very quickly learned the trade.”
In 1984, he left Ford when it was clear that company retrenchment meant promotion opportunities would be restricted after the US giant decided to merge its British car and truck operations.
“The easiest thing would have been just to sit in the position I was in. Progress would have happened, but it would just have taken a reasonable bit longer. I just wasn’t prepared to be that patient, so I moved on and I am glad that I did,” he says.
Taking one step back to go forward, Walsh joined a windows provider in Cheltenham, learning about proper warehousing and production to add to his procurement and purchasing background.