Ciara Kenny

The Irish Times forum by and for Irish citizens living overseas,

Making paperwork the business

WILD GEESE: Sinead Branagh, ZuTec, Abu Dhabi: Working in the Middle East is hard for a woman but Sinead Branagh has made a virtue of being mobile

Fri, Nov 2, 2012, 08:30



WILD GEESE: Sinead Branagh, ZuTec, Abu Dhabi: Working in the Middle East is hard for a woman but Sinead Branagh has made a virtue of being mobile

Sinead Branagh, ZuTec's overseas director of business development

WHEN SINEAD Branagh developed the idea for an online database for construction documentation, she knew she had a good concept. But she never believed it would become a global business that would take her all over Australia, Asia and the Middle East.

After graduating with a degree in estate management and property economics from Oxford Brookes University in 1997, Antrim-born Branagh, who grew up in Co Wicklow, met environmental engineer Brian McGuire, owner of engineering company ZuTec. He shared her vision for a digital solution to the mountain of paperwork required to design, construct and maintain a building.

Branagh became ZuTec’s second employee in 1999. The company took on one software developer in a small office in Dún Laoghaire, and the result was the development of a “digital facilities guide”, an online database to store catalogues, maintenance manuals, construction drawings and technical documents which are handed over from contractor to client at the end of a build.

The password-protected database could be accessed remotely during construction or throughout the life cycle of the building in order to obtain maintenance information for any of the systems in operation.

They secured contracts early on with Beaumont Hospital, University Hospital Galway and University Hospital Cork and, within five years, ZuTec had expanded internationally with offices in the UK, Asia, the US and Australia. “The pivotal moment for us was winning the contract for the Dundrum Town Centre in 2004,” says Branagh. “It was then that we realised we had the potential to go global.”

ZuTec secured a tender worth € 1 million for the redevelopment of Wembley Stadium in 2006. As its largest overseas contract yet, it marked a turning point for ZuTec and for Branagh who moved to London to manage the project.

“Although I am a company director, my main role is in operations, ensuring projects are delivered on time, on budget and to a high quality that our clients will be happy with. Wembley was such a big contract for us that it was important I was there to oversee it,” she says.

A contract for London’s Westfield shopping centre development, the largest urban mall in Europe, followed.

From London, Branagh travelled to Australia to work on the Melbourne Convention Centre and the Royal Children’s Hospital in Victoria. A stint in Macau working on a casino complex followed, before she moved on to Qatar to oversee documentation for the Doha International Airport development and for the past two years, Branagh has been in Abu Dhabi working on a number of different projects, the largest being the Cleveland Clinic, a “seven-star” specialist hospital due for completion late next year.

“Living in the Middle East is a huge culture change, and you have to be very mindful and respectful of that,” she says. Being a woman in a position of authority in the Middle East, particularly in construction, was a challenge at first, but one she has embraced.

“It is not very common for women to work over here, and even more unusual to have a woman working in construction,” she explains. “Western companies would have a few female support staff in secretarial or admin roles, and you would come across the odd female engineer or architect, but it is still considered a very unusual thing. The workplace is much more male dominated than it would be anywhere else.

“Occasionally, when meeting a company for the first time, it can be a challenge, but you have to get on with it and prove to people that you can do your job, that you are competent, and are no different because you are a woman.”

ZuTec had a few setbacks between 2006 and 2009 when several large projects it was involved in were cancelled. The biggest was the Nakheel Tower in Dubai, which would have been the tallest building in the world if it hadn’t run into difficulties resulting in cancellation in 2009.

However, the business has continued to thrive. “Luckily, because we are an online business, we can go anywhere in the world where construction is going on,” Branagh says.

ZuTec’s HQ is still in Dún Laoghaire, where 10 full-time staff are based, but it also has regional offices in London, Hong Kong, Melbourne, Boston and Dubai, which deals with its Middle East projects across the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Qatar.

Branagh has just returned to Ireland to get married, and although she and her Irish husband consider Ireland as “home”, they are resigned to the idea of living overseas for a few more years.

“With the economic situation in Ireland, it is looking unlikely that I will be able to return home any time soon,” she says. “We will continue to try to pick up work internationally, and are looking to Saudi Arabia, Pakistan and other developing countries where there’s a lot of construction work going on. Those markets look strong for the next 10 to 15 years.”

She believes it was fortuitous that ZuTec expanded globally before the recession in Ireland. “I would love to say we saw the whole thing coming, but it was luck,” she says. “We knew from the beginning that we had a product that would be most useful for large-scale construction projects, and we are very lucky that we can ride out the Irish recession now because most of our business is overseas.”

Wild Geese is a weekly interview in the Business supplement with Irish business leaders abroad. This article appears in the newspaper today, and in the Business section of the website here.