‘I don’t lose my temper. It’s a waste of energy’

Jamie O’Rourke of utilities contractor Mainline on surfing mantras, assessing risk and harnessing the power of nature

Written on a blackboard that covers one of the walls of Jamie O’Rourke’s office at Mainline Utilities Group headquarters on the outskirts of Cork city is a saying his mother taught him. “Until further notice,” it reads, “celebrate everything.” They are words by which the west Limerick native tries to live and work by.

O’Rourke certainly has a lot to celebrate these days as chief executive and majority shareholder in the group, which he has steered for the better part of 20 years. A multifaceted utilities contractor boasting an annual group turnover of around €30 million, Mainline has its fingers in numerous pies, from telecoms and aviation to domestic water metering to renewable energy. It is in this latter space that the group has really left a mark in recent years, winning two major contracts for wind farms in Sweden.

“We essentially do all of the electrical work on a wind farm as an example, or on a solar farm,” he told The Irish Times recently in sweltering Austin, Texas, where he was attending the annual EY Entrepreneur of the Year chief executives’ retreat. “On a wind farm,” O’Rourke, a finalist in this year’s competition, explained, “that involves designing and building the substation, cables, telecommunication, bringing power to the turbines, back to the substation and then on to the grid.”

It is topical stuff to say the least, and O’Rourke is not shy about his sharing his thoughts on the subject of Ireland’s energy transition, the policy blockages that he believes have stymied the process and the threat of blackouts and energy disruption this winter.

READ MORE

Was there much to celebrate in Budget 2023 from his perspective? “No, is the short answer,” says O’Rourke, now back home, dressed casually in a green T-shirt and ensconced in the more forgiving climate of his house in Ballintemple, Co Cork.

“There was very little in there that I saw from a renewable perspective,” he says via video link. For one, “there could have and should have been more to drive and promote the use of electric vehicles in the short term”.

O’Rourke is an EV driver himself.

At the same time, against the backdrop of a pan-European crisis this winter, he recognises a tension between short-term energy price and supply security and the bigger picture: the ambitious targets the Government has set for itself on climate change. What irks him more has been the lack of joined-up thinking at the political level over many years. It is a sentiment shared right across the renewables sector. Just last week, Shell announced it is scrapping its involvement in the Western Star and Emerald projects off the coasts of Clare and Cork, delivering another blow to Ireland’s climate targets.

Scarce resources

“We’ve gone through successive governments now just putting targets out there and expecting the private sector to go out and achieve them,” O’Rourke says. The problem now, he explains, is that with the Government recently restating its commitment to generating 37 gigawatts of electricity through offshore wind turbines by 2050 – an area in which Ireland has made little progress over the years – the competition for scarce resources across Europe, particularly skilled labour, is becoming more and more intense.

“We’re trying to build seven gigawatts by 2030. The rest of [the nine countries that make up the North Seas Energy co-operation organisation] are trying to build essentially 76 gigawatts... But the infrastructure and the skills and the actual volume of materials that need to be manufactured, and the transport logistics that we need to achieve these targets, are significant.”

Born in Abbeyfeale, Co Limerick, on the border with Kerry – the football, not the hurling part of the county, he notes – O’Rourke says he “grew up in the water in Ballybunion”. A keen surfer who recites a mantra of appreciation every time he gets to hit the Atlantic waves, he thinks it is here that his interest in energy and “harnessing the power of nature” first emerged. “As soon as you catch a wave,” he says, “you’re gone, you’re just getting energy. You can feel the energy.”

Throughout the conversation, it becomes clear energy, its uses and conservation, occupy a lot of his thoughts. “I don’t lose my temper,” the laid-back Limerick man says when asked about his management style. “I’m a logical person and it’s a waste of energy.”

That also feeds into Mainline’s organisational structures, he says.

“We have a no-blame culture in the company,” he explains. “To have that, it means you have to start with yourself. I call it ‘clean hands’. Mistakes will happen but you have to look at yourself in the mirror and ask if you have clean hands before you look... to blame someone else. You start with how do we improve the situation first before you look at what went wrong.”

‘As soon as I could reach the tap, I was pulling pints and soon as I could multiply, I was going to race meetings with my father’

Another important early influence was his father, local publican and bookmaker Jack O’Rourke.

“As soon as I could reach the tap, I was pulling pints and soon as I could multiply, I was going to race meetings with my father. I was at the back, taking down the bets and managing the risks; how much money we were paying out on that horse versus this horse? Are they all losers or are these three winners? How do we level the book?”

Calculated risks

What is his attitude to risk? “I’d be measured,” O’Rourke says. “But I wouldn’t be afraid of taking a risk... I’ve taken some calculated risks along the way so I’m not risk averse. I always look at the worst case and work my way back. I learned that from the bookmaking.”

O’Rourke has two decades of experience with the company that is now called Mainline, steering it into the renewables industry in 2015 when it bought a small, underperforming Kerry-based company that was working on wind farms. But the company’s history doesn’t begin with him.

Formed in 1999, the original business, then called Telecom Éireann Services Ltd, was set up by three former employees of the State telecoms company, who used their redundancy packages to get the enterprise up and running. The newly privatised Eircom retained a 35 per cent stake in the contractor, to which it outsourced its telecoms network design and construction work. In 2005, Morrison Utilities, a subsidiary of UK giant Anglian Water, bought the Irish business for a reported €15 million and it is here that O’Rourke’s story and Mainline’s begin to intersect.

“I had been working for Morrison for the previous two years on a joint venture that they had in common with an Irish company. So I knew all of the Morrison people over here and I was kind of the last man standing on the other job when they had bought the business,” O’Rourke says. Before that, O’Rourke had spent four of the latter years of the 1990s in South Africa, working on water projects following the election of Nelson Mandela to the presidency in 1995.

After that, he explains, “there was big investment into infrastructure to service new-build houses in the townships”. Water being his expertise, O’Rourke, freshly equipped with his mathematics and civil engineering degree from Trinity College Dublin, worked on several projects, bringing water pipelines into some of the most deprived areas of the former apartheid state with Institu-Pipelines, founded and managed by Irishman Pius Walsh.

On his arrival back in Ireland around the turn of the century, O’Rourke had an option of a job in Limerick or one with Bord Gáis in Cork on the client side of the business. He plumped for the latter but quickly found himself longing to return to contracting. That is when he got the offer to work with Morrison on a joint drainage project in Cork.

“Meanwhile,” says the serial entrepreneur, “I had set up a commercial credit management company. So that was up and running when Morrison had won a big contract on the water side.” With the Irish business mostly focused on telecoms, O’Rourke was asked to come in and manage the joint project and he was there in 2005 when Morrison ultimately bought what would become Mainline.

‘Engineering is a thing I love and I went away from that temporarily to set up a business in a space that I didn’t love.’ The results of that experiment spoke for themselves

“I moved across then and was working part-time initially while I had the commercial credit business going,” he says. “But then, obviously, the s**t hit the fan for the commercial credit business [in the wake of the 2008 crash] and I had the opportunity to step in full time into the Morrison business.”

Invaluable lesson

If there is one lesson O’Rourke says he learned from this period it is that you have to love what you are doing. “Engineering is a thing I love and I went away from that temporarily to set up a business in a space that I didn’t love.” The results of that experiment spoke for themselves – he would end up putting the small credit management company, Commercial Innovations, into liquidation. But the lesson was invaluable.

“Ultimately, there was a significant downscale on the telecom business and I ended up taking over overall responsibilities for the Irish operations in 2009 and 2010,” he says. After a change of ownership in the UK company and major shift of focus back to the home market, the Irish business was suffering.

“I’d been trying to grow the Irish business during the recession and I wasn’t getting any support and I said: ‘Lads, what’s going on?’ I was told there was a change of strategy and I said: ‘That’s fine. I’ll be back to you in a week with a proposal.’”

With the help of his former boss in South Africa, who had just sold a business and had funds available, O’Rourke engineered a management buyout of the company that would become Mainline in 2011. As majority shareholder and managing director, the company rebranded as Morrison Mainline in 2013 and he would eventually buy out his partner in 2018.

‘We’ve always punched above our weight. Like we were turning over €5 million when we when we signed up to that, which was a €100 million contract’

Water metering – “you remember that whole debacle”, O’Rourke says – was Mainline’s next big push. Partnering in a joint venture with construction engineer J Murphy and Sons, O’Rourke’s company delivered more than 262,000 domestic water meters in the south and southwest regions. This is one of those “calculated risks” that O’Rourke believes helped changed the trajectory for his company.

“We’ve always punched above our weight,” he says. “Like we were turning over €5 million when we when we signed up to that, which was a €100 million contract with Murphy’s.”

Water and telecoms make up about 10 per cent of Mainline’s revenues, while renewable energy – both solar and wind – accounts for about 20 per cent. Aviation is another 20 per cent. Mainline was the main electrical contractor on the north runway project at Dublin Airport, delivering 340 kilometres of cable and the fit-out of two substations on the site.

But it is for two sizeable wind farm projects that Mainline has generated the most headlines in recent times. O’Rourke says the projects were born out of the Irish Government’s inertia, particularly around the Renewable Energy Support Scheme (RESS) auction system, through which the State tendered for renewable projects starting in 2020.

‘Ball was dropped’

“If the RESS auction structure had been given more thought two years prior to it coming out... The ball was dropped back then, and hence there was a two to three year gap in the subsidy scheme,” he said. “So we went off to Sweden and started building wind farms in that time.”

The big difference between Ireland and Sweden when it comes to renewables is, “they’ve got the scale there to build a 73-turbine wind farm. They’ve also got very good existing infrastructure, bringing power right down the spine of Sweden,” he says, whereas “the grid infrastructure we have in Ireland is in need of significant investment”, something the ESB and the Government are well aware of, he says.

O’Rourke says planning issues remain the main blockage in the Irish system for both on and offshore renewables, challenges that they’ve also had in Sweden but they’re beginning to clear away.

Ireland, he fears, will continue to lag behind despite Government efforts to set up a new Maritime Area Planning Authority, which O’Rourke does believe will help. But on the question of skills, materials and infrastructure, storm clouds are gathering.

“We don’t have those expertise. We’re relying on Europe and then Europe, like everybody else, is focused on this. So if we don’t get out early, we’re going to be at the back of the queue. This is a race.”

CV:

Name: Jamie O’Rourke

Job: Chief executive of Mainline

Lives: Ballintemple, Cork city.

Family: Married to Jenny with four children, Dan, Tess, Tola and Jack.

Something you might expect: Like many Irish people, he doesn’t need to be asked twice to sing a song.

Something about him that might surprise: He repeats a mantra of appreciation every time he gets to surf the waves in Ballybunion.

Ian Curran

Ian Curran is a Business reporter with The Irish Times