PM Group’s Dave Murphy: ‘We’re as good or better than anyone else in the world’

Cork native talks FDI, employee ownership and work-life balance ahead of his retirement

Outgoing PM Group chief Dave Murphy believes Ireland can has a strong pipeline of investment lined up if the economy can 'keep pace'. Photograph: Sam Boal

Like the company he has led for the past 12 years, there is something unassuming about PM Group chief executive Dave Murphy that belies the reality. Sitting across a conference room table in a Dublin hotel on a dreary Irish summer morning, the conversation with the Cork native takes on a leisurely pace. Murphy is in no rush.

You might be tempted to think that this has something to do with his decision to hang up his boots later this year, retiring after 34 years with the business he joined near the bottom rung of the ladder. But Murphy’s sense of composure and his breezy demeanour are characteristics he has developed over time.

“I guess a lot of people do say to me: you make the job look easy,” Murphy says. “That’s kind of surprising to me. But particularly over the last five or six years, from the midpoint [of his time as chief executive], I have felt quite confident, comfortable in the role.”

That is certainly to Murphy’s and PM Group’s advantage, given the demands of the business. Employing 3,500 globally, the company manages capital projects, from small to large, for a host of blue-chip companies, many of them household names. The group has a big international presence in Europe as well as China and Singapore, with slightly more than half of it activities being conducted outside Ireland last year.

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The scale of the projects vary, from data centre construction to consulting and procurement. At any one time, “we’d probably have 30 major projects that are €50 million or €100 million-plus,” Murphy says. “We’d probably have a couple that are between €300 million to €500 million and we’d have a massive portfolio of smaller projects where we manage all the client’s capital on the site. We call that managed services.”

Revenues at PM Group hit €612 million in 2022, according to their most recently published results, an increase of 29 per cent. While some of this related to so-called pass-through revenues, underlying sales also increased 14 per cent with operating profit stable year-on-year at €44 million.

It might be overstating it to say that PM Group is publicity shy. But in spite of its heavy-hitting client list and global reach, the group tends to fly under the radar, relatively speaking. Partially, that is a function of the business’s success and reputation. Some of its biggest clients – Pfizer, Merck, Johnson & Johnson and “many, many more”, says Murphy, including Irish Distillers – have relationships with PM Group spanning 30 and 40 years.

When I came out in the 1980s, it was grim. There wasn’t a lot of jobs around

“So you don’t really need a lot of presence in the wider media,” he says. “The few times we have put ourselves out there was really around having a strong brand to attract talent. That’s something we probably could do better.”

Perhaps there is another element to it, Murphy concedes. “I would say, you know, for years that we probably did suffer a bit from an inferiority complex and it took us a while to realise why we’re just as good as everybody else out there.” Domestically, Murphy says PM Group was “fortunate” to have a “big sort of gorilla in the industry” in the form of Jacobs Engineering with which to compare itself. “They were always the standard,” he says. “They’re still our main competitor to this day and they’ve been such a good competitor and such a target that having to compete with them made us stronger.

“Eventually we got to a point where we realised we’re just as good as them and better in some respects. And for the type of work we do in the spaces we’re in, we’re as good or better than anybody else in the world. I have no hesitation in saying that. But it took us a while to get there.”

Dave Murphy: 'We have a very unique kind of family culture that exists to this day.' Photograph: Sam Boal

PM Group, now in its 50th year, has had ringside seats to the transformation of the Irish economy over the past half century. It was founded in 1973 as Project Management Ltd by two former Irish Cement engineers, Jim Walsh and Brian Kearney, who were hoping to tap into what they saw as a coming wave of foreign investment into Ireland.

“They were relatively young men,” says Murphy. “So it was quite a radical thing to do to set up a project management business because they had really good jobs at the time.”

The Republic’s industrial policy being what it was when Walsh and Kearney were starting out, the number of multinationals looking to make large capital investments were few and far between. But running the business from an office in South Dublin, the pair got their “big breakthrough”, says Murphy, with Marathon Oil.

It’s very team-based and there is no sort of place for egos or status symbols or any of that. I hope I’ve kept that culture going

The US company was drilling for oil off the coast of Cork in the early 1970s when it discovered what would become the Kinsale Head Gas Field. Project Management Ltd, as the company was called then, then joined with Marathon to deliver the production platforms in 1976 with the first units of gas coming on stream in 1978.

Murphy’s own story intersects with PM Group’s in the late 1980s. A difficult decade for Project Management and the wider economy, the company had begun at that stage to develop relationships with some of the bigger pharma clients, including Penn Chemicals, which eventually became GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). “I suppose they were still quite small at that stage,” Murphy says, “but they got a couple of significant jobs for people like FMC and Schering Plough, which is now part of MSD.” These relationships helped the company through otherwise lean times and remain the part of the company’s bedrock.

During this period, Murphy attended what was the then-Regional Technical College in Cork – now part of Munster Technological University – where he studied chemical engineering, graduating in 1985.

“When I came out in the 1980s, it was grim. There wasn’t a lot of jobs around,” he recalls. “We had a relatively small class – there was only 12 of us – but we were all struggling to pick up work.” After landing a job at a small pharmaceutical company and a contract manufacturer in Cork, he joined PM Group in 1989. “So I’ve been there for 34 years. My whole career nearly and I suppose my career has grown with the company.”

With international expansion in mind, Kearney and Walsh had at this stage looked to partner up with a bigger company to help fund its ambitions. It found that partner in UK firm Foster Wheeler, which took an initial 10 per cent stake in the business in 1988, allowing it to increase PM Group’s headcount to about 150, growing to a 25 per cent stake over the next decade or so. It was under Murphy’s stewardship in 2015 that PM Group bought back the shares from its partner, now AMEC Foster Wheeler.

There is something “poignant”, says Murphy, about discussing these early years now as PM Group enters its sixth decade and his own time with the group approaches its end. Brian Kearney, a particular role model for Murphy in his early years with PM, died in May, predeceased by his co-founder Jim Walsh in January.

Kearney told The Irish Times in 1997 that the company’s policy of “taking care of its staff” was among the most important factors in its success. “I learned an awful lot for them,” Murphy says. What specifically?

“I suppose the style. We have a very unique kind of family culture that exists to this day. A lot of the cultural stuff, that foundation was put in place by [Kearney, Walsh and their successors]. It’s very flat, not very hierarchical. It’s very team-based and there is no sort of place for egos or status symbols or any of that. I hope I’ve kept that culture going.”

Every time we did a plan, we consistently underestimated the potential and we’ve always over-achieved those plans

Unique – Murphy himself ventures “a little bit socialist” – would certainly be one word to describe PM Group’s employee ownership structure. A core component of its offering to staff is the potential for them to become shareholders in the business over time. PM Group always had a generous profit sharing arrangement, Murphy says. “I couldn’t believe it. The first year I came in, I got a bonus. Like they were doing this in the late 1980s when bonuses were unheard of but they set aside a portion of their profits to give to the staff.”

Now that arrangement runs alongside an equity scheme that has been in operation for the past 23 years, starting in Ireland. “We actually have kind of two schemes going,” Murphy explains. “We have a kind of regular employee ownership and then we have a management scheme. We have about 200 partners or associate directors in the firm so every year, their bonus is made up of cash and shares. If they participate in the share scheme, they’ll accumulate a portfolio and that can grow quite nicely over 10, 15, 20, years.”

Employees and partners “benefit from the growth in the share price”, he says, which is based on an internal valuation that has grown “10 times in the past 20 years” in line with PM Group’s revenues and profits. And the benefits to the company are obvious, Murphy believes.

Dave Murphy: 'I think over the next 20 years, if we can keep pace with that investment – as a country, as a government – we can continue to attract FDI.' Photograph: Sam Boal

“There is an inherent motivation for everybody to pull together to try and grow the revenue and profitability.” The other benefit is that it facilitates ownership succession, which was what Walsh and Kearney had in mind when the scheme was concocted two decades ago.

Murphy says: “You see a lot of firms, in particular in the construction sector in Ireland over the last number years, have sold out to international companies. Maybe they didn’t even want that. Obviously, a lot of them have done very, very well. That’s not for us. The original founders set up an internal transition when they could have probably got more money if they’d went out in the market. We’ve tried to keep that going. It’s a little bit socialist, I suppose. We all benefit together, we all sink or swim together.”

As is tradition, Murphy will be putting his shares back on the internal market when he retires from the business later this year. But he remains evangelical about the structure, which is now in operation in 20 of PM Group’s international subsidiaries. “It’s a complex beast, but a lot of people have benefited from it.”

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After that, Murphy says that he does not have a lot planned other than taking a well deserved break. While he says he always managed to maintain a good work-life balance, the job has been a demanding one. “I’ve been lucky,” he says. “I’ve had a busy home life. I have four adult children but they weren’t always children and my wife of 32 years, Deirdre, shouldered a lot of the load for sure. But I always tried to make sure weekends were sacred and that I took my holidays every year and to turn off the emails on a Friday.”

How successful was his effort to switch off? “My own colleagues are very good,” he says with a wry smile, “obviously, clients aren’t as respectful of your time. But we’ve always said that to them, that if there is a problem, they can call any time.”

A keen Liverpool and Cork GAA supporter, Murphy hopes to enjoy more leisure time. Music is another passion. “There are six of us in the family and I’m the only that doesn’t play an instrument,” he says. “That’s a project for retirement.”

Now entering the final few months of his time with the business, he says the biggest surprise to him over that time has been PM Group’s potential. “Every time we did a plan, we consistently underestimated the potential and we’ve always over-achieved those plans. So I think that kind of tells you something. I’m sure it will continue to be the case.”

The same is true for the Irish economy writ large, Murphy says. The nature of PM Group’s operations force it to take a long view of the investment forecast for Ireland and he says the forecast is particularly good at the moment. “Ireland remains and will remain attractive,” Murphy says, “but I certainly think we would not want to take that for granted.” There is huge work to be done, he says, in the areas of housing, infrastructure and planning. “I think over the next 20 years, if we can keep pace with that investment – as a country, as a government – we can continue to attract FDI (foreign direct investment) long into the future.”


Name: Dave Murphy

Age: 60

Position: CEO PM Group

Lives: Carrigaline, Co Cork

Family: Married to wife Deirdre for 32 years. Four adult children, all working now

Something you might expect: Loves sport, played Gaelic football and soccer at senior level, now plays golf. Big Cork GAA supporter, also Munster Rugby and Liverpool

Something that might surprise: An islander, originally from Bere Island in West Cork and very proud of that