Building blocks of education - Interview with Miceál Sammon, The Sammon Group

 

THE FRIDAY INTERVIEW: Miceál Sammon, The Sammon Group

As well as that, he has always run the business on the basis that “you have to know who’s paying you at the end of the day”. The speculative, build-it-and-they-will-buy approach taken by most of his peers just didn’t fit with that basic rule.

Instead, he and his wife, Cathy, with whom he set up the business in the Eighties, looked at what they could do. They hit upon education. The client, the State, was always going to pay and it needed someone who could build schools, and do it quickly. Sammon says the decision to focus on that area happened by a process of elimination as the couple talked over the company’s prospects one Friday.

“They were rolling out some new school programmes at that time that were called ‘rapid build’ in areas where the residential stock rose fast but they hadn’t made provision for national schools and things like that, so they had to play catch-up,” he says.

Rapid build meant just that. The Government wanted the buildings finished in 20 weeks. The company tendered for a number of design and build contracts and won them.

Sammon says that what they produced was better than what had gone before and that started the ball rolling. “Nobody was really interested in doing it,” he recalls. “Everybody else was interested in doing apartment blocks, town centres and shopping malls and all that type of thing, so there was a market there for us.”

The company began to develop expertise in building schools and educational facilities. To allow it to build the schools quickly, it developed its own systems that mean much of the basic structure was manufactured off site and then erected quickly on the spot.

This expertise runs throughout the organisation, from the staff through to the executives, and up to board level, where former Department of Education secretary general John Dennehy is now a non-executive.

The next step proved to be decisive.

“In 2006, we started to look again and asked ourselves ‘what else could we do and where could we do it?’,” he says. Everyone was talking about the Middle East, particularly Dubai, where there was supposedly a forest of cranes. Sammon says they didn’t know if it was true or not, but thought it would be worth their while to find out.

It turned out that there was a private education company over there looking to build state-of-the art, 250,000sq ft schools with facilities that included swimming pools and athletics tracks.

“We presented our credentials and, I think partly because of the fact that we had the expertise on the executive board and that we’re a family business, which is very important out there, we ended up being a partner of choice.”

Its partner turned out to be the biggest private educator in the world, Global Education Management Systems (Gems), a global business that builds and runs schools in countries as diverse as Dubai, where it is based, and Britain.

After building a number of schools for Gems, the Sammon Group decided to set up a regional office in another of the emirates, Abu Dhabi. The moved occurred just before Dubai ran into difficulties. Given that it shifted its focus away from the Republic just before the bubble burst, this was the second bullet that the business had dodged.

It might look prescient, but Sammon says that it was just coincidence. “It was surreal. People were saying that you’d want to walk in front of those guys rather than behind them.” He might be joking, but the group’s timing was impeccable. Abu Dhabi, like a lot of Middle Eastern countries, has ambitious plans for its education system.

The emirate intends building 150 schools over the next 10 years, accommodating anything from 1,000 to 2,500 students. They will boast everything from science labs to 50- metre swimming pools and 100-metre running tracks, and will be fully equipped with information and communications technology. If you build schools, it’s the place to be.

Sammon is working in partnership with the Abu Dhabi Educational Council on a series of projects. Its office has a staff of 180 and about 2,500 people on site. The company is building over one million sq ft of schools. And that is just phase one. “We’re trying for phase two and phase three at the moment,” Sammon says.

The group expects revenues this year to hit €100 million, with about €90 million of that flowing from the Middle East. It has no debts, which must make it unique among Irish building contractors, and its balance sheet consists entirely of cash.

Not everything has worked out according to plan. Sammon has opened offices in both London and the Libyan capital Tripoli but neither market has taken off as quickly as the group hoped, mainly for local reasons. Nevertheless, he believes it’s worth sticking with them.

Sammon is from close to Ballinamoe, Co Leitrim, where his father ran a contracting business. He was originally trained as a joiner, and worked on building and fitting out Irish pubs in cities around the world before he and his wife set up their own operation when they were still very young. She sits on the board with him and plays a central role in the group’s investment programme and strategic planning.

The company is now based in Kilcock, Co Kildare. It is essentially a family business but Sammon has been very deliberately recruiting expertise from both Ireland and abroad to boost its management and executive structure. The board and executives include people who have been involved in planning and developing education systems in the Republic and elsewhere.

He makes it clear that much of the company’s success is down to these people and the workforce itself. “Our people are very mobile and very agile,” he says. “They can move around, work in one place for six months or a year and move back again.”

Ultimately, by continuing to build the company’s skills and expertise, he hopes it will be in a position to shift its focus back to the Republic when things recover and exploit the opportunities that emerge here.

One thing Sammon believes has been overlooked, or forgotten altogether, since the building industry went into a tailspin in 2007 is that the industry here has built up a wide range of skills that are marketable abroad. That doesn’t necessarily mean emigrating. Instead he believes that the skills, rather than the people, can be exported, with at least some of the benefits, and all of the knowledge, retained here.

Particularly in the Middle East, he says the Irish are well respected. “These guys can run departments, they can run businesses, and they can hold their own anywhere,” he says. “We’re not Paddy-behind- the-mixer any more.”

Name: Miceál Sammon.

Age: 44.

Who is he?: Chief executive and chairman of construction business Sammon Group.

Why is he in the news?: The group has successfully defied the construction slump by shifting its focus to the Middle East, where it specialises in building schools.

Background: From Leitrim. His father ran a construction business and he worked in joinery before setting up the business with his wife, Cathy.

Family: Married to Cathy with three children.

Interests:Sport, he’s a big fan of Leitrim football.

Something that won’t surprise: “I eat, sleep and drink construction.”

Something that might:He’s an enthusiastic vegetable gardener and jam maker.