There’s a long list of successful Irish people who started off their working lives as apprentices in semi-State companies such as the ESB, Telecom Éireann, Bord na Móna and CIE.
Michael Stone is one of them. The businessman has been in the news in recent days as Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe has insisted he breached no spending limits by accepting an offer from Stone to erect posters for him in his constituency during the 2016 election campaign. Mr Donohoe received the equivalent of €1,240 in payments-in-kind when Stone provided a van and six workers to put up posters in the Minister’s Dublin Central constituency at the time.
At 24, Stone was a skilled technician and electrician in ESB with a solid job for life. He was also an accomplished hurler, playing for Dublin during one of those periods when it was reaching towards the standard of the game’s elites.
Stone took a big decision in 1992 to strike out for himself at that young age. He founded a company that designed and installed mechanical, plumbing and electrical elements on construction projects.
“If I’d stayed another couple of years it probably would have become a job for life,” he previously said in an interview about his decision to leave the ESB. “But the opportunity was there and I’m very ambitious. I love work. A semi-State body was probably a bit restrictive for me. I wanted that feeling of being my own boss. I had just got married and not long afterwards my first child was born. If I had left it until after that I would have been too afraid.”
Stone quickly built up the Designer Group and by the turn of the century it was taking on more ambitious projects and had established a UK subsidiary.
Ironically, that was its lifeline when the construction crash happened around 2008. Designer Group lost 85 per cent of the business through bad debts from developers. Stone took a course with Enterprise Ireland and began to seek to rebuild the business with contracts abroad. He vowed to work only with blue-chip clients in future. The group has installed breweries for Diageo in Kenya, worked on the London Olympics, the high-tech Qantas Lounge at Heathrow and with firms such as Dropbox, HP, Amazon and Microsoft. Among the Irish projects it has worked on are a refit of the Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin and the Technological University Dublin campus at Grangegorman, in Paschal Donohoe’s constituency.
With a turnover of more than €170 million, and 750 employees for some projects, the group has become a big player in Ireland, with Stone a past president of the Construction Industry Federation.
He has never lost his connection with his inner-city roots, having grown up in and around Aughrim Street in Dublin 7. He is a lifelong member of the Eoghan Rua GAA club (now amalgamated with Oliver Plunketts). Another highly motivated GAA figure, Pat Gilroy, was managing director of the group for a period. Stone now takes students from his old school in Dublin 7 on as apprentices.
In 2017, he was asked to chair the implementation board for a plan for rejuvenation of the northeast inner city, an area that has been ravaged by crime and urban decay for decades. The role is unpaid and low-key, but Stone devotes considerable time and energy to it, overseeing a programme for renewal that has been hailed as a model for other disadvantaged areas. His direct, can-do approach is credited with achieving considerable improvements for the community there.
He was also appointed as one of five board members of the State’s Land Development Agency by former minister for housing Eoghan Murphy in 2019. It is charged with building housing on mostly State-owned land. Stone has waived his yearly fee of €15,759 and has not claimed expenses.