Interview: 10 minutes with Sean Smyth
ECAtoday spoke with Sean Smyth, Chair at EJ Parker Technical Services and a member of the ECA Board of Directors.
Note to readers: our interview with Sean Smyth was conducted before coronavirus became a prevalent national issue.
Q: Tell us about your background, and what led you into the engineering services sector?
A: I was born in Burton upon Trent and raised on a Council Estate with many happy memories – caring people from all walks of life. I was always fascinated with the electrical industry as my father worked for the Central Electricity Generating Board as a civil engineer.
My interest came from visiting local power stations including Rugeley and Drakelow with my father, and they remain treasured memories to this day.
I decided to approach WT Parker as there was always a liveried van parked on the estate
At Robert Sutton RC School, I originally aimed for CSEs with a view to a student apprenticeship with the Central Electricity Generating Board. However, a number of developments meant that I left school with History and Religious Education CSE to my name, in 1972.
Even so, I decided to approach WT Parker as there was always a liveried van parked on the estate. I took the initiative and wrote to the Managing Director directly and was invited in for a Saturday morning interview.
After a friendly 15 minutes, Mr Morris, the MD, asked me when I would like to start, so I asked if Monday was OK! My journey had begun, with registration as a JIB Indentured Apprentice.
Q: How did you first become involved in the engineering services industry?
A: My apprenticeship began in 1973 and after 3 years and 3 months I qualified as an electrician. At the local college I completed my City & Guilds (Technicians course Distinction!). with further education at Derby College.
Twelve months after completing my apprenticeship, I was selected as a Foreman for a large project and it became apparent to WT Parker that my key skills were leading and managing.
I spent several years as a JIB Technician in charge of 50 plus electricians ensuring technical standards, quality and productivity – mantras that I firmly believe in still to this day.
Twelve months after completing my apprenticeship, I was selected as a Foreman for a large project
After taking on a management role in the business, things moved forward quickly: within three years, I was appointed a Director and three years later, Managing Director. We were able to grow the business from £7m to £50m plus and it became one of the most profitable companies in the industry.
At £80m turnover, I was appointed Group CEO, responsible for stainless steel and panel manufacturing, data communications and M&E contracting.
Q: In your experience, what is the key challenge with growing a business?
A: One key factor to bear in mind is ‘capacity’ - what workload is the person comfortable with, and have we the key personnel available when we win the next job, or are we about to put a square peg in a round hole?
Think of the word ‘capacity’ again in terms of cash flow - what happens if the cash on that project becomes locked up or the buyer falls over – have we the capacity in terms of cash to run the rest of the business – this is key!
Review your people and your team but always bear in mind that changes may need to take place – those who supported you in the past may not be the right fit for the future.
Q. If you had one piece of advice for anyone looking to grow their business, what would it be?
...don’t be afraid to say no!
A: Analyse your business and look to grow in sectors that you are good at. It’s best to stay in that box until you reach a significant size/cash surplus, when you are likely to be better placed to take both the opportunity - and risk - of moving into other sectors where you are less experienced.
Q: For SMEs, does a growing business tend to mean more profitability?
A: Firstly, there is nothing wrong in being small, but in order to achieve profitability with growth, sit down with your team and set realistic timescales together with a detailed plan. Confide with others and go for selective tendering – don’t be afraid to say no!
Look for frameworks, recurring revenue with end-user clients and specialise in sectors, but be prepared for setbacks along the way.
Q: In your experience, is there a point where growth is better achieved through merger or acquisition?
A: The most successful business growth, in my experience, is achieved organically. However, this can take a considerable amount of time and you must be prepared to make that journey.
I have been involved in four major acquisitions and careful due diligence is essential – know what you are buying and understand the culture of the company you are looking to bring in. Is it the right fit for your current company?
Be careful about ‘lifestyle’ businesses and understand that you may have issues with staff retention if they do not like the culture of the new owners.
Q: Have you experienced late payment during your time in the industry?
Ensure you have an experienced, robust credit control team
A: Unfortunately, we are in the jungle – it’s a feature of the sub-contract industry. However, by ensuring that you build your business on repeat customers and due diligence at tender stage - including credit checks, Experian reports and market intelligence - late payments can mainly be avoided.
Ensure you have an experienced, robust credit control team. We found it was vital during the last recession.
Q: What do you feel is the biggest issue facing our industry today?
A: Quite simply the skills shortage, and the lack of tomorrow’s leaders.
Q: And finally, has anything recently inspired you?
A: Yes, Wayne Rooney at Derby County (my lifelong team)! He has brought an experienced head into the team and someone that achieved everything in football has inspired the rest of the team and the players have improved by at least 10%. Apply the same philosophy in business and you won’t go far wrong!