How retaining staff in the past is helping Walls build a stronger future

3rd March, 2019
Eugene O’Shea, managing director, Walls Construction Ltd Picture: Maura Hickey

Walls Construction’s ranking among the leading Irish building contractors, with a turnover of €200 million plus, is a remarkable confirmation of the resilience of the company which boasts a record of achievement which few others in the sector can match.

This is something of which Eugene O’Shea, appointed managing director in 2006, is justifiably proud.

The early years of O’Shea’s tenure as managing director were marked by responding to the 2008 economic crisis.

He says that his time spent ensuring the survival of the business and helping to safeguard the jobs of its dedicated workforce was “a once-in-a-lifetime experience”.

Walls was established by PJ Walls in 1950 and by the 1970s had emerged as a major force among Irish building contractors. During the following decades Walls completed a portfolio of distinguished works including several major buildings on the UCD Belfield campus, the Westin Hotel and Trinity Biosciences buildings in Dublin’s city centre, and the redevelopment of the 3Arena; and its Munster Region office completed the new Cork University Maternity Hospital.

In 2015, the O’Shea-led executive team, supported by private investors including members of the Walls family, acquired the company and injected significant new capital. This move signalled a turning point for the company as the Irish economy started to show the first signs of recovery.

“The most important factor that enabled the company to exploit the improving economic conditions was our decision not to let staff go during the downturn,” said O’Shea. “With longstanding people throughout the company, we realised that, in order to ensure our continued growth in the future, we would be best served by trying to retain everyone.”

The company is now in rude health and set to emulate its historic successes. Its more recently completed projects include the new Central Bank of Ireland headquarters on Dublin’s North Wall Quay, one of the most well-known building projects in Dublin City in recent years.

Since then, Walls has also added Ballymore’s Dublin Landings at North Wall Quay and Marlet’s Sorting Office in Dublin 2 to its portfolio of city centre projects that are transforming the Dublin streetscape.

Residential and student accommodation are the other areas of significant growth for Walls.

“We have just handed over phase one of the Park Developments Fernbank residential development of 261 apartments in Dundrum, with phase two set for completion later this year,” said O’Shea.

“We are also well advanced on projects on North Circular Road and Dominick Street, Dublin, which are part of GSA’s student accommodation rollout programme across the country and we have just broken ground on two other student residence developments in Ballymun and Cork Street.”

Fitouts are a considerable part of the company’s workload and recent projects include the European HQs for both Zendesk and New Relic and the completion of AIB’s new Digital Hub in Central Park in Sandyford.

O’Shea says that a tenet of the company’s strategic planning is to recognise the cyclical nature of the industry and to maintain a sustainable level of growth in the years ahead.

“When thinking about how much bigger we should get, we deliberately restrain our turnover growth to a level that maintains our Top Ten industry ranking, without requiring a step change in our fixed-cost overhead base, or placing over-reliance on newly recruited, untried and untested resources,” said O’Shea.

“This commitment to sustainability ensures that the company has a high degree of control over its performance and will be well positioned to absorb an inevitable market correction without damaging the fabric of the business,” he said.

“The company’s decision to retain its personnel during the economic downturn has also benefited our succession planning strategy, so that as people get older there is a rich vein of experienced managers ready to progress into executive roles, and much of our learning and development strategy is designed to ensure that this cohort is provided with the skills to do so.”

O’Shea acknowledges the contribution of expert advisers in assisting it on its journey to the strong position it enjoys today in the Irish building industry.

“We began working with Deloitte in the early stages of our journey to recovery. We engaged them as our corporate adviser and our experience with John Doddy and his team was very positive. They went above and beyond,” he said.

“We have a lot of respect for the way they do business and because of that, we were keen to become involved with their Best Managed Companies programme. The whole process has been very beneficial.”

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