The final Episode 8 of our Switched On podcast has a big emphasis on how important it is to invest in the people around you!
CJK Engineering founder Conor Kearney opened the company's doors in 1998. There was no long-term plan, just the desire to start an electrical engineering firm after having completed an apprenticeship in 1988, working in the former Soviet Union, and knocking around London and elsewhere.
Today, CJK operates in multiple industries, including health care, commercial, pharmaceutical, and industrial and has more than 200 employees. They are one of Ireland's leading electrical contractors, emphasizing safety, quality, and completing projects on time and within budget. How did it all begin, and what led Conor's life in the direction it eventually took?
Keep reading to know more, or you can click here to jump straight into the 8th episode.
Conor Kearney: The 1980s, Moscow, Apprenticeships, and How It All Began
Conor went directly into an apprenticeship immediately after inter cert exams, taking the first steps of a very long journey that would lead to what CJK Engineering has become today. Times were tough in the 1980s, and Conor hunted for job opportunities like everyone else.
That meant chasing down hundreds of openings and expecting nothing. He eventually took on a job working in the USSR, in Moscow, on duty-free shops at one of the city's three international airports, Sheremetyevo (SVO). He made decent money but wasn't happy, so he headed back home, where he worked for a large American contractor, still having the feeling that he had not found his niche.
A short while later, as he was about to become a father for the fourth time, he and his wife decided that the time was right to give it a go. That was after taking a couple weeks off and then working odd jobs out of his wife's car as a solo operator for about a year. The fact that he started the company on a whim is true, and indeed, there was no plan, and no van, just a car and some basic equipment.
But, people were hijacking cars left and right, and it was hard to get through the chaos. So, he pulled a scarf up over his face, drove fast with the windows down, and yelled to the carjackers, "I just hijacked this one. You get the next one." The impersonation worked, and he arrived home safely that night.
Once the decision was made, Conor started looking for clients, and slowly but surely, he took on more people. An ex-partner joined the ranks, then a few apprentices, and things grew from there. In those days, most of the jobs were commercial and airport projects, which is what really gave the fledgling company its start.
Economic Downturns And Thinking Outside the Box
The year 2008 was a turning point for so many entrepreneurs, as it was for Conor. He just decided to "knuckle down," not go abroad for work, and make a concerted effort to win jobs at home. In addition to airport and commercial, he expanded the scope a bit and took on some data center work, which has always been rewarding for the company.
The experience of the 2008 recession was one of growth and renewal for CJK Engineering. So many companies didn't make it through the three-year downturn, but those that survived, tended to be stronger and more resilient than ever.
Competing Against Industry Giants
Today, CJK is not among the largest engineering companies in Ireland, but it successfully competes against the giants for projects on a regular basis. According to Conor, it's more about professionalism, reputation, and working with repeat customers than being "the biggest" firm in the industry. His company has won numerous contracts for jobs, even when other bidders were much larger firms.
That's one reason Conor likes to keep the corporate focus on safety, quality, tight schedules, and staying on budget. If an engineering firm can maintain excellence, it will win work.
The Importance Of Apprenticeship
There was a time not so long ago when young people were told to attend college at all costs. Fortunately, that attitude has changed, and opened up opportunities for dedicated people who want to go directly from school to apprenticeship. CJK Engineering believes in making it possible for people of all ages and backgrounds to come on as apprentices.
Currently, the four-year program has people of all ages, from late teens to early forties. It's a comprehensive program and has a reputation as being one of the best in the industry, such is CJK's reputation for training and investing in its people.
Coolmine Therapeutic Community and CJK Engineering
A lot of the CJK staff had heard of Coolmine and knew about the great work they do with people who suffer from drug and alcohol addiction, and we wanted to help their cause. Conor and others remember Coolmine from years ago, back when addiction carried even more of a stigma than it does today. He decided to team up with Coolmine and give second chances to some of their program graduates.
After six months in the recovery course at Coolmine, which is rigorous, a few of the graduates were hired on with CJK Engineering as general workers. Several months later, those same people entered the electrician's apprenticeship program and are doing very well. Conor points out that the relationship with Coolmine has been a huge plus for everyone involved, and likes the idea of giving people second and third chances because, "We're all the same," but some people just have a few more challenges in their lives, and CJK is grateful to be part of the solution.
The Future For CJK Engineering
The company is in the midst of a rebranding and reworking their 5-year strategic plan. A new emphasis will be to let the employees skills dictate how the CJK Engineering grows. Many team members have acquired special skills and certifications that allow them to be at the forefront of new growth and fresh challenges. That's a key point because CJK has always emphasized investing in their people and being a place where professionals could spend their entire careers.
In terms of specific kinds of work, Conor notes that he'd like to devote more time to getting extensive experience pharmaceutical, health care, and data center projects. CJK Engineering might have started out with "no plan, and no van," but today it's one of the shining stars of its industry, a place where highly qualified professionals can spend decades building their lives and making the world a safer, better place
Hear the Interview
Listen to our full interview with Conor by searching ‘Switched On Demesne Electrical’ in your podcast player or just click this link:
Episode 8 of our new Switched On series of podcasts is available to listen to right