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'Am I appreciated? I’m not 100 per cent sure, but hopefully' - Derry City chairman Philip O'Doherty speaks out about recent criticism, Magee University expansion and retirement
28 Aug 2018
By Gary Ferry firstname.lastname@example.org HE provides almost a thousand jobs locally and has saved Derry City Football Club on two occasions, but for some, Philip O’Doherty is still not exempt from criticism. Recent reports to Derry City FC’s shareholders have revealed that the club’s Chairman has contributed £300,000 of his own money on an annual basis, just to keep the club afloat. On top of that, he has built E&I Engineering to a stature that it is respected across the world, a real jewel in the Irish landscape that sits in Burnfoot. In its 32nd year in operation, E&I is still growing, with a new extension set to be completed on site by the end of October. That will bring yet more jobs to the local economy, north and south of the border, news of which will be lauded by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar when he visits E&I on September 11. So when an angry Derry City fan accosts him whilst doing his shopping in Sainsburys, or when he is socialising with friends, what is his response? “The first question I usually ask them is ‘Are you a season ticket holder or do you go to the matches?’ If the answer is no then there is no point in me talking to them,” he states. “Why are they criticising if they don’t go to the matches and pay their money? If they do pay their money then I will have the conversation with them. “Usually it’s when results are bad. I feel exactly the same as they do. It does get a bit personal sometimes. We went through a few managers there and I did get a bit of stick about that.” O’Doherty is crazy busy, admitting himself that he spends 70 per cent of his time travelling across the world to meet customers personally. For him the personal touch is vital when it comes to meeting customers and establishing relationships. For that reason he is a hard man to nail down, but he is not afraid to raise his head above the parapet, as he did during the recent controversy over the pricing of Europa League tickets at the Brandywell. But with 840 families in Derry, 400 in South Carolina and 320 in Dubai relying on his ability to grow his business, there are more important issues on his mind day to day. “I would never let Derry City get in the way of that because too many families depend on me here to pay mortgages and car payments and stuff like that,” he continued. “I’ve always made it clear to the board that I’m not going to available. The big concern I do have is that I am away so much, probably 70 per cent of the time I’m out of Derry – is that reasonable for a chairman? I don’t know, but that’s the way it is at the minute. “When things are going well it’s an easy job but when things aren’t going well, it’s a difficult job.”
Responsibility With around 1,500 employees to cater to worldwide, there is a huge responsibility on O’Doherty’s shoulders, but it is one he carries well, with E&I’s profits and workforce growing year on year. Even in his home town, so many rely on him. “I don’t even think about that, there’s no time to worry about that, you just have to get on with it,” he admits. “If I can keep the customers happy and bring in the sales from those customers, that’s key. It’s very easy to bring in a sale from customers who were happy with their last order. If that’s gone well, it’s easy to get the next ones. “We have some long-standing relationships with very big companies, some multinationals and the internet sector, we would count as customers and I would look after them personally. “I just keep going. I work very heavily in sales so I’m away a lot. “I suppose at the end of every year you sit down and see what the achievements were for the year and what you’re going to do next year. But I think I’m just too busy to reflect on where we are versus where we started.” “At the last count, O’Doherty’s personal value was estimated at £163 million, making him one of the most successful businessmen in Ireland. At 25 years old, O’Doherty left Du Pont to start a business which focused solely on engineering. Now, 32 years on, the former St. Columb’s College student retains his hands-on approach. “I do get involved in things and because I’m an engineer, I’m very interested in research and development. I talk to a lot of customers who say: ‘I wish we could get this or I wish we could do that’, so that turns into a project. “I’m partly doing technical sales, but I’m partly working in research as well. I am using my engineering skills; it’s not just a management job where I’m not actually doing things. “I think getting close to customers is really important, because you have to ask the question – why do people in Silicon Valley place orders with a company in Donegal? They don’t just happen to be driving past and call in and see us, we go out and talk to them and show what we have. “We have a fabulous work force, which is the big advantage that we have. It’s a mix between Derry and Donegal people who have a great work this, a good education.”
Down time That passion for his work continues to drive him on, be it in his office overlooking the building in Burnfoot, in Anderson, South Carolina or in Dubai. There is no down time for O’Doherty it seems. “To be honest, I’m quite happy with my lifestyle at the minute,” he shrugs. “I would like a little more free time. I’ve just become a grandfather; my grandson is 14 and a half months and I would definitely want to spend more time with him. I have two kids, a boy and a girl, so I would like more family time but at the same time I like what I do. I like engineering. “Earlier this morning I was looking at some drawings for a large project we’re doing for a client and I really enjoyed going through them. I wouldn’t want to be an accountant. A lot of engineering people tend to make out that they’re management only then all of a sudden all they are doing is looking at financial statements all the time. “I do do that. I can read a balance sheet, but I wouldn’t want it to be the main focus of my job.” O’Doherty has created something hugely significant right on his own doorstep. His value to his home town cannot just be measured in jobs alone, but by other contributions, which he does not want acknowledged in print. “He has helped bail Derry City out twice, once in 1995 and again in 2010. From whatever angle you choose to look. It’s clear that O’Doherty cares, and cares deeply about his home town, and the people in it. “We have the right people in this area,” he explains. “We probably underestimate how talented our people are. I sometimes think we lack in confidence. I go to other cities in Ireland and the UK and they seem to be very confident whereas as soon as our people get stuck into a project, they are probably more impressive than people from these other locations. I think that’s the work ethic particularly. “What I notice about people here as well, is that if they encounter a technical problem they are very innovative in coming up with a solution. They tend to try and work solutions out themselves. I think that’s natural. I think this innovation is very, very important. “It’s not all me. I started it off but I developed a team. My workforce and in particular my two directors Damien and Cathal; they have done a lot more than I have in terms of what’s in this building. I may bring the sales in but what you see in the factory is largely down to them.” Another key issue for O’Doherty is education in the city, primarily the development of Magee university, which he believes has been held back in recent years. “We’re still short engineers; there’s not enough engineers and there’s the lack of a proper university here,” he insists. “Magee is definitely making progress with the new vice-chancellor but it should have been making that progress years ago. "The reason that I feel so disappointed at the lack of sufficient progress in the university, is that, when I meet other people who own businesses and you get talking to them, one of the questions I get asked is ‘Why have you built your factory in such and such a place?’ There’s two answers I give them; one is that I was born here, and two is that “I went to university here and I met my wife. I think you need a good university to attract good people and I think the university will attract people who will eventually settle here as well. That will create businesses which will help the university and all of a sudden you have a virtuous circle of good stable employment. Without a university, it’s definitely more difficult.”
Retirement? So, does he have an end-game? At 57 years old, is retirement now starting to creep into his thinking? “I certainly think I have got seven or eight more years until I think about retiring. I will probably wind it down a bit. I would like to work less hours and spend more time with my grandson particular, but I still want to do something. I don’t play golf,” he laughed. The last question is a simple one- ‘Do you feel appreciated?’ “I think I am, not by everybody but it really doesn’t matter,” he says. “I’ve got a very good relationship with my shop floor in particular. I tend to come down here on a Saturday morning if I’m not away and walk around. "I just want to know what’s happening, because I don’t have time during the week because of my travels. I just don’t get time. I like to walk around and if there are any new starts I have a worked with them. “Am I appreciated? I’m not 100% sure, but hopefully.”
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