Donnacha Neary arrives to our meeting in a bright orange top with an orange notebook, which as it turns out is exactly the kind of attention to visual detail he and his company are setting world standards for.
In Sonica Fitout, Neary’s commercial interior fitout firm, orange is everywhere, even down to a recoloured Banksy on the wall.
As any brand expert will tell you, the colour orange conveys feelings like stimulating, vibrant and flamboyant, and Sonica’s achievements in just three years trading couldn’t be summed up better, not least their award-winning fit-out of all the client-facing areas of the 3Arena – which they won the Tourism and Leisure fit-out of the year in the Irish Fitout Awards for.
It’s quite a milestone for a company only three years old, but when asked if it was his proudest moment since starting, Neary’s reply quickly explains where the flamboyant side to his brand comes from.
“We beat Jesus,” he laughs. “No really, we beat Knock Basilica, the new tourism centre, which was also up for the award so…in your face Jesus,” he laughs again.
Neary is immediately likeable, but with a calm sense of assurance that no doubt has helped him build an enviable Client list, which includes IBM, Siemens, Ticketmaster, Glaxo, Hubspot and The Guinness Storehouse.
He is hardly a beginner though, despite doing a college degree in Biotechnology (to which he quips: “I fell in love with the whole construction thing, so instead of curing cancer, here I am”).
Sonica Fitout, a name derived from a combination of his own, Donnacha, and his wife Sonia, was his first foray after two decades in the business, which started out as a college internship with Jones and turned into six years with them.
He has since moved employer only twice, first to StructureTone, another commercial interiors specialist. “I was with them for five years, then I followed my former boss into mac-interiors for a nine year stint. After that, I just decided I wanted to do it for myself – it was an itch that I had to scratch – so three years later, this is what has become of that itch!”
It’s our third year trading as of April and it’s surpassed all or our expectations, which were lofty if I’m honest, even though I started in the depths of the recession.
“But there’s a drive and an enthusiasm and a bite to what we’re doing here – it’s a young team, and that’s really what we went to the market with, and the market has responded really well to that whole package.”
The first project he landed was a refit of the Guinness Storehouse visitor area. Now, with an 800 percent increase in order book turnover in two years, Neary says it isn’t down to volume but to knowing their sweet spot and delivering above the ask. To view photos click here
“The sweet spot is the high end commercial interior office, that’s what we’re good at, but what we really really enjoy doing is the bespoke, the unknown, what hasn’t been tried or seen before. How can we take an architect’s idea that’s on the verge of being unbuildable and say “I have an idea how to do this”.
The project that has won them their first award ticks that box in spades.
“It had to be never before seen, completely interactive, very much in line with their brand, with the music and take a world class venue and make it even better.
“The focus was all the Client facing bars, the Concierge area, and the complete VIP experience for 3 VIP customers. They really pushed us to come up with something that was completely out there, and the challenge was to accept that and then deliver it, which I’m delighted to say that we did.
OUT OF THE RECESSION AND INTO THE BLACK
The Company is young in every way, in fact Neary describes that as its unique selling point.
“We came out of the wrapper three years ago, with nothing apart from an idea – no jobs, no revenue stream, in a one man office under the stairs in a serviced office at top of Leeson Street. The process of building that Team from that initial clear idea into what I wanted it to be took time.
“It was a definitive staff I was looking for – young guys & girls who felt they weren’t getting recognition or opportunities where they were, or there were too many established people above them. I wanted to give them the opportunity to push ahead. For me, you might only be in your 30s but that’s only a number as far as I’m concerned – it’s down to how you can present yourself at meetings, how you can deliver our message to a Client, how you can drive a project forward, how you can show me you have the bite and desire to succeed.
“It took us a while to get those guys, but we’re 20 strong now and I like to think we have the best team in the market, so it’s onwards and upwards.
“It’s what we try to make unique about our offering – senior management is involved in everything we do. There are no layers. I’m very much of the opinion it’s not just me selling a job to a Company, they want to see me involved. I’m actually a resource that’s there. That was the premise – it’s an intensive involvement in everything that we do as opposed to “I’m on the golf course, give me a call if you need me”. I’m a working Managing Director – I know where every project is, where every program is, every piece of procurement. My number and email are on the website and you can get to me, I’m always available.”
THE BOOM IS BACK
“A couple of years ago there was very little happening if anything, but now there are tenders flying in the door. We’ve seen a marked increase in enquiries, and even the spend that Clients are putting on it, budgets are being released… I’m not saying they’re all trying to out-google Google, but their office fitout is becoming a statement of intent for their own business and their staff.
“It’s not just the tech firms, it’s everybody from law firms, to media companies, to gyms and car showrooms. They’re all doing what we love to do – five years ago it used to be just paint the walls and change a couple of carpet tiles, now it’s take it all out and go again.”
Asked what he would advise anyone who was thinking of following in his footsteps, he laughs out loud saying “don’t!”.
“Fit-out is very, very Client focused. It’s not traditional build – the projects are very fast, there’s very little room for maneuver. A typical build duration for us is between 10 and 20 weeks and Clients are very involved. They’re spending that money like it’s coming out of their own pockets. You see them on the weekly meetings, you see them on the walkarounds, they’re cc’d on all the correspondence
So what do you need to make it work?
“You really have to be a specialist builder or a fit-out contractor first, but most of all you need to be a relationship person. You need to be able to realise how to talk to people, how to treat your Clients, how to listen to what they want, and how to make their lives easier. They are actively and heavily involved in everything you’re doing on a fit-out project, which is different in my view to a six or twelve month long bridge contract or a concrete frame project, where the Client’s interest is piqued towards the end when they can start to see it.
In a fit-out, it all happens so fast that the skill is to keep them involved, keep them informed, develop the trust and deliver the project without fail. It’s about having a relationship with Clients and having an ability to lift the phone and talk and make them feel that you’re on their side of the table representing their interests, because a lot of money is spent in a very short amount of time – there’s very little room for error, if any.
So what next – is he focused on Dublin or has he set his sights on farther afield?
“Dublin is such a small market, you just need to make a mess of one job and it’s nearly all over for you, news travels so fast. And it’s quite incestuous, we all know each other. We see a lot of the same faces as main contractors on tender lists. We’re bidding against the same five or six guys for all the tenders. There are eight or ten design teams who have the lion’s share in all the design jobs.
“Compared to London, it’s a parish. But we know each other – everyone wants everyone to do well – it’s ultra-competitive but if you win a project nobody begrudges it.
But all that said, the future is bright. Yes the margins are creeping back up but it’s still very very competitive place to do business. So when you have the nice projects come to market, there are six of seven of us there all after it, and I wouldn’t say that we’re cutting each others throats for it, but we’re all going after it.
For us it’s really about the bespoke, [at which he gestures around his post-modern geometrically inspired ‘cave’ of a boardroom] even this, it’s ridiculous, but we thought “let’s build a cave for a meeting room”, and so how do we do that, and then we did it.
“So we want to build on that, and I’m confident we now have the team in place that will catapult us forward to really going toe to toe with the biggest guys in the market but still remain at the size we want to be which guarantees that we’re all still involved.
We have no deliberate intentions to go abroad at the moment. We’re in a period where we’re not consolidating, we’re still growing ultra fast. But right now it’s about getting the 20 people we have to operate at the very best of their limits. It’s not about expansion, it’s about making everybody the best they can be.
“Then, let’s look ahead 24 months and see what we can do. I’m quite happy with the people that we have that we can compete with the established guys, on the detailing, the quality, the health and safety, we are a viable alternative to what’s out there.
‘I want people saying ‘those guys are good but these guys are really good’.
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