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Published in Construction on 16/06/2020

Lunch with Jim Curley, Jones Engineering Group

#JonesGroup #lunchwithCNI

CNI Editor reports

Jim Curley is the CEO and one of the largest shareholders of Jones Engineering, one of the biggest, longest operating and most respected companies in the Irish construction industry.

A Chartered Engineer by profession, Jim joined Jones Engineering in 1978 and was part of the management buy-out and formation of Jones Engineering in 1993.

Since then the Jones Engineering Group of Companies has grown from an £18m per annum organisation to a firm turning over more than €650m, with operations across Ireland, Europe and the Middle East.

Over the last five years Curley has overseen the successful completion by Jones Engineering teams of almost €3billion worth of projects ranging from the Medical, Life Science, Building Services, Industrial, Semi-Conductor, Data Centre and Power and Energy Sectors, almost half of which was overseas.

As with all our “Lunch in the Time of Covid” interviews we had to forgo a face to face lunch, but despite this we learned a lot about what makes one of the construction industry’s most successful leaders tick.

Happiest surrounded by family in his beloved Dingle, we learned of his passion for mentoring others, his love and support for the Irish creative sector and how the one thing money cannot buy – a lower golf handicap – still eludes him.

How do you start your day?

I usually get up at 6.10am and after breakfast head into the office. Some of our Team are working in mainland Europe and others in the Middle East so I regularly get a couple of calls in during my drive to work. On arrival I update my action lists, read my mails and get on with it.

Are you from a large or small family?

I am the eldest of five boys. Three of my brothers work in the firm and my other brother is an Architect.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

My Dad was a fitter/ plumber and an accomplished artist. He won a scholarship back in the 1940’s to study at the National College of Art when he was a mere twelve years of age. So with this combination of art and technology in the DNA my ambition was to become an Architect.

I had my heart set on going to Bolton Street to study. When they saw my portfolio at the interview, before admission to the College, they politely suggested that I consider Engineering. The rest they say is history.

I have a younger brother who is an Architect and one of my sons completed his Masters in Architecture at UCD. They obviously got the good genes!

Where were you educated?

My secondary school was St. John’s College, Le Fanu Road. It was and still is a De La Salle Christian Brothers school. The alma mater of Joe Duffy and a host of professional footballers.

After that I went to Bolton Street and studied what was then called Environmental Engineering now called Building Engineering in TU Dublin.

I had some great teachers in Bolton Street and met some fellow students who become lifelong friends and colleagues.

Have you ever had a mentor?

My first mentors were my parents. My Dad was and is a great man for “measuring twice and cut once”. Now almost ninety he is still a super craftsman and meticulous in his preparation for any task.

My Mother was a great lady for encouraging us to try new things. Her adage was, “don’t put off until tomorrow that which you can do today because if you like doing it today you can do it again tomorrow”.

In addition to my folks, Eric Kinsella the Chairman of Jones Engineering Group, has been with me since the start of my career and has been a great mentor and sometimes tormentor!

I was also lucky to get a chance to work with Chris Jones Snr. Chris started in H.A.O’Neil Ltd. , later the Jones Group , in 1939 and remained working in the Group until just before he passed away at 90 years of age.

He had 75 years of experience and there was no problem or situation that he hadn’t encountered in his long career. So, when I had issues or situations in business he was a great man to be able to draw upon for advice and reflection.

How physically fit are you?

Back in the day I used to train and run with Dublin City Harriers. (I knew Eamon Coughlan’s back very well). After an injury, I had to give up the running. Now I walk and hike as much as I can. Covid -19 disrupted a recent return visit to the Camino in Northern Spain.

I would have hiked or scrambled up most mountains in Ireland from Carrauntoohil, Mount Brandon, Lugnaquilla to name a few. Apart from that I play a bit of golf(badly) and ski whenever I get the chance.

What is more important – ambition or talent?

As Shakespeare wrote of Brutus in Julius Caesar, ‘Ambition should be made of sterner stuff’. I believe in our industry that you first need ambition to drive on either yourself or tasks, with a view to getting things done.

The more talent you have the quicker you are likely to succeed. However, with knowledge through education and with good people on your Team, you can develop or find the talent to help you reach your destination.

Where in the world are you happiest?

I am happiest being with my family. So, wherever the place, when we are together, that is where I am happiest.

Long term my intention is to retire to a house we have in Dingle. Dingle puts a smile on our face and gives us a lift every time we arrive down there and certainly attracts members of the family to be with us as well.

What would you like to own that you currently don’t?

A lower golf handicap! I would love to have the time to play regular golf.

What drives you?

Seeing people doing well in their education and careers and becoming the best that they can be, whether its family or work colleagues.

At Jones we have been providing education and training through scholarships, internships and apprenticeships for as long as anyone can remember. In addition, we have always supported the creative side of things

This has become more important to us as we recognise the part that creative Ireland adds to our national wealth, directly leading to the need as it happens for Data Centres and indeed microchips to host and hold all this creativity.

We are proud to be supporters of the Lir Theatre in TCD, the Conservatoire in TU Dublin, and the many athletes, artists, Universities and clubs that we support throughout Ireland and abroad.

What would you like to be remembered for?

Someone who supported others to be the best that they can be.

What trait do you find most irritating in people?

People who confuse opinions with facts.

Believe the facts, challenge the opinions.

What would 18-year-old Jim think of who you are now?

When I was in my teens there was a certain location I wanted to own a house in. Schools I wanted my kids to go to (if I ever had any), plus a few other things. The 18-year-old me would say I have achieved most of the goals I set back then.

He would however ask why I had not met them a bit quicker i.e. when I was 18 ½!! He was a bit inpatient for success.

He would also see that it has taken many tough years of hard work, sacrifice and luck to get to where we have arrived.

What are the biggest challenges facing the industry now?

Just over a short three months ago I would have been listing things like skill shortages, housing, health care issues, BREXIT,etc, as challenges but now with Covid -19 the script is somewhat different.

The immediate challenge is to get both public and private construction Clients to collaborate with contractors and to work together and deal with the burden of the necessary Covid-19 measures. These include productivity, avoiding contract disputes, programme extensions.

I am happy to see a lot of progress here with both Contractors and Clients recognising the impact and working together to minimise the effect. However, there are still pockets out there where this collaboration is not happening.

Despite this our industry is well placed to contribute to our own country and Europe’s economic recovery. We need to get the country fully open for business again. Avoid a recession in as much as we can.

I had hoped that the impact of Covid-19 would be like pressing the pause button, but things have gone on too long for that effect.

Once we are back up and running, productivity needs to be a huge focus for our industry. Making the Irish construction industry the most productive, highest quality, safest and competitive in Europe and beyond.

This will involve investment in new technologies, facilities, etc. We need support from our Clients, Universities, Government and the industry itself.

As a nation we need to learn the lesson from the current difficulties and if there is a second wave the Government will need to be much more surgical when implementing measures to control any outbreaks.

Along with getting business up and running across all sectors we need to pay special attention to getting our young people back into education. Together with making our health care system fit for purpose.

The industry needs to help and lead with the delivery of new homes for our people.

Other challenges include the unknowns around BREXIT. As many of our companies are now net exporters of construction services it is important that Government does everything it can to keep EU countries open to Irish Contractors.

If we got some or all of the above sorted we would be a long way down the road to a ‘new normal‘ for our industry!