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Featured Business: Premium Power
Name: Paula O’Neill, Managing Director, Premium Power
A three-hour daily commute prompted chemical engineer Paula O’Neill to make a lifestyle choice and go into business with her father-in-law.
Hugh O’Kelly, who had been an electrical engineer for the ESB, had specific expertise in power quality and decided to start a consultancy following his retirement.
He recognised that there were a lot of high-tech manufacturers that needed to monitor power quality, and he talked to Paula about how to make software and hardware systems communicate with each other.
Paula has a PhD in chemical engineering and a software development qualification. She has always been interested in new technologies, especially how to implement them in industries that could be considered inherently conservative. She had many years’ experience with control systems and integrating hardware and software from her career in the chemicals and telecommunications industries.
They realised they could make it work if they put their minds together in an engineering consultancy that would provide solutions to the electrical industry.
“Let’s see what happens” was the attitude for the first year or two. While it may have started as a lifestyle choice, the business took a different direction with Paula on board. Now, Premium Power has big industry clients across Europe and Ireland in the high-tech manufacturing space, from pharmaceutical to medical devices, and from micro-chip manufacturers to data centres. The company also works with firms in the power-generation business, e.g. wind farms.
Premium Power’s strength is that it combines software/IT skills with electrical engineering skills. Paula’s husband, Alan, worked as a software developer in the financial sector and subsequently brought his expertise to Premium Power to develop the company’s first software offering: an energy management system to give customers reports on their energy use.
Interview with Paula O’Neill
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
We saw a niche for high-tech metering solutions and the software to go with them. There were so many high-tech manufacturing companies that were running processes very sensitive to power and had issues with power. These companies needed to measure the quality of the power they were using. Electronics are used to control a lot of processes, e.g. speed, temperature or flow rate. A dip in the voltage could mean losing a batch of drugs. Small problems with power were creating expensive problems for customers.
How did you initially fund your business?
I had some savings, and my father-in-law had recently retired from the ESB. We self-funded for the first year. We worked on the business for a number of years before taking on employees. Expansion has always been self-funded.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
We’ve certainly diversified the offering. In the area we work in, technology changes quickly, and the needs of the customer change quickly. We were primarily focused on power quality solutions in the early days. We’re now involved in renewable energy design and electrical safety: advising people how they should be using their electrical systems and designing them to ensure safety for their workers. We started with high-tech manufacturers and they’re now joined by the large data centres and renewable power generators. There’s always some new solution we can be providing and, as processes become more electronics based, it’s putting more demands on electrical systems. It’s a growing area.
What have been the highlights to date?
An ongoing highlight is being able to deliver on larger, more complex projects. That’s a constant buzz. One in particular that stands out is when we designed and commissioned our first wind turbine at a pharmaceutical plant; we added value in that we were able to model the system and predict worst-case scenarios. We were able to do a lot of preventative work and check if the system was safe and reliable. There are a lot of plants around the country that are trying to be more carbon friendly and become less reliant on the grid.
Apart from that, we moved offices in January 2015 as we’d outgrown the old one. We were also nominated for a Small Firms Association award, the first national award for which we’ve been shortlisted.
What’s the bravest step you’ve made in relation to your business?
It was definitely taking on our first employees. It was probably a small step to hire two, but at the time it was huge (they were our first two electrical engineers). We had been trading for a number of years with just the two of us, so we were very careful before hiring that the business was there, the market was going to grow and we could offer job security and an exciting career for engineers.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
There’s a constant set of new challenges presenting themselves. Every day is different. It keeps it exciting. There’s a great sense of achievement at the end of the day when you’ve managed to stay on top of things. What I enjoy most is seeing a team of people working together, seeing engineers being excited and engaged with what they’re doing.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
My husband works in the business on the software side and we have four young children at home. We are very lucky that we have great support; we have a fantastic childminder. The fact that there are the two of us working in the business means we can help each other and cover and give flexibility where needs be. We try to juggle it the best we can. In terms of work-life balance, to keep myself sane I do a lot of running. I like getting up early in the morning and going for a run. That helps prioritise and get the thinking cap on.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
When I was younger I was fascinated by Marie Curie, the French scientist. I remember reading a book about her in primary school. She was very groundbreaking for the time, doing amazing things in science, physics and chemistry. She wasn’t interested in fame or money. That’s part of the testament to the enduring appeal she had. In the early days it was her. Most recently I was inspired when reading Steve Jobs’ book. He had a great can-do attitude, and was always questioning things. Apart from being a good engineer, he was able to use his creative side and be artistic in the design of his products. Closer to home, I have heard Caroline Keeling, CEO of Keeling’s fruit business, speak at Enterprise Ireland events. Every day she likes to work on her IQ, EQ (emotional intelligence) and PQ (physical fitness). That resonated. If you can advance each of those, I think you’re doing a good job.
What tools or technologies do you use that benefit your customers or business?
Tools are key to the business we’re in. Keeping up with new technologies and introducing them to our customers is what we do best. We spend a lot of time going to trade shows and conferences, seeing what’s new on the market and what’s going to work for people. It’s an ever-changing market in terms of technology as well as the problems we come across. We’re constantly looking for the best solutions. We make our own software products based on understanding the data people have and making it easier for them to use that data. Big data analytics is a growing area, particularly in the electrical industry. People are doing a lot of measurements and gathering a lot of data but what are they doing with it? That’s why we got into the development of software products. We have an energy management software product and we have one for grid performance monitoring, which is beneficial due to the high amount of wind energy in Ireland. The latest software we have relates to electrical safety and is called SafeSite; it helps facilities coordinate their risk assessments and safety permitting.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
We are constantly talking to our customers; we’re primarily a consultancy business, so we need to understand what their problems are before we can provide solutions. We have a quote up in the office that you learn more in one day of talking to customers than in one month of brainstorming or one year of market research.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
The fact that we’re project based. It’s a challenge to be able to manage that work funnel to make sure that any jobs we are working on are managed and delivered on time.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
I like to think I’m organised and good at prioritising. My key role is in the operations side and managing resources. I’m good at putting a team together. We have an open and inclusive work culture, so there’s a strong emphasis on team work. That’s important so the newer people can learn from the experience of others.
How did you scale/grow your business?
Organically. We were self-funded. Once we started hiring, we only took on two or three people every year. If you’re a consultancy, it’s important your team has proper training and proper development. There’s a slow path in terms of getting people up to speed before they can be of benefit to customers. Hiring slowly has been our thing. Every year we hired; we grew year on year. It was a model that worked for us.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
Sometimes they come from the customers and finding out what they need. We spend a lot of time working out how we can resolve their issues. In order to come up with those ideas and be innovative, there has to be ongoing training and we have to keep up with new technologies and developments in the industry.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
Year on year we set targets for ourselves; I get a buzz out of meeting targets. If you get a big business win or deliver on a project that’s when you can go and celebrate.
What’s your vision for the future?
We want to be a world-class company and leaders in power analytics. We want to be the go-to people for power analysis and power modelling solutions.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
To talk to your customers or potential customers, but go with your gut.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
Do your research, talk to your potential customers.
What’s your favourite motivational business quote?
Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If it doesn’t work, change it and try something new.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
We were very careful about hiring initially. I think we should have grown the business more quickly in the early days and taken the plunge earlier than we did, as we haven’t looked back.
Phone: +353 1 8105 032
Interviewed by: Web Content Partners
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