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Mairead Meyer: ‘With my boiler suit and steel toe caps, I was the only girl in the training school and it was amazing’

The Big Interview: Mairead Meyer

By John Mulgrew

When Mairead Meyer kicked off her career in engineering, she was the only woman among almost 100 trainees at the Gallaher’s factory in Ballymena.

Now, she heads up telecoms giant BT in Northern Ireland — a company which she’s spent the bulk of her working life with.

The 36-year-old Co Londonderry woman began her top role as managing director of networks in Northern Ireland, in August last year.

That followed a break of around two years away in South Africa on sabbatical, during which she also gave birth to her baby boy, Eoin.

She’s now responsible for a team of around 850 engineers, connecting the exchange right out to the customer’s house or business.

“We (Northern Ireland) benchmark very well, across the UK, and throughout the rest of Europe,” she said.

“I think we have a unique problem in Northern Ireland, because we have a higher proportion of people living in rural communities, so our line length is much longer than elsewhere in the UK.

“But it is something that BT and government have invested in heavily, going back to 2008 and 2009. And that has kept us high up in terms of our digital connectivity ratings.”

She said the next step for Northern Ireland is expanding its “ultra-fast” broadband network across the province. 

That could see homes here having access to 100mb speeds.

Around 92% of homes in Northern Ireland can access 10mb broadband, while there are around 40,000 to 50,000 homes left with speeds of around 2mb or less.

Mairead said she would look to the next Programme for Government (PfG), for further investment, particularly in providing connectivity for rural homes and businesses.

And speaking about Stormont’s collapse and next week’s snap election, she said: “We definitely are in a period of uncertainty at the minute. I really do hope we see a workable government at Stormont in the next few months that allows us to progress the PfG, key infrastructure.”

“I don’t think any of us want to be going in to a long period of uncertainty. Second elections, direct rule ... we want to know what’s happening.”

BT now employs around 5,000 workers in Northern Ireland alone, including those supporting work in Great Britain.

And in the last year, it’s taken on around 80 new engineers, with plans to further expand the workforce in 2017. BT says it has added £470m to the Northern Ireland economy, and across the UK has invested £2.6bn in research and development over the last five years.

Mairead hails from Slaughtneil — best known for its GAA club’s wins in camogie, football and hurling — outside Maghera.

“It’s quite a small rural community. I grew up there, attended St Patrick’s College in Maghera, and decided to take up engineering when I was doing my A-levels,” she said.

She went on to study electronic engineering at Queen’s University. “At that point, Nortel were investing massively in Northern Ireland ... (companies had said) that there weren’t going to be enough engineers coming out of universities to fill all the jobs.

“So there was a sponsorship to encourage people to do engineering across Gallaher’s, Nortel and Wrightbus. And I was lucky enough to get one of the sponsorships.”

It was there she secured her sponsorship at Ballymena cigarette maker Gallaher’s, where she spent a year, before beginning her degree. And it was during her time at the factory that she met her future husband, Eugene — who is originally from Cape Town in South Africa.

“Everyone expects us to have met in a really exotic location, but we met in Ballymena,” she said.

“(Gallaher’s) was a mixture of everything. They took me along with their apprentices that they had recruited in that year.

“I was the only girl in the training school — with my boiler suit and steel toe caps.

“That was a really good learning experience,” she said. “It was absolutely amazing.”

Following her time at Queen’s, Mairead began looking for long-term work, and in 2004 started her career with BT.

And that year was a busy one for the BT boss, who finished her final exams, joined the company — her first full-time position — and got married, in the space of four months.

“I was looking at how the new network was going to evolve, and what the network technology was going to be,” she said.

“That was the very early days of broadband. So it was a really good foundation to have across the business.”

She then moved on to management of the core network in Northern Ireland, and also worked in other roles in Dublin.

“It was a really great experience across the technical side of it. Probably after doing that for around four or five years, I had a team of about 300 or 400 across the island.

“My boss asked me how I would feel about moving back up north, and taking on the engineering teams — looking at the exchange, and right out to the customer premises.

“It was much more about managing a big team of people. I think it was one of the best roles I did in the end.”

And it was a busy time for BT, which included the rolling out of fibre-optic broadband across Northern Ireland.

Mairead then became director of solutions for BT Ireland, a role which looked at corporate customers across Northern Ireland and the Republic.

But the rise up through the BT ranks was put on hold for a time, with a move to South Africa in 2014.

“BT were brilliant, and gave me the time off. I was out there for two years. It was an amazing experience,” she said. “It was really weird, and probably took me a good four or five months to make me realise I wasn’t working, or busy all the time.”

During her time away she studied philosophy, and a number of finance courses. However, she returned last year, flying in to London from Cape Town to interview for her current top BT role in Northern Ireland.

Her husband Eugene is an accountant by trade, and formerly worked with PwC in Capetown.

And he’s currently on paternity leave, looking after little 11-month-old Eoin at their Belfast home.

“It’s definitely not a nine to five job ... it is quite an operational role,” she said.

Mairead is the eldest in a family of five, including three sisters — each of whom have moved into a range of different roles, including business, teaching and dentistry.

Her father Thomas is a farmer, and mother Marie, a teacher.

“We are all quite close and I’m the only one not living in the area,” she said.

A keen traveller, she’s also big in to sport, and played camogie for Slaughtneil in her teens.

“I also love reading. That’s my time to switch the brain off, and relax,” she said.

“I love any good story. I love reading anything, particularly around the First and Second World Wars — how people lived their lives.”

On Brexit, Mairead says she hopes there will be a positive outcome, allowing the UK to continue working with the EU.

And the free movement of workers between Northern Ireland and the Republic is key, she says.

“From a local level, we would like to hope people would be able to move between north and south for work,” she said.

And looking forward, she said there will be a move to further increase connection speeds and broadband connectivity, over the next four or five years.

“Everything is coming together between the fixed network, television, mobility and all of that,” she said.

  • Next week we speak to Chris McCann, director at Co Londonderry concrete and engineering firm FP McCann

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