Ciaran Devine: 'Our parents always encouraged my brother Stephen and I to grow and achieve'
This week entrepreneur Ciaran Devine talks to John Mulgrew about his energy firm Evermore and plans to develop a £280m Belfast power station, the largest investment of its kind here in decades
Ciaran Devine says his company's proposed huge £280m gas-fired power plant in Belfast could produce up to half of Northern Ireland's electricity at peak times.
He's one half of Evermore, alongside brother Stephen. It's an energy company which has already built an £83m biomass-fuelled power station in Londonderry - the first of its kind in Northern Ireland.
In just six years, the 32-year-old former stockbroker has managed to build and complete one power station, with planning due to be submitted soon for what would be the biggest energy investment in Northern Ireland in two decades.
"I'm from Londonderry and attended Limavady Grammar. My brother Stephen and I were able to develop a business and a project so close to home," he said.
"It was formed in 2011, and over a 24-month period, we put together all the licences for Lisahally power station.
"We successfully raised £83m to go ahead and start the project at the port - it was the first of its kind in Northern Ireland."
The 15.8MW biomass station sells directly into the grid, and provides power for around 30,000 homes and businesses across Northern Ireland.
Already up and running for a year, it created 200 jobs during construction, and it's "something we are proud of", said Ciaran.
But Evermore is already planning its most ambitious project yet - a £280m gas plant based at Belfast Harbour.
Ciaran said the 480MW station will be able to power up to 500,000 homes and businesses, and, at its peak, provide between 40-50% of Northern Ireland's power needs.
"It's Northern Ireland's largest private investment for over 20 years," he said.
"It's a conventional power station, and will run off a conventional gas line that comes into Northern Ireland. It's the cleanest way of producing that sort of energy.
"There is a lot of wind (power) on the system which is essential in making renewable energy targets, but Northern Ireland will also need some conventional generation on the system to balance the grid.
"We have realised you need to do it in the cleanest and lowest carbon way possible.
"You need a traditional thermal plant to balance the grid. It can complement the wind, and we efficiently can ramp up and ramp down, depending on what the requirements for the grid are, as dictated by SONI (System Operator for Northern Ireland).
"We see the opportunity to go further in addressing the country's long-term energy needs, and overall efficiency in how it is generated."
Ciaran said the construction of the station will create 700 jobs, with around 50 "skilled operators" being hired to run it, once completed.
Evermore has partnered with Siemens in Germany to develop the project, and says the "aim is to have the most efficient power station in the UK and Ireland".
Two of Northern Ireland's major existing power stations will have to reduce their capacity in the next few years, in order to comply with rules around pollution - including those still fuelled by coal and oil.
Following his time at Limavady Grammar School, Ciaran undertook management studies at Ulster University at Jordanstown.
He then moved to London, where he studied to become a stockbroker and financial adviser. His brother Stephen formerly worked for accountancy firm KPMG.
"I was selling investments and offering financial advice to people, and that gave me some insight into the corporate world," Ciaran said.
After his spell in London for two or three years, the pair began working on Evermore.
Ciaran says it took around 12 months to secure finance, and a further two years to get the business up and running.
"It snowballed from a small interest in the renewable energy.
"No one had been looking at addressing (energy) from non-wind sources and that sort of grew arms and legs.
"The project was started from the kitchen table, and started slowly to get planning permits. As we gathered more permits we were able to raise private investment, and once we had everything, it was then finding suitable funders."
But finding the tens of millions needed to develop the company's first power station didn't come easy, especially in the middle of a recession.
"To attract people into Northern Ireland was tough - trying to attract investment out of London was incredibly difficult.
"We had to try and find a group of investors who could work together and see the opportunity in Northern Ireland. That was challenging. We really persevered and kept working at it."
Speaking about his co-founder and younger brother Stephen (31), he said: "We complement each other. He would be in the technical and financial side of things, and I would be more on the business development and management side."
Evermore has grown to a core team of eight staff, along with a wider team of consultants, which Ciaran said can grow to up to 25.
He said plans will be submitted in the coming weeks, with work to get under way next year.
"It's a 30-month building period. We are selecting our utility partner to jointly develop the project. The funding for the project is at an advanced stage and we have been overwhelmed by the interest.
"Our company, it moves fast and innovates and make a real difference. Speed is important for us - we have to take great pride in the quality of our projects."
Both brothers were inspired by the success of some of the world's best-known entrepreneurs. Ciaran said the pair were always encouraged to grow and achieve by their father, Vincent, a quantity surveyor, and mum Deirdre, a retired teacher.
"We always grew up and looked at all sorts of people, such as Richard Branson. I always knew I wanted to work for myself.
"Over the years we would have contact with successful local business people, and would have been inspired by what they were doing."
Speaking about Brexit, he said there will be a number of different issues coming to light as a result of the UK's exit from the EU.
"We see it is a challenge for everyone, and uncertainty in the market is not good, whether it's raising finance or developing (projects)."
Ciaran is married, and has two children, Anna (2) and Michael (1).
"My wife and myself are very work-focused, but we have a good balance to make sure we have family time," he said.
"We like to do lots of travelling, and get holidays away. I've a keen interest in motorsports, especially Formula One."
And he said spending time with his young family is a great way to de-stress following a busy day at work.
Evermore is also developing a new 'data centre' at Giant's Park in Belfast.
"And we also have our energy storage project across Northern Ireland, providing energy storage systems alongside the grid, allowing more wind energy to get on the system," Ciaran said.
Ciaran is also exploring further opportunities across the UK, and into France.
"It's an exciting time for our company.
"We are looking at opportunities where we can make a real difference in the energy sector."
Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A. “Whether you think you can or can’t, you’re probably right,” by Felix Denis. And as Richard Branson said: “The brave may not live forever — but the cautious do not live at all.”
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A. You have to be prepared to get knocked down time and time again, but remembering to keep going is key. Success rarely comes to those who play it safe.
Q. What was your best business decision?
A. Other than taking a leap of faith to start the business in the first place, it has to have been to form the business with my brother Stephen — I couldn’t work with anyone else.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A. It would have to be working in the fintech sector. It’s exploding at the moment with new disruptive start-ups.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A. Anything fast on four wheels.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. Nice in the south of France, and my next will be to Lake Como in Italy.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. Boxing. I support Manchester United.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A. The Lean Startup by Eric Ries.
Q. How would you describe your early life?
A. Fun, full of opportunities and well advised.
Q. Have you any economic predictions?
A. The markets will do what the markets will do — businesses will always find a way to create opportunities within the challenging conditions.
Q. How would you assess your time in business with your company?
A. We’re really only getting started and the journey to date has been incredible. I look forward with optimism to the next 20 years.
Q. How do you sum up working in the sector?
A. Challenging, exhilarating, exhausting, frustrating but rewarding. Throughout the energy sector you get to meet some incredible people and that’s what makes it so enjoyable.