Kilwaughter Minerals chief Gary Wilmot on swapping tech for the construction sector and how ‘people build people’
'There are always two or three people in your life who shape your career and believe in you'
Gary Wilmot, the new chief executive at Kilwaughter Minerals, says the commitment shown by the family behind the business lured him from the technology world he'd worked in before.
The father-of-two, who lives in Ballymoney, says he was "naturally attracted to the challenge".
"It's the modesty and the determination by the family to keep investing that meant a lot to me.
"I thought, here's a business that wants to do all the right things, and that was a key component for the move from tech to non-tech," he says.
The Larne business, which is owned by the McDowell family and was set up in 1939 by Charles McDowell and Gerald McGladery, provides products to the construction and agriculture sectors in the UK and Ireland.
In recent years it has made its way into popular culture, with its lime products cast for a role in TV show Game of Thrones.
Kilwaughter's lime was covered in white paraffin wax to resemble old snow in a selection of castle courtyard scenes.
Please log in or register with belfasttelegraph.co.uk for free access to this article.
Gary was raised in Ballymoney in Co Antrim with his three siblings. He is the middle child and the only one in the family to have pursued third level education.
He describes his childhood as "very much stereotypical of the 1970s family".
"Like most country kids we always had a dog and a cat. There were journeys over the fields to build huts and play football."
He married Elaine, who works at County Hall in Ballymena. They have two children, Megan (17), and 13-year-old Jacob.
"They're good kids. Megan is in her last year of A-levels and Jacob is a typical boy who likes his games," says Gary, who adds that his own background created the foundations for a "strong cultural work ethic".
"I came from a working class background. My mum worked as a home care assistant and my dad was a lorry driver. It could be my rose-coloured glasses, but everyone worked hard then. My mother, my father and my grandfather, who was a farm hand, and they didn't do it because they had to, it was cultural and I like that. It was in the blood."
A curiosity and natural desire to learn made Gary one of the first in the family to go to university. "I was always very interested in how things worked and I was interested in engineering and science. It was a natural interest and I didn't have to work hard at that. I wanted to learn more and the notion to go to university became an aspiration, not for a better career, but so I could understand some stuff."
And, he says, a few guiding lights along the way helped turn that aspiration into a reality.
"With my parents not being typically academical it was challenging, but it was a careers teacher who encouraged me and I think you can look at your career and see two or three people who had a deeper belief, a disproportionate trust in you more than others and that power of positivity manifests something."
He also credits his colleagues over the years for their input in moulding his skills, adding: "I'd have achieved nothing if it wasn't for the people around me, the people in the organisations I've worked in, Andor and Kilwaughter, I've learned through people there every step of the way."
A hunger for knowledge is still very much part of Gary's DNA. After a degree in electrical and electronic engineering he took an MSc in electronic systems at Cranfield Institute in England, followed by an MBA at Warwick Business School.
"After my first degree I became very interested in continuing personal development and I had a mad idea to continue to commit to some formal education every decade," says Gary. And so the qualifications continued, including an Institute of Directors (IoD) Diploma in Company Direction. "I have been lucky because that's what's behind it all, an interest."
Gary's first job in technology was at Dupont. That was followed by a 10-year role at Nortel Networks, the North Amercian telecoms giant which had an operation in Mallusk.
He became a product development manager at Nortel. "Nortel was a tremendous investor in people and they were very enthusiastic to support the learning and development of their people."
When Nortel was bought over by Flex, Gary took on the post of director of product development, as part of a research and development team. "Our role was to sell services and find contracts. We went from research and development to a team who had to understand how to market themselves and how to sell those services into telecoms.
"One day you might be working on complex R&D and the next you had to be responsible for your own commercial success."
It was a role-hopping position that equipped Gary to take the reins at Andor, a specialist scientific camera firm based in west Belfast. That was his last role before Kilwaughter.
Andor had become one of very few Northern Ireland companies to be listed on the Stock Exchange before the business was sold to Oxford Instruments.
He departed the firm as director of engineering and describes his years there as "tremendous".
"It was a great experience. The company was keen to invest and more than trebled the size of its engineering team and ramped up the rate of its product development, innovating and fuelling that sector," adds Gary.
In its most recent financial results Andor recorded a rise in turnover of almost 20% to £75m, with pre-tax profits also up by over 50% to £14.7m.
It's a similar story at Kilwaughter, where Gary is now chief executive, taking over from Simon McDowell. Mr McDowell is now in a non-executive director role on the board.
Kilwaughter's parent company, Kilwaughter Holdings, also reported growth of 20% and a turnover of £40.4m following the major acquisition of English business Alumasc Facades in November 2018.
Construction materials is a new arena for Gary, who relishes the opportunity to learn even more.
But ultimately, it doesn't matter what the product is when you have responsibility for how a company is run.
"When you become responsible for profitability at any company and the performance of that company, that's something you can take anywhere with you.
"The interesting thing is that even in the role I'm in now, a big part of that is problem solving. You're still solving problems and optimising a way forward for the business.
"There is a lot of that diagnostics, a lot of exploration and knowledge to know what's the best decision and that calls on that experience.
"It's very much a different sector but I have found, and what I expected, is that business is business and the fundamentals are the same.
"I've been warmly welcomed and the team and the products and company as a whole is performing well. There is lots of opportunity in this space."
And because the tech chief is revelling in a whole new environment, his penchant for undertaking a new course has waned a little.
"I'll find something in time," he says. "But I'm in this wonderful new world and I'm exposed to a tremendous new phase so I'm more than getting that fix, and that's been a tremendous experience, it really tests what you think you know and sharpens your understanding."
Gary expects activity at Kilwaughter to be lively in the immediate future, adding that a government commitment to create 300,000 homes per year by 2025 is a "good indicator for business".
"In addition, the UK government has pledged to reduce carbon emissions in the UK and a related priority will be insulating difficult to heat homes.
"Kilwaughter is well positioned to continue its focus on quality and innovation and delivering growth through serving these opportunities."
And with Stormont up and running and Brexit well and truly a reality, he is hoping that consumer confidence will benefit from stability and boost the markets that Kilwaughter serves.
He says: "There are many things out there impacting on confidence, including global trade wars and Brexit, but there is a growing confidence now we have a new Government and a sense of stability.
"There is a risk that Brexit could hurt all of us, but if it impacts confidence in the housing market, or investment in new buildings, they all connect back.
"I would hope that how we do business and with whom is not cumbersome and disadvantageous after Brexit.
"Only time will tell, but I am an optimist and I certainly see a bright future for Kilwaughter and a bright way forward."
Q What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A If I was picking just one, I’d go with ‘focus on what you can control’.
Q What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A Other than luck, I don’t think there is any substitute for hard work and perseverance. Focus on the learning experience.
Q What was your best business decision?
A I think for me this has usually been about getting the right people in the right seats. Great things can happen when you get that right, they rarely do when you don’t.
Q If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A I had once considered switching to medicine, as I was attracted to the diagnostic challenge and working with people. The world is likely a safer place because I stayed where I was.
Q What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A Last holiday was a trip to the beautiful city of Milan, Italy. We don’t tend to do beach holidays. Next trip is my holiday highlight, skiing in Austria with the family in February.
Q What are your hobbies/interests?
A I love what I do and I tend to read around business topics with some of my spare time. I like finding new angles on common problems. Otherwise I enjoy the great outdoors through skiing, mountain biking, hill walking. I also enjoy a weekly game of indoor soccer. This keeps my head clear and keeps my energy levels high.
Q What is your favourite sport and team?
A I am enjoying Liverpool’s current run of exceptional form.
Q And have you ever played any sports?
A I still play soccer, ski, mountain bike every week and I used to play both squash and rugby, but many moons ago. I’m not particularly good at any of them, but I enjoy them nonetheless.
Q If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A I particularly enjoyed Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari and Do No Harm by Henry Marsh. I don’t read novels.
Q How would you describe your early life?
A Blessed with fun and talented siblings and very much working class growing up. We were always outdoors inventing things to do. I enjoyed working from a very young age, with summer and weekend jobs.
Q Have you any economic predictions?
A I’m pretty convinced the world will continue to find quality people in short supply and that this is going to get increasingly challenging for some time.
Q How would you assess your time in business with your company Kilwaughter?
A I’ve enjoyed it tremendously. This is a great business, in great markets and great people, I am very much looking forward to our journey as a team.
Q How do you sum up working in the construction/quarrying sector?
A It is very different from some of my previous industries, which have largely been dominated by technology products and solutions. It is an excellent sector where the challenge, like any other business, is how to add value and how to grow. We are in a great position, with wholehearted support from our shareholders to invest for the future. Growth is fun when you get it right and brings good things, allowing investment in our people, our production know how and our products in particular.