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The Big Interview with Mairead Meyer: 'Our broadband network is vital after everything that's happened'


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Mairead Meyer has been at the helm of Openreach in Northern Ireland for 18 months

Mairead Meyer has been at the helm of Openreach in Northern Ireland for 18 months

Mairead Meyer

Mairead Meyer

Mairead Meyer has been at the helm of Openreach in Northern Ireland for 18 months

The services provided by Openreach are crucial to people across Northern Ireland, but even more so during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

As the firm that builds, maintains and manages the broadband network here, its role in keeping people connected has never been more important.

It comes after efforts to slow down the spread of coronavirus and help save lives has seen people across NI making the move to work from home.

The social distancing measures also mean families and friends are now keeping in touch remotely, while the number of people turning to social media and streaming services for entertainment is on the up.

Mairead Meyer has been director of Openreach in NI for 18 months, stepping into the role as she returned from maternity leave after the birth of her second child, Ava (2).

"It's a very exciting role because we look after the network, end to end, in Northern Ireland and we are responsible for keeping services up and running in hospitals, businesses and homes," she says.

"The job I have been doing for the past 18 months has very much been focused on the growth of the network and future-proofing the network.

"We have been looking at how the network can evolve over the coming years and we have been looking at bringing fibre to every home in NI and it has been an amazing programme to be a part of.

"There are 890,000 homes in NI, so it is a significant programme.

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Mairead Meyer

Mairead Meyer

Mairead Meyer

"For me, fibre has become so important because of how our lives have changed and that is even more important now with everything that is happening.

"People are working from home, making conference calls, kids are doing their school work at home, they are spending time on YouTube and watching CBeebies."

She continues: "I have a firm belief that building up a resilient and proper network is really important for the future economy, but now it is even more important.

"For now, we aren't seeing any significant issues across our broadband or phone network.

"We're continuing to monitor usage levels throughout the day and are comfortable that the network can cope with the increased demand.

"But given everything that is going on, our priority is ensuring that the network is running efficiently and any faults are dealt with as quickly as possible, so for now we aren't concentrating on building the network."

Of course, Mairead could never have imagined, when she took up the position of director of Openreach, that she would play such an important part in efforts to keep the health service and economy running during such a difficult period. Her return to work coincided with the unveiling of the Openreach brand in late 2018 and it is now well established in NI after operating here for more than a year and a half.

She now leads a team of over 750 people who are responsible for rolling out next generation fibre technology in the region.

Mairead (39) began her career working for BT after graduating from Queen's University in Belfast in 2004 with a Masters in electrical and electronic engineering. She was one of only three women doing the course.

She attended Tirkane Primary School outside Maghera, before moving on to St Patrick's College in the town.

"It was quite a shock going from a school with about 50 pupils to a school with 1,120 pupils, but once I found my feet, I enjoyed it more and more," she says.

"I really struggled to decide what I wanted to do at university, I bounced around all the standard careers in my head - accountancy, law, teaching, and I changed my mind every few months.

"I really sympathise with kids these days who are trying to choose their careers, but I actually decided to go for engineering when I was doing my A-levels.

"I'd never thought about it until that point but it was all down to my maths teacher at the time. He played golf with the man who owned Kelman Ltd outside Lisburn and he arranged for us to spend time there.

"It really took off from there and actually it was probably a really good time because there were so many companies setting up in Northern Ireland and I thought there were likely to be jobs when I came out of university."

Mairead was sponsored through university as part of a programme run by cigarette giant Gallaher's in Ballymena.

"I spent the first year working at Gallaher's and I met lots of lovely people and I felt like I really grew up, it really gave me an insight into the world of work," she says.

While she was at university, she attended a recruitment fair and was impressed by BT. There was no hesitation, therefore, when she was offered a place on their graduate programme.

Since then, she has worked in a number of roles in BT, taking a career break six years ago to relocate to Cape Town in South Africa, with her husband, Eugene (47).

The couple returned to Northern Ireland after the birth of their first child, Eoin (4), with Mairead going back to BT before moving to Openreach to oversee the development of the firm here.

It followed a long history of the company operating as the engineering division of BT in the region - but Mairead said the rebrand was necessary to help build confidence in the brand.

"We fall under the BT group umbrella, but we are a limited company in our own right and were established to ensure everyone gets exactly the same level of service, regardless of whether they are a customer of BT or Talk Talk or any other provider," she continues.

"We build the network and the service providers sell the product, if we are the wholesaler, the service providers are the retailers.

"We want to ensure people know who Openreach are, we want householders to feel confident about letting our engineers into their home. Building up consumer confidence by building up the brand is really important to us."

'Try not to stress about little things'

Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?

A. Always try to stay positive and to think about what is possible rather than what is not possible. I’m also a big believer in trying not to stress about the little things — which is one even I struggle with myself!

Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?

A. Treat people how you would like to be treated yourself and take the time to get to know people and build a relationship with them.

Q. What was your best business decision?

A. Moving to Openreach — I’ve loved the opportunity to build the fibre broadband network in Northern Ireland over the last couple of years and to demonstrate the capability and strength of the team we have here.

Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?

A. I always find it hard to picture myself doing another job but if this was a dream scenario, I’d like to be in a travel, holiday, food critic type of a role or write a book.

When I was young, I always wanted to write and it’s still one of those things I might go back to.

Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?

A. My last holiday was in January and we enjoyed five days in Centerparcs in Longford. The facilities were brilliant for the kids and it allowed us just to relax and enjoy our time without stressing about having two boisterous toddlers with us. Our next holiday was meant to be Cape Town in April but that has obviously been cancelled.

Q. And have you ever played any sports?

A. I played camogie for my home club of Slaughtneil until I went to university but I can’t say I’ve been as active since then.

Belfast Telegraph