The Summer 2011 edition of

The SIAC Construction Group has a long history as one of Ireland’s leading civil engineering and building companies. Through a mixture of tradition and innovation, they are navigating today’s choppy waters and looking forward to a future based on a broad base and international growth. Business Ireland looks at SIAC: building Ireland’s past, present and future.

Back in 1913, before the Lockout, the Great War and Irish independence, a remarkable story began in Cork. It was here that one of Ireland’s most successful construction companies was founded, one that has left an indelible mark on Ireland’s urban and rural landscape.

Fast forward nearly 100 years, and SIAC has survived every drama the country and the building industry have had to face. The company is still going strong today. “The downturn in our traditional home market of the IrishRepublic has energised the group to seek new markets both geographically and in terms of services offered,” reveals Managing Director Finn Lyden. And so new ventures in the UK, Canada, Belgium and Poland have diversified its base and reduced its exposure to shock, as have successful moves into fields such as wind energy.

Their core business over the past century, however, has been roads – the list of projects they’ve undertaken is immense, the amount of innovation they’ve delivered is huge, and if you paused to contemplate every time you travelled down a SIAC road, you wouldn’t get very far at all.

Since 2000, SIAC has built around 200 kilometres of road, and formed joint ventures to complete public private partnership projects valued at a total of €1 billion. As the company looks forward to many more years providing backbone to Irish infrastructure, it is time to look back at the history and traditions of the South of Ireland Asphalt Company – and find out what the future holds.

Foundation stones
The company was founded not as the SIAC we know today, but as the South of Ireland Trinidad Lake Asphalt Company. The low-key occasion took place on July 18, 1913 at their new premises of Albert Quay in Cork, when Maurice Talbot-Crosbie, Robert Johnston and Thomas Marriot came together to go into business.

The latter came courtesy of the Trinidad Lake Asphalt Company, a leader in the field: they would supply bitumen for the asphalt, as well as machinery and expertise. It was a takeover of sorts of Johnston’s existing business.

That August, a little bit of history happened in Margaret Street, Marlborough Street and Princes Street, when the company completed the first known example of rolled asphalt road surfacing in Ireland. Cork Corporation, naturally enough, was the client, and supervised the innovative project with a hawk’s eye.

A glimpse into the industry at that point in time makes one marvel at how far we’ve come: the average working week was 60 hours, for pay of £1 5s.

This initial success was interrupted by history, though: World War One, the War of Independence and Civil War stymied development, with events such as the burning of Cork leaving cities in rubble with no scope for reconstruction as violence continued.

One major milestone was reached in 1920, when the company was renamed the South of Ireland Asphalt Company. By and large, though, it was an achievement to keep things running and it was only when conflict ended that progress could be made.

Up and running
In the climate of a new, independent Irish state, a board full of Englishmen was not best placed to run a successful construction company. Here, fortune smiled and it was in Cardiff that Edward Curran and Denis Feighery, the two personalities who would turn the early SIAC into such a success, first met. Their ambitions coincided with the parent company’s desire to offload its struggling subsidiary, and a deal was struck.

Curran would be chairman, Feighery managing director. They got straight down to business by winning the company’s first contract for roadworks in Dublin, and opened a branch at Abbey Street. They left their mark on the capital, with extensive works around Nassau Street, Kildare Street, Dame Street, College Green and Grafton Street, as well as routes into the city.

‘The South’ as it was then known, was now truly up and running, with their various gangs moving around the country upgrading roads to the latest specifications, and building brand new ones – all at a time when Ireland’s economic health was far from sound.

Now an Irish company, during the economic war SIAC expanded its range of operations beyond asphalt surfacing. It was a time of turmoil, but roofing and general construction work was undertaken, as the company built up market share against local and UK rivals.

One landmark project undertaken was the runway at ShannonAirport, in 1944 – a vital piece of Irish transport history if ever there was one. Another was its involvement in the Noel Browne-era hospital building programme of the ‘50s, as well as the churches of the time. And yet another lasting contribution to the country’s built environment was achieved in 1951, when a consortium of SIAC and its local competitors beat off international tenders to build new docks at DublinPort.

Rising tide of the ‘60s
From the 1960s onwards, there was a new focus on civil engineering in more general terms: sewage, water supply and utility works of various kinds were all taken on by the company, particularly in Cork and Dublin.

Roofing was a new growth area, particularly with an extensive programme of modern building under way, in areas such as flatblocks, and office and retail developments such as the Irish Life Centre in Dublin. In fact, many of the country’s prominent developments from this era bore the SIAC imprint, such as AIB’s headquarters in Ballsbridge and the new wing at St. Vincent’s Hospital.

These were years of great growth for the company, and with an explosion in the education sector, many new schools were called for - providing work for over 20 roofing gangs and a six-month order book. With the expansion of Dublin into new suburbs such as Tallaght, the traditional roadbuilding work was there too.

There was a changing of the guard throughout the 1960s and 70s, as a new generation of civil engineers arrived on the scene. Paul Feighery took on the job of Managing Director in 1974, bringing new energy and ideas to the helm.

It was a good time for the changeover, with fresh blood coinciding with the troubled economic times of the ‘70s and ‘80s. Another change came in 1983, when the old South of Ireland Asphalt Company formally registered as SIAC Construction Ltd in Companies House. New buildings and offices were opened, including a regional office in Galway.

But the slowdown of the 1980s brought opportunities to expand abroad – work on a bus terminal in Lancashire was the first of  many projects across the Irish Sea, and a civil engineering division came into being. One major project was at LutonAirport.

As Irish energy policy switched towards coal in the 1980s, the major Moneypoint station in Co. Kildare was another SIAC project, including its 380m-long jetty, used to accommodate immense deliveries of coal by ship. Two million tons of coal is consumed every year, and when Moneypoint opened in 1989, it was responsible for 62 per cent of the country’s electricity.

New priorities in the ‘90s and beyond
Indeed, energy and the environment were to be recurring themes in the SIAC story from that point on: the company laid the ground works for the country’s first commercial wind farm. Belacorrick in CountyMayo, opened in 1992, is the location for 21 immense turbines and since then, the company has not lost touch with the wind energy sector: far from it. Further wind developments followed in 2006, for Airtricity at Tournafulla – 18 large turbines, plus roads and ancillaries.

By 1993, it was time for a new Managing Director, only the fourth in the company’s history. And so Finn Lyden took over, and is still firmly in charge. Lyden had cut his teeth at CRH in Europe, and was based in Holland. He was the perfect figure to prepare SIAC for a business environment which now included intense European competition, courtesy of the EU and the free movement of capital and services that marked out the future of the industry.

From the ‘90s onwards, in fact right to the end of the Celtic Tiger, major roadbuilding projects were undertaken: bypasses and motorways were pushed forward by spatial strategies and National Development Plans. 

Metal materials such as steel and aluminium had long been in use by the company, and it made sense to expand in this direction. With the receivership of a company called Butlers Engineering in 1996, SIAC Butlers Steel Ltd came into being, with the company now able to produce and supply steelwork to its own operations and to those of others.

The list of projects worked on from that point onwards was almost endless: LiffeyValley, BaldonnelBusinessPark, Elan Pharmaceuticals, Pfizer, Intel, the Corrib gas project, National Aquatic Centre, the remarkable BoyneBridge and many more boxes were ticked on either side of the millennium.

Public private partnership was the wave of the future at this stage, and SIAC was a party to the very first: the N4/N6 motorway from Kilcock to Kinnegad, quickly followed by the M3 motorway from Clonee to Kells. A new Dublin-Newry route led to the opening of an office up north.

Take a walk through Dublin’s Temple Bar these days and one of one thing that contributes hugely to the area’s bohemian charm is its famous cobblestones, the scourge of hen parties for many years. This, too, is SIAC’s doing, as Dublin Corporation contracted the company to re-lay the cobblestones in time for Dublin’s stint as City of Culture in 1992.

This urban regeneration work was matched by projects such as the pedestrianisation of Henry Street in Dublin, as well as the complete rejuvenation of Smithfield in Dublin at the turn of the millennium, which won an award for ‘European Public Urban Space’. Similarly, the rejuvenation of Eyre Square in Galway left its mark on that city.

Perhaps the most recognisable symbol of urban regeneration post-Celtic Tiger was the Spire in Dublin’s O’Connell Street. An object of controversy then and now, it fell to SIAC and Radley Engineering to erect this centrepiece of the capital in the vacant spot where Nelson’s Pillar had stood before its demolition. Indeed, SIAC had a hand in the rejuvenation of O’Connell Street in its entirety, and it was an appropriate project given the company’s long association with the city’s main thoroughfare: it first surfaced  the street in the 1920s.

The Luas saw SIAC back at work on streets that had last hosted trams decades previously. The M50 upgrade aimed to make one of the country’s main arteries fit for purpose at long last – same goes for the Red Cow junction, major road projects such as the M3 and long-awaited road upgrades.

And finally, fans of rugby and soccer will appreciate another SIAC project that recently passed the finishing post: the Aviva Stadium, whose steelwork, courtesy of SIAC Butlers, is already helping to make an icon of the Lansdowne Road stadium.

A bright and stable future
SIAC is a company of history and tradition, and both of those have fed into a strong brand. And yet it is the future that is perhaps most exciting about the company’s story. Post-Celtic Tiger, post-building boom and in an era of NAMA and bust banks, it is surprising to find any construction company willing to declare its confidence in the future.

Not so SIAC: as with any other company in the sector, the past few years have been tough. Unlike others, careful strategy has helped to keep the ship off the rocks. Its reputation is there to be built on.

Diversification is an important element in this strategy: the company is not tied to any one sector, or even country. In 2011, activities will be undertaken in the UK, Poland, Belgium and Canada. This is crucial: it means that however slow the home market is, the company will always have projects on the go in some part of the world.

“The construction skills that we have developed in Ireland are second to none. Now is the time to deploy them elsewhere,” explains SIAC Managing Director Finn Lyden.

“Geographically, we now have very significant turnover in continental Europe and a presence in North America, which would not have been traditional markets for us in the past. We are also increasingly active in Northern Ireland and on the UK mainland and we expect to increase our penetration of these markets.”

It’s not just the locations that are evolving. “In terms of services, we are developing a significant business in green energy – particularly wind power. For example we have recently been awarded the civil engineering for a wind farm in Poland. We are also building a business, in the UK, to supply and install small and medium-sized wind turbines,” Lyden says. On September 1, SIAC is due on the ground for their first Polish wind farm, east of Gdansk, working with Dong Energy.

“In all areas of our business we are fortunate to have the calibre of people to ensure that these diverse locations will be successful.”

The company has been received a long list of awards for health and safety, environmental sensitivities and general success: it is particularly proud of its recognition as best regional subcontractor for 2009 by Bam Building Ltd in respect of the south-east of the UK.

Far from home
In fact, SIAC Civil Engineering’s biggest ever contract is far from home: a 35-kilometre motorway from Kryz to Debica in Poland, clocking in at 1.4 billion zloty (€356m or thereabouts). Scheduled for completion in August of next year, duties are being shared 50/50 with local contractor PBG S.A and its subsidiaries and will involve building 28 bridges – including one of 1.4km, spanning the river Wsolka.

Martin Maher is SIAC’s Director of Civil Engineering, and has the inside track on the company’s new stance. “Through the Celtic Tiger era, we built about 200km in Ireland – typically high-quality dual carriageways and motorways,” he says. “By 2008/9, we knew that trend wasn’t going to continue, so in order to keep turnover positive and keep the expertise we’d built up all along the way, we realised that we had to look to foreign markets to keep that CV going.

“We started to look at Poland early in 2009, with a view to works for the upcoming European Championships in 2012, hosted by Poland and Ukraine.” They soon found a partner.

“Thankfully, we procured our first job in July 2010. A lot of the key players who were involved in the M3 and the M50 in Ireland are now on the ground in Poland,” says Maher. The Company is exploring other markets and believes there will be exciting opportunities elsewhere for SIAC in the near future.

Another landmark project is on more familiar ground – London. In preparing for the Olympic Games of 2012, SIAC has won a valuable contract to revamp one of the city’s most recognisable locations, Leicester Square. Enabling works began this year, and new paving, street lighting and drainage are all on the cards. A sensitive project due to the hustle and bustle of the West End, it will be ready for the Olympics: it will be opened by the Queen in April 2012, and will welcome a quarter of a million pedestrians daily. Elsewhere in the UK, they are looking forward to commencing a large-scale motorway project in the spring of next year.

At home, Maher believes that in order for there to be economic growth, there needs to be funding for capital projects: the spinoff for direct employment is huge, and Ireland risks losing its accumulated skills. “While there’s a period of uncertainty for capital projects, we’ve gone out to maintain our CV abroad. But for Ireland Inc, the government needs to ensure that capital projects continue and we keep our skillset. If we don’t, it will be very difficult for the country to recover.” A company is only as good as its last five years’ record, and cannot afford to sit out the storm. SIAC’s work on the N25 Bandon/Sarsfield interchange upgrade shows there is still some work underway at home, and items such as the Atlantic corridor remain on the agenda.

And with green energy a firm fixture on any construction company’s radar, wind turbines are a priority for SIAC. The company has track record here - in fact, the Clondalkin-based company has its own division devoted to the sector: SIAC Wind Energy, with offices in Portarlington and Gloucestershire. It is the only supplier of the leading Bergey Wind Power turbines to Ireland and the UK.

And so the company has clearly come a long way since a gang of 30 or so set out to asphalt three streets in CorkCity for the first time, back in the days of the pony and trap. SIAC was founded in hard times, but survived them. In 2011, hard times have returned, and the company is adamant that its broad base will ensure they weather this storm too.

SIAC's international partners have included:

·         ferrovial / Cintra (Spain)

·         PBG (Poland)

·         Galliford Try (UK)

·         Laing O'Rourke (UK)

·         Bam (Netherlands/UK/Ireland)

·         Aecom (USA)

·         Cleveland Bridge (UK)

·         Cimolai (Italy)

SIAC has worked with or for international consultancies including:

·         RPS

·         Arup

·         Jacobs

·         Atkins

·         Scott Wilson

·         Mott Macdonald

·         Bruce Shaw

·         The PM Group