'Making staff redundant is awful - it's not something you feel good about'

Airsynergy boss Gerry Butler also talks about putting up with plonkers.

By Conor McMahon Deputy editor, Fora

LONGFORD-BASED RENEWABLE energy firm Airsynergy has built self-powering street lights and redesigned the wind turbine – but the company had trouble selling its technology.

Nearly a decade after it was founded, the outfit needed help commercialising its patented ‘smart poles’, which use solar and wind energy to power lighting and other facilities.

To help whip the firm into shape, the company hired ex-HMV Ireland and Xtravision boss Gerry Butler as its CEO.

Under his watch, Airsynergy has won business across Germany and Ireland – its smart pole unit is now used to power the lights in the car park at Lidl’s Drogheda store.

Most recently, the outfit announced that it was expanding into the US by installing the technology at various points in New York and Chicago.

For the latest instalment of our question-and-answer series, Butler talks about his admiration for Apple’s late founder Steve Jobs, putting up with plonkers and the oddest item in his office.

What’s the worst job/task you’ve ever had to do?

Making staff redundant during a restructuring programme. That’s always difficult. I come from a restructuring background so it’s something I’ve had to do, but it’s not something you feel good about.

It’s awful because you’re often making good people redundant to control costs. People don’t always understand why you’re doing it, but it’s done for the greater good of the company.

I’ve had to make people redundant at Airsynergy. We’re coming from a pre-revenue company into a fully fledged sales company, so you’re getting the firm leaner and meaner and ready for the big world.

EVNT2834 Gerry Butler
Source: Stephen Wall Morris

What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken?

Doing what I’m doing now: joining a pre-revenue technology company with an unproven business model and actually trying to make your way in the world.

I joined a company that had very good technology but no customers. It hadn’t launched yet. If you join a business that has a sales pipeline, it has customers, it has revenue, you know what you’re getting into.

I joined a company that had great technology, that raised a lot of money, but hadn’t brought that technology to the market.

That’s a big risk. I’m glad I did it because we’re in the market now. We’re dealing with customers like Intel and Microsoft, but 12 months ago it was a daunting task.

What’s one thing that would put you off hiring someone?

Dishonesty, which can mean a range of things – it can mean not committing yourself totally to a company.

For me, if you’re working in a company, I would expect you to do all you can do in the hours that you’ve committed to work. Anything less than that is just being dishonest with yourself and the company. I’ve no time for that.

If there was one person in the world you could hire, who would it be and why?

Steve Jobs because he changed the whole world. I remember seeing the world’s first iPad in Ireland, and I couldn’t see any market for it. Now I can’t go anywhere without my iPad.

The world is on your fingertips and you have access to everything now because of him.

Steve Jobs dies
Source: Rolf Vennenbernd/DPA/PA Images

Do you like to see your employees working extra hours? Why/why not?

Not particularly. My philosophy is that people need to do what they need to do to get the job done. If you need to go home a bit early, so be it. But if there’s work to be done, there’s work to be done.

I think companies need to be flexible to allow people family lives; I don’t like to see people working late just for the sake of it.

What’s the best piece of advice you ever received, and who did it come from?

Keep improving and never accept second best in anything. That would have come from my dad.

What bad work (or business habit) have you had to kick?

As a rule, I wouldn’t suffer fools. Unfortunately, in business, sometimes you have to. I’m usually a straight talker – you know where you stand with me, but in the corporate world you have to be a bit sensitive to people.

Sometimes you’re dealing with a load of plonkers and, unfortunately, you have to put up with it sometimes.

When I was much younger, I would have told you exactly where you stand with me. It hasn’t always proven to be the right thing to do, so sometimes you have to just bite your lip and find a way around a particular problem.

What’s the oddest item in your office/workplace?

I’d say the oddest item in my office is a picture from 1999 of Manchester United holding the Champion’s League cup. It’s odd because it’s such a long time ago.

I’m a big Manchester United fan. I’d like to see a new version for this year. I’m holding out for that.

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Final - Manchester United v Bayern Munich
Source: Matthew Ashton/EMPICS Sport

What has been your biggest failure to date?

Putting up with excuses from people where the excuses were illogical.

In my previous jobs, people made excuses for not getting sales. I would have tended to accept that when I was much younger. Nowadays, I don’t. If you’re in a sales company, it’s all about performance.

What’s the one piece of advice you would give an entrepreneur who’s just starting out?

Employ people who are better at some things than you. Entrepreneurs usually have very clever ideas, but they think they are the solicitor, the accountant, the salesman, the marketer of a company.

An entrepreneur should realise what they’re very good at and bring people into their organisation who are better at those other disciplines.

One of the big examples of that kind of thinking would have been Steve Jobs. He was never afraid to hire very good people. Not everyone does that.

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