‘I saw Dad set up his own business and knew I wanted to do the same’

29 Oct 2020

Keith Moran. Image: Colin Gillen/framelight.ie

Keith Moran of SL Controls discusses starting his business, coping during Covid-19 restrictions, and the importance of work-life balance in his team.

Keith Moran is co-founder and CEO of SL Controls. Prior to setting up the business with chief digital architect Shane Loughlin, Moran worked as an automation engineer at LotusWorks. He also has an executive master’s degree in business leadership and innovation from Letterkenny IT.

SL Controls is a provider of equipment system integration tools. Established in 2002 in Sligo, the company now also has offices in Dublin, Limerick, Galway and Florida, employing 88 people in Ireland and the US. SL Controls works with multinational customers such as Abbott, Johnson & Johnson, SteriPack and AbbVie to optimise manufacturing processes.

‘If employees are happy and their work-life balance is taken care of, they will give you back their best’

Describe your role and what you do.

My role as CEO is focused on strategy and l am continuously examining how we can continue to drive success in order to grow and develop the company. I am focused on growth – developing new markets and new innovations – while also driving improvements across the business.

I oversee the management team who are striving to meet the specific goals in their key areas. My role also involves building and strengthening partnerships and alliances outside the company.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

I am usually in the office at 8.30am and at the beginning of each working day I look at key tasks and write them down in my Microsoft calendar.

I am always focused on how every task I do relates to driving the overall business strategy. I can’t get sidetracked into items that don’t focus on the bigger picture – if a task does not fit into my overall goals, it is completed by a team member who is responsible for that area.

I ensure that I – like my team – enjoy a good work-life balance, so I get my kids ready for school each morning and either myself or my wife collect them each day. We spend quality time with them in the evening – cycling, playing squash, swimming or surfing.

I wind down by playing squash. I have played since I was 10 and still play competitively. I feel a lot of my strengths in my work life are linked to squash, which is a very competitive and individual sport.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

Travel restrictions due to Covid-19 is currently the biggest challenge. There is equipment being manufactured in Japan, the US and mainland Europe that has to travel around the world. Usually, the engineering team who built it would travel to the site to ramp it up alongside SL Controls and our clients’ engineers, but they can no longer do that.

In order to tackle this, we utilise secure digital collaboration methods, which allow engineers to connect in a secure fashion digitally to carry out the tasks in collaboration with each other. It has been a huge success.

What are the key sector opportunities you’re capitalising on?

Utilising our secure digital collaboration methods, we got our clients moving again and in a way that meets corporate standards.

We are developing further innovations utilising digital technology to enhance paper-based systems to achieve greater efficiencies in the manufacturing process.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

Dad was a draughtsman, carrying out surveys on sites and houses. I used to go with him to various houses when I was younger and this gave me a feel for interacting with people and working. It was a very intimate environment as you could be in someone’s family home measuring on a Sunday evening while they were watching TV.

I was a shy child and being in these situations – some awkward – really brought me out of my shell. I saw my Dad set up his own business, providing for his own family, and I knew that I wanted to do the same someday.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

My biggest mistake happened when I didn’t listen to my inner voice. I have always been a great believer in going with my gut feeling and, on one occasion, early on in the life of SL Controls, I was talked out of this and I have always regretted it.

There was a school of thought that the company should split into separate entities – one for services and one for product development. I felt it would fragment the company, but I decided to go with the majority and in retrospect was not vociferous enough on the matter. It was the wrong decision and I have always regretted it as it took a while to rectify, but thankfully it is in the past now and we are a services-focused company.

How do you get the best out of your team?

Autonomy is one of the key things to keep the team motivated. We work together and we all know what we have to achieve in our specific areas. I allow them to go with their own ideas and deliver the outcomes in the way they see fit.

Work-life balance is hugely important at SL Controls. If you have a baby scan or your child has a Christmas play or a first dental appointment, you should never miss these occasions as there is a short window when these things happen and, once missed, they are missed forever. If employees are happy and their work-life balance is taken care of, they will give you back their best. 

Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector?

There is definitely a diversity problem in terms of gender as we don’t have enough females in engineering. We need to promote great careers within engineering not just for school leavers but at Junior Cert and Transition Year levels – as well as to the parents — so we can change mindsets across the board.

SL Controls is a member of the Tech North West Cluster and the Atlantic MedTech Cluster and we always try to promote great careers for everyone in engineering.

Did you ever have a mentor or someone who was pivotal in your career?

My co-founder Shane Loughlin has to be top of my list. I met Shane earlier in my career when I was working at LotusWorks, and we developed a great relationship. He is very technical and I learned a lot from him, but I’d like to think he has also learned a lot from me in terms of business.

We have heated debates, but we always come out of it with the best decision for the company. We both respect the areas that the other is strong in and we believe in each other’s abilities. Most importantly, we remain great friends.

What books have you read that you would recommend?
  • A Great Day at the Office by Dr John Briffa
  • In the Zone by Clyde Brolin
  • And for some sports motivation, ‘Jahangir Kahn 555: The Untold Story Behind Squash’s Invincible Champion and Sport’s Greatest Unbeaten Run’ by Rob Gilmour and Alan Thatcher
What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Microsoft Teams, Office 365 and our engagement platform Frankli. And – for my mental and physical health — a good game of squash in the evening.

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