UL MBA alumni feature

Billy Nolan

2012 MBA graduate

Being promoted to Managing Director and helping the business break into the UK market is all thanks to the learning I absorbed during the MBA.

My career with Construction, Engineering and Technical Services Provider, APC, spans 26 years. It’s a long time to dedicate to a single company, but far from being static, it’s a journey that has seen me grow and develop immeasurably, ultimately taking the reins as Managing Director in 2020.

Thanks to a background in project management, I started work for APC as a Project Manager in 1995. I was comfortable in this area and confident in my role, but when I was appointed to the Board of Directors I felt somewhat lacking in business acumen. Sitting around the table in board meetings, some decisions went over my head. I was ill-equipped to make choices about overseas markets and my knowledge in key strategic and financial areas was not up to scratch.

Feeling out of my depth prompted me to study for an MBA. That single step provided the biggest boost in my career trajectory.

Feeling out of my depth prompted me to consider further study and I opted to apply for an MBA at UL. It wasn’t an easy decision as I worried whether I could devote enough time to the course, but I found a way to make it work with the support of my family and my Employer, it was manageable.

The programme is absolutely achievable if you can rely on three basic pillars of support: your family, so you have time to work on the MBA each week; your Employer, who may provide funding and will need to release you for study on campus three days a month; and finally, from UL, where staff are always supportive and encourage you on to get the most out of the programme.

After considering the pros and cons from both a personal and career perspective and speaking to the KBS Executive Dean at the time, Prof. Philip O’Regan, I decided it would be worth the time and effort and signed up for the MBA. That single step probably provided the biggest boost in my career trajectory.

As I was based in Limerick, selecting UL was the obvious choice, especially as I had previously studied project management at UL, but I also knew the MBA programme would give me the all-round business knowledge and core skills I required to excel at the Executive Management level. In fact, the biggest success of my career to date is all thanks to the learning I absorbed during the MBA, especially the strategy module with Jim Donoghue and putting that learning into instant practical use.

Thanks to my new strategic mindset and skills, I have grown the UK business to over €35 to €40 million a year, and employ 150 people.

With its emphasis on developing and executing key growth plans, this module helped me tackle the UK market with renewed vigor. Drawing on the tools I learnt at UL, I set out in 2014 to create a sustainable market for APC in this region. The business now turns over €35 to 40 million a year and continues to see growth year on year. It is headquartered in Derby and we also have operations in Teesside in the North East. Overall, there are around 150 people employed in our UK operations.

The growth of this business is thanks to the expertise and concepts I learnt during the MBA. Not just in class but also by listening to inspiring guest lecturers and through discussion with fellow students. Not only did the course provide me with the skills and frameworks to plan effectively, it also gave me the confidence to present my UK strategy to the Board and to execute the idea effectively.

As a direct result of this UK success, the company decided to appoint me Managing Director. Once again, this saw me presenting business plans to the Board with rigorous Q&A on the strategic growth I envisioned for the next three years. I also set out internal changes that would improve operations, including adapting the business culture of the company; another vital concept I absorbed during the MBA.

Leadership is about having the confidence to communicate effectively with staff and clients; to explain your vision and motivate your team. It’s about having the confidence to push through the changes you believe will move the company in the right direction, and taking staff along with you. Thanks to the MBA, I was well prepared for the challenge.

Building resilience.

There will always be factors that you can’t influence and for which you can’t prepare, but with MBA thinking behind your leadership, you will get through any crisis.

With the appearance of COVID-19, there have certainly been some challenges. Fortunately, I was well prepared as the MBA had honed my resilience and critical decision-making skills. The course taught me how to map out consequences before taking key decisions and how to weigh up risks effectively. With insight into the implications of my leadership, I felt equipped to tackle the turbulence caused by the pandemic.

The MBA gave me the flexibility to deal with whatever lies ahead. Knowledge of the global market meant I was more able to assess how international events could impact the UK and Irish markets. However, as in any industry, you have to be ready for whatever comes through your door; to deal with circumstances or take advantage of them as they arise. With an MBA in the company, you are better equipped to deal with unplanned shocks.

That’s why I encourage my management team to consider studying for an MBA. If 50 to 60 per cent of your Top Table Management Team have an MBA under their belt, your company has the armor to deal with virtually anything. As COVID has aptly demonstrated, there will always be factors that you can’t influence and for which you can’t prepare, but with MBA thinking behind your leadership, you will be better equipped than others to get through any crisis and come out the other end in a stronger position than your competition.

Powering future growth.

Post COVID, I’m looking forward to further developing my ideas for international growth. My three-year plan is to develop a scalable €100 million company based on revenue streams in markets such as South East Asia. Once travel restrictions are lifted, I will be heading out there to undertake thorough analysis and formulate a detailed strategy. Once again, I’m drawing on my MBA learnings to explore new options and strategically target potential growth markets.

Diversification is something that I have championed within APC. Our traditional revenue stream used to be based on fossil fuels, for example, but APC has worked hard to branch out into other industries such as renewable energy sources and process/manufacturing engineering. At the end of my current three-year plan, APC will have gone from being 70 per cent dependent on traditional revenue streams to just 30 per cent reliant on these industries.

Once again, the direction of travel has been informed and inspired by my MBA, which showed me how to diversify into alternative markets to eliminate risk and reduce dependency on a single market. Looking ahead, there’s still plenty for me to achieve with APC. My MBA has been a fundamental part of my career journey thus far and I have no doubt that as I formulate my strategy for APC in the coming years, it will continue to provide a strong foundation for growth.

I would encourage all those who ponder on whether or not to take that leap into an MBA to just go and do it, it will deliver, and remember, UL is best equipped to ensure that deliverance!

  • Undergrad Education: Project Management Degree, University of Limerick
  • Current Role: Managing Director, Atlantic Projects Company

2024 programme brochure

Download the UL MBA brochure to learn more about the programme and modules