UL MBA alumni feature

Sean McGowan

2009 MBA graduate

I’ve been on a crazy journey since graduating. The MBA helped me fulfil my goal: to own my own company and empower other businesses to succeed.

I’ve always been one to follow my own course and push myself to the limit. My graduation from UL illustrates this perfectly because while my classmates were celebrating with friends and family, I was rowing solo across the Atlantic.

After a period of intense work and study, I chose to dive straight into another challenge, rowing alone for a total of 118 days. It was exhausting, but it also gave me time for reflection, and I realised I wanted to use my knowledge from the MBA to do something different and set my own course. Ultimately, this decision informed my subsequent career path, culminating with the creation of my current company, Bluewater Capital, a boutique investment house that works with small and medium sized Irish companies. It’s a privilege to go into businesses from across industry and help them fix the issues they are struggling with, empowering them to manage competing pressures so they can succeed.

It’s a satisfying role that calls on all my experience and it’s something I probably wouldn’t have considered without the MBA. Prior to studying at UL, I had an engineering background and I was working as an Operations Director with Dell. The role was at a senior level, but I knew I wanted to break through into those top tier positions.

I wanted to effect change within an organisation rather than respond to change, and the MBA seemed the perfect way to enable that transition.

At the time, it was a choice between Dublin and Limerick, but I opted for UL due to the course content and the quality of the lecturers, which was outstanding. I certainly was not disappointed; the modules delivered a wealth of information, and the course is structured so you can put your learnings into action. It enables you to assess situations, providing the tools and processes to make effective decisions.

The UL MBA challenges your critical thinking and helps you take a step back, so you can see other people’s perspectives. This was really useful as an engineer used to seeing things in black and white. It helped me understand how others think and behave, so I could appreciate the art of business and the science of business.

Overall, the course is designed to push you out of your comfort zone and boost your confidence with group assignments and presentations. I met other like-minded people, and the course keeps you on your toes because it’s designed to be competitive.

It’s an intense learning experience, and you learn a lot from the other students, but thanks to the three-day block release structure, you can take time out from work to think and learn new disciplines, always returning with new tools that you can implement straight away. Sure, it was a heavy workload, but it was hugely rewarding for my employer, who sponsored my study, and me.

After the MBA, I understood how macro- and micro-economics can impact a business, and I had the tools to make better decisions.

One of the fundamental takeaways from the course was the ability to take a more rounded view. It inspired me to make a change in my own career, and keen to utilise my broader knowledge and expertise, I moved into consultancy. This saw me working with a variety of companies around the time of the last financial crash in 2012. In partnership with banking institutions, I was delivering solutions for SMEs and large companies in all sectors, from pharmaceuticals to food and beverage. It was a great experience, helping companies review their operations and drive change to turn things around.

More recently, this passion has been fulfilled by establishing Bluewater Capital, which has been my focus for the past six years. Over that time, I have been building up the company portfolio, investing in a huge variety of businesses spanning everything from dairy manufacturing to modular homes. I am also a non-executive chair for several businesses, and wherever I go, I always come back to my MBA learning, which taught me to think about the ‘why’ in business.

My studies helped me understand how value is accrued, how to balance shareholders’ needs, and the external influences that can impact a business. As a result, I’m always curious, always looking to stay informed and continue my learning.

By nurturing confidence and providing tangible skills, the MBA helps you believe in yourself. It gave me the confidence to weigh and go for the risks.

For a long time, I had harboured a desire to start my own business, but with the tools I learned during the MBA, I was able to take the plunge. Now, I love what I do, and a big part of that is sharing some of my MBA knowledge. It enables me to help people find solutions, encouraging them to drive improvements.

The UL leadership frameworks constantly support me in this, helping me balance risk and remain adaptable. Today, I manage multiple teams in various roles. I’m the CEO of a company that produces modular homes with a team of 120 people. I also head up Liscar Engineering, which is the largest dairy manufacturing company in Ireland, where I manage a team of 40. I lead a busy life with several projects on the go, but my leadership style is grounded in my MBA learnings because I believe in empowering people to excel.

People are a key asset in any business and need growth opportunities. If you allow people to take control and encourage them to work to their strengths, they will shine. I learnt a lot during my time with multinational corporations, including Dell and Intel. By taking the best from each company and combining this with a wider perspective from the MBA, I know I have the tools to manage expectations, motivate teams, and communicate strategy.

That’s what helps me deliver for the companies I work with. Many SMEs are suffering from fatigue and need someone to step in and support them in making those strategic decisions. Perhaps they survived the last crash but now find themselves buffeted by crises in the form of the pandemic, war in Europe, and spiralling business costs.

Owners are looking for a way out or a way forward, and that’s where Bluewater can step in to help them assess the best solution and invest in making it work. By drawing on my experience and MBA expertise to mentor clients, we can work together to make changes and, often, realise threefold growth.

Sharing my knowledge is a key part of my long-term plan. I think there’s an opportunity for industry and education to work more closely, and I’d love to pursue that.

Long term, I’d love to take a step back and continue my learning, so I’m always looking at new courses. There are so many industries I’d like to get involved with so I’m certain my practical learning will also expand.

In the meantime, I’m also convinced that there is an opportunity for universities to work in tandem with industry to forge the future. In the past this hasn’t been the case. Education and industry traditionally run on different timescales, where the industry is agile and quick to adapt, and education is more about long-term trends.

Housing could provide a great testbed. Ireland is currently experiencing a housing crisis, but I believe that modular housing could go some way to alleviate this. Modular homes are designed for the future; they are quicker and greener to produce and could provide effective housing in the short term. I believe we could accelerate this solution by combining real-world engineering companies with traditional university education.

I’d love to set up ‘Knowledge Hubs’ where architects and engineers could work with universities to maximise these opportunities and create joint ventures to benefit all involved.

In truth, it reflects my experience with the MBA because I have benefited so much by sharing my knowledge. When I mentor company owners and invest in their business, for example, I ensure that everyone is a winner, and by working together to expand our expertise, we all succeed. Translating this to a national programme could well have advantages for the whole country.

  • Current Role: Managing Director at Bluewater Capital

2024 programme brochure

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