Dominic Finlay, managing director of KAON Automation, shares his life and business lessons.
Automation specialist firm KAON is headquartered in Sligo but has a facility in Cork as well. Employing 45 people, KAON designs automated equipment including high-tech robotic machines for leading multinationals and large indigenous companies.
The company was set up in 2005 by Dominic’s brother Garreth Finlay (now Sales Director) and Fergus Hynes (now Technical Director).
“Our growth plans are aggressive as we believe there is significant opportunity in the automation market both in Ireland and internationally”
Tell us about your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?
I studied business at university, before joining Cadbury Schweppes as a graduate in the UK. I initially trained as a management accountant and spent my first few years working with colleagues across the world in our beverage finance operations. I was selected for the Group’s Accelerated Development Programme and relocated to the United States to work in marketing. I came back to the UK to become finance controller for East Europe and then Asia Pacific based in Melbourne, Australia before returning to Europe as Finance Director for Schweppes International based in Amsterdam.
On return to Ireland, I worked with Liberty Insurance on the launch of the brand in Ireland and subsequently on corporate affairs before joining KAON Automation in 2016.
Dominic and Garreth Finlay, KAON Automation
“I am analytical and take a very structured approach to my work. I work very well under pressure which is a key requirement in the fast-moving environment that we operate in”
Why are you doing what you are doing? What need are you meeting? What’s your USP?
I joined KAON as I wanted to work in a medium-sized business where I could have broader hands-on impact directly on the business. The business is primarily an engineering driven business, so my role was to add new financial and strategic rigor while driving growth. My USP is that I bring wide non-engineering experience from a corporate and international environment, along with the ability to challenge from an outsider’s perspective.
The business was established in 2006 so it was in existence 10 years prior to me coming on board.
Our growth plans are aggressive as we believe there is significant opportunity in the automation market both in Ireland and internationally. In the last couple of years, we opened a new facility in Cork to be closer to our customers in the South and meet their needs better through local support. Our strategy is to develop further locations based on customer needs, while continually finding ways of being more efficient in the design and delivery of our core offering of customised automated machinery. We also see additional opportunities to increase the level of support services currently provided.
“Always try to do yourself out of a job. This has always served me well as I don’t fear the future and I know there are always new interesting challenges ahead”
What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?
I am analytical and take a very structured approach to my work. I work very well under pressure which is a key requirement in the fast-moving environment that we operate in. I also am able to take a long-term, strategic perspective which helps when short term pressures can easily dominate our agenda.
What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?
I have worked with some great people throughout my career. Cadbury Schweppes was always a very supportive environment, willing to empower and believe in individuals with a culture of respect and accountability which has been invaluable. Having strong leaders, formal mentors as well as great managers and colleagues has been invaluable. I can still recall interactions at early stages in my career with people like then Cadbury Schweppes chair Dominic Cadbury, which gave me confidence and had a huge and lasting impact on my ongoing commitment to succeed.
What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?
Always try to do yourself out of a job. This has always served me well as I don’t fear the future and I know there are always new interesting challenges ahead.
What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?
I think everyone needs to define what success is for them and it is wrong to have a narrow view of this, and undoubtedly it changes over time as circumstances change. I believe success is measured in personal satisfaction which can be about delivering goals but also taking pride in being a good person, having good relationships with others and contributing to society generally. I think this can apply to both business and private life as ultimately everything we do should have meaning.
“When times or events look bleakest, that is often when the best in people will come out”
What was the most challenging aspect of either starting or growing the business?
People! Have great people is the key to success, finding them and retaining them is a greater challenge than ever before.
How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?
We continued to operate as normal through the pandemic as we were considered an essential business as were all our customers who are largely in the Medical Device sector. There were challenges in the early days as we had to quickly put in place processes and procedures to protect everyone, but everyone pulled together as a team with minimal disruption.
Communication was key to offer reassurance while taking on board feedback and continuously assessing risks.
The key lessons I learned are to deal with everything factually and that when there is uncertainty, it is easy for panic to set in. I also learned that when times or events look bleakest, that is often when the best in people will come out.
“I don’t believe in regrets, but it is important to learn from mistakes”
How has digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?
As an automation company, we always to adapt the latest technology available. Over recent years, we have increased the use of automation in support services such as finance and HR to do more with the same resources. I think that in recent years Irish businesses have increased their use of digital technologies but undoubtedly there is a way to go, as technologies develop rapidly. AI feels like a game changer that will undoubtedly present new challenges that we will have to embrace.
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
I don’t believe in regrets, but it is important to learn from mistakes. I have had many great opportunities and seized most of these but there are probably some experiences that I didn’t maximise to their potential at the time. I think it is an ongoing personal challenge to do everything as well as I possibly can and make the most out of every day.
Who inspires you in business today?
I am reluctant to pick one person – I am conscious no one is perfect. I frequently read or hear interviews with people as I feel very inspired. Often these people are not in business, but their life lessons can apply. I recently heard an interview with Amanda Blanc the CEO of Aviva UK – I didn’t know anything about her before but I found her journey to the role fascinating and the challenges she has faced – and overcome – as a woman leading an FTSE company inspiring.
What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation
I always recommend to new hires to be curious – always ask questions and continue to do so. Sometimes our egos, experience or role titles lure us into a false sense of knowledge but everyone has something to learn and learnings to pass on to others. Related to this, I also emphasise the importance of open and clear communication, as well as taking an analytical approach to problem solving, as our business is, in a nutshell, all about finding solutions.
What business books do you read or would recommend?
I don’t read many business books but I do dip in and out of self-help books and biographies of people I admire. I would recommend features like “Lunch with…” in the Financial Times on a Saturday which is an enjoyable read with interesting international figures from the business, arts and political world sharing their perspective on life.
What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?
I use tools that I think everyone has on their PC – I use the Microsoft To-do app (populating content using tags across MS Office), One Note, the clock timer and calendar to schedule activities.
Aside from that I use pen and paper to jot down thoughts, notes and reminders.
What social media platforms do you prefer and why?
I use Twitter most as I can target it to get the views and updates from people close to sources that are relevant to my interests. I try to be an early adopter of technologies and have used most platforms from their early days, but I try not to use social media as a way of passing time as it can just consume all your time. I also am conscious of the downsides of social media so I try to limit my use overall.
What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?
Technology is changing so rapidly and its use by each generation (or even smaller age cohort) is so different. This undoubtedly won’t change and probably will just continue to get faster. This is a huge challenge for everyone to keep up and ahead but it is a challenge we can shirk away from if businesses are to succeed and grow.
KAON Automation always actively adopts new technology to offer the best solutions for customers and we see this continuing as technologies evolve. We have been involved in providing machinery to the new Digital Manufacturing Ireland facility in Limerick which is a collaboration with the IDA and industry to showcase Ireland as a digitally enabled industry location.
Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self – knowing what you know now – what would it be?
Be positive and confident – the future is great and only gets better with each passing year.