Interview with Seán Cullinane - HR Director, Synergy Security Solutions

Posted in : HR Interview Series on 7 November 2018
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Issues covered:

Seán Culliane

Name: Seán Cullinane

Position & Organisation: HR Director, Synergy Security Solutions.

Number of Employees: 1100

Time in Post: 15 Years.

Previous Job: District Manager, Iarnrod Eireann, Cork. 

Tell us about your business in a sentence. 

Synergy are the largest indigenous manned security providers in the country.

Give us an idea about your early life and career?

Commenced with CIE as a clerical officer in 1969 at their Cork offices.
Promoted to HQ, Connolly Station the following year.
Worked in Central Rail Control – Planning & Operations.
1979- Assistant Station Manager, Heuston Station.
1980- Station Manager, Connolly Station.
1984- District Manager, West of Ireland.
1987- District Manager, Cork
1996 – Coordinator Public Transport (Bus & Rail)

What are the key challenges you face in your role?

The security industry is well known for its low wages and high staff turnover. The fact that by its very nature it operates 24/7/365 does not help. Absenteeism and non-attendance are major issues that have to be confronted on a daily basis throughout the industry. The wage rates are so low, currently €11.35 per hour, that in order to bring them into line with the national industrial wage, the security industry wages rates are governed by a Joint Labour Committee specifically for the industry.
Our high level of employment nationally does not help our situation. With wage rates just in excess of the minimum rate, it is a major challenge to attract and retain staff.
However, that is the challenge and considering we are the market leaders and intend on staying there, I have full confidence that we will succeed and even grow our business further. I will lead that growth by truly promoting the Human Resources in Synergy.

What keeps you going when things get tough?

I seem to get more energy when facing such obstacles. At my age, I have seen and managed it all before.
I know my capabilities and I am fully au-fait with the rules in so far as the “do’s and don’ts” are concerned.
I hold a business qualification which has added to my skills net so I never seek to buy my way out of trouble which of course rarely works.
My confidence comes from years of experience, my educational qualifications, including Bachelor of Civil Law from UCC, Member of the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and a Practicing Member of The Mediators Institute of Ireland. I really do not fear these situations and see mediation as a most useful tool in resolving employee disputes.

If you could do any job in the world, what would it be?

Peacemaker. Getting people with different views and in conflict with each other to come together for the purpose of resolving their issues.

Who do you most admire in business locally and/or internationally? Why?

There are two people that fall into that category for me. One is my brother, Theo, CEO, of BAM Contractors, the largest building and civil contractors in the state. This status has been achieved since he took over as CEO about 10 years ago. A visit to their website at will give you an insight of their growth during that period.
However, and brotherly love apart, I am selecting my colleague at Synergy Security Solutions, Ken O Reilly as the person I admire most in business. Ken is joint owner of the company and in my opinion has been the person that brought us from single figures in the 1990s to the 1100 staff we now have on our books.

He has overseen our business grow from a very humble beginning in Cork to national coverage in Ireland and a presence now in a number of European cities.
Clients include both public sector and private sector blue chip organisations.
Together we have mastered the art of Public Procurement and now have a host of state, semi-state and local authorities on our books. From the private sector, our clients include, Apple, Google, Brown Thomas/Arnotts, Boots and we are the main providers to the Pharma industry.

Our growth has also developed my skill in relation to the Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employees (TUPE) which as you will be aware is complex and sensitive when it occurs. However, Ken has always insisted, and it is now part of our ethos, that our staff comes first in terms of Health & Safety, conditions, welfare and their work/ life balance. In an industry that is known for its low pay regime, we have managed to ensure that our staff turnover figures are the lowest over a consistently long period of time. This, coupled with our training programmes, gives Synergy the added value and value for money that clients require when deciding on their security providers.
Ken has always strove to be the market leader in the industry and his leadership qualities which are well recognised will keep Synergy at the top for many years to come.

How do you unwind after a tough week?

I have a huge interest in GAA, Rugby and Soccer, attending as many games as possible. I have five grandchildren and enjoy their company. Reading legal and HR literature.

What’s your top office/business bugbear?

Poor timekeeping.

What are the key characteristics of your top performing employees?

Attitude, flexibility, a will to learn and respect for others.

What skills are essential for a top career in HR and will these still be the same in 5 years time?

Understanding of people. Always get the two sides of a story before making a decision. Treat everyone with respect irrespective of their views. Apply the Principles of Natural Justice / Fair Procedures at all times. Updating your educational requirements through qualifications, reading and attendance at seminars/lectures.
In my opinion, these will still be essential in 5 years time.

How did you gain an understanding of a more strategic level of HR?

Working with an industry leader like Synergy with an ever-growing workforce

What will be the key skills for leading HR practitioners in 5 years’ time?

Core skills such as respect for others will always be key to any successful HR leader.

What piece of advice would you give to a person trying to reach your position?

Do not force your views on others, let your knowledge, experience and your ability to get the best out of people flow naturally from you. Always keep up to date with modern practices and it goes without saying that relevant employment law legislation and case law is studied in detail.

Looking back at your career to date, what were the key elements in your jump from Clerical Officer with CIE to HR Director with Synergy Security?

  • The skill of getting on well with people.
  • Be accepted by those over and under you.
  • Fair and transparent at all times.
  • A knowledge of the functions/ disciplines that you are participating in.

How should employers here deal with skills shortages in certain sectors, particularly IT?

Remote Working, Housing Subsidies, Health contributions. Flexible Hours, Crèche Facilities. The sector must be attractive for people wanting to participate. To obtain the necessary qualifications at the outset and then become part of the workforce by applying for jobs and securing attractive employment

Thinking of your experience to date in the world of HR, what changes would you say have affected your role most?

After 40 years there have been many changes. Acts passed by the Oireachtas in relation to improving the rights for workers are always welcome. Discrimination legislation and Equality legislation along with the various Codes of Practice have all improved the working conditions of our people. National Wage Agreements, Joint Labour Committees have given people a right to wage increases which if not in place, they would not receive.

All of the above were at the time of their introduction seen as major changes in the way we do things. Responsibility for such change usually fell on the HR people to study, understand and implement.

What has been your biggest working challenge so far?

The advertising, recruitment, selection and training of security staff to provide our services to a wide range of clients with different requirements in both the public and private sectors including multinationals

What would be the key piece of advice you would give to people considering a career in human resources?

It is tough but very rewarding. You will have to make decisions which will affect people depending on your decision. You will be the bearer of good news, promotions for example or bad news such as redundancies. Reduction in staff numbers is always under review and that can carry a lot of pressure. However, overall there are
far more positives than negatives and in my opinion a very worthwhile career.

What is your proudest career achievement to date?

Apart from the fact that in July 1996, Cork Chamber of Commerce selected me as “Business Person of the Month” I enjoyed every facet of my career stretching over 4 decades. This year I was awarded a special recognition for my 20 years as a Member of the CIPD.

What benefits do staff value most in your organisation?

In a low paid industry such as security, staff must have the confidence to know with certainty that their wages will be in their bank accounts every Thursday; Our training programmes both internally and externally which we provide free of charge; They can discuss freely and in full confidence with senior management any issues they may have.

In your view what is the best thing an organisation can do to motivate staff and drive higher performance?

Empowerment plays a huge part in the motivation of staff. It gives people the confidence to know that their superiors have full and total trust in them. We all remember when we got a clap on the back from our boss in our younger days and as we say in Cork “I would eat iron for him/her”. In Synergy Security, staff are empowered but not before they are fully trained and confident in the tasks they have been delegated to carry out. Ken O Reilly has this skill in abundance so much so that the turn- over for Synergy is now in the region of €50m per annum and as a
labour intensive industry we have our happy workforce to thank.


Seán has been shortlisted in the 'Leadership in HR' category for this year's Irish HR Awards on Wednesday 6th December.

This article is correct at 07/11/2018

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