Building data centres: ‘AWS has been transformational for Ireland’
Collen Construction is an Irish, family-owned business with 211 years of history – that’s eight generations of Collen, and a truck load of industry experience.
By working with AWS as a supplier in the construction of data centres in Ireland, Collen has been able to continue its growth through challenging times, expanding their operations beyond Ireland and upskilling their team for industry best practice.
The impact of AWS investments in Ireland has been outlined recently by independent research organisation Indecon, reporting that these investments are generating economic growth of €1.45 billion per year, sustaining 8,700 jobs and unlocking export opportunities for more than 550 local suppliers.
To find out more, we spoke to Tommy Drumm, Managing Director for Collen Construction, who explains how AWS investments have been transformational – not just for his business, but for Ireland as a whole.
Growth for Collen and Ireland
Tommy first worked with Collen as a young engineer in 1978, learning his profession before leaving to travel and work around the world.
Moving back to Ireland in 2014, he re-joined the business in a “natural return home” with a brief to continue its growth by focusing on the business foundations, securing ISO standards for product quality, safety and sustainability. Rapid expansion followed, with Collen’s turnover increasing from €132m in 2015 to €368m in 2019.
AWS investments in Ireland have been transformational. We’re incredibly excited to see the impact of these investments in Ireland now and in the future.
Today, Collen has more than 350 employees across Sweden, Germany and Ireland and turnover in 2020 exceeded €420m.
However, this growth journey has not always been smooth, as Tommy explains: “The global financial crisis in 2008 was a horrendous time for Ireland. It was difficult to find any growth or jobs. But around that time, Collen also secured its first contract with AWS – and the rest is history. We were able to keep our business together, in fact we grew counter-cyclically during that financial crisis.
”Initially Collen managed AWS construction work in Ireland, giving the business an opportunity to develop strong capabilities in the data centre sector, with most of those employees still with Collen today and building their knowledge.
“This early growth is credited entirely to our work with AWS data centres,” Tommy explains. “Expanding beyond Ireland, working with AWS makes it easier for us to mobilise within a new market – they help us with local knowledge, research and supporting infrastructure.”
“The opportunities to raise the bar are possible because of AWS’s investment in Ireland. It has been transformational, the projects have been ground-breaking, and it creates a very good educational base for local talent."
Tom Parlon, CEO of the Construction Industry Federation in Ireland, has also discussed the impact of these investments: “The construction industry’s competence has long been a key attraction to foreign direct investment. Working for and with companies like AWS has been transformative technologically, culturally and reputationally for our industry. This has fuelled an export boom for construction companies. The skills we have acquired in the past decade mean we are recognised as global leaders in data centre development with exports growing by nearly 10% for the past two years.”
Keeping it in the family
Collen is a proud family-run business. Current chairman Neil Collen is the seventh generation, and Peter and Jack Collen are the eighth.
“Both are engineers – Peter is completing a PhD at Oxford and Jack joined as a young engineer three years ago,” Tommy adds, having taken Jack under his wing while he learns the ropes. “He’s focused and dedicated to learning all the different aspects of our business from the ground up. Around a year ago, we dropped Jack into an AWS project – and he’s loving it!”
Tommy also highlights Jimmy Small, a master craftsman who ran Collen’s joinery workshop, and worked for Collen for 59 years – having joined as an apprentice aged 14. “Jimmy is just one example of our long-term employees, and they show our pedigree and loyalty as a family business. In fact, Jimmy’s father also worked for Collen.”
How do you build a data centre?
The construction of a data centre is carefully planned to ensure maximum efficiency and to reduce carbon emissions.
On-site, building a data centre involves a huge range of tradespeople and specialist skills at any one time – including civil engineering leaders, site managers, dedicated tradespeople and team leaders with mechanical-electrical skills.
“Speed, timing and planning are all vital!” Tommy explains. The process includes erecting a steel framework, a mechanical and electrical fit-out, ‘system resilience’ testing, and a test and commission phase to ensure any equipment required to be on standby will function as needed.
"This process really illustrates the success behind AWS – robust processes, resilient technology, and futureproof facilities,” Tommy adds.
Tommy’s own background is as a chartered civil engineer, and David Lee, Collen’s construction director, started out over 30 years ago as an apprentice carpenter for the company, as did his father before him. “When you learn these skills by hand over many years, we find you have an innate sense for good work – no matter how much the technology evolves or changes.”
Skills and diversity in Ireland
Collen Construction and AWS share a commitment to diversity and inclusion across their organisations. In particular, Tommy sees a need for change in the construction industry’s gender balance and is on a mission to change this.
As former president of the Master Builders’ and Contractors’ Association, he enacted a number of initiatives to address gender diversity. For example, he nominated the organisation’s first female president in its history, and Kara Stuart, Company Secretary, chairs Collen’s Diversity & Equality Committee.
“Although female employees make up 19% of Collen’s workforce across all departments, in Irish construction as a whole, approximately 8% of employees are female. To attract female talent, we have to do more in primary education, apprenticeships and new forms of funding for technical training.”
Collen is already providing funds for a new programme with Technical University Dublin, and the business has opened its own ‘Centre of Excellence’ for data centres by refurbishing its offices, which enables teaching, research and development in areas such as mechanical-electrical systems and quality assurance to happen all in one place. Expertise, experience and skills unlocked for Collen by AWS have been integral in making this a possibility.
Committed to sustainable construction
Sustainability is a key issue in construction, and Tommy feels organisations like AWS are playing a vital role in pushing industry standards ever higher.
“Working with AWS has shown us how best-in-class organisations can actually outstrip government guidelines on sustainability,” he explains. “In simple terms, governments have guidelines, but AWS provides even more rigorous specifications that we must work to. Those high standards from an organisation like AWS are driving change.”
“When the environment is considered at the start of a project, it’s also considered throughout the build. AWS’s commitment to sustainability ripples through our business and many others,” Tommy adds.
Tommy sees the proactive stance taken by Amazon and AWS around The Climate Pledge as a game-changer: “When companies like Amazon make a very clear statement of intent, it doesn’t just force the agenda forwards, it also has a tangible and meaningful impact on all the businesses involved in their supply chain. It forces the industry to bring solutions that are continually improved, and then those innovations can be scaled and replicated globally.”
Looking ahead, Tommy’s optimistic about the future, as Collen’s relationship with AWS drives higher standards in areas such as efficiency, sustainability and innovation.
“AWS investments in Ireland have been transformational. We’re incredibly excited to see the impact of these investments in Ireland now and in the future.”