No rest for the Freeman

John Killeen (right) with son Jonathon and Liam Henry, manager Cold Chon, Oranmore with the International Firms Regatta trophy won in France recently.  Photo: Joe Travers.

John Killeen (right) with son Jonathon and Liam Henry, manager Cold Chon, Oranmore with the International Firms Regatta trophy won in France recently. Photo: Joe Travers.

Time waits for no man, and Galway’s newest freeman of the city, John Killeen, is already setting new goals and pushing more boundaries.

Top of the list is the return of the Volvo Ocean Race 2012; a new deep-sea port outside the current city docks; a possible race between twin city Lorient and Galway to coincide with the Volvo finale; and a race between dhows, the traditional sailing boats of new host city Dubai, and Irish currachs. The list goes on, but Killeen, just like the Everyready bunny, says while he has the energy, he will keep on going.

The 62-years-old attributes his desire to achieve to his genetic make-up. Growing up in Taughmaconnell, Co Roscommon, he could have turned to farming, but instead it was engineering that engaged his interest, and, without doubt, it has influenced his approach to everything in his life.

“Engineering training gives you the skills to analyse situations and then find solutions. When you are actually faced with a difficulty, someone might offer one solution and argue for it, but the engineering skills help you to look at a range of solutions,” he says.

Crucially, it also helps in negotiations, and was particularly necessary when it came to securing the Volvo stopover and ensuring the event ran successfully.

“People might think it was a very smooth and efficiently run event, but it had lots of serious problems. We had to think very laterally to come up with solutions. Innovation should be applied more widely than just as a research tool.”

While the Green Dragon was approaching Rio de Janeiro in last year’s race, Let’s Do It Galway accountant, Robert Dix of KPMG, was telling them to pull the plug.

“Many times around the world he was telling us ‘guys you have stop, you can’t go any further’, but we’d say ‘no we are going to do it’. It’s like a game of rugby and there’s only another three yards to the line - it was pushing for those few yards all the time that made the difference.”

Let’s Do It Galway’s Eamon Conneely had the unenviable job of flying to Brazil to inform the crew their wages had to be halved.

“We had to get the guys to accept it, not walk the plank, which was a hard decision to make. It took a lot of innovation to ensure the guys would continue and not lose the spirit of the team. Yet they stayed with the ship, and when they regrouped in Boston and started to get into the spirit of coming to Galway, they grasped it and got a result on that leg that was really beyond the boat’s capabilities.”

Budget played a crucial part in the hugely successful festival at the docks.

Volunteers were the key

“You can only play the hand you have, and we had hoped to bring international events for the festival, but our budget was cut in half. I remember debating using volunteers to man the village instead of professionals, and we turned to NUIG for help and it turned out to be enormously successful. They were wonderful ambassadors and added a new dimension - people were being directed by people who were not in authority but by a friendly face.”

Despite his Roscommon roots, Killeen did not need a civic award to feel like a Galwayman.

“After 35 years I have adopted Galway, and now Galway has adopted me. It’s a fantastic honour and certainly one I accepted with great gratitude and humility. Really I accepted the honour on behalf of the team and that team includes all the people of Galway because without the role they played the event would not have been a success.”

Although very much a public figure now, John Killeen has been more used to working behind the scenes since graduating from UCD where he studied civil engineering before completing a masters in industrial engineering at UCG.

He was soon thrust into the deep end when he worked on the tunnel project in Dublin - known as the Grand Canal scheme - which carried all the sewage from Dublin to the seas.

“That was the biggest project of its time and I was got a lot of experience before I was entitled to do so. The project manager was Scottish and because of the troubles in the North he was reticent to reside in the Republic, so at a very junior age I was thrust into running a project.”

When he returned west of the Shannon, he worked with the Roscommon County Council which industrialised Athlone’s west side - a “model for development which I suppose was different to that used during the Celtic Tiger. In our case the council bought the land, rezoned it, and sold it off”.

Then Killeen moved to Galway, joining the business sector and Cold Chon in the mid-seventies, which at the time was a small entity servicing the west of Ireland.

“When I first arrived in Galway I wondered what I had done to my career because I was in a very different non-industrialised area before. But I soon realised it was a business that had to be turned around, refocused, and certainly in the last 25 years it has become the market leader throughout Ireland.”

The company, now Colas (Ireland ) Ltd of which he is CEO, is one of the leading three in the world for manufacturing chemical for exports, while another arm Atlantic Bitumen supplies most of the major projects in Ireland.

Killeen believes the success of the business helped him receive recognition from his peers - he was elected president of the Institute of Engineers of Ireland and was subsequently a founder of the Irish Academy of Engineers, a body that advises Government agencies.

“Being known nationally has helped because it’s a national business, and it is now a very successful business. People say ‘if you can do well in one thing, then you can do well in another”, and certainly success leads to success.”

Also new for Killeen when he arrived in Galway was the sea, and it didn’t take long before he approached sailing with the same drive and enthusiasm.

“It was 1975 and I met a few friends who invited me out sailing. I then got myself a boat, started sailing to the extent that I won most of the trophies after six or seven years trying. Then I started going further afield - England, Scotland, France.”

With four children Erin, Clodagh, Jonathon and Mark, Killeen has spent most of his family leisure time involved in sailing.

Just back from France with Jonathon, Killeen’s latest success was at the International Firms Regatta. Chartering a boat “to suit the conditions”, the victory was his third in 15 years of the competition.

Sailing is for everyone

Killeen accepts money has helped him to fulfil his sailing ambitions, but believes anyone can become involved. For more than 20 years Killeen and Enda O’Coineen have joined forces to promote sailing in Ireland - projects that included the Pride of Galway sail training vessel and now the Irish Youth Trust that took over the Lord Rankin in Belfast, which continues to offer sailing opportunities to young people - particularly from deprived backgrounds.

“Certainly I believe we have to give something to young people to get them involved. The schools’ project, which was Enda’s idea, resulted in some 15,000 schoolchildren visiting the Volvo Race Village. I believe they will have some interaction with the sea as a result - just like Green Dragon bowman Justin Slattery who first got involved in sailing when his father took him to see NCB Ireland.”

O’Coineen and himself have formed a unique partnership throughout the years - one built on their mutual love of the sea and their different personalities.

“Enda and I are a great partnership I suppose because we are so different. Enda is outgoing, has unflappable energy, says how it is, is up front, and you like it or you don’t. I am the other extreme - I look for solutions, different ways to do things. I suppose I am a bit more political in the sense I consider what other people are thinking, try to take their views on board, and find a solution to suit everyone. He is probably more the dreamer and I am the practitioner.”

Add in Eamon Conneely, who had put together a World Championship winning crew - “one of the great achievements of Irish sailing that didn’t get the recognition it deserved”, and the Let’s Do It Galway dream was born and delivered.

An integral part of the Volvo stopover was Killeen’s involvement with the Galway Docklands Redevelopment Committee and former Galway Harbour Company CEO, Tom O’Neill.

“We realised the existing docks were too small for the future, but we had to have a new vision. Initially it was to move the tanks out of the dock area and then to get a big event that would cement the new relationship between the city and the docks.

“This is a very valuable asset we have - initially there were some sceptics who viewed it as intrusion into their commercial business. The docks were solely commercial and they were very protective of it. But now they have embarked on a new course and moving outside the existing docks will help them. Now you have the essence of a marina in the docks, a nice walkway around it, and it can become the amphitheatre of the city. That’s where we are heading and the quicker the better.”

Planning is expected to go to An Bord Pleanala later this year.

“There is a general acceptance in Dublin, and a huge acceptance in Galway by everyone that this has to be done. It will give new life to the city, be economically advantageous, attract more tourism, and more events like the Powerboat Festival this weekend.

“We are slow to do things in Ireland - there is an attitude, why should we have to move forward? But the world moves on, nothing stands still.”

Without dreams, he says, nothing would be achieved, but it also requires single-mindedness.

“I suppose I limit the dreams by what I can achieve. There is a practical approach. Yes, I push the boundaries to the limit, but I also consider what is practically achievable. I do get impatient if I am not achieving what I want to achieve - time won’t wait for you. It does require a lot of energy and I hope I can keep doing that.”

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