Here is a Fireside Chat with Alan Wheal, Group CEO at EA-RS Fire Group Ltd. This interview touches on how the pandemic led to virtual meetings which have transformed the way many people work in the Fire Industry, how empowering employees through shared ownership of a business improves their job satisfaction and productivity and how patience and perseverance are key to succeeding.

17 August 2021 by Adam Richardson, General Manager

 Fireside Chat with Alan Wheal

Intro: I am the founder of EA-RS Fire Group. I have enjoyed seeing the business develop since 1997. I have 3 boys that keep me fit.
My passion is skiing and boating, traveling is my hobby. 

  • How have you been affected by COVID-19?
  • We actually feel blessed and a bit ashamed to say that Covid has made a positive impact on us.  Two reasons really, one personally, I was spending a lot of time making un-needed physical visits out of habit, so we’ve stopped all of that and we’re now using technology to communicate in a way which most would have accused us of being too lazy to meet in person before Covid, we don’t know whether it’s going to get to a point where it stays like this, but if it stays like this and only the necessary visits come back a little bit, we’ll be in a fantastic place.  We just don’t want it to go back to the old way of habits e.g.: “I’ll see you next week” we know that travelling is not great for the environment, but also waiting for meetings delays decisions when you’re dealing with things a week later, so everything’s pushed back, this way of remote working is more instant, decisions are made instantly. The impact of Covid on our business has been huge and because we’re in the fire safety market and we’re maintaining a lot of critical infrastructure environments, these have been booming because of 5G primarily but also because of zoom, teams, cloud storage and what have you.  We don’t like saying we’re great, but we are, it actually feels horrible saying we are given the suffering of many businesses.  I find when our backs are against the wall, we can pivot quickly and find more energy to drive change, we’re doing some pretty special things that we didn’t even think would be possible.  I guess that’s just a cultural shift, it’s about having to do it, not necessarily asking the business to change for no particular reason.

    Personally, we moved to Southern Spain in 2019 and I was commuting every week for 3 weeks of the month and then spending 10 days here catching up with office stuff, doing what I was doing, I really got used to it, travelling in on a Monday and then out on a Thursday, but of course, you’ve got 12 hours a week of travelling backwards and forwards in airports and with Covid when it happened to me, it made me sit still for the first time in my life, my wife got to know me better, I had my son over for 2 or 3 months, it’s almost like your habitual process, what you were taught to do when you were younger can’t change unless there’s something that makes it change, there has to be a big event in your life and I think sitting still has made me a much calmer person.  I’m less stressed, I think better and I know my relationships with the people around me are better because I’ve now got time for them. 

Personal Questions

  • Do you have any pets?

I do, we’ve got a little dog a cross between a border terrier and a miniature schnauzer, called Le , she was our office dog until I moved to Spain.  She’s very quiet and very calm, she just loves being with us. 

  • What’s your favourite movie of all time?

I had to think about this because I do like a bit of adrenaline but I watched a movie about 3 or 4 years ago and it was called Lion.  It was set in India.  It was about a boy that was 4 or 5 years old who begged his brother to take him to work one evening, so they cycled to work on his brother’s bike, his brother left him asleep at work and when the boy woke up, he got up and wandered off and got on a train at the platform and fell asleep again, the train left the next morning to cross India and the was lost for 30 something years.  He was adopted and taken to Australia and lived with his family there and just couldn’t get his head around why he couldn’t locate his real family.  So, he went on this mission to find his family and it nearly drove him insane looking at the country on a map trying to figure out where he might have lived. The storyline sees him back in India finding his family.  A remarkable, true story.  It’s a really powerful film. 

  • Describe yourself as a teenager in 3 words?

Inquisitive, Strong-willed, impatient.

  • What is your biggest pet peeve/hate? 

Thieves and liars.

  • If you could be from any other decade (or era), which would it be and why?

It would be the 1930’s.  Just after the great depression in New York.  I would like to have lived through that period. I think it’s a remarkable time in the history of the world.  I would like to have watched the way they built New York, how the mafia operated.  It was a dangerous time to live there and industrialisation was happening. I just think when we look at how much things have moved in building properties like the Empire state building etc, it was incredible.

  • What is your favourite quote and why? 

My favourite quote is from a mentor of mine that passed away.  ‘Imbecile’s turn into geniuses when trying to explain how not to do something'.  He said just be careful of the imbeciles.  He’s right, they suddenly become very intelligent explaining how not to get things done, explaining why they didn’t do something and explaining why something is too big to do they are people I try to avoid.  In business, it tries to avoid people that don’t like a challenge because they’re too safe and they try to talk me out of doing something that seems impossible to them. I guess it’s a mindset and we all different.

  • If you weren’t in the fire industry – what would you be doing and why?

I would have been an airline pilot or in the Royal Airforce.  I think when I was coming out of school, the airlines weren’t the airlines of today.  You have to be pretty special to get into the forces as a pilot or you had to have a lot of money to go and train as a commercial airline pilot and we just didn’t have the money and I’m not sure I was special enough.  There’s no doubt that if I had my time again, I would definitely train to be a commercial airline pilot.

  • What’s on your Spotify or iTunes?

I’m a Phil Collins fan.  I like the Motown era and I’ve got quite a lot of reggae, UB40 and some of the softer reggae.

  • If you could have any three people (dead or alive) over for dinner – who would they be?

Richard Branson, love him or hate him, tax exile or not, what a visionary as a human being.  There aren’t that many people with personalities that make it big in the UK and I liked the way he used his brand and himself to do some mental things to get the early notoriety needed – also Branson is not a workaholic you can just tell by his family. Then I like Bill Gates.  Clearly, there is something about Bill Gates that is super special. Then Elon Musk, he’s a maverick but he’s a complete genius who’s probably the single biggest risk-taker I’ve ever seen.  We need these types of people to shift the tide.

It would be an interesting dinner party. It wouldn’t just revolve around business, these are visionaries, they have changed the world.  They don’t just want business.  They want to change the way we are as human beings, the way we live, the way we think and that’s different to business.

  • What two things would you take to a Desert Island?

My Wife and my phone if it would work.  I couldn’t live on a desert island without communication to the outside world.

  • Name a book, movie or tv show that has positively shaped you and why?

I think I read ‘Seven habits of highly successful people’ by Stephen Covey when I was about 25.  Now you can listen to it on audio so I do that.  But there’s also the next versions of it because it was written so long ago, our habits have changed because of technology and now there’s an enhancement to the book on the way in which ‘Seven habits of highly successful people’ adopt or don’t adopt technology to be highly successful and I’m not saying I’m highly successful by the way, I’m nowhere near, but one of the things I did want to know about is how people got became successful.  It’s a really good and smart book. 

  •  If you were an animal, what would it be and why?

An elephant. They’re brilliant and they’re more like humans than we know, what’s going on with them with their ivory trade is catastrophic. In parts of the world, kids are getting killed, animals have no chance if we’re killing human beings, do they?  They can’t tell you how scared they are and they can’t tell you how scared they are that one of their family has been killed. I do feel very sad when I see the culling of these beautiful creatures.

  • What is the best gift you’ve ever received?

I really struggled to think of this because I’m not a sort of gifty person and so I’ve never really asked for anything. In terms of gifts, we all look at material things I think, but I was given the gift of working with somebody that had 25 years more experience than I did in business management and he gave me the gift of his time. He didn’t charge me, he just literally picked me up from where I was and said “I’m going to teach you to be something you’re not.”  He was massively influential as a friend and mentor, he’s not with us anymore, God bless him, but probably most days something will happen in my day and I’d think “What would Tim have done, or what would Tim have said?” He gave me the book we mentioned earlier, the quote I quoted earlier was one of his and in a sense, he linked me to Bill Gates, I knew about Bill Gates way before he was doing too much with Microsoft because he was a multimedia trainer for Microsoft before it was really in the UK.  So, all these things, when I look at it, I guess are linked to Tim.

  • What's your favourite thing in your closet right now?

My exercise trainers. I look at them and think I’ve got to get in them. I think if I want to live the last third of my life healthily, I’ve got to do it.  There’s no choice. 

  • If you could have one superpower, what would it be?

It would be to mind reading and stop the lying, deceit and thieving.  It drives me nuts.  I know the world is a dog eat dog world, but we’ve got ethics, well, you would hope. We’ve all got a moral compass and in my world, there’s no need for it.  It creates chaos in a business when you’re looking at things and trying to figure out what’s going on, why are we losing money in places etc, when actually, if the person steeling just came to me and asked for it, I would probably give it to them anyway. 

Professional Questions

  • What time did you get to work this morning?

6.30 am.  I don’t always start that early, I’m a late worker, rather than an early riser, primarily because we’re an hour ahead here in Spain. But I knew I had some things to prepare for this morning, one of them being this and we’re doing a lot of integration planning on this business we’ve bought, I don’t want to get on to meetings and not have anything prepared.  I normally get up between 7.30 and 8.30 am our time here. I need sleep, there’s no doubt.

  • What does your usual day look like?

Zoom, Teams, reading emails. I get between 200 and 300 emails a day.  I read every one, but I make sure from a communication point of view that we have an open-door policy in the business and therefore I need to read every email, just-in-case a member of staff is in a dark place or a client has an issue and needs to speak to me about something. I’m not a micromanager but I’m always open for communication if they need me. It’s a lot of emails, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.  It’s more about seeing what’s going on, it’s not always about me or to me or that needs a response from me, but where the team are making a big decision, they’ll copy me in just for my information, I guess it is just so they haven’t got to spend an hour at the end of the day updating me on what they’ve been up to. 

  • What makes you excited about the future of this industry?

Seeing people become successful, I don’t measure success on financial terms because I believe that financial comes after being happy and good at what we do.  So, providing we can drive culture through our businesses where there’s a happy working environment, where people are getting livelihoods secured and they do have a family life, then so long as they’re good at what they do, and they’re willing to do it then money follows, the more successful people we make, the happier I am in the business, and the better place the business is. I like sharing the businesses wealth with the leaders of the businesses, they might never own it because they didn’t take the risk or have the money to get into the business themselves, but they still put their life and soul into it. Just because they’re unfortunate enough not to have built it themselves, should it mean, they shouldn’t own a piece of it? That’s what excites me about what we’re doing, we’re developing business in a way that is not about getting the last pound of flesh out of people.  People work harder and stay for longer because they’re enjoying it. It’s that simple. 

  • What is the latest technology/invention/innovation you would like brought into the fire industry?

I think what matters to me in the fire safety industry is that what we have achieved in 20/30 years in the commercial sector through accreditations, certification and best practice, is an amazing achievement and the challenge of the next decade is to overlay that expertise into the high-rise housing and the high-rise accommodation market. That to me is the next phase of fire safety.  It’s got to be picking up the pieces, not just because of Grenfell, not just because of cladding, but the whole of the social housing sector or the high-rise building sector and getting it right the first time.  That’s why I’m in this industry and I’ll stay in it until I can see and help to make improvements.  Then we can save more people’s lives hopefully.  There needs to be a cultural shift from money-making opportunities to true life safety.  Let’s face it, if done properly we can make money too, none of our clients wants us to install systems and disappear.

If you do something properly you have to be able to make money, if you can’t, someone in the middle is taking it and it is that middle paymaster that we have to get out of the way IF they do not add value to the process.  So, there’s a lot to do and it’s not an overnight fix, but we’ll just keep taking baby steps until the change is made and until people feel safer and they are saying, we do feel safer in our own homes. 

  • What do you like about the fire industry?

I don’t like everything everyone does in the industry but if done well fire is a fantastic industry to be in,  at the end of the day, we’re in a big wide world, really all we’ve got to do is look after the way we deal with our customers and what-ever anyone else is doing is their business, having said that more recently we’ve been doing quite a lot of work with Ian and some of the other industry leaders to try and get some real clarification as to what these industry bodies do, what the FIA does and tries to do, what BAFE does and what are the benefits to the buyer that’s decided to check for system and services that are certified under that body. 

Certification is definitely helping but we have much more to do. We found that fragmentation and a lack of buyer awareness around the industries certification bodies were too confusing for the end-user, This is where Igneo was born, it is really fascinating, my son and I were locked down together in Covid and we sort of sat there saying “Well, we’ve got time, let’s figure out what we see the industry needs”. In terms of fragmentation, it’s awful It just occurred to us that if only a few people within our own businesses know anything about the accreditation schemes that we have on our own websites, how can buyers outside of the fire industry know what they are needed for and so there’s a job to do here.  How do we get an education piece going where the client can find out where the best-accredited companies are?  Where the best accredited companies are for each of the disciplines in the fire industry? Which is massively broad. So, it’s how can we get that breadth into a really clear matrix so the customer can go and best buy at any time.  It’s like a go compare for the fire industry. 

Also, how many companies claim to be FIA members and not actually paying their subscription? There is no way of policing millions of websites. So, this has grown legs because it’s certainly turned from a really good go compare to a go compare and police and be a secure site for the accreditation and certification bodies. We’re always referencing backwards and forwards with your membership schedules, so we know if anyone has got you (the FIA) on their website and is using your name and your brand to sell work.  You’d be surprised how many vehicles have got the FIA logo on and how many websites have got FIA on and how many companies using the FIA brand and then not paying the right subscriptions fees because the FIA doesn’t know what their turn-over is. It’s really, really messy and that’s just happening in 900 or so memberships of the FIA.  There are thousands in BAFE, there are thousands in the NIC, there are thousands in all of the others. There might be 20 different accreditations. 

  • How does your work and family life come together?

This is a really tough one, I’ve never been a balanced one in terms of work and home life. I’m offended when people call me a workaholic because I do put the general work down at the weekends. I never rush to the office or sit here doing loads of work at weekends. That’s the rules, I’m not doing that.  I do have my phone still on and I do read a few emails and catch up on a few bits that I might have forgotten or a bit of communication here and there. Generally, I’m there at the weekends for the family.  But I can fall into the trap of just not being there, you know I’m there physically, but I’m still not there. I think that’s the hardest thing with communication these days is we are addicted to our phones.  I definitely know I panic when I lose it. I’ve got to get more balanced around it. Definitely. 

Relating to technology using us as opposed to us using it, it is, it’s because it’s all on the same device. If you had to go on and log onto your laptop to get to your emails, you wouldn’t do it at the weekends.  But because it’s sitting right next to your app on your phone you get that whole idea of clicking on it just in case. It’s too accessible and I think that’s what we’ve got to do in the next ten years is work out what that communication balance to give people their lives back. I suspect what’s going to happen is people start doing 4-day weeks. The Europeans have been doing 4-day weeks for a long time, 4 days on 4 days off. I think it’s the only way if I’m honest.  It has to be radical. 

  • What would you tell yourself at the age of 21?

I would say be patient. Stick to your belief and it’ll come. As opposed to fronting it and trying different things. Persevere.

  • What motivates you?

Altruistic, helping people and unconditionally giving without receiving anything back.

  • Where do you want to be in 5 years?

I want to see the housing market getting as good as the commercial market in the fire safety world.  I’d still be working for that cause. I have no doubt we’ll be further down that line in 5 years time, technology is going to speed us up. Adoption is what we need. 

  • Why is the FIA important to you and the industry?

I think to all of us we need an industry association, we need something to guide the clients to validate the good companies, without it, it would be chaos. I think why it’s important to us because we’re serious about what we do and we expect to be on the list and making sure the list is valid in and of itself.  That’s the age-old problem, thieving, whether I’m thieving a bit of time off of you or a logo off of you and I’m getting the benefit for it or whatever, it goes back to this world of how do we keep everyone honest?  If you can’t do it as an industry association, then we’re not going to be able to do it at all.

  • What do you want to say to the readers?

I’ve been in the industry a long while, 24/25 years now, we’ve been a systems house now for the last 7 and I think what I’d like to say is if you’re good at what you do, don’t worry about the others.  At some point, they will all fall away. I think insurances at the moment are going to drive the companies out of the market for not doing things properly, there’s a wave of that coming if not, already here and as long as we strive for excellence in what we do, the industry will get better. 

If you would like to get involved with Fireside Chats please contact Adam Richardson on [email protected].

*All answers given are not reflective of the FIA views and thoughts and are that of the individual who was interviewed.