Here is a Fireside Chat with Donald MacFarlane, Commercial Director for the Commercial Fire Division at Honeywell. This interview touches on how self-testing detectors are about to change the fire industry, how working hard was instilled in him from his parents and the joys of managing a team in spite of how difficult it can be.

25 May 2021 by Adam Richardson, General Manager

 Fireside Chat with Donald MacFarlane - Honeywell


Intro: Donald McFarlane is the current Commercial Director for the Commercial Fire Division for Honeywell (Gent, Notifier, Morley, SMS & Export). Starting in the industry at the age of 16 years old. He has been with Honeywell for 23 years (originally it was Chloride Gent, then Novar & eventually, Honeywell). His biggest achievement was playing a part in building Gent 24 from a start-up business to the success it is just now. The proudest moment of his professional career is when he was promoted and took on all the Honeywell Brands. Outside of work, Donald is a big football fan (Hibernian is my team) and likes keeping fit & still runs regularly.

  • How have you been affected by COVID-19?

For me personally, I’m based in Edinburgh and our office is in Leicester.  Since March 2020, we have had a complete work from home policy.  Suddenly I’m on Teams from 7 in the morning until 7 at night, so that’s been a big change.  The same as most people probably.  It’s bizarre, you get used to it I guess, it’s not the same as meeting people and being in front of them, unfortunately.  We’re planning on just working from home for some time yet as Honeywell are always safety first.  So, it’ll be once everything’s really settled down.  I think we’re still a long way off but hopefully soon.  I’m missing seeing the people and it’s just not the same interacting remotely and on Teams.

Personal Questions

  • Do you have any pets?

I do, I have a dog, it’s a Cockapoo and it’s called Willow and she’s 3 years old.  We got her when we moved into this job because both my kids have got their own lives now and moved out of the house and my wife didn’t want to be alone 4 days

  • What’s your favourite movie of all time?

I like musicals and Les Miserables is my favourite show stage show so when it came out as a movie, I was quite struck by it.  I would prefer it to be something butch and manly but I think that would be it.  Les Mis every time it comes on, I have to watch it and it’s on for about 4 hours, so it takes up a huge chunk of your day, but it’s worth it.

  • Describe yourself as a teenager in 3 words?

Sporty, fiery, and competitive.

  • What is your biggest pet peeve/hate? 

I’ve got 2.  One is I hate being late for a meeting and I hate other people being late for meetings unless they at least let you know.  But probably the biggest one for me and I don’t know why, but I have this hatred of ringing phones especially during meetings.  Mines always on silent and it’s got vibrate on my watch and I’ll only know if people are calling me because my wrist vibrates.  It drives me nuts.  When you’re on a meeting and someone’s phone keeps going off, I don’t understand why you can’t put it on silent. 

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

I wouldn’t change at all and I was trying to think of a smart answer on this, but I’m a big football fan and my team had never won the Scottish cup since 1902 and it was becoming like a standing joke. My Dad lived his whole life and never seen them win the Scottish cup and I have, so I wouldn’t change it.  My team is a little team in Edinburgh called Hibernian and just every year they were in 10 finals and lost every single final and it was the best ever when they won, I’ve never had a feeling like it.  So, I think people like Manchester United and Barcelona fans get that feeling all the time but for a little team to win it is just unbelievable.

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

I would either be a teacher or a social worker probably because I’ve always done a lot of work with kids.  I grew up in a youth group and after I left it as a kid and stayed on as a helper and did it until I was in my late 30’s.  My kids were big swimmers so I used to do their out of the pool training.  I have always enjoyed working with kids.  I think there’s an honesty with kids that you sometimes don’t get with adults.  So, definitely, be working with kids.  With teaching, I would be a maths/arithmetic teacher.  I was always good with numbers.  Much better at numbers than I was with English and languages I was terrible at.  Definitely maths.

  • What’s on your Spotify or iTunes?

This is hard because I play keyboards (badly) so my music taste is wide-ranging.  But the ones I listen to the most are Oasis, Dire Straits, Queen, Coldplay and for an older guy I love Calvin Harris, I don’t know why but he’s right up there. It’s a huge mix.  I love my music. 

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

They would all be sportsman so it shows where my heart lies.  I would have Andy Murray, Seve Ballesteros and George Best.  Seve Ballesteros was the most iconic golfer of his era.  He was everything, he was charismatic, he was a handsome Spanish guy, he was a Ryder cup hero.  I was at St. Andrews when he won the open and he did this dance on the 18th, I was right beside him as he danced.  He was just an incredible golfer.  I like my sport.  George Best played for Hibs so I actually met him very briefly when he was drunk one day.  He should have been playing and he was drunk, so I met him.  Andy Murray, I think he’s the best sportsman we’ve ever produced, not the most charismatic, but just incredible strength to win anything in a year when you’ve got Djokovic and Nadal and Federer right up there and I think if he’d have been in any other era, he probably would have wiped the slate for years.  That would be my 3. 

  • What is your favourite quote and why? 

I would like to say my golf or I love to play golf but I went to a lot of the opens and have seen some of the great pros and I read Arnold Palmers’ book and the one he says is ‘The more I practise, the luckier I get’.  It just always rings true for me so that’s the best quote because it’s true, the more you put in, came from a really working-class family.  Everything we’ve achieved isn’t through great brains it’s just through hard work and forcing things.  That one is definitely the quote that comes to mind straight away.

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

Definitely Sky Sports and an airbed so I could lie out in the sea and enjoy the sun, I love sunbathing and being by the beach in the sun.

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

I chose a book and it was Alex Ferguson's autobiography because I think a huge part of my job is dealing with people and how you get the best out of them and I was just amazed by how he motivates people and the little details, I’ve often said it’s the little things that make the difference for people and he knew everything about everybody from their parent’s names to what motivates them to the things they did wrong to put right and he just had a way of getting the best out of people and some of the stories, when you read his book and listen to him, is just phenomenal.

I don’t think he was probably the best football guy he was just the best people guy who got the best out of average players and took great players to different levels.  Definitely Alex Ferguson.  Somebody that I know actually played for Manchester United and when he got his debut, he told his parents 3 days before their son would be dropped and he wouldn’t play again in that season, so they turned up and their son got told an hour before kick-off, phoned his Mum and Dad and his Mum and Dad were sitting in the stand.  Just the little things like that, that other Managers wouldn’t think to do.

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

I love dolphins just because I love the sea and I love seeing them come out, that would be as close as I could get. I’ve got no idea why. 

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

On my 21st I got a watch from my Dad that was engraved.  I don’t wear it very often unless we’re going somewhere nice which has been a long time through Covid.  It’s just something that’s special and sentimental, I guess.

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

Well, when you ask for a phrase, my other phrase was ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather’ there’s just inappropriate clothing and through Covid, I’d never really had all the right gear so I’ve gone out and I’ve bought good waterproofs and good boots so that I can walk the dog and spend time outside and not get wet.  It’s definitely good waterproofs and good boots.

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

It would definitely be to have the power to heal sick kids.  I think when we see kids that are ill it’s just heartbreaking.  We’ve had cancer in the family from somebody who was a kid and I would have done anything to have that superpower to heal them.  I think that would be it.  She actually is now 21 and has lots of health problems and still living a normal life and doing ok, so it was a fairly happy ending.  My mother’s old now and in hospital, my Dad had a full life and you think fantastic, long and healthy life then when you see kids that are sick, it’s just heartbreaking.  That would be my superpower.


Professional Questions

  • What's the best piece of advice you've received?

It kind of goes back to what we’ve said already, on my first day of work, my Dad drove me to drop me off.  I started work as an electrician and he just told me if you arrive every day on time, work as hard as you can, learn off the people who know more than you and if you learn from your mistakes, you’ll never go far wrong in life. So, now that’s just always stuck with me.  I’ve not been to university, I’m not saying I’m unintelligent, but I think the thing I do is work incredibly hard and give 100% every day and that’s been in my upbringing and that’s how my family were. 

My Dad worked until he was something like 84 and my Mother worked until she was in her 80’s.  They were both hard-working.  My Dad probably wasn’t the smartest guy in the world but he just worked harder than anybody else I knew and had a successful career. 

I think without that, you see the best footballers you know, the talented ones, that make it right for the top and it’s not because they’re more talented than some of the people who don’t make it, it’s because they’ve got that extra 10% that just makes a difference between being good and being fantastic. 

  • What time did you get to work this morning?

So, working from home I usually start around about 7 am, I get an hour to an hour and a half free from endless emails and phone calls. 

  • What does your usual day look like?

I guess, two days are never the same for me in the role that I’m in, except Friday’s because I do all my one to one’s with my team on a Friday.  But a normal week for me starts on a Monday at 4 o’clock when I leave to go to Leicester, so usually, it’s a couple of days at the office, a couple of days visiting customers then a day at home.  I couldn’t give you an average day because it changes so often.  Other than Friday’s where I talk to my team, it’s a real mixture because Leicester’s kind of home for me, so I’m usually down there a couple of days for internal meetings and dealing with staff and being visible really, in the business.  Then I like to spend some time with customers, but again, that depends. 

At the moment it’s been a challenging time because we’ve gone through a big transition and Brexit and so it has not been easy so I’m trying to be visible in front of customers to show that we care and that we want to fix things.  We pride ourselves on giving customers a good service and it’s about how we can enhance that further and get more out.  Concerning changes relating to Brexit we were moving factory and warehouse, we planned it for October because Brexit was meant to be last March and then when it didn’t happen in March, we had no choice but to go ahead with it because the lease on our current building expires in the middle of this year so that gave us some real challenges. But we are getting there

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

I think the frustrating thing about our industry is that it moves quite slow, when you compare it to something like security which is changing almost every few months on technology.  However, I’m starting to see some exciting innovations that’ll probably give customers better detection protection and I think the big change coming is management systems, how they can manage it and make much more use around the technology around the tools that are coming.

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

The one that’s coming soon is self-testing detectors which have received significant investment. If you think if you’re testing a hotel bedroom or a school classroom or something like that, it can be difficult to get access because people could be in there and you’re disrupting a school and some residences you might not be able to get in because the doors locked.  If you can test that device without actually physically getting into that room, I think it opens up a whole new avenue for managing the system for when you test it for making sure it’s tested properly, you know, if you’ve got a smoke detector that’s difficult to get at, it’s either going to cost you a lot of money to get the equipment in to get that device or in a lot of cases it just isn’t tested at all.  With self-test you can ensure every device is tested, is working and the system is going to operate to its maximum potential.  So, I think that’s the most exciting thing I’ve seen coming into the industry for a long time. 

  • What do you like about the fire industry?

I did have to think about this one because it’s been my home for 35 years so you kind of take it for granted when you’ve been in that. I am proud of what we do as an industry we protect lives and property. I’ve also met so many good people who want to give a good service to the industry and make sure we protect lives and property. Although, it’s got a lot of companies in it, it’s quite a small industry so you get to know a lot of people in it. 

  • How does your work and family life come together?

I think for me, I’m away for most of the week so I tend to socialise with staff or customers, so the weekends are really important for me when I spend time seeing my family or friends.  I rarely work on the weekends apart from a couple of hours on a Sunday just to tidy things up.  I think that time becomes more valuable when you don’t have it during the week like when you’re in a more normal job.

  • What matters most to you?

I think this is an easy one because for me managing teams, it’s given my team the tools, the skills and the support to give customers a great service because if my team are doing a great job that’s reflected in what we give the customers.  I’m only one, I’ve got a big team under me, but the more they do a good job the easier my job is and the better service we give the customers.  I have a team of 39 and 7 members reporting to me.  5 Managers report to me who all have their own teams.

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

For me, I was quite shy, so I used to let others speak up and listened to them more and though they always knew what they were talking about, when actually, quite often, later on down the line you realise that what you thought and disagreed with then was probably right.  So, I think I would have more confidence and speak up more. 

  • What motivates you?

Seeing my team succeed because if they succeed then it means we’re being successful as a company but more importantly it’s making our customers successful. So, I guess the easy answer would be to see our customers happy but I think we do that through having my team set up properly to ensure that happen. I think I said to you earlier this year has been difficult because of the factory move and the warehouse move and Brexit and for me, that’s been heart-breaking because we’ve not given a good service so everything’s been based around giving the team support to get us back to normal, as quickly as possible, so that’s definitely what motivates me. 

  • Where do you want to be in 5 years?

I’m 54 so in 5 years time I’d like to be close to retirement so I think where I’d like to be is to have my team set up to be successful to take over from me.  I wish I was 40 again and could say something really exciting but I’m quite happy where I am at the moment, I’d love to be able to retire early.  We’ll see. 

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

I think for me it has always been the central point in the industry.  The FIA is the one you always look to for advice and guidance and that’s long before I was ever involved with it.  I think it pulls together so many parts of our industry and is a central point for supporting the members and giving good advice and keeping up standards and training.  So, I just think it’s critical for the industry to have a strong FIA.

  • What do you want to say to the readers?

I’m new to the FIA board so I’m looking forward to working with the team and learning more about the FIA and where I can support it and looking forward to working hard in it.  Thanks for reading.  I hope it was of interest. 

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

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