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Fireside Chat with Michelle Agius
My name is Michelle Agius and I am owner and Managing Director of Eurotech Fire Systems Ltd. The company was established in 2009 and we supply and technically support fully approved cross-listed fire detection systems around the world. I joined the fire industry in 1990 and went to work for Apollo Fire Detectors and I was there for 19 years, for 10 of those, I was sales and marketing director. Then I left there and went to ADI Gardner HQ as Marketing Director EMEA and this is where I was drawn back to the fire industry and decided to set up Eurotech.
How have you been affected by COVID-19?
I’ll start with the business side first, like all of us, when it hit, I really wasn’t sure how it would pan out and the overall affect it would have. One thing I’m very proud of is the team that were in place and how they kept the business going. I’m proud to say that we didn’t make a single person redundant. Running my own business, I’m proud to say is that as a small business we can put people first before profits, which is very different to corporate companies. So, in terms of positives during a challenging time, we actually did have a very good year and it's testament to the Eurotech team that kept us going.
With regards to the personal side, just as covid hit, unfortunately, we lost my amazing Mother, fortunately not to covid but she passed on the Thursday and we went into full lockdown on the Monday. So, in terms of stress and trauma and everything else, personally it was a very difficult time. Which is why it’s testament to the team that kept Eurotech going. It was very difficult personally because we were only allowed 9 people to the funeral and unfortunately our Father couldn’t make it because he was in hospital with covid. The stress levels were very high and we’re pleased to say that my Dad did pull through but then my brother went in to hospital with covid. He came out, but again, it was months of uncertainty and the unknown. We very sadly lost our Dad, not through covid, in March 2021. So, within one year we lost both amazing parents.
The year has been extremely difficult, I have to say, having a good business with a good team around me meant that I could throw everything into work and as we’ll discuss later, I’m very passionate about the fire industry and I never thought I’d say this, but the fire industry has kept me sane.
Obviously, we’re not through covid as it is still challenging times, but for Eurotech, we have new people within the business with a new structure and I would say now, Eurotech is the strongest it has ever been and officially I think we have the best sales team we have ever had. At the end of it all the business has maintained strong.
Do you have any pets?
We have always had dogs all throughout my childhood. We have 2 Shih Zhu dogs, they are brother and sister; Luxsi and Poppy. Poppy is my Mum’s dogs which we have now adopted. Our 2 dogs follow my husband around continuously.
What’s your favourite movie of all time?
The Matrix, its real escapism, I love the action, I like the joint action between the male and female and this real question of ‘What’s it all about and what is real life? Is there some higher plane driving us all?’. It is a film I can just watch all the time and lose myself in.
Describe yourself as a teenager in 3 words?
Determined, outgoing and driven.
What is your biggest pet peeve/hate?
Disloyalty, I really hate disloyalty and when you can’t trust someone. The same in business and personal. I have a very simple outlook, treat people how you want to be treated yourself. What you get with me is I will trust you, even if I don’t know you, what you say to me I will take on trust. If you prove to me later that I can’t trust you, then you’re unlikely to get my trust back. So, disloyalty is one of my real pet hates, I can take the truth, even if I don’t agree with it, but disloyalty and disingenuous people are my pet hate.
If you could be from any other decade (or era), which would it be and why?
The 1950’s. I love the outfits; Audrey Hepburn, the music, the dancing, rock ‘n’ roll and the chivalry. The whole era appeals to me with the way things were within society back then. I like that whole happy persona of how everyone was just emerging from the war, when happiness became noticeably present, that then erupted into the infamous 1950’s.
What is your favourite quote and why?
‘Live as if you were to die tomorrow, learn as if you were to live forever’, by Gandhi. I’ve always had this philosophy and I’ve always said it to the children to live life to the full with no regrets. Every day is a school day, don’t think that you know it all and you can learn from any generation. I think that’s a key thing that when you sit and talk to the older generation and find out about their experiences and how they learnt everything, it’s such an eye opener. Now when I sit and talk to younger people about technology, they take my understanding to a different level, as I thought I did have an understanding. I think that’s the thing, if you have this mindset that you just carry on learning and you keep an open mind, it’s the mixture of both.
Another quote, I’m unsure of who wrote it, ‘I also believe it takes about 20 years to build a reputation but 5 minutes to destroy it’.
If you weren’t in the fire industry – what would you be doing and why?
Just before I was made Sales and Marketing Director for Apollo, I was offered the role of being a trainer/coach for Dale Carnegie and I really enjoyed attending a number of their courses especially The Executive Development Course, which I assisted the trainer on numerous courses. I was very fortunate to attend the entire trainer programme courses with a view to becoming a Trainer. I was offered the Director role at Apollo and then stayed within the Fire Industry. So, I guess if I wasn’t in the fire industry, that is what I would have gone on to as it was a real crossroads for me. I really enjoy watching people develop and challenge themselves and at the end appreciate their individual growth.
What’s on your Spotify or iTunes?
It’s a real mixture, I have different playlists so when I was traveling a lot, I’ll have my aeroplane playlist. A lot of 80’s music such as Simple Minds, Softcell, anyone that knows me will know that Tainted Love would be my favourite song of all time. Michael Jackson, Pink, Savage Garden, Ed Sheeran, James Blunt and of course, Take That and Robbie Williams.
One thing I like about Apple music is that now I can choose one of their play lists depending on my mood, a happy playlist or a chilled playlist or latest hits. Great to just choose and put on in the background.
But when I do my own playlists, then those are my choices.
If you could have any three people (dead or alive) over for dinner – who would they be?
It would have to be my gorgeous parents after sadly losing them so suddenly and quickly together, another opportunity to have Mum and Dad back for however long would be an absolute blessing. I guess the third person would have to be Elvis Presley, for my Mum, she never actually got to meet him, but was a huge fan. So, it would be Dad and I sitting watching Mum just swoon over Elvis. I’d like to see Elvis in his leathers, but for my Mum it would be him in his younger days when on telly she wasn’t allowed to see his hips, which is so mad to think how quickly things have changed. As you can see the music which stems back to the 1950’s and being brought up with that music has influenced me. Our home on a Sunday evening consisted of dancing with the music on and being taught how to jive. Our parents were incredible dancers and we loved watching them jive together.
What two things would you take to a Desert Island?
A music system and a sun lounger with an inbuilt endless supply of Gin cocktails. Sheer paradise as I am a sun lover but love listening to music. We won’t just mention the gin aspect.
Name a book, movie or tv show that has positively shaped you and why?
Going back to honesty, it would have to be Dale Carnegie, How to Win Friends and Influence People. Which is why I became so entrenched in the training and the people development. One of my strong personal things is that one thing that no-one can take from me is my integrity, personal or business and Dale Carnegie is based all around being genuinely interested and it’s a win win scenario. If you’re in business then it’s about that integrity, for me. That integrity sale, that integrity relationship, that integrity partnership and very early on in life, I was very lucky to go through the Dale Carnegie programme and read the books alongside. So, they have very much shaped how I do business and how Eurotech is set up on the values. It links in with all my personal values as an individual and as a child, how we were brought up, it ties in with the quote ‘treat others how you want to be treated yourself’. It’s not rocket science and it’s not clever or intelligent, it’s just common decency.
If you were an animal, what would it be and why?
A bird so I could just fly and take a holistic view of things and just go wherever my heart takes me and that my wings would have the strength to take me. Perch and look over because I think, especially after the last 18 months, I know I’ve had a difficult time, but so have a lot of other people and I’d just like to take more of a holistic view over other people and that will get me out of my own head and just look around. If I don’t want to talk to people then I can just fly away, then when I want to come back and go with my mates, we can go as a flock, together.
What is the best gift you’ve ever received?
My boys. Being given my 2 beautiful, amazing children by far has shaped me to become the person that I am. They are a gift, those gorgeous boys are mine.
What's your favourite thing in your closet right now?
Everything because I’ve just had it redesigned and rebuilt. I’ve got a beautiful walk-in wardrobe so I can actually see everything with my shoes all laid out. The thing that I go for every single morning is this little pin of wings, that I’m wearing now, it’s what we wore to my Mum’s funeral and I wear it every single day without fail. So, it’s the first thing that I will go to in my closet.
If you could have one superpower, what would it be?
Reading minds, because I hate disingenuous people, it would save a lot of time if I could just understand. I don’t mean read minds for manipulation tactics, but if there’s concerns that they’ve got that I’m not addressing, especially in working overseas, where working with people whose English isn’t their first language, if I could just understand slightly more of what they’re thinking, it would make life so much easier. We all do it, we’re all guilty of going down one track and you think you’ve understood, you’ve been in a meeting and 3 people have been in the same meeting and we all come out with a different message. Where-as if I had that superpower of understanding whether the people are with you or whether they’re not, whether they’ve understood. More importantly, especially now with mental health, whether they’re struggling. What you can do to metaphorically put your arms around them without even calling them out in a meeting, so that if you know that they’re struggling, there’s ways of addressing it. For lots of reasons, I would use mind reading, not for manipulation purposes, just from the help and the healing with the mental health aspect. With business when people say yes to you and you know they mean no, it would cut down 2 years’ worth of negotiation. That would be my superpower.
What's the best piece of advice you've received?
When I first started out in the fire industry it’s fair to say that I hadn’t even heard of the word diversity. There weren’t many females of a certain level, in the industry. At about age 26 being in Ireland and taking over quite a significant account, the technical director gave me the best piece of advice and that is ‘to be yourself’. I’d been with the previous sales manager who was technical, it was a technical sale and it still is and the people that we were partners with were very technical minded. Since I’ve never professed to be technical, his piece of advice was ‘the one thing that you have is integrity, the one thing I get from you is trust’ he said “so be yourself, there’s a technical team in the back of the office that I can pull on, the one thing that I get from you is trust”. From that day on, he gave me that strength and stature to not try and emulate anyone else, not try and be anyone else. I’m not the best at everything, but who is? What I have got is my own values and that worked for me throughout my entire career.
Where’s the most interesting place that you’ve been in the fire industry?
I’m very fortunate, I’ve been to lots of places, the one that I have to mention, without any hesitation has to be Japan, I was fortunate enough to go on a development training programme there. I was able to mix work, training and pleasure being involved with a children’s charity. I was fortunate enough to be invited to visit one of our competitors at the time, I had the most amazing journey on the Shinkansen bullet train and travel through the rice fields. The thing that stands out for me with Japan is the order, the structure of it is completely organised. I went to a Japanese orphanage that was run by a British gentleman, and they didn’t exist because in Japan in those days, there wasn’t such a thing as an orphan. So, these children were just beautiful and I tried to adopt. My youngest son always jokes that he almost had a Japanese sister, but with the red tape, I couldn’t adopt because they didn’t exist in the legal system. So, these children that were orphans couldn’t then go out and work because they didn’t have an address that was registered. It was beautiful in so many ways and so hard-hitting in others. Then when you go out into Japan, the place is just fascinating. I’d love to go back. So, Japan for me.
What time did you get to work this morning?
Physically in the office, 8.30 am but that’s not when the day starts really working because the minute you wake up, you’re on your phone and answering emails before you leave.
What does your usual day look like?
Pre-covid, one of the reasons I’ve stayed in this industry so long is there’s just not a normal day, no two days are the same.
It used to be a case of every week I’d be on the move, my passport never left my handbag due to the amount of travelling. Now, if I’m not travelling, the alarm goes off at 6.50 am to get ready for my day. But pre-covid, I just didn’t have any normal day and that’s what I still love about it.
How does your work and family life come together?
This is quite difficult to answer, I’m very family orientated and if anyone asks me what’s the thing I’m most proud of then my answer is being a Mother, rather than running a successful business. But having said that, I’ve always needed to work even after I was gifted with my beautiful boys. I was very fortunate that my Mum helped out. So, if I was travelling and had to get up at 4 am, my Mum would be around my house, so when my children woke up my Mum was there and did breakfast so that they had continuity. Family and work have worked, one of the criteria that I’ve always had is I don’t mind travelling the world, but when I’m at home, I need to live near my office. So, when I was working in London it was very uncomfortable for me because it was 2 hours away. If someone needed me while I was in the country, then I couldn’t get home, if I was on the other side of the world then there’s not a lot I can do. If I’m home, then I need to be near my office of work, which my Mum always used to laugh at because when she used to pick my son up from school, the first thing he used to say to her was “Is Mummy home tonight?” not “What time is she home?”. Christmas and Birthdays are very important, and Sundays have always been my family day so that the children have stability. Even when I left home, every Sunday I went home for the Sunday roast. So, Sunday roast is our time. I think with work and family coming together, we have a very open discussion with the boys. I remember a conversation where I had mentioned to my Mum that I was going to Paris and my youngest son asked me how long I was going to be away for and I replied by saying that I’d be home tomorrow and he then said “but I thought you were going to Paris tomorrow” and I said that I was going to Paris tomorrow but that I’d also be home to which he replied “How are you going to France?” and I then said “I’m going on a plane and I’ll be back for tea”. They’ve grown up knowing that the world is there for the taking and there is a big world for them to explore. I know that covid has made travel difficult, but they’ve both grown up with lovely holidays and we’re fortunate enough to go and visit nice places. So, they’ve grown up with the travel bug, with wanting to explore and with accepting that there’s life outside of the UK, that there are lots of technology, places, people and cultures outside of the UK that they need to be aware of. So, the whole thing is bringing all the travelling that both myself and my husband have done in with natural day-to-day life, for the children, it’s opened up their eyes to life outside of where we live.
What makes you excited about the future of this industry?
I used to like the old industry when there was a lot of owner businesses, with fewer corporates, when work was easier to do amongst people. It goes back to the whole trust and integrity thing when you didn’t have to have all pages of a written agreement, you could have a handshake and you’d have that convenience that they could not only make those decisions but would also honour those decisions. Things seem to work at a faster pace as well as decision making was easier. Even though innovation was still stifled because of the approvals and regulations, but there was a lot more engagement, there was a faster pace of work and moving things forward. You could socialise and you didn’t have to make sure there were at least two people from the same company etc etc. When I joined the industry at age 24, it was fun. You worked hard but there was a lot of fun and even with competitors, whilst pricing and confidential information were never discussed at events it was always a real mixture of companies going out. What I find very frustrating being the age that I am and the years of experience in the industry, is how the industry has changed now. The word partner does not mean what it used to mean and there is little interaction between companies and competitors. There appears to be no depth anymore, with people not respecting supply chains, relationships in the way they did.
It’s a very different industry now so with the youngsters and new people coming in, the good thing is they will only understand how the industry is run now. I feel my job is to remind them that this is a life safety industry. The passion is about educating people that competence is about saving lives. It’s hard to say what I’m excited about for the future because I can only see that the corporates are buying up a lot of companies. The natural circle is that people will leave corporates and start their own business.
What does the fire industry need?
We talk about it being life safety and there are product standards. There needs to be more regulation on the installation side, more regulation is needed in the signing off. “Does that building comply?” and I don’t mean red tape to make PI more difficult to get, but there are steps that we could do to certify people to install. It’s being sold as a commodity, you go into a wholesaler or stockist with no tech support, no training and people can buy life safety equipment and install it and we’re hoping that someone else at the end, that commissions it, will be certified and qualified. At that stage we are too far down the process.
So, for me, it’s more regulation that’s needed on the installation side. We have to follow the gas rules, where you need to be certified. The Fire Industry has to follow a similar scheme showing competency to handle life safety equipment.
What do you like about the fire industry?
I love the people, I love the fact we are involved with life safety equipment and because I have been and still am fortunate enough to work in different countries. One of the other things I enjoy is the whole product life cycle. A product that maybe old in the UK, you might be introducing it as a new product in another territory. It is a technical sale and, in some cases, still a grudge purchase but with regulation and education you get people to understand the benefits of the equipment. The part I enjoy the most is the education aspect. Most people are genuine and I’m still a firm believer in ‘people buy from people’. Eurotech are fortunate enough to have some dynamic salespeople that are challenging me going back to my principles of first selling and things we have taken for granted. That’s what I like, the people.
What matters most to you?
Doing the right thing. Customer’s integrity. What I really do enjoy is my team, watching them interact with customers. We’ve been fortunate enough to do a customer survey just recently and one question that I wanted on there was three words that describe Eurotech, the rest of it is of course, interesting, but those three words are what matters to me. Watching the team develop and grow and looking at the feedback.
I got an email from a customer the other day whom I didn’t know at the time, was one of thanks and saying that their business could not have done the work that they’re doing without our support. Their business could not do the work that they’re doing in the area of which they’re doing it without our support, they then listed three members of my team as a special thanks. That’s what matters. This goes back to what I said at the beginning, that’s what a partner is, it’s not all for the profit, of course, the profit is important but if we work together, we both grow and as long as there is margin in it for both, it’s not good if our customer can’t make a profit and add value because they won’t be in business anymore. So, we have to make sure there’s added value and profit all the way down the route. But just watching people grow, the team grow and develop. When you watch them and you can hear your own words spoken back to you but watching them do it their own way, that’s when I go home and think that was worth it.
What would you tell yourself at the age of 21?
Not to take myself too seriously, to give myself more credit. I didn’t have a lot of confidence in my ability. I had a drive to do what was right and constantly would push, but I didn’t believe in myself. So, whilst I was driven and determined, when I look back, I used to let other people have too much of a say, whereas I could have had more input had I been more confident.
What motivates you?
Right now, it’s seeing the team develop. Being able to sit back and watch them put things in place and watching them grow and I’d say that right now, Eurotech is in the best hands it’s ever been in. The sales team are really gelling, they have very different skill sets where we’re more nationwide now so watching and listening to them while I take a step back, is what motivates me.
Where do you want to be in 5 years?
Handing the business over to trusted hands to take it even further. It’s the first time I’ve ever being able to say that. The reason why I get out of bed with a smile is that when I come in, I’m watching the team further develop the company to the point now where I can easily see myself in five years stepping back. I’d still be involved but not so hands on.
Why is the FIA important to you and the industry?
When I started Eurotech, I had come from a big company that had loads of different departments where I could turn to for knowledge. When I started Eurotech, I’d lost all that, so for me, the FIA is my knowledge bank. The FIA is also heavily involved with influencing Government and setting standards. Watching the change in the FIA over the last two to three years has been incredible. It’s the place that people go to for information and for outstanding training. I am fortunate enough to be on the FIA board, Chair of the Export Council and Marketing Group. Being entrenched in the FIA as well you get to see a lot more of what goes on behind the scenes and I don’t think people really give the FIA enough credit for exactly how much influencing and time spent by lots of different people in front of Government or people on standards. There’s a lot more work behind the FIA than I think the wider public appreciates. It can only get stronger and better and if one of my things is more regulation on the installation side then the FIA are the go-to place to actually make that happen.
What do you want to say to the readers?
The fire industry is made up of a multitude of characters. A lot of people have been in it for a long time but it’s a growing industry technically led and one of importance. It may not sound interesting and sexy but there’s definitely a great career in the fire industry and what we need to do collectively is encourage young people, young blood and new talent. What I have found from working with dynamic younger people, is just the new thinking and the different approaches in the industry. If I was at a dinner party and somebody asked me, what do I do? I’d say, well, I save lives and they’d immediately think I’m a nurse, but that’s what we do, save lives. If we can get younger people more involved in the industry to take it forwards, technology is moving so quickly with Apps, not necessarily in the product itself because of approvals, but the way that we use the product and the way that we can use it in the field, the thing I’d like to say to the younger people is to give the fire industry a go.