Trevor O’Reilly, CEO Design Partners, the Dublin-based product design and innovation agency, talks about his past experiences across a variety of industry sectors and how he feels having a people strategy is key to unlocking sustainable growth. Having joined Design Partners a few weeks before the pandemic hit, he describes the business as one of Ireland’s best kept secrets and why he feels after 35 years it’s just hitting its stride.

What was your first lesson in business?
My belief is that all business is about people. This stemmed from when I was at a cross-roads after successfully selling my business to Astron (who subsequently were bought by RR Donnelley (RRD). RRD were keen I remain with the Business, so they offered me a choice of two positions, one was to head up Group Sales for their $1 billion BPO division and the other had a more operational focus, requiring some significant restructuring work. The role that interested me most was shaping and leading a business forward, so I chose the latter.

The RRD Business Communications division was large, made up of several acquisitions completed over a relatively short period of time, with revenues of around €180m and over 1000 employees. The strategy was sound (it was mostly centred on building a dominant market leader for high volume billing and statement correspondence) but my priority was to find out why the strategy wasn’t delivering the results expected and fix it, quick.

The workforce was spread across 7 different sites and were from very different backgrounds; there were former employees of British Telecom, Barclays Bank, Edotech, and Astron in addition to other smaller businesses which had been bolted on as part of the roll-up strategy. Each had their own unique cultural identity of which they were very proud and quite protective. No one dominant culture had emerged and the longer it was ignored the more entrenched it became.

I knew this problem wasn’t simply a case of which culture to choose, it was about setting a new purpose and north star, getting buy-in to a new collective future they could all be a part of. So, I began to look for common ground and what struck me was that our core value was not the billion envelopes we dispatched for our clients through Royal Mail each year, but the fact that we were the protectors of their cash flow. If bills and statements didn’t go out on time, they didn’t get paid.

This new understanding became our collective purpose. Everyone rallied to the new cause which was to recognise that we were guardians with enormous financial responsibility. As a result, within 6 months the business went from being a potential target for downsizing to one of the best performing businesses in RRD; which at the time had $10 billion revenue and 40,000 employees.

This wasn’t necessarily my first lesson in business, but it was certainly one of the most important. We are all told profit is freedom and cash is king, but this whole experience convinced me that the principal factor in business is to understand the importance of human capital working with a shared sense of purpose to an agreed goal. This was 15 years ago but the need to find meaning and purpose in our working lives has never been more topical.

What experiences brought you to where you are today?
I’ve been fortunate to have had a rich and varied career to date. I’ve started a business from scratch, grew it to €35m revenue and sold it very successfully. I’ve led 3 management buy-ins and subsequent exits over the past 15 years and worked on the buy side with Private Equity on several deals. I’ve experienced the B2B and B2C sectors working in marketing and creative services, management consulting, business process outsourcing, logistics, manufacturing and more recently retail and food services. I sometimes think people are the only consistent part of this journey.

Collectively this experience brought me to where I am right now. I am attracted to businesses and sectors where there is opportunity to have impact. I wouldn’t have ever described myself in the past as a change agent but I’m comfortable with that label now. And I’m fortunate that the pace of change is accelerating these days. In the past, industry leaders could sit comfortably at the top of their game for perhaps a decade, instilling little or no innovation. Those days are over, companies need to stay sharp by questioning and probing their very reason for existence. Having a dominant position today means you are a target on lots of fronts, not just the obvious competitors.

Leaders today have a very different role than even ten years ago. Sustainability, tech innovation, environmental regulation, changing consumer behaviour, and aging consumer demographics are just a few of the drivers accelerating change right now. I think that now the most important aspect of a leader’s ability is empathy. Empathy is crucial to understanding how to build empowered teams to effect positive change.

You are now the CEO at Design Partners, why did you decide to join in the first place?
I joined Design Partners in January 2020. The company had been built on delivering exceptional quality creative output, by the founder Brian Stephens over the previous 35 years, but it was a bit of a well-kept secret. There were two things in particular that attracted me to this challenge at the outset. The first was the people. What struck me was they really were an incredibly passionate, dedicated, and talented bunch of people and the second was their purpose.

It was clear from the first meeting with the team that they had a real sense of purpose which was to elevate human potential. I believed that if we could harness the potential that was evident in the business, then we really would be able to create something very special. My belief is that if you want to build high performing teams, it is vital they have a sense of autonomy and purpose.

My thought at the time was that this represented an interesting opportunity because I felt that I could provide the missing piece of the jigsaw by leveraging my own experience in scaling operations.
My role at Design Partners is to set the vision for the next 5 years and make sure we continue to attract the best talent from all over the world to be a part of that journey. If I’m successful in this; and create the right environment for extraordinary talent to flourish, then the business will be able to reach remarkable heights.

What makes Design Partners different?
We are big enough to be global and small enough to be connected.
We focus on 3 sectors – namely consumer, industrial and healthcare and most of the work we do is international with 60% being US based. Some examples of the kind of work we do would include designing the world’s best-selling gaming controller, reducing the environmental impact of a medical device packing or designing the future of human-robot interactions.

Design Partners offer a unique balance of Advanced Thinking (Strategy, Research, Service Design) and Innovation Delivered (Engineering, Prototyping, Design for Manufacturing).
Solving complex problems isn’t a solo endeavour so we believe in a “better together” approach. Encouraging connectivity and collaboration across a multidisciplinary team is at the very core of our uniqueness. We believe that rapid prototyping is also a key differentiator for us in this space, whether it’s physical, digital, or a service innovation, prototyping helps bring ideas to life in a more meaningful way, and we have one of the best facilities in our industry to do just this.

We don’t deliver reports, we believe in realisation and implementation. Our balanced approach from advanced thinking to innovation delivered, means we bring an execution mentality to technical design. Our clients, in turn, get proprietary solutions that solve highly complex problems.

What does the future hold for Design Partners?
The potential for Design Partners is extraordinary. We have the experience, we have the talent, and we have all the necessary facilities under one roof. There is an increasing understanding in business today that design can play a fundamental role in the success, or otherwise, of a company. So, that puts us in control of our own destiny.

We are fortunate to work with some of the world’s most innovative brands to create future product experiences that empower and inspire people. Brands such as Dell, BMW, Carlsberg, Logitech, Colgate and Johnson & Johnson, to name just a few.

No company can stand still and rest on its laurels. At the core of our strategic development is Service Design. We make products, services and experiences that empower people to achieve incredible things together. We progressively shape the future by bringing solutions to market that change lives and livelihoods for the better. Our Service Design mindset helps us tackle complex client challenges in a holistic, human centred and harmonious way.

This is crucial at a time when the design industry is going through a very interesting phase itself. There has been a lot of consolidation across the creative industry. As more and more companies look to build internal design and product innovation teams; we are finding the demand for our services is increasing faster than ever. Design Partners has been growing at a significant rate over the past couple of years driven by our client’s desire to meet these challenges head on. We’ve never been more relevant and never before occupied such a central role in helping business design a better future for people and the planet.

For further information on Design Partners, please visit https://www.designpartners.com/