The Journey from Apprentice to CEO Via Pharma, Oil & Gas & Engineering Sectors

Episode 19

Maintenance Management Podcast


About this episode

The CEO of PlantQuest, Gerard Carton, discusses the challenges faced in high-compliance environments in the Pharma, Oil & Gas, and Engineering Sectors and his journey from apprentice to CEO.


Charlie Green (Host): Today, we’re excited to have Gerard Carton, currently serving as CEO of PlantQuest, with us to share insights into industrial maintenance. With a 20-year journey that began in maintenance, pivoted to commissioning, and has now returned to maintenance, Gerard brings a holistic perspective to the table. Their experience spans multiple sectors like Oil & Gas and Pharmaceuticals, having worked with reputed companies like PM Group, Total and INPEX. Back in the maintenance space after exploring various roles and industries, Gerard is a thought-leader in industrial asset management systems. Don’t miss this enlightening conversation!

Lauren Nicholson (Organiser): Okay, so thanks for joining us today, Ger. We really appreciate your time to talk to us today about maintenance management. I’m Lauren, our podcast organizer. And as I mentioned previously, we find that maintenance teams are often underrated, which I’m sure you agree with. So hopefully with your podcast, we’re going to further highlight the importance of maintenance management to our audience. We do these podcasts to gain insights from experts in the maintenance management field and we learn a lot from their experience. We understand that you’ve come full circle from starting off as an apprentice to now being a co-founder of your own business. So we know your insights today will be really valuable for our listeners. With that said, I will pass you over to our hosts, our Senior Research Analyst, Charlie, and our Head of Content, Ryan.

Charlie Green: So Ger, we’d like to start the episode with a bit of an origin story, if you like. So could you take us through your journey from Instrumentation Apprentice at Lotus Works to working across the globe in various instrument commissioning roles, eventually leading to an instrument commissioning leader at Total? That’s a tongue twister.

Ger Carton (Guest): Yeah, I suppose I started off, as you said, as an instrument apprentice with a company called Lotus Works. I suppose we’re very lucky in Ireland in the last 25 years, 30 years. We’ve really become a magnet for foreign direct investment and multinationals. So we have an awful lot of pharmaceutical manufacturing and semiconductor manufacturing. I think Ireland is actually the second biggest exporter of pharmaceuticals in the world. So with that, you know, there’s lots of companies that service these organisations. So you know, as an apprentice, I got huge exposure to, you know, really high end and really strong compliance companies. And obviously with the latest technology as well. So I started my time, across the semiconductor pharmaceutical and biomedical space for about four years and kind of like a lot of people, I left the country as soon as possible and I ended up on a small island north of Norway, working on an LNG plant. And that was the start really of my career in the oil and gas space. So I kind of moved around a lot over the next few years in countries like Australia, South Korea, Shetland Islands, North Sea, and further field again, gaining, you know, real exposure in the maintenance and commissioning space. So all throughout my career, I came across this problem, which was ‘where is something’ because I was always moving to a new plant and I stayed there for maybe two or three years and you know we always had this vision of creating a solution that could really just look we all grew up now with Google Maps you know so what we really wanted was to have that kind of Google Maps experience at work. 

So I’d finished a job in South Korea and I had some time off and I had some spare capacity. So I decided to try my hand at starting a business. So I joined a few accelerators and programs and I started testing out my hypotheses. And initially we tried to sell it into the pharmaceutical space, sorry, into the oil and gas space. But being based in Ireland at the time, we started getting significant traction in the pharma space and we’ve kind of been there since. So really it’s been a career of continuous improvement, so it was working with companies that really invested in me in my own capacity and ability. Moving on and later on in my career I did a degree in economics and by the time I got to my early 30s I felt there was more in me and I decided to scratch the itch that I had for numerous years and a product and a relatively successful company has come out of it.

Charlie Green: That’s fantastic. You kind of alluded to it there, but you spent a lot of time working across the globe, as you mentioned, Australia, Korea, Norway, and back to Ireland. I wanted to know what influenced you to branch out and go around the globe.

Ger Carton: I suppose I come from a family of immigrants, you know, it’s just been a thing that we’ve done. But a lot of Irish people and a lot of Irish companies, because Ireland is such a small place, there’s only so much work within Ireland, so they more often than not look further afield. So a lot of my initial contracts abroad were with Irish companies and then as you… as you stay out there longer, you grow your network with them. I ended up working for British companies and French companies and American companies and Australian companies. But yeah, I suppose the real genesis of it is looking for something new. In Ireland at the time there wasn’t really any oil and gas, there still isn’t really. And you know, it’s quite exciting to be going on helicopters or to be working in shipyards and all that kind of stuff when you’re young. That’s what you want to do until you have kids, you know.

Charlie Green: Oh yeah, that makes sense. That sounds so fascinating. As you said, you’re the CEO and co-founder of PlantQuest. First of all, congratulations. And second of all, could you talk us through the timeline and motivation behind developing this platform and company and what a typical day looks like for you?

Ger Carton: Yeah, so we started the company five years ago. As I said, I had some downtime after a project in Asia and me and my co-founder got together. We’d worked together on a previous job and we both had the same idea. So we kind of, we went down and like I said, we tested our hypotheses with a few different customers and we built an MVP. And for about two years, we kind of tag teamed as I would work maybe a day or two a week consulting for pharmaceutical companies and I would spend the rest of the time working on the product itself and my partner was in Kuwait at the time, my business partner and you know we would take it in turns kind of working and working in a job and working on the product until eventually we got enough traction with one of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the world that we raised some funding and once you raise funding then you can’t really have a job with somebody else. You need to work full time on your own company. And that’s what we did. Typical day really at the moment is really focused on sales, you know? You know, we’ve got three or four really, really key companies, household names in the world, which unfortunately we can’t mention here today. But we’re going through a real big expansion with them at the moment. And we’re also looking at other companies similar to them. We have a trade show coming up in Berlin, ‘Pharma Maintenance Connect’ it’s called, that’s on in 18 days, not that I’m counting. So that’s a real focus for us at the moment and we’re always hiring as well. So we’re always hiring developers and cartographers. So it’s a map based product. So it’s something that we’re doing. Just speaking back to maintenance, we do actually look for people with industry and maintenance experience, you know, and we’ve gone back through our contacts over the years and we found one or two really good people who’ve spent a lot of time in maintenance execution and maintenance planning because essentially the tool that we’ve built is to be sold to operations, maintenance and facilities teams, you know, so who better to do it and to deploy it than people with that experience, you know, and I think that’s one of the competitive edges that we have, like everybody within our company is from industry, you know. 

Charlie Green: During your career, you’ve worked in several large sectors such as pharma, oil and gas and engineering. In an article you wrote for ISPE, you mentioned that ‘sectors such as life sciences and other larger legacy industries are heavily regulated and struggle to introduce significant changes due to existing digital tools and complex requirements.’ Could you maybe touch on the challenges of regulations and industries you’ve worked in and how you’ve overcome working within these limits?

Ger Carton: Yeah, I suppose I can speak directly to the pharmaceutical industry. So within the pharmaceutical industry there’s two types of, two roads you can go down. You could go down the qualified route which is working with equipment and products that can have impact on the patient or you can go down the engineering tool route. So first and foremost is, you know, cost of developing a tool that has a potential impact on the patient is going to be 10x an engineering tool. So we’ve gone down the engineering tool route, so it’s a non-qualified system, so that means it doesn’t have any impact on the patient. So that is one way of looking at the regulation, saying, okay, let’s be pragmatic about this, and is this product going to have an impact on the patient. And what often happens is people in these industries are quite risk averse and they will try and assume that your product is going to be patient impact. So really one of the main challenges is trying to communicate to people that this product isn’t what you think it is and here are the benefits of it and the risks that you’re associating with it don’t actually exist. And that’s one of the main challenges with the pharma industry is really the bifurcation of pathways that you can go with a product. And then going back to oil and gas, really it’s about safety. The risks of something going wrong in oil and gas, we’ve seen this with the BP incident in Mexico, we’ve seen it with Piper Alpha and the North Sea. So anything that’s going to have any kind of safety impact there. You really have to have to have to make sure that you have all your i’s dotted and t’s crossed before you do that and that often involves conversations with insurance companies and other regulatory authorities before you can deploy your product with them. We haven’t gone down that route yet, we are currently looking at a safety system integration in the pharma sector because that’s where we’re based at the moment. And we are talking to a global insurance company about that. But they are the challenges of deploying solutions in these industries.

Charlie Green: Yeah, that’s fascinating. As you’ve alluded to, you’ve worked in a few various sectors and different organisations, some smaller and some large. Did you feel like there was a significant jump between working in smaller organisations and sectors and the big ones with regards to compliance and regulations? And maybe some other noticeable differences in your field.

Ger Carton: I think one of the main, whether I worked for a small organisation or a large organisation, for the most part, the regulations and compliance was driven by the end client. So coming from the industries that I’ve worked in, big or small, the compliance has always been the same. You know, maybe once or twice in my life, I’ve worked in a fish factory or a dairy. And there’s a marked difference in the level of compliance when you go into those industries. And it is a much more relaxed place. But saying that when you do work in a large organisation, there isn’t as much expected of you in terms of experience because you’ve got a much bigger team. You quite often have a warehouse full of spare parts. So when something goes wrong or something stops, you know, it’s, let’s take a step back and see how we’re going to fix this. Whereas if you’re working in a smaller manufacturing scenario, you could be the only person there who has the skill to fix this problem and quite often all eyes are on you and get it done no matter what, you know.

Ryan: Yeah, something we talk about a lot on the podcast, maintenance podcast, is developing, how people develop a good maintenance culture. So obviously you’ve worked in quite large maintenance teams, you’ve supervised teams at Total, you’ve managed local technicians at Inpex. It would be really interesting to get your view on what a good maintenance culture looks like in these large teams and how different these cultures impact the work produced as well.

Ger Carton: Yeah, I suppose it’s looking, first and foremost, it’s picking the right team and it’s getting that balance of age and experience across the team, you know, and it’s being honest with yourself and saying, okay, you know, sometimes somebody mightn’t be, they mightn’t be the best person, you know, let’s say from an instrumentation perspective to strip and assemble a valve, but they might be, but they could be really good at, you know, running the maintenance management system or a distributed control system or a PLC based system. So quite often what you can do is you can end up hiring or picking a team in your own image. But that doesn’t work then because obviously when you have really large complex facilities, even though you might be running a team of all the same discipline, there nearly needs to be multi-discipline within it because some people are just more that they’re happier out in the field, flogging away at a real complex problem, whereas other people are much more happy sitting at a desk. And more and more we’re seeing that the job of somebody working in maintenance, especially in the regulated industries, you’re probably 50 – 60% in the field, 40% at your desk doing work. And it’s real work that you’re doing at your desk as well. So it’s having people who are happy to be in the field, people who are happy to work on more process driven facilities as well, you know?

Ryan: Yeah.

Ger Carton: And it’s getting all those different skills kind of singing together and finally giving them the right tools, you know, be it hand tools or be it digital tools to work with, you know? Because if some, you know, people work for money and people work for status, but really what people want is they want recognition, they want the right tools to do the job and they want to go home safely. So it’s really getting those pieces of the pie in place as well. Obviously you need the other stuff as well, but it’s having the right tools, the right environment and recognition.

Ryan: Yeah, sure. And is that a case of say you’ll bring someone on, put them in the field, but actually they’ll want a desk job and that’s rejigging that sort of team to get that culture.

Ger Carton: Yeah, I think it’s easier if you’re starting with a blank page, you know. But if you have an existing team, you know who your players are as well, and you’ll know where your shortfalls are within the team, and you’ll bring in the right person for the job. I understand the job description for the role might be the same. for everybody, but there’ll be some elements of that job description that you’ll be placing a higher emphasis on depending on what your existing team looks like.

Ryan: Yeah, fascinating using the strengths of the team, you know.

Ger Carton: Exactly, exactly. It’s just like any other team. It’s just like any other team really, isn’t it?

Ryan: Yeah, of course, yeah. A really fascinating bit that stood out on what you’ve done in the past is loop checking. So, I mean, it sounds really interesting. I wonder if you could elaborate on the process of loop testing and what you found to be the best practices and techniques when it comes to performing those tasks.

Ger Carton: Yeah, so loop testing is the testing of the control system within a facility. So like a large pharmaceutical or petrochem facility would have maybe 20,000 instruments that are controlling the process and they’re all networked back to a control system that controls the plant. If you can imagine somebody sitting in a control room, you know, if they want to open a valve, they don’t have to walk to the far end of the plant to do it. You know, it all happens automatically. So what happens is when a plant is being built or when a new piece of equipment has been commissioned, then you need to check that the instrument is arranged right, it’s measuring the process variable properly, and it’s sending a representative signal back to the programmable logic controller or distributed control system that will make a decision on what to do with the process with regard to the variable that’s coming back. So it’s a very involved job, and it involves interfaces with lots of different systems. And I suppose the main thing there is having the right test equipment to do it, because you need to simulate the process variables to do that. Obviously, you need the construction of the facility to be correct, which quite often isn’t the case. And that’s part of the loop check job, is to ensure that the equipment is installed properly, is wired properly, and is ranged properly. So there’s a big paperwork aspect to that as well. And it’s getting the data sheets for the equipment, getting all the engineer documentation together basically and making sure that that’s all correct and that everything is measuring back correctly to the computer system. And so there’s a whole, and then there’s a cause and effect element to it. So for example, if we take the example of a temperature going high on a vessel. The effect might be okay let’s pump in some cold water to bring the temperature down. So there’s that kind of cause and effect checking element to it as well.

Ger Carton: Yeah, it’s something that continues on throughout the operation of the plant in maintenance as well. But normally what happens, normally it’s the cables and the signal and the computer at the end don’t change. But what you see is you see the maintenance happening at the transmitter end, you know, and that’s where you get your work orders being generated for that kind of, for those kind of activities, be it calibration or periodic checks or ATEX inspections, that kind of stuff.

Ryan: Yeah. How many simulations roughly would you run before performing a task?

Ger Carton: Before a plant would go into operation you could find yourself doing 25 – 30,000 loop checks and you could and then during the commissioning phase again, you know during the actual process commissioning you could see something similar being done again so there’s a lot of tasks to be done on large projects yeah but it’s proportional all the way down yeah.

Ryan: Yes, especially with a high regulation health and safety, you’re all impacting it as well.

Ger Carton:Well yeah and especially when it’s patient impact, you know, on product contact, you know, if you have something that’s measuring the viscosity of a liquid or the pH of an ingredient going into a cancer drug, you know, that has to be right, you know, whatever’s measuring that has to be measuring accuracy

Ryan:Yeah, incredible.

Lauren:Well, it sounds like you’ve done some incredible work. And in previous episodes, we’ve talked about drive and appreciation for maintenance teams within the NHS and within the education sectors. But looking at the safety risks that we have touched on and the high compliance environments you’ve worked in, we think it’s important to highlight the good work that technicians and maintenance teams complete in these sectors, too. You mentioned recognition is important and in your view, how do you think maintenance teams should go about driving appreciation to management, especially considering the extreme environments some may work in, for example, an oil rig?

Ger Carton: Yeah, I think, I think that specifically speaking about the oil industry, I think companies are very, they’re very aware of the challenges that people have of working away from home and in this kind of environment. And it’s all down to, it’s all down to the accommodation that you have and just ensuring that people are happy and content in their job and that’s everything from giving them, it’s investing in the right systems and the right tools. Obviously there’s the financial aspect of it as well which is very important also. But really it’s creating a relaxed atmosphere. It’s giving them good workshops, good places where they can break out with their teams as well.

Ryan: Yeah, and Ger I just wanted to bring it back to the sort of tools, the systems that you use throughout your career. Obviously, we’ve spoken to leaders in the past, they’ve found a good balance in the tools they use, whether that be spreadsheets, software. What sort of experience have you had in that when carrying out maintenance plans, working with teams? What have you found that works best or you’ve had troubles with in the past?

Ger Carton: Well, spreadsheets anyway are, in our company we call spreadsheets the lowest common denominator, it’s the mathematical term, you know, it’s the one thing that can scale across an organisation, you know, but it doesn’t scale, that’s the problem, you know, so you know, forever in a day we’ve seen spreadsheets that have started with the best intentions, but you know, in a very short period this unwieldy thing that nobody ever looks at and somebody starts messing with the formulas and before you know it, it’s gone.

Ryan:Chaos, yeah.

Ger Carton: Yeah, it is absolutely chaos, yeah. So yeah, in the past I used to build my own software tools on projects and they were good, but again, they didn’t scale well because they were just specific to those projects. So. You do have the kind of pillar products like Maximo or SAP and these kind of these products that really, but that are, you know, they’re really embedded within our organisations. But what we’re seeing more of now is that there’s a lot of products coming into the field, into the environment that, you know, they don’t necessarily remove the need for these pillar products but they really complement them and supplement them. It’s much easier for new companies to innovate on the data that’s created by older products and create something more out of that. So that’s the way we see it going. We do see less and less spreadsheets being used. And we’re seeing, because what you would have initially have seen is you would have seen exports been done from SAP or Maximo and you would see work being done in spreadsheets. But now more and more you’re seeing, you know, rather than exports being done from these products, you’re seeing APIs connecting into these products, harvesting the information and generating insights and action points from them. And I’ll be honest, we’re doing that ourselves, you know, like our product integrates with SAP, with Maximo, with BIM models, all those kind of large pillar solutions.

Ryan: And you just touched on it there. So as these, the experience of using spreadsheets, the chaos with spreadsheets, different software tools, has that impacted the development with your own tools? So for example, the one you developed at Inpex and the current role at PlantQuest.

Ger Carton:Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. So we, yeah, it was, we, like all of our information did live on spreadsheets and we were running projects based on spreadsheets. And we really did need to, we needed to step it up because the scope was getting so big and the users were so many that it needed to be formalized in software. And what we’ve done in PlanQuest is very similar. We, you know, We’ve taken a bunch of paper, we’ve taken layout drawings, we’ve taken BIM models, we’ve taken knowledge out of people’s heads, and we’ve condensed it into a product that looks essentially like Google Maps that you can just interface with quite easily and quite readily, and also integrate it with your existing systems. So it’s about taking paper and spreadsheets out of the system. I think that’s true for a lot of digital transformation, not just my own product or my own interest, you know? I’m sure lots of products and people that you talk to, their lives or their products are revolved around removing ambiguity and paper from the system and giving people the right information that they need without having to wade through a world of pain to get there.

Ryan: Yeah, removing that friction point. 

Ger Carton: Yeah, they create more friction. Exactly. Yeah, exactly

Yeah, like for example We had a case before where we had a client that was taking them probably 30 minutes to respond to an alarm because whenever an alarm went off, you know, they would go to a folder of hundreds of drawings and they would be leafing through it going, okay, where is the signal? Where is the signal?

Ryan: Like a troubleshoot guide?

Ger Carton: No, it was literally like a map of a facility. Yeah, whereas, you know, we’ve we developed a solution deployed in the field that allows them to just type in an asset ID and it just routes you straight through it, just like if you were looking for a restaurant in London or wherever you live, you know, and that’s a prime example of the kind of digital transformation done well, you know.

Ryan: Yeah, brilliant.

Charlie Green: Amazing. So to finish off, I’m sure our listeners will be really interested to hear what advice you would give to technician apprentices starting off their career and other people starting their journey in instrument maintenance roles.

Ger Carton: I would say just invest in yourself, just continuous improvement, do courses all the time and as well as that get engaged with the process as well. When you work in maintenance you quite often just look at the task here that you’re doing but if you can learn about the process, what the facility is building and creating then… you’ll be so much more enriched and you’ll inevitably move up the ladder more quickly when you do understand what’s actually happening within the whole process of the facility. Another thing I would say is join a company that’s going to invest in you. I was very lucky to work for Wood a number of years ago and you know, there was every month there was, we were in Aberdeen doing courses, and that has really stood to me over the years, you know. So be investing yourself, you know, really take ownership of the process that you’re working on and work for companies that will invest in you.

Charlie Green: That’s fantastic advice. And there we go, that’s it for today. A huge thank you to Ger for taking the time to chat with us. We know your insights have been very helpful for our listeners. We’ll be back soon with more amazing guests like Ger. Bye for now.