Dr Scott King and Robert McConnell met at Jordanstown while studying their Engineering degrees, and the two have remained firm friends and partners in business since. After their degree, they each went on to complete further study, with Scott completing a PhD and later, a Postgraduate course at Magee and Robert completing his Masters, also at Magee. They are now Directors and Founders of Lisburn-based business consultancy, Pinacle Growth Group and we caught up with them for a chat about their journey after Ulster University.
What did you both study?
Scott: I graduated with a B Eng Hons Mechanical Engineering at Jordanstown and after that I received the VC’s research scholarship to do my PhD within ECRE (Engineering Composites Research Centre) in Jordanstown. Then in 2021 I studied a Postgrad in International Business.
Robert: I studied the B Eng Honours Engineering Management at Jordanstown and after several years of working, I returned part-time to do a MSc in International Business at Magee.
How was your time at Ulster- any memories/highlights etc?
Scott: I really enjoyed my time at Ulster. Coming from school to suddenly being surrounded by over 13,000 students at Jordanstown-most of whom you don’t know- felt a bit daunting, but very quickly I built up those relationships and I made life-long friends, including Robert. I even met my wife while I was there. Meeting people from lots of different backgrounds has really helped shape me throughout my career and my life. And getting the funding for my PhD, where I was paid to learn, was an incredible opportunity and one I’m very grateful for.
During the PhD, Professor Alistair McIlhagger always challenged us to focus on industry and commercial thinking and to try and translate our university knowledge and experience into an operational, real-life environment. This was an interesting concept to get your head around when working in a university environment, but it really prepared me for my future career.
Robert: I loved my time at Ulster. Unlike Scott, I came from a rural background, and coming up to the big smoke was quite daunting at first. But it was a great experience and I too made lifelong friends through my studies. I started out in halls and then got a house with some friends, and this taught me so many life lessons. Essentially, I came to Belfast as a child, but living away from home forced me to grow up and learn to fend for myself, so this and my education experience stood me in good stead.
One of the really great things that Ulster gave me was a real focus on employment- there was a strong emphasis on the placement programme and everything was geared towards preparing students for work. Ulster was really strong in this respect, whereas a lot of other universities at the time weren’t. We were supported and well prepared for the world of work and understood how to go about getting a job.
Between gaining that experience through placement, and always being encouraged to expand on your learning through part-time postgraduate study after your degree, Ulster almost had its own ecosystem for making its students more employable. My placement year really shaped how I approached final year and even how I’ve progressed in my career since.
Describe your career journeys to date
Robert: I did my placement year in Thompsons Aero Seating. I learned so much in my time there and ended up staying for four years. I then moved on to BE Aerospace in Kilkeel, and that’s where Scott and I linked up again as he was working there at the time too. We were both ambitious and had firm plans for our careers so in order to build on this and get more experience, I left BE and took on a Director role in a small manufacturing company, CCP Grandsen.
Whilst there, I led the company on a technology and commercial transformation for over six years. Again, Scott and I had the chance to work together during this time, and it was while we were both at CCP that we decided we could pool our experiences and offer something very unique. So in early 2018 Pinnacle Growth Group was born.
Scott: I received the VC’s scholarship to study my PhD under the guidance of Professor Alistair McIlhagger and this really strengthened by employment opportunities. It was whilst writing up my final thesis that an opportunity arose with BE Aerospace. An invitation for a chat turned into an interview and I was offered a job. It was very challenging managing both full-time work and studying, but it was such a valuable learning experience.
My role with BE was challenging as I got the opportunity to travel to America to engage with the organisation’s global leaders, and to visit suppliers, so I was given a lot of responsibility. I ran programmes, similar to Robert, that were worth around £300 million dollars, so with the challenge came real learning. After a number of years, I was ready for a new challenge. I’d gained a lot of experience and knowledge running lean manufacturing and change management programmes and managing New Product Development projects and I was able to use all of this to secure a role with Bombardier as a Manager within their Strategic Technology division, which focused on R&D.
I spent nine months there and then I moved on to be the Founding Manager of the Northern Ireland Advanced Composites and Engineering Centre (NIACE). Ulster University was one of the key founding bodies. I got to link in with the universities, industry, the Department for the Economy, Invest Northern Ireland, UK Government, etc, and it was a really pivotal and interesting role that focused on collaboration and partnership. I got the chance to work with Robert again during this time- he was working at CCP as NIACE supported the organisaton through its commercial and technological growth. After five years, I felt I’d achieved everything and more with NIACE so I joined Robert at CCP.
We brought in international-scale clients to the firm and gained great experience in doing so. But like Robert said, we had reached our next point and were interested in doing something of our own, so along came Pinnacle. We haven’t looked back since.
Tell us about Pinnacle Growth Group and how it came about
Robert/Scott: Pinnacle Growth Group provides business growth advice. It started out mainly with private sector clients, helping business to grow through supporting the financial side, their sales and exports and their business improvement strategies. As our skills and experiences have grown, and so to have those of our team, we’ve been able to do more work with public sector clients through the likes of project evaluations, programme development and implementation, programme reviews, etc.
There’s a tremendous sense of pride in knowing that we’re helping to improve Northern Ireland and having a positive impact on the place we live. To date, we’ve been able to secure more than £15million in grant funding for companies across the UK and Ireland to do R&D projects, explore new markets, bring in new state of the art equipment and hire people.
Our work with clients- both private and public sector- has led to the creation of more than 500 new jobs since Pinnacle started. These are all the things we reflect on and are the reason we started Pinnacle Growth Group.
To go back to the start, we had gained a real breadth of experience in leading, developing and growing businesses; some good experiences; some not so good. And we wanted to be able to bring this experience to more than one employer. We’d worked with a lot of consultancies and had experienced how they worked, so we packaged up what we believed we knew and took this out to potential customers.
We wanted to create something that was different, and we encourage our team to do the same. With all new clients, we go and spend time in their businesses. We sit with them, and we embed ourselves in them because it helps us understand them better and build a relationship with them. It allows us to see where their issues are and how we can add value.
We have always been extremely focused on building a company that lived up to our values and from day one, we had a strong vision to become a very successful business, but our values had to play a part in that too- they are hugely important to us. Together, we agreed that we would always go above and beyond for our clients, we would keep our knowledge up to date, be experts in our field and always provide straight-forward and honest advice. While these principles might sound simple, they’ve guided everything we’ve done with Pinnacle Growth Group from the outset and they also transcend through our team.
The business has developed and changed since 2018, there have been times we’ve needed to go with what the market wants, we’ve had to bring new services in, learn new things and try things and as a result, we’ve successfully grown from just Scott and me on day one to having a staff of 14 plus several part-time associates, just over four years later. We have an exciting range of clients who all have their own unique businesses and we love working with them and bringing our knowledge to them. We are a knowledge based business and we still love what we do.
Our client base has really expanded during the last four years. We have clients across Northern Ireland, Republic of Ireland and across GB and as we develop our reputation and brand profile, we are getting enquiries from further afield. We love that we get to work with global brands, as well as indigenously formed SMEs at different stages of growth, and it’s a vey rewarding experience getting to add value to their journeys.
The variety of the projects that we work on excites us and our team, and we’re always evolving the business and think ahead to five, 10 years’ time, and so on. We place a very strong emphasis on learning and continuous professional development and so we’ve been able to support our team with postgraduate study and training, and we both continue to work on our own learning too. It adds value to our team, to the business, and ultimately to our clients’ businesses.
How have your studies and experiences in Engineering shaped your career and your role as business owners?
Scott: Having an engineering background makes you think logically and about the process in everything: if there’s a hurdle, how do you get over it? You could this or that, so let’s try it. Sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t, but at least we’ve tried. And it’s about the lessons you learn in the process: how do you move on? How do you adapt and how do you move forward? This philosophy probably traces back to our degree work at Ulster- when you run into a challenge, ask yourself how do you overcome it, how do you map it out and how do you visualise it?
I can honestly say, had I not done my Engineering degree and PhD at Ulster, I would never have ended up on the journey I have- it’s been vital to my career and was the foundation for all of it.
Robert: What you learn at university very quickly goes out of date in a technical sense, but how you learn doesn’t change. And my three years at Ulster and my placement year really taught me how to learn, how to adapt, how to take on information and how to problem solve. That learning has shaped out careers up until now.
Any advice or tips for new graduates entering the workplace, particularly in your industry?
Robert: Go above and beyond. If you’re a graduate and an opportunity comes along, you need to stand out. You need to be the best and work the hardest. Be prepared to try new things and embrace learning.
Scott: I would echo all the above and would also say don’t be afraid to make decisions. Even if they’re not always the right decisions. Don’t procrastinate, being confident enough to make those decisions will make you stand out and will add value, and that’s vital in a competitive job market.
In the digital age, social media is huge so I’d always remind students and new graduates that everything they put out on social channels, etc can be monitored globally. You need to always be mindful of your actions and the impact of these actions in terms of how you are perceived.
You’ve both continued to stay in touch with the university since graduating. Why is that important to you and what value do you get from it?
Robert/Scott: Part of it is about giving back. We had a good experience and people from industry came in to support us on our journey through Ulster through career talks, etc. This was so valuable and so we like to do the same for current students. We believe we can add value to their journey, whether it’s through a talk, a Masters project or some information that will help them succeed.
It’s about helping them see how their learning will be relevant when they enter the workplace. It’s also about informing the university about what businesses out there really want and need in terms of skills and future employees. And so we can help them shape some of their teaching and course content by sharing this insight.
Professionally, it’s also about raising awareness of Pinnacle Growth Group and our brand among the undergraduate market. As we grow, this audience is the future of our business, and we want people to know what we do.
What’s next for Pinnacle Growth Group?
Robert: We have plans to grow and add further value to our clients. We’ve some exciting projects on now and some others coming up but as Directors, Scott and I are now focusing on where the business is going in the next five plus years and how we position Pinnacle Growth Group for that stage.
Scott: We’re looking now at where our footprint is going. We’ve both been privileged in our careers to have done business internationally and when you look at the skills that we have here in Northern Ireland, we can genuinely compete and punch well above our weight in a global market. So, we definitely have aspirations beyond Northern Ireland. We are big believers in team, and we know we can only achieve these long-term ambitions with the support of our team. Linked to this, we have plans to grow the team further, so keep any eye out for more graduate opportunities in the future. It's great to have ambitions, but ours will always align with our values and with our commitment to adding value to our clients.