His business was recently named Illawarra Business of the Year, but it hasn’t all been smooth sailing for proprietor Michael McKeogh who had to overcome a near-fatal motorcycle accident three years ago.
In fact, it has been a new sport, ocean paddling, that has given him the strength to take his business to new heights of success – success so high that last December he sat on top of the Sydney Harbour Bridge to personally connect the New Year’s Eve fireworks to the communication system his business had been commissioned to install on the national icon.
In April 2009, Michael McKeogh also felt on top of the world.
His four-year-old business, Fibre Optics Design and Construct (FODC), had just won the Illawarra Business award for Information, Communication and Technology.
He had built the business from scratch, having begun his working life as an electrical contractor before becoming one of the pioneers in the application of fibre options in Australia.
McKeogh felt he had reached a point where he could indulge his lifelong passion for motorcycle riding and decided to compete against some of Australia’s best off-road motorcyclists in the gruelling Condo 750 rally.
With the same high level of planning and preparation he applied in his business, McKeogh bought a new 450cc enduro bike and fitted it with additional fuel tanks and GPS navigation equipment.
The rally required him to use his riding and navigational skills to cover 840 kilometres in two days.
‘‘I came out better than I expected,’’ he said. ‘‘That encouraged me to go on and do more riding and more competitions.’’
Less than a year later, McKeogh had a serious accident at high speed while he was training for yet another off-road event, the Australian Safari.
‘‘It was so bad I can’t remember specifics of the accident, but I hit something. I broke both femurs, five vertebrae in my back, various ribs and had some internal injuries,” he said.
“The family were taken off to the crying room and told they might not see me again. The guys I was riding with were told by the paramedics as they took me off in a helicopter to say goodbye. They didn’t expect me to survive.’’
And it has been a difficult three-year road to recovery.
‘‘I have had an incredible amount of pain and worst of all was unnecessary pain,’’ he said.
It is only in the past six months that he has been able to move freely again with the help of a new sport about which he has become passionate – ocean racing.
Head to Wollongong Harbour about 6am any day and you will see him and up to 40 other Wollongong Paddlers hard at training.
“On a Saturday and Sunday there can be as many 50 who all come back hungry,” he said.
McKeogh tried the sport to improve the strength and movement in his legs and to regain his fitness.
‘‘I have been paddling now for about 18 months. It has been a great contributor to my recovery. It has also been a great social outlet. It is an amazing group we have paddling out of Wollongong. Per capita it is probably the strongest group of paddlers anywhere in Australia,” he said.
“They train so hard but everyone is so encouraging of each other. It is made up of men and women and everyone is so welcoming. It is one of the best groups I have ever been involved in.’’
McKeogh is now competing and went to Mauritius for an international meet this year.
He said he still had the same drive to succeed in the boats and finished in the top third of the field.
‘‘I have got goals for everything I do,’’ he said.
‘‘For the business and for me the paddling has been absolutely critical to my success and my happiness and my family’s happiness. I have become fitter, stronger and more motivated. I have had a reason to get out of bed at five in the morning.’’
With the paddling and the invaluable support of his partner, Neryl East, the business has grown from a few people to a team of 18 even during McKeogh’s recuperation period.
McKeogh said if he had not owned his own business, his recovery would have been even harder because there was no insurance that would cover him for such an accident.
‘‘The more I look at it, I think that was a blessing,’’ he said. ‘‘It was all up to me. There was nobody to blame and there was nothing to claim on or any insurance to allow me to lay in bed. It was either get in and survive or that would be it.’’
McKeogh said the ongoing pain from the accident forced him to develop, train and trust other people to do the work he used to do and made him a better manager and mentor.
FODC has already carried out extensive work on the Sydney road system, including the M7, Lane Cove and Cross City tunnels, as well as in various mines.
During the past two years the Bulli-based business has been nationally recognised twice.
It recently won national recognition for its work improving communications on one of Australia’s most iconic structures, the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
During the Sydney Harbour Bridge contract, McKeogh personally connected fibre optics at the top of the bridge’s arch for Sydney’s spectacular 2012 New Year’s Eve fireworks.
He was still in pain at the time but got the job done.
FODC was also recently named Illawarra Business of the Year at the 2013 Momentum Energy Illawarra Business Awards, where it also took out awards in the Excellence in Information Communication and Technology, Excellence in Workplace Health and Safety and Excellence in Innovation categories.
FODC has just won new contracts to connect the NBN network to homes in Kiama, a big communications upgrade in the Sydney Harbour Tunnel and a major upgrade in the Eastern Distributor.
McKeogh particularly wants to get involved in the only major road link he has not yet worked on in Sydney, the M2, and expects to do a lot more mining work in the future.
‘‘I see the company doubling in size again over the next 10 years and possibly growing to 50 people,’’ he said.
McKeogh said for FODC to be recognised as Illawarra Business of the Year was a great reward that was good for his confidence and fantastic for his growing team.
‘‘After the business awards they were running around excited saying they worked for the best business in Wollongong,’’ he said.