A decade ago, Michael McKeogh was called up to the Illawarra Business Awards stage four times, which culminated in his company taking home the prestigious title of Illawarra Business of the Year.
His business, then known as Fibre Optics Design and Construct, also received awards for Excellence in Information Communication and Technology, Excellence in Workplace Health and Safety and Excellence in Innovation.
As Mike and his team stood on the stage with a clutch of awards, few in the 1000-strong audience applauding his success would’ve been aware of just what an achievement it was.
Three years prior, Mike had been lucky to survive a severe motorbike accident near Nowra. He was airlifted to St George Hospital with two badly broken legs, fractured vertebrae and head injuries. The prognosis was grim – the extent of his brain injuries were unclear and there was a chance he would never be able to walk properly again.
It wasn’t until well after he was discharged with steel rods inserted in both legs that it was discovered he had also broken his back in several places.
Mike returned to his business still in debilitating pain, despite consulting varied medical experts. In 2013, just a few months before that incredible haul of awards, an X-ray Mike demanded to have taken showed the steel rod in his right leg was extending out of his femur, catching on muscles, tendons and nerves. The rod was removed and Mike said “the world was immediately a different place”.
Fast forward to 2023 and the FODC Smart Solutions general manager credits much of his business success to perseverance – but he could just as easily be describing his painful road to recovery.
As the region’s businesses are encouraged to nominate for this year’s Illawarra Business Awards, Region spoke to Mike about the highs and lows of his business career, and what it’s taken to remain a successful businessman after more than two decades.
Mike was a qualified electrician when he decided to join the police force. He became the youngest motorbike and vehicle instructor in the Goulburn Police Academy’s history.
Stints followed as a tourist coach driver, immigration consultant, garbage collector and project manager for a telecommunications company, but Mike admits he didn’t really fit in any business.
“I was a bit small-minded to start with, I didn’t fit any business, I did things differently. I didn’t get a pat on the back, or a thank you – anything, ever,” he says.
“The moment I started my business  I was rewarded. I was paid quadruple what I was getting from day one. I was getting thank yous from customers about meeting deadlines and providing quality work that customers had never had before. They were so happy with what we did and they were willing to reward us for what we did.”
Back in 2013 when he scooped the business awards, the company was doing some work for NBN (“fixing everybody else’s mistakes but not given the opportunity to do it ourselves”), working on major motorways around Sydney and with mining organisations.
In 2016, FODC won a six-month contract working on the M5 motorway. Those six months turned into five years of work.
The first contract was to move all of the electronics along the motorway to allow construction of the new M8. It was a massive job relocating all the fibre optics and power for the message boards, tolling system, air quality and overheight monitoring systems.
Although the business was getting more and more work – often well outside its usual scope – it was during this time that its finances took a heavy hit.
Mike says he was “screwed big time” by contract managers and lawyers who were out to save every penny for their clients by paying out as little as possible.
“We lost hundreds of thousands of dollars – it nearly wiped out the business. We had to get an independent financial advisor to come in and they actually advised that we shut down the business, all because the contract managers weren’t paying us what we were due.
“Me being me, I didn’t follow that advice. There was so much work coming up, I could see that over the next five years I was going to make up those losses.
“We ended up putting an extra staff person on rather than reducing staff, we ended up delivering the project earlier than the close date, delivered it within their budget and we blew the customer away and they gave us more work.
“It was hard, really, really hard, but it’s all about perseverance and resilience. I became so determined to succeed, I had to. We got so much business [as a result of that job] that we made a profit.”
One of the highlights of Mike’s career was FODC’s part in installing lifts at either end of the Sydney Harbour Bridge to provide access across the bridge for people with accessibility needs. The work was prompted by the Invictus Games coming to Sydney in 2018.
“Connecting up those lifts and being there for the Invictus Games when Prince Harry came and cut the ribbon, what an amazing contract,” Mike says
Mike’s advice for fellow business owners is to persevere and maintain quality.
“You’re going to meet some great people and you’re going to meet some people with real attitude. You have to be resilient to get past it.
“As the business owner, the buck stops with you – you’ve got to be prepared to do anything.”
After the accident and his gruelling recovery, Mike took up surf ski paddling, and in his typical style, he threw himself wholeheartedly into the competition.
He set himself an 18-month goal to make it to the Australian team – not only did he make the team to compete in the 2017 world championships in Hong Kong, he claimed bronze in his category.
By his side throughout his journey has been Mike’s partner, Neryl East, a former journalist, acclaimed author and Certified Speaking Professional. Together they wrote a book in 2019 called Disrupt Your Life. Drawing on Mike’s experiences, the book aims to inspire people to look at the choices they make every day and how to make small changes that can make a huge difference in their lives.
In the book, Mike says having the bronze medal placed around his neck in Hong Kong was the “most incredible feeling”.
“I was this guy in a wheelchair just a few years earlier, going from not being able to walk to achieving at a world championship level. It was the most mind-blowing thing in the world. And after achieving that, anything is possible. Absolutely anything is possible.”
Nominations for the Illawarra Business Awards close at 5 pm on 18 July. The awards will be presented at a black-tie gala ceremony on 13 October. For information click here.