No change without pain for traditional Meath family firm
Future Proof: Dromone Engineering:Gearing up for expansion involved a big shift in mindset that paid off
Dromone Engineering was established in Oldcastle, Co Meath, in 1978 to make pick-up hitches for tractors. As a one-product company heavily dependent on agriculture for more than 25 years, Dromone has been through some challenging times.
However, diversification and a big push to increase overseas sales in the past decade has seen it transform into an export-driven business supplying customers in 36 countries, including some of the biggest names in its sectors such as JCB, Sumitomo and Massey Ferguson.
Dromone is family-owned and William Egenton (not a family member) became managing director in 2002.
“When I joined Dromone, it was under pressure and needed to develop new products and new markets,” he says. “What we subsequently developed was a quick coupler for an excavator and that opened up the global construction market to us.
“It sounds simple, but in fact Dromone was a very traditional business and it required a massive shift in mindset to achieve this.
“Change is not without pain and there was resistance from those who couldn’t see the value in taking people away from the production line for meetings.
“We set up dedicated technical and customer-facing teams, secured IP protection for the product and really got stuck into new market development. But it didn’t happen at the flick of a button.
“One of our challenges was to find bright young engineers whose knowledge and skills would help develop our business into the future.
“New market development sounds fancy,” Egenton adds. “It’s not. It’s a grind that meant getting on 14 flights in 14 days covering every corner of the US and meeting a lot of closed doors. Getting traction is very, very difficult. We got one order in the US in the whole of 2003 but persisted. Now North America is our biggest market.”
Dromone has always been a significant local employer, with up to 150 people on the payroll at one time.
Today employment stands at 100 and, despite the downturn, the jobs have been preserved.
“There’s a lot of emphasis on creating jobs but in my view preserving existing jobs is equally important. That is a big challenge because you have to be ever more competitive to maintain your growth rate,” Egenton says.
“In the massive downturn of 2008/09, we could have let 30 people go in a heartbeat. Instead we opted for a three-day week and to go hell for leather on RD, sales and staff training so we could ratchet up quickly when things improved.
“Our competitors let people go and it took them longer to recover. Throughout the slump we kept visiting potential customers and they kept saying ‘We’re not buying.’ Our response was ‘We know that, but when you buy again we’d like it to be from us.’ We did a lot of customer conversion under the radar. When others are hurting is the time to hit.”
In 2011 Egenton took part in the Enterprise Ireland-sponsored Leadership for Growth programme at Stanford University.
“It was extremely intense but immensely valuable. I did an MBA 10 years ago and this was a like a mini version of it,” he says.
“The senior management team was also involved and it really made us revisit our strategy over 2010/11 and focus on achieving operations excellence in four key areas. The first was lean manufacturing and we are a third of the way through a really major lean-manufacturing programme. The target is to embed lean in the company and use it to get to the next level of competitiveness.
“The second was a renewed focus on our customers and what we were selling to them. How could we give them better value on functionality as well as price?
“The third was further strengthening our engineering competencies and developing a channel of added-value new products. The fourth was looking in great detail at our supply chain and ensuring we were getting the quality and the slick supply required whether we were buying in Oldcastle or China.”
Egenton acknowledges that the company has set itself a big challenge and while he might be in the driving seat, he couldn’t have undertaken this push without a committed team behind him.
“It has been possible to re-orientate the company for a number of reasons, including the fact that I have been given the rope to take the company in the new direction by its owners,” he says.