Staying aloft in the hi-fi trade despite economic turbulence
Noel Cloney’s pilot training helped his hi-fi business become a high flyer
He was known as the “flying doctor of hi-fi” in the 1970s and his customers have included former president Erskine Childers and actor Peter Sellers, but staying one step ahead of the game is what has kept Noel Cloney of Cloney Audio in business for over 45 years.
Cloney began his career with Brownlee Brothers on Dublin’s Molesworth Street – a radio and TV manufacturer – testing transistors.
He honed his craft in London during the early 1960s before returning to Ireland in 1966 and founding Cloney Audio on Westland Row. In 1986 the business moved to Blackrock, where it is still in operation. The company started out selling hi-fi systems but has since moved into multiroom hi-fi, full-home automation, plasma and LCD TVs, home cinema systems and solutions for streaming.
Cloney qualified as a pilot in 1970, keeping a Mooney M20 light aircraft for deliveries and service calls long before the Celtic Tiger era of private jets.
“I was known as the flying doctor of hi-fi. I kept the plane at Dublin Airport between 1973 and 1996, and in addition to attending hi-fi shows and visiting suppliers in the UK I regularly dropped in on clients in Cork and elsewhere around the country.
“They were the days when it took four-and-a-half hours to get to Cork and I could be there in 50 minutes.”
It was during that time that Cloney Audio began attracting high-profile clients.
“We had a large Merc pull up outside the shop one day. The then president Erskine Childers got out. He bought a music system which I installed for him in Áras an Uachtaráin.”
“Another day he came in when we were very busy and no-one even noticed him. He ended up queuing for ages like everyone else to get served.”
On another occasion Cloney also called out to fix a sound system in Carton House, where Peter Sellers was living.
“I visited him regularly. There was always lots of music played and we listened to open-reel tapes of The Goon Show.”
In 2005 the business was the subject of a multimillion takeover bid by one of the country’s largest building companies, which wanted to diversify. However, despite coming to a suitable sale figure, Cloney’s sons Ivan and Alan decided that rather than cash out they wanted to buy in and invested in the business to keep it in the family. Along with Michael O’Neill they are now the majority shareholders.
The company at the time was one of the home-automation specialists of choice for developers, something that would haunt them in years to come. Several of their clients who are now in Nama left them unpaid when the property market crashed.
“We did the sound and lighting for a lot of apartment developments. The builders then pulled the plug and we found ourselves not being paid,” Ivan Cloney says. “We took some to court only to find out they owed €400 million or €500 million to AIB, so there was no hope of us ever getting our money, considering we were unsecured creditors.”
Like many others, the company had to make cutbacks in the downturn.
“From 2000 we had between 14 and 15 staff and five vans full-time on the road. We had to let some staff go and make some cutbacks. We carefully examined all our overheads, utility bills and insurance costs.”
Keeping an eye on the future, and as a new revenue stream, the company launched an online store last summer.
“The future is digital and we have decided to expand our business through the internet rather than through a ‘bricks and mortar’ expansion. While we will always encourage clients to drop into our shop, many of our younger customers will immediately go online,” Noel Cloney says.
And the secret to their success thus far? “We look after our customers very well. We stay up-to-date on all the modern technologies and developments by going to seminars and hi-fi shows abroad. You have to stay one step ahead. The customer doesn’t like it if they know more than you, and these days they are very clued in,” Ivan Cloney says.