Future Proof: Karl Walsh, Irish School of Motoring
Steering driving school to continued profitability
Karl Walsh: "We had the foresight to change our company considerably with the times."
The petrol crisis of the 1970s left the Irish School of Motoring on the brink of closure.
A substantial oil shortage as a result of tensions in the Middle East sent prices through the roof and led to huge queues at petrol stations throughout Ireland.
Unable to get petrol to fill the driving school cars and faced with the collapse of his business, founder John Walsh had a brainwave. Buy a petrol station.
Walsh had opened the driving school more than a decade earlier in 1961 – three years before the driving test was introduced – to teach people how to drive.
“My dad John formed the business from very humble beginnings with just one car,” his son, and the school’s current general manager, Karl Walsh says.
The introduction of the driving test in 1964 brought more people to the business and the company began to build up a name.
“Then there was a very bad petrol crisis and we nearly went bust. The only way you could get petrol was if you owned a petrol station. There were huge long queues for petrol everywhere.”
Faced with going out of business, John begged the bank manager at AIB on Dublin’s O’Connell Street to give him money to buy a petrol station.
“He knew the only way to get petrol was to own a petrol station. The bank manager lent him the money and, if it weren’t for that, ISM wouldn’t be here today.
“My dad never actually opened the petrol station to the public. He just used the petrol for the motoring school.”
In the 1980s, the company began offering lessons in truck-driving and continued opening more offices around the country.
“At that stage, we had 15 offices in Dublin. It was a huge financial commitment to have all these offices but that’s how businesses operated back then.
“We knew that model was going to be problematic eventually as we had so many staff. We noticed the UK model was a franchise model. “
The company introduced an employee franchise model, whereby driving instructors franchised the ISM brand. That way, the school did not have to pay its employees directly.
Noticing a decline in business in 2007, Karl went to the UK to research how driving schools there were doing.
“I saw they were all offering bookings online and realised we could do the same. Everyone books flights, holidays, train trips etc online, so why not driving lessons.”
“Thankfully we had the foresight to change our company considerably with the times. If we hadn’t done that, we wouldn’t be the company we are today.
“We had offices all over the country and they were draining our money. We felt we needed a one-stop shop so people didn’t have to come into the office. Ryanair pretty much invented that. They bypassed the travel agency.
“We spent a fortune building the booking system. It took four years and cost nearly €250,000. Thankfully it means we no longer have to pay for actual offices and premises. Over 30 per cent of our bookings come in online.”
The company closed its last office on Dorset Street in November 2009, and Karl says the company has saved a “huge amount” by not having premises, a saving that can be passed on to the customer.
Towards the end of 2008, with the economic downturn beginning to bite, the company decided to broaden its horizons.
“We set up ISM Training Services and got into forklift training, warehouse training and transport logistics.”
The company then expanded into health and safety training, fire safety and first aid.
“We teach people how to drive in a fuel-efficient way. Companies can save €5,000 per year if the driver knows how to drive in a fuel-efficient way.”
As for the future, Karl says the company wants to continue expanding.
“Our next step will be to open a forklift training and warehouse training facility in Cork.”