Furniture maker that's built up a strong export trade


TradeNames: From humble beginnings in Co Monaghan, John E Coyle Furniture has developed a strong presence at home and abroad, writes Rose Doyle

John E Coyle, man and boy, knew what he wanted. Born in Rich Hill, Co Armagh, in the early years of the 20th century, John E went to Ballyhagan primary school and there met his future wife, Mary Ellen (Ellie). He was apprenticed to McDonagh's local furniture factory by the time he was 14.

His grand-daughter, Maura O'Connell, remembers "an older McDonagh family member" telling her of John E that "he always meant business. He came to us to work as a wee fella and, when he was sent out to plant hedges, he told them he hadn't come there to plant hedges, but to make furniture. He was always very tasty, with a good eye."

Such a good eye that he would, in time and with a lot of work, design and produce furniture which would make its way into shops and homes around Ireland and, years later and in much greater quantities, into shops and homes all across England.

Today's 70-year-old Monaghan plant produces a wide variety of traditional, quality furniture. The company's Connexions range, started in 1998/99, brought a wholly modern, more streamlined design to the market while a recently introduced second Connexions range has added even newer designs and pieces.

All's to be seen in its vast, bright showroom in North Park, Finglas or its newly opened showroom in the company's home town of Monaghan.

Family and company roots were set down in Monaghan when John E moved there in the early 1930s as manager of a McDonagh-owned factory in the town. Life took one of its turns when the factory burned down and John E, in partnership with one Noble Kerr, set up a furniture making business. This, however, didn't last long and, when it dissolved and with Ellie by his side, John E set up John E Coyle Furniture.

The year was 1936 and the factory's site, wisely and for practical reasons beside Monaghan town's railway station and known as the Plantation, is today the site of the company's huge state-of-the-art furniture making facility.

A third generation of bright, young tiger Coyles has moved in to run and see the company through its present expansion and into a long future. But second generation Maura, a daughter of John E and Ellie, has coalface memories and the family tale to tell. Her brother, Tony, who with his wife, Brigid, parented the present generation running the company, was the one who took over from their father.

Maura's formal working life with the company began in 1978; before that, through her growing-up years, she'd been involved anyway. She recalls how her mother, Ellie, who came from Lurgan Cott, in Co Armagh, "always said that the money my father put down for the site, £200 and a lot at the time, was her dowry".

She remembers her father as "a superb man, very forward thinking and balanced. He didn't take decisions lightly and didn't suffer fools. Mother was more impetuous and would blow hot and cold."

John E and Ellie had seven children. Maura, born in 1935, was the eldest: "After me there was Eileen, then Joe who is deceased, Betty, deceased, Sean, deceased, Tony and Ann.

"I remember the old factory building and my father going down in the morning to crank up the engine to start the machinery. The train system was great then, it went all over Ireland and came to Monaghan. My father had the ideas for furniture in his head. He would draw out designs and be gone on the train with his bike, going all over the place and cycling to factories and shops to show them. It was mostly tables and wardrobes and fireside chairs then. We even made coffins at one point."

Her father, Maura says, "seemed to see the war coming, to know there would be a shortage of wood. He borrowed money from the bank before it happened and bought wood. This got him through the war and gave him a good start in business. In the 1950s and 1960s there were about 60 people working in the factory."

She remembers as a child, after school and in the holidays, how she helped pack in the factory, stitching and padding the furniture around with "stuff like straw, and with Hession. A flat, horse-drawn cart would then load up and take things to the station for the train and delivery. We didn't sell into Northern Ireland in those days but did a lot around Longford, Tullamore, Dublin, Drogheda and Dundalk. I remember writing the labels. It was all simple and basic and returns were very, very few!"

Her mother, Ellie, worked in the factory too. "She looked after the French polishing room - and did the polishing too. It was all women in the polish room. All the finishing aspects were done by the women. Staff started with us as boys and left as old men; they did a lot of hand carving on furniture, decorative motifs and such. I remember Seamus Cadden doing lovely work, turning legs on chairs and more."

After boarding school, Maura studied home economics, married and has been living in Belfast for more than 20 years while working in sales and marketing for the company.

"My father built it up," she explains, "and then my brother, Tony, who knew there was an opening for export, developed the company. We cut our teeth by selling first into Northern Ireland and after that one thing led to another."

What those first sales led to, in the early 1980s, was to John E Coyle Furniture expanding and selling into the midlands and northern England, then on into Scotland. They use their own fleet of trucks, supplying furniture retailers from Devon to Cornwall. "Tony," his sister says, "was never afraid to plough money back into the company."

Karen Coyle is the eldest of Tony and Brigid Coyle's four offspring. She has been with the company nine years now, looks after marketing but says she's a "Jack of all trades. I work wherever I'm needed."

Sister Bronwen is an accountant, cut her teeth in Australia and, with a few years business experience elsewhere, has been on board since September 2005.

John, who studied furniture production management, "did" Australia too and now works in London. Kilian, the youngest, made a circuitous way back to the company and these days looks after the contract division, supplying complete turnkey packages for clients who range from Fota Island Hotel to student residences in Sligo.

Bronwen says that, even in the last few years, "things have changed a lot. Our first non-Irish employees came to us in 2000. Apprenticeships are a thing of the past."

Karen, full of an energetic commitment, adds that "to compete in the global market, as we do, furniture making has to be machine-driven. To be here this long we've had to evolve and change."

Both acknowledge proudly what's gone before, the work of John E ("a driving force") and their father, Tony, who, Karen says "was behind the growth of the company. We're the leading furniture manufacturing company in Ireland, even if we're not so well known here as in the UK because that's where the bulk of our sales are."

Bronwen points out that there are "about 120 full-time people working in the company today and another 20 on contract. We've all been working in the company since an early age - that's the nature of family business - but we all had a choice too about whether or not to become involved."

Karen sees the company's strength through the years in "an ability to anticipate the changing markets, move from traditional to contemporary, as we did in 1998/99 when we anticipated a change to contemporary product with clean lines and lighter timbers".

The showrooms are filled with both its own and European designs, all streamlined with lots of chrome and pale wood. All lovely to look at and all very much today and the future of John E Coyle Furniture.