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Distilling and construction among sectors on industry finalists shortlist

Steel manufacturer and paint manufacturer also on EY Entrepreneur of the Year shortlist

Cormac McCloskey of Errigal Contracts.

Profiled today are the first four of eight nominees shortlisted in the industry category of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year 2020 competition. The nominees will vie for the title of EY Entrepreneur of the Year at an awards ceremony in Dublin later this year.

Cormac McCloskey – Errigal Contracts

As much of the world considers downsizing, Errigal Contracts co-founder Cormac McCloskey and his business partner Damien Treanor are looking to increase turnover at their construction company to more than £200 million in the next three years, having recorded breakneck growth over the past three years.

The business, founded more than 20 years ago in London and now headquartered in Monaghan, has more than doubled its employees to 325 over the past three years and has grown turnover from £52.4 million in 2016 to £116.2 million last year when it had an operating profit of £7.1 million.

Now the pair have the ambition of almost doubling revenue again, having already completed work on more than 320 projects valued at more than £500 million in 10 countries. Some of those projects include restoration of Limerick’s Adare Manor Hotel and estate, the Aviva Stadium in Dublin and Wembley Stadium in London as well as work in the pharmaceutical sector with clients such as Astra Zeneca, Shire and GlaxoSmithKline.

The construction group is at the forefront of innovation in the construction industry, and the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated its plans, which include investment in a 3D construction facility in Monaghan in addition to investment in artificial intelligence and cloud-based solutions.

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start up in business?

It wasn’t so much a lightbulb moment, more an opportunity, really. It was all I knew. My father and uncles had always worked in construction and farming, and it felt very much like a natural thing to do. I was very young – only 24 years of age – but even then I knew I liked being my own boss and shaping my own path, so starting the business was an easy decision.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

I’m proud of managing to survive – and in fact learn greatly from – the last recession. They say a crisis can bring out the best in people and I believe the experience has helped us thrive since. We have gone on to enjoy considerable growth.

What moment/deal would you cite as the game-changer or turning point for the company?

Going way back, it was when we secured our first £1 million project and that was around 2003. It was a project with University College Dublin. Only recently we have been working there again, so it was obviously a successful game-changer for all involved.

What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

The best, from my mother, is to believe in yourself’ and not to accept failure. If something doesn’t work the first time, dust yourself down, try again and keep going.

The worst advice we were given as a company was to specialise in just one sector and not spread ourselves too thinly. We have found great growth and strength in diversity both in the sectors and geographic markets in which we operate.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?

Approximately 15 per cent of our current turnover is international and we have plans to grow this further.

How has Covid-19 impacted your business? Are you still feeling the effects?

Everyone will feel the effects of Covid-19. We have had to find the new normal but thankfully we haven’t experienced any significant knock-on. While it’s an international tragedy in many ways, you have to look at the positives too to move forward. It has provided all businesses with the need and opportunity to adapt and to become stronger as a team.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Believing they are invincible. Taking risks is a good thing in business but it’s best to not take too many risks at the one time or all the time. My advice would be to always ensure the risks are calculated.

Kiernan Steel founders Frank and Dolores Kiernan.

Frank and Dolores Kiernan, Kiernan Steel

Somewhat out of necessity was Frank Kieran & Sons born and, with the family pitching in during those tough early days, the business has grown over the past 30 years into one of the Republic’s leading steel manufacturing companies with a 15,000sq m manufacturing facility in Co Longford and more than 200 employees across the group’s Irish and British operations.

Frank Kiernan grew up on a farm, while Dolores was raised in a country shop and pub business, allowing both learn the value of hard work from a young age. Soon after getting married, both were left without work and had to work odd jobs to pay their loans. When the government gave farming grants for farm buildings, the business was born.

These days, Kiernan Steel undertakes work for major projects in the pharmaceutical, blue-chip, food-processing, warehousing and agricultural sectors. It has also been behind railway bridges and stands for sports stadiums.

Founded in 1989, the business slowly grew from a small operator into a multimillion-euro internationally recognised business with Frank and Dolores still at the helm.

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?

In 1989, in the midst of a terrible recession, we were faced with just two options: to emigrate like so many others in our area, or to start a business and hope for the best. We realised there was an opening for a small enterprise to make agricultural buildings and, through necessity rather than vision, we took our first step into business.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Being awarded the contract in 2001 for the major Elan construction project in Athlone was an incredible break for our company. Our company at that time was a third of today’s size and this was a major gamble for us, but a well calculated gamble.

What was your back-to-the-wall moment and how did you overcome it?

Like so many businesses in Ireland when the recession hit in the late 2000s, we had to make that agonising decision to let some of our staff go. To stay in business and keep the company afloat, we targeted the international market for work. Our strategy proved successful with the procurement of contracts in London, Birmingham, Scotland and in Hanover in Germany.

What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

We must credit our parents for giving us the very best advice in life and then in business – treat everyone as you would like to be treated yourself.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the worst advice came from the person who told us we were ‘getting in too deep over our heads’. This just motivated us to work harder and become stronger.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?

We plan to be more established in the UK, with a fabrication facility there. This is a priority project, coupled with our ongoing research and development to enable us to diversify into other markets.

How has Covid-19 impacted your business? Are you still feeling the effects?

Following a seven-week closure, we were able to retain all our staff in employment thanks to the assistance of the Government’s temporary wage subsidy scheme. We were fortunate that all our contracts proceeded. New standards for Covid-19, both on site and in our manufacturing plant, had to be implemented, along with special staff training.

What was your biggest business mistake?

In the so-called boom times, we were in the steel business and not the investment business. Relying on the advice of financial experts, we invested in pensions which were all lost during the crash. Maybe in retrospect we should have sought a second opinion, but that was one big lesson in life and business for us.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

In every business, you must take risks, but you don’t always have to take a gamble. The common mistake is the gamble. Practical research, sound and secure financial advice and a lot of goodwill are all important.

West Cork Distillers founder John O’Connell (right), with co-founders Denis and Ger McCarthy. Photograph: Neil Danton

John O’Connell, West Cork Distillers

Former Unilever and Kerry Group executive John O’Connell gave it all up to establish West Cork Distillers in 2008 with two lifelong friends. And from modest beginnings, the company now has three facilities – the newest of which it bought this year – which operate 24 hours a day and employ about 110 staff.

West Cork Distillers operates across four arms. It manufactures and sells its own brands – West Cork Irish Whiskey and Garnish Island gin – in about 70 countries; it contract manufactures Irish whiskey for spirits companies and retailers; and it manufactures alcoholic ingredients for spirits producers.

Over the past 12 years, the business has built up its team to have commercial staff in the United States, Britain and Russia as well as in Latin American and Caribbean markets. O’Connell attributes the company’s success to its multiple and diverse income sources.

While most distilleries don’t turn a profit for at least seven years, West Cork Distillers has been profitable “from pretty much the start”. Given that they started their operation in the midst of a global recession and are expanding during a global pandemic, it appears as though little can faze the company.

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start up in business?

The reasons we started West Cork Distillers were twofold. We wanted to provide employment in a rural part of Ireland that was seeing challenging times due to the demise of the fishing industry. We saw that Irish whiskey was growing steadily under the radar and was very consolidated. We saw opportunity for new craft producers that would bring innovation and diversity to the sector.

What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

The worst advice I received was to invest upfront in marketing and to outsource as much activities as possible. The best advice that I have been given would be persistence beats resistance and always to try to do the right thing morally. Short-term gain is just that, short term.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?

To be able to lay down more and more stock to be released as antique stock. Antique stock is what elevates brand value.

How has Covid-19 impacted your business? Are you still feeling the effects?

Thankfully the business has not been adversely affected by Covid-19. We have had to make some changes with regard to segregation, health screening, etc, but these changes have made us a better company, I hope.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Thinking that we live in a perfect world.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

Make sure that you get into the business you are entering for the right reasons. Greed and money will not pull you out of bed when the chips are down.

How will your market look in three years?

I think that Irish whiskey will continue to grow and prosper. I think that there will be more diversity and also quite a lot of M&A activity.

In your opinion, what business supports would help stimulate the economy?

The further development and support of Cork Airport would be on my own personal wish list. I also feel very strongly that politicians could do more to bring industry/businesses to rural Ireland. Showcasing facilities in Dublin is too easy. I think that rural Ireland has a huge amount to offer with regard to work ethic, standard of living and culture.

General Paints Group chairman Kevin O’Connor.

Kevin O’Connor, General Paints Group

Kevin O’Connor is chairman of General Paints Group, a company which consumers will likely know through brands such as Colourtrend and Curator, which are distributed to more than 250 paint stores in Ireland, Britain, the European Union and the US.

The chemistry graduate joined the family business, which was established in 1953, in 1983. Under his watch, the company developed the Curator brand and over the past 30 years has grown 20-fold.

The business was originally established by Kevin’s father Ronan, who set up the company after returning from the US, where he had worked for three years in a Californian paint company.

Initially specialists in farm oxides, machine enamelling and road-line paints, the company is now among the leading manufacturers of premium paint in the Republic.

From having 12 employees when Kevin joined to 125 today, the business this year appointed Kevin’s daughter Rachel as the group’s managing director. And now it is plotting further expansion, particularly with its Curator brand, which is currently available in 15 stores across four states in the US.

But all this growth has not tempted the company away from its family and Celbridge roots in Co Kildare. Since its foundation, General Paints has remained in its famine workhouse premises.

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start up in business?

Growing up a family business meant mucking in during summers. I loved our business and industry from a young age and always saw myself leading the company one day. What a privilege to have worked with my father and now with my daughter.

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique.

In an industry dominated by multinational, multibillion-euro corporations, General Paints Group is by contrast a family business. With high standards set by the multinationals, General Paints is professionally run with a board comprising family and non-family executives and independent directors and many of the structures of a PLC, offering both retailers and consumers a genuine Irish alternative to the global brands.

What was your back-to-the-wall moment and how did you overcome it?

November 2011: following three years of recession, sales had dropped by a third, market prices were on the floor and it was hard to envisage any future. General Paints Group reorganised root and branch in preparation for the anticipated rebound, implementing very specific initiatives in the areas of winning new business/sales growth, managing overheads and leveraging associations to reduce raw material costs.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?

I would like to continue to grow market share in Ireland and the UK but, particularly, to grow exports to 25 per cent of our company turnover in three years and up to 50 per cent thereafter.

What was your biggest business mistake?

I would say it was those times I didn’t trust my gut instinct on certain decisions. When you’re so familiar with your business, your gut instinct is almost always right even though it may be difficult to articulate. It can take time to learn to trust your gut.

What is the hardest thing you have ever done in business?

During the recession in 2008-2011, we had a number of redundancies and closed some underperforming sections of the business. Given how I value people, I found that difficult and lost sleep over that one. Fortunately, we were able to rehire some of these same people a few years later when the company expanded again.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?

Today, exports are less than 10 per cent of our business but we expect strong growth. General Paints Group has registrations on our main brand, Colourtrend, in the UK and Ireland through conflicting registrations in the US and EU block further expansion. In 2018 we developed a second brand, Curator, with specific focus on the EU and US markets.

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