EY Entrepreneur of the Year award: ‘Entrepreneurship should be a Leaving Cert subject’

The first four of eight nominees in the industry category of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year competition are profiled this week. The awards are run in association with Julius Baer, Enterprise Ireland, Invest NI, The Irish Times and Newstalk. The nominees will vie for the title of EY Entrepreneur of the Year at an awards ceremony later this year.

 

David Henderson, Tobermore

While Tobermore started life in 1942 as a quarry, sand and gravel business, the company soon diversified into specialist products including paving and walling having realised that there were more attractive margins to be made.

It was David Henderson’s two uncles who founded the business. His father joined the company in 1946 having returned from fighting in the second World War. In 1976, Henderson (pictured above) joined the business as a production manager, having graduated from Queen’s University Belfast with an engineering degree.

In the years since, he has consistently sought to improve efficiency in the business, a goal that brought him to visit large corporates in the US in the 1990s including businesses such as IBM. The programme of improvements paid off, and in 2007 the company pipped BMW, Philips and Siemens to take the European Quality Award.

Now, Henderson has his eye on further growth within the British market, and intends to double sales there in the coming four years. And while the Covid-19 pandemic caused a temporary shock, sales this year are up 40 per cent and continue to grow. Innovation plays a role in that growth, says Henderson, and the company regularly introduces new products. Recently, for example, it launched a range of easy-to-clean paving slabs for patios.

What makes your business unique?
A long time ago we realised that the margins of basic concrete were very low, so we were always looking to diversify into more specialist products with attractive margins. Nowadays, we do not make any basic products and solely concentrate on high-value paving and walling products.

What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?
We had a major product failure in 1989, which almost led to bankruptcy. We just had to keep our heads down and work very hard over several years.

What moment/deal would you cite as a turning point for the company?
Our game-changing moment was when we decided to embark on a major business improvement programme in 1991. At that time we had a poor culture in our workforce and our product quality wasn’t great. I was determined to change this and we were able to completely transform our culture, customer service and product quality.

What were the best and worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
When I joined the business from university it was assumed that I knew what I was doing. The reality was that I had learned little or nothing of a practical value at university. I believe that your education only really begins when you start working.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to Government to stimulate the economy?
Please avoid the mistakes of the last recession and stimulate the economy.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
People often borrow too much and when times get difficult banks are ruthless.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?
Business is a marathon not a sprint and you should always think long term.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?
We trade in Ireland and Britain. Our products are very heavy and therefore expensive to send further afield.

What is your growth funding path?
For the past 25 years we have funded all our expansion through our reserves.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?
The market in Britain is enormous, so our goal is to continue to grow and double our sales in the next four years.

Brody Sweeney, Camile Thai

Brody Sweeney, founder of Camile Thai. Photograph: Conor McCabe
Brody Sweeney, founder of Camile Thai. Photograph: Conor McCabe

Since its foundation in 2010, Brody Sweeney’s fast-casual restaurant brand Camile Thai has grown to a point where it now serves more than 10,000 meals a day to consumers across Ireland and Britain. As founder and chief executive, Sweeney has built the business to target consumers seeking a healthier takeaway through the company’s network of owned and franchised restaurants. Traditionally, he says, takeaway was associated with highly-processed food that was full of fat, sugar and salt. As a result, he developed Camile as a premium brand which has since enrolled franchise partners including former Galway hurler Joe Canning.

A serial entrepreneur, in addition to his interest in Camile Thai, Sweeney is chairman of the Little Museum of Dublin, and was formerly a board member of State agency Bord Bia and bookmaker Paddy Power.

Camile Thai intends to grow strongly in both the UK and the US and Sweeney wants the business to become the dominant Asian food brand worldwide. Over the coming three years, the former owner of the O’Briens chain of sandwich bars wants Camile to triple in size. As part of that goal, the company is using technology and, in particular, partnered with Manna Aero to deliver hot food using drones.

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start in business?
It was becoming obvious that people were addicted to screens. That prompted me to think they would want to spend less time cooking and would look for more convenience.

What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?
Going bust with O’Briens. I put the head down and started again.

What moment/deal would you cite as the “game changer” or turning point for the company?
When one of our first franchisees, Pramod Thankappan, said he wanted to open a second Camile (he is now opening his 10th) I knew the franchise had real legs.

What were the best and worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The best advice was: Think big, act small. The worst was: you can’t go wrong with property.

How has Covid impacted your business?
After initial nervousness from both customers and team members we settled down the business and have been extremely fortunate that our sector was allowed to remain open. And we traded well during the lockdown.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to Government to stimulate the economy?
Introduce entrepreneurship as a Leaving Cert subject.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
Over optimistic. Failing to understand their market/business model.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?
Take personal responsibility, be prepared to do whatever it takes and, have a plan.

What is your growth funding path?
With the exception of some small friends and family investment, and the support of our bank, we have bootstrapped Camile to date.

What are you doing to disrupt, innovate and improve the products or services you offer?
We work with three cloud kitchen providers in the UK and the US so we can lead in this area. Our partnership with Manna drones means we were the first company in the world to deliver hot food by drones [Domino’s first delivered pizzas by drone in New Zealand in 2016]. We are trialling robotic wok cookers in an effort to streamline production.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?
Getting independent entrepreneurs to trust us with their investment and then showing them and our own team members how to achieve their potential.

Dominic Walsh, Hospital Services Ltd

Dominic Walsh, chief executive of Hospital Services Limited
Dominic Walsh, chief executive of Hospital Services Limited

Having trained as a mechanical engineer before moving into employment with tyre manufacturer Michelin, Dominic Walsh realised that this career path wasn’t for him. He retrained and moved into sales and marketing with a fuel business in Co Armagh.

After stints in management, he subsequently took part in a management buyout of another business, MSO Cleland – a printing company that developed a system of printing invisible markings on to packaging. But the property crash of the 2000s caused difficulties, and Walsh brought investors into the business before stepping away.

On the lookout for a new opportunity, he saw the potential of a specialist distributor of medical supplies. HSL was originally founded in 1962 and had remained in family control. In 2015, and with the backing of private equity, Walsh led a new management team to buy out HSL.

Now, Walsh is targeting turnover of £50 million (€59m) within the coming three years, a figure that would deliver earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortisation of about £6 million. “That’s not bad considering we bought the business in 2015 when it had a turnover of £6 million,” he notes.

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?
I had a realisation following the first management buyout I was involved in [not MSO Cleland], that not only can you add value as a shareholder, which is why we’re in business, but it also allows you to have better control over the ethos and direction of the business. That freedom of being your own boss was extremely appealing and attractive to me and my personality.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?
It was convincing our investment partners Foresight Group that I was the right guy to back and this was the right business to back with me, that I was the right leader to take a small business and turn it into a great, medium-large business. They believed in me and the business, and I’ve delivered what I said I would, plus more.

What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?
Before HSL, I was a shareholder in a business and brought in some investors who had a very different agenda and vision. I walked away. It was very hard. I gathered myself, and with hard work, focus, some good luck and good partners, there really was a coming back from the brink. I am now in a much better place.

What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
Whilst I was doing a difficult turnaround of a business in my first management role, I was asked to always think of and trust people – until they proved me wrong. If I support them and the company supports them, they’ll deliver for the company.
The worst piece of advice was from a manager who told me: “It’ll be okay. Everything will be fine.” He was more focused on his own short-term goals for the day than the overall success of the project or company. It was his way of saying he didn’t care by shirking responsibility.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to Government to stimulate the economy?
Trust and support your entrepreneurs and do it in a way that does not put all of the risk on the shoulders of the entrepreneur. By taking a bit of the risk burden off the entrepreneur our economy will blossom again.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
From my own experience, it is growing too fast whilst having to source additional funding. Be careful with acquisitions. Cash is king.

Fergus Naughton, Ross Engineering Services

Fergus Naughton, chief executive of Ross Engineering
Fergus Naughton, chief executive of Ross Engineering

Having grown up on a farm in the west of Ireland, Fergus Naughton excelled in practical work such as woodwork. Through a mentor, Naughton got his first placement with Belfast’s Harland & Wolff where he got experience welding. This led him into a career in pipe welding.

But Naughton was frustrated with the status quo and felt that the only way he could improve matters was to go out on his own. And so, in the early noughties, Naughton embarked on his first entrepreneurial endeavour in the house-building trade. While the recession changed matters, Naughton had managed the business well and left with no outstanding debts.

Wanting to reinvent himself, in 2016, Naughton bought Ross Engineering with a colleague. Ross, which was established more than two decades ago, provides specialist engineering, construction and polymer services. With Naughton in control, the business has gone from strength to strength and has broken into a small network of competitors to be among the main contractors to the largest semi-conductor business in the world.

Naughton intends to launch Ross into the global market and grow outside of Ireland.

What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?
The day I left my full-time employment, knowing I had many responsibilities, but feeling that things were not advancing as the corporation I was in did not think innovatively enough. I left without a plan – but with a vision. I overcame the fear by working the hardest I had ever worked in my life.

What moment/deal would you cite as the “game changer” or turning point for the company?
Being awarded a contract that it was believed could not be executed in Ireland was a game changer. It was deemed that there were insufficient capabilities on the island and that it could only be carried out in the US by the company’s existing provider. We successfully built confidence with the contractor, despite being a very early-stage start-up, and not only were awarded the contract but we also mobilised quickly, completed within budget and ahead of schedule.

What were the best & the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The best advice was that if you are the smartest person in the room, you are in the wrong room. The worst was: you can do it all yourself.

How has Covid impacted your business? How do you expect things to unfold?
Covid impacted us greatly like all businesses. Our biggest learning during this time was the benefit the organisation felt because of its loyalty to staff. We were incredibly lucky to be able to continue supporting staff during the period of lockdown as a result of the prior years of hard work.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
Trying to do everything themselves and accelerating too quickly. Each time you fail you fail better.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?
We plan to launch the business into global trade. Having recently engaged a “turning point” client, we will be in a position to mobilise internationally and grow the business outside of Ireland. However, we also want to bring as much manufacturing back to the island as possible and be proud producers of Irish-made products.

What are you doing to disrupt, innovate and improve the products or services you offer?
We are successfully challenging the larger competitors and breaking into sectors to offer a dedicated, lean, transparent service to the customer.

We have carried out an efficient transition to off-site manufacturing which has led to the effective removal of cumbersome manufacturing in a chaotic work environment.

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