EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards: 'Be determined, remain focused, work hard'

The people behind Deli Lites, Zeus Packaging, EPS and Atlantic Dawn Group

Brian O’Sullivan, Zeus Packaging

Brian O’Sullivan (pictured above) started his adult working life as a teacher. But he clearly had some entrepreneurial spirit as a child, having sold phones and ice-cream while in school and college. While in his teaching job, he started working part-time for a business selling agricultural packaging and it was this side-line that ultimately led him to give up his teaching career.

In 1998 he founded Zeus Packaging, a business he initially funded by selling houses he had invested in during his studies and using all of his personal savings.

Since then, O’Sullivan has led significant growth in the company both organically and through acquisitions which have been financed by debt rather than outside investment.

Now, the company has business units in 26 different countries and O’Sullivan wants to grow its turnover to about €500 million in the coming three years, making Zeus one of the largest privately owned packaging companies in Europe.

The business now has a diversified range of clients across all sectors. So, while the pandemic saw business in some sectors slow, others were able to sustain Zeus as business in some sectors improved.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?
Selling my first ever pallet wrap machine with the pallet wrap. I knew I had a business that could work.

What was your "back-to-the-wall" moment and how did you overcome it?
When Danske Bank called me in January 2009 and told me that I owed them €54 million. We were moving into our new 110,000 sq ft (10,220 sq m))building in Dublin in February. So, I just continued to do what I have always done: work hard and win business.

What moment/deal would you cite as the "game changer" or turning point for the company?
When we won a substantial contract for a large retailer against the big global players. This meant we were innovating and capable of delivering countrywide. This gave a platform to grow the business.

What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The best advice was to jump the fence in front of you. The worst: Don't expand outside of Ireland.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to Government to stimulate the economy?
They have thrown out plenty of free money. The economy doesn't need any more stimulus. They need to open the businesses that are shut.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?
I don't believe I am an entrepreneur, just a hard worker with common sense. So, work hard and be the most efficient at what you do. Then you can make more margin or at least compete with lower margins which is our case.

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?
I had been involved in many small business ventures while in school and college: selling phones, ice-cream and tutorial schools. I just stuck with Zeus.

What are you doing to disrupt, innovate and improve the products or services you offer?
We have many new innovative items such as plastic-free cups and lids. There has also been a huge reduction in the amounts of plastic materials for the transit sector. Additionally, we have one of the most efficient tissue paper production sites in Europe under construction.

What motivates you to keep performing at your best?
Set goals, tough ones, achieve them and go again the next day, week and month.

Brian and Jackie Reid, Deli Lites

It was their love of travelling and healthy food that prompted husband and wife Brian and Jackie Reid to establish Deli Lites. And since they founded the company, the pair have dealt with ever-changing customer demand to build a business that is now in the process of raising capital to further scale.

But it wasn’t always straightforward. When they set up the company as teenagers, they worked night shifts from 7pm to 7am in order to meet growing demands while self-funding the company. Having started from producing 30 sandwiches a day, the company now has contracts with global retailers and exports to nine countries.

They’ve also had to contend with several crises in the sector including the Covid-19 pandemic which saw a dramatic change in consumer habits. Brian and Jackie saw that the pandemic had the potential to decimate their business and so, they introduced an e-commerce shop and delivery service targeted at the consumer eating at home. While they expect business to bounce back as restrictions ease, they also anticipate that consumers will emerge from restrictions with a greater environmental conscience. With that in mind, the couple want to ultimately emerge as a zero-waste, sustainable food offering.

What was your "back-to-the-wall" moment and how did you overcome it?
There have been several throughout the years, from the foot and mouth outbreak to the financial crisis. However, our biggest challenges to date have been Brexit and the uncertainties created by the Covid-19 pandemic. We had to virtually reinvent our business by responding to the changing needs of our retail customers and we had to urgently review our supply chain to ensure business continuity.

What moment/deal would you cite as the "game changer" or turning point for the company?
Our recent success in securing contracts with global retailers is a gamechanger for us. This will provide us with an unprecedented opportunity to have our products enjoyed in European and intercontinental markets. This will be a crucial driver in enabling us to effectively scale the business and bring more of our products to a worldwide stage.

What were the best and worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The best was: Invest in your team and they will invest in your business.

The worst: Self-praise is no praise.

Describe your growth funding path
We have been entirely privately funded. Assistance from Invest NI and Intertrade Ireland has greatly supported our export journey. We are in the process of raising additional capital for scaling the business further.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to Government to stimulate the economy?
The education system needs to be altered to emphasise home-grown entrepreneurial skills. We need to support and nurture bright, young minds by celebrating and encouraging entrepreneurship among the younger generations – starting as early as possible.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
As a business grows, it is very easy to lose contact with your products. Certainly, the numbers are important, but the end-product and customer solutions need to be the focus – the metrics that accompany them should be secondary.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?
Continue to think like a start-up. That will ensure you're agile, fleet-footed, continually innovative and never complacent. Stay close to your product and your people. If you get the right combination, you can do anything. Invest in yourself as early as you can.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?
Our goal is for our brands to supply the leading food-to-go companies around the world.

Colin Lynch, Electronic Product Services (EPS)

Colin Lynch graduated from Trinity College Dublin with a degree in electronic engineering and subsequently completed a Master of Business Administration in University College Dublin. He then set off into a career in the electronics industry but soon felt he would never realise his potential in the large multinational in which he was working.

As a result, he co-founded EPS with three others and has spent most of his time at the company seeking growth as its business development director. Two years ago, he took up the role of chief executive. A believer in first mover advantage, Lynch saw opportunity in the Covid-19 pandemic. When competitors had to close factories in Wuhan owing to the virus Lynch identified a client that need certain stock. He then placed a $12million  (€10million) order for stock that successfully shipped to that client.

Today, EPS has two divisions, its services division which manufactures from 24 service centres worldwide and its networking technology division which provides solutions to data centres to drive cost effectiveness. By 2025 Lynch anticipates that the company will reach annual sales of $300 million (€255.2 million), making the company about three times its present size.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?
I am hesitant to say what my greatest business achievement is because, although I am so proud of what my colleagues and I have achieved so far, I believe that the best is yet to come.

What was your "back-to-the-wall" moment and how did you overcome it?
Unsurprisingly, cash flow during global economic downturns. The year 2008 stands out. That was the time I stayed up all night with my wife, Louise, going over figures again and again, and we jointly decided to remortgage our family home and reduce our income from the business by 40 per cent to keep it running. All our senior team had enough belief in our future to do the same. It is an enduring source of pride for all of us and our families that those fraught decisions and sacrifices have paid off.

What moment/deal would you cite as the "game changer" or turning point for the company?
Our growth has been driven by a series of small, incremental wins – there has been no single tipping point deal or one moment that changed the paradigm. What we have done well strategically is to predict the demand curve in market sectors for electronic components and had the confidence to invest in those decisions. For instance, our early focus on the growth of electronics in the automotive and data centre sectors has been fully vindicated.

What were the best and worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
We were once chasing a franchise with a supplier who urged us to upgrade our premises at great expense. We've never sent mixed cost signals like that to our team because our value is in what we deliver to customers, not the elegance of where we deliver it from.

The best advice? I was once about to invest a lot of time and money into a market that did not offer us a concrete sales pipeline. I was lucky enough to get some direct feedback from a trusted source who reminded us that we were principally “fast-followers” who didn’t have the heft to make a market. Not yet anyway.

What are the big disruptive forces in your industry?
The electronic component market is in a state of perpetual disruption and presently there are three big forces at play. The cost of freight has increased substantially over the last couple of years and this could drive the big American and European customers to locally source low-value, high-margin products. Secondly, a trend towards economic nationalism is disrupting long-embedded supply chains. Finally, there is a significant capacity problem in semiconductor and passive component supply. There aren't enough factories in the world to meet demand accruing from the increase in electronics in cars and also in devices needed to facilitate remote working, so lead times are badly out of balance.

Karl McHugh, Atlantic Dawn Group

When Karl McHugh joined fishing and processing company Atlantic Dawn, a second-generation family operation, the company was at less than a quarter of its present value. In the 24 years since, McHugh has set high standards in order to grow a business operating in a highly charged political atmosphere in an industry that is heavily regulated.

Today, Atlantic Dawn exports almost 100 per cent of its produce and trades extensively with markets in the far east, west Africa and eastern Europe. And the company is in the process of a fleet renewal programme which will see five new state-of-the-art fishing vessels being delivered in addition to an expansion of its processing facilities. In total, the entire investment amounts to in excess of €100 million.

Notwithstanding volatility in the sector, McHugh has taken several risks, most of which have paid off. Among those was the sale of the company’s main fishing vessel which was part of a dramatic change in the company’s business model and strategic direction.

McHugh credits his father as being a pioneer of the industry and says he left a “tremendous legacy” which he’s now proud to develop.

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique:
The Atlantic Dawn Group is Ireland's largest seafood company. We are engaged in the catching, processing and international trade of seafood products. As a vertically integrated company, we offer our markets a natural and nutritious protein source that we manage from catch to client. What is really unique is the strategy that we have adopted to conduct our operations in an environmentally friendly manner. This is most evident in the environmentally friendly fishing vessels we have commissioned. They incorporate a range of green features including a hybrid propulsion system. These vessels will be the first of their kind in Europe and will be flag bearers for other fishing fleets around the world to emulate.

What was your "back-to-the-wall" moment and how did you overcome it?
I would say we are currently in the throes of a significant back-to-the-wall moment – the outcome of Brexit represents a very real existential threat to our business. We are currently actively lobbying our Government to redress the losses incurred and this remains a number one priority for our business and for the whole Irish fishing industry.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?
I am hopeful for more certainty and stability with respect to our long-term future fishing opportunities. I am also hopeful that we will bring to fruition some possible international expansion opportunities and to have advanced some value-added production projects that we are working on.

What is the one piece of advice you would give to Government to stimulate the economy?
Support indigenous industries, especially those in rural coastal communities. Protect the valuable seafood natural resources we have all around our coast by ensuring that we improve the quota allocations that we are entitled to at European Union level.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
Overly ambitious growth strategies that do not adequately project cashflow requirements.

How will your market look in three years?
I expect that there will be further consolidation in our industry. Market demand will continue to rise as populations rise and food security remains a global challenge.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?
I would simply advise anyone starting out in business to be determined, remain focused and work hard.

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