EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards: ‘Start earlier, scale earlier, seek out good mentors’

Kevin Brennan, Michael Burke and Peter Foley nominated in the International category

Kevin Brennan, Modubuild Ltd

It was in 2006 when Kevin Brennan (pictured above) and his business partner opted to establish Modubuild, an engineering, manufacturing and construction company. He started out by operating the company on a part-time basis, with business predominantly based in Ireland.

Around 2014, Brennan noticed a gap in the market for companies that could deliver high tech data centre systems, and two years later he left his role in another company he helped to build – Asgard Cleanroom Solutions – to fully dedicate himself to Modubuild.

He has since sought to differentiate his business from the competition, which, he says, use more traditional construction approaches. That approach has paid off, and the company has had several big “wins” recently, one of which is a large blue-chip company which, in addition to giving Modubuild an initial contract, has added the business to its internal system so that they can tender for all projects in the Europe, Middle East and Africa regions going forward.

Today, about 60 per cent of Modubuild’s business occurs outside the island of Ireland and Brennan hopes to deliver about €200 million worth of projects over the next three years. That, he says, will help bring the company’s revenues to in excess of €100 million by 2025.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?
Leading the business through 10 consecutive years of organic and profitable growth – achieving an average of 64 per cent year-on-year growth since 2014 – and pivoting the business from a small local subcontractor to an international engineering, manufacturing and high tech construction company.

What was your "back-to-the-wall" moment and how did you overcome it?
It was probably in 2011. We lost our family home to fire and money was tight. I was trying to deliver some projects out in Haiti, the company was really small, we were in the middle of the recession and I ended up in hospital a few times. I felt sorry for myself for a while and then realised that was pointless so I decided to tackle the challenges head on. I got fit and did what had to be done.

What moment/deal would you cite as the "game changer" for the company?
The first was winning an €8 million data centre project in the Netherlands in 2015. This put us on the map as a company that can deliver large projects internationally. More recently we designed and constructed an entire two storey, turnkey vaccine laboratory in our Castlecomer factory. This €11 million project was delivered in record time during Covid and was named as the "large pharma project of the year 2020". We are currently delivering a €20 million project in Northern Europe. These are all stepping stones on our journey of growth and expansion.

What were the best and worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The best advice was that change is a good thing, scale your business quickly, build a business that can survive without you. Some of the worst is the stuff we learn when we are young such as be happy with what you have, avoid taking risks and don't make decisions too quickly.

To what extent does your business trade internationally?
We are very much an international business. Over 60 per cent of it is outside Ireland. We have delivered projects in 11 countries to date; we have several offices and active projects internationally; and, we have plans to enter further new markets in addition to achieving growth in existing markets.

How has Covid-19 impacted your business?
Covid has been a huge challenge for us. We had multiple active projects across several countries. There was huge uncertainty at the beginning, several projects closed temporarily – mainly the ones in Ireland – timelines moved, resources became scarce and costs soared. Luckily all of the projects that we do are deemed as essential. We had a strong order backlog and our tendering pipeline was very strong. So when most traditional construction and engineering companies were tightening their belts by cutting costs, furloughing staff and temporarily laying off people we did the opposite. We reassured our staff that the company was strong, no pay cuts, no forced holidays and so forth. We went on a major recruitment drive hiring over 50 people during the pandemic.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?
Focusing on turnover rather than profitability; putting their product first and not their people; quitting too early and failing to change and pivot.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?
Start earlier, scale earlier, watch your cashflow, accept that there are always problems and seek out good mentors.

What motivates you to keep performing at your best?
I've always loved engineering and construction, I get a real buzz out of the fact that we get to be involved in some of Europe's largest and most exciting projects. We have a factory that produces mega building modules, and everything is at a really fast pace so there's never a dull moment.

Michael Burke, Chanelle Pharma

Having qualified as a veterinary surgeon in 1970, Michael Burke returned to his native Galway to work in a veterinary practice in Loughrea, which he then purchased at the age of 23. He developed the business and, in 1978, established the State’s first animal health centre to distribute veterinary and other products directly to farmers and co-operatives.

In 1983, Burke acquired a 35,000sq ft facility on a seven-acre site in Loughrea and embarked on a new initiative in which he manufactured products that were off-patent. And that was the foundation of Chanelle Pharma – a business that has since expanded into human health.

Today, the company remains headquarted in Loughrea and exports to more than 100 countries. It also has three manufacturing plants, five research and development centres and three sales offices. It has a portfolio of more than 2,000 human and 2,800 animal health licences and supplies 80 per cent of the world’s animal health multinationals and human generic multinationals. Additionally, the business invests about €10 million a year in research and development with the aim of commercialising at least 12 new products a year. R&D, says Burke, is vital for the business and has created “a number of turning points” for Chanelle.

What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?
As a veterinary surgeon in the 1970s I could see the challenges in getting veterinary medicines in Ireland, particularly the west of Ireland. I spotted a niche in the market to provide a 24-hour delivery service of veterinary medicines and set up a wholesale distribution business as a result in 1980. At the time, it revolutionised the industry in Ireland where it was taking six weeks to deliver medicines. As the distribution business took off, I realised there was great opportunity to manufacture veterinary products coming off patent. In 1985, with only two members of staff and a loan of £6,350, I purchased the old cotton factory in Loughrea and by 1985 we began to manufacture generic pharmaceutical products enabling farmers to earn more as our products were exactly the same as the brand leader but a fraction of the cost.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?
Establishing a pharmaceutical company in the west of Ireland which is competing on the global stage and creating employment for nearly 600 people in Co Galway is a huge personal achievement. One of our biggest achievements as a business was the construction of our first FDA [the US food and drug administration] approved facility. We began construction in 2016 and within two years, the 30,000sq ft manufacturing facility was built, commissioned and FDA approved, allowing us to start manufacturing for the US market. It was a record achievement in a highly regulated industry.

What was your "back-to-the-wall" moment and how did you overcome it?
I always did what I could afford to do without resorting to debt to fund the business, so I never experienced any real crisis in all my years in business. Early on in business I was advised to 'keep things simple, focus on what you are good at doing'. It was very straightforward advice and it has been my philosophy ever since. I've remained focused on the core business which is the development, registration and manufacturing of both human and veterinary pharmaceuticals, and I believe this focus has led to our success.

What moment/deal would you cite as the "game changer" or turning point for the company?
In April 1983 before I set up our manufacturing business, I attended an agricultural exhibition in Saudi Arabia to see if I could find customers for our registered pharma products which we had contract manufactured for us at the time. On my second trip in October 1983, I returned home to Ireland with £250,000 worth of orders. It was an enormous win at the time and really gave me confidence to pursue my dream.

What were the best & the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
The best advice I got starting out was to "do what you can afford to do". We never sought external investment and it gave us full autonomy to reinvest in R&D, in our people and in our manufacturing facilities. And it meant we could also act quickly when opportunities presented themselves.

In this industry, it takes up to five years to develop a product and up to seven years to generate a return on the investment in R&D. That dictates a rigorous approach to cash flow management and reinvestment in the business.

I always try and mix with people who have different experience or have achieved more success in business than myself so I can learn from them. I can honestly say that I have never received “bad” advice. At the end of the day, I reflect on all advice sought and given, but ultimately, I take responsibility for the decision I make.

One of the best decisions I made in the early days was to focus on what you do best. I put my energy into the development and registration of human and veterinary pharmaceuticals and this has been key to our success.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?
We have a very active pipeline of products in both human and veterinary pharmaceuticals, this coupled with market expansion plans means we will exceed €200 million in revenue in the next three years.

Peter Foley, LetsGetChecked

When he was a teenager, Peter Foley suffered an injury playing rugby. The pain didn’t subside quickly and the process of obtaining a diagnosis took far too long, he says. That experience was the basis for him establishing LetsGetChecked, a virtual care company that allows customers manage their health from home by providing direct access telehealth services, pharmacy and lab tests with at home sample collection tests. The business covers a wide range of health conditions including sexual health, cholesterol, diabetes, thyroid and, more recently, Covid-19.

The company manages everything including manufacturing, logistics, lab analysis, physician support and prescription fulfilment.

Having started out by building a business plan from his bedroom, Foley has since built a team around him and raised capital for the business. To date, LetsGetChecked has raised more than $260 million, giving the company a valuation of over $1 billion.

Now, the company’s services are available in the US and in most EU countries. With split headquarters in Dublin and New York, the company also has a lab in California and earlier this year opened its Dublin lab, a move which will help the company further expand into the European market.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?
I'm proud of the way we've scaled to empower our customers to take agency over their own health. Since 2015, we've served customers with quality at-home tests, offering more than 30 tests to detect a range of conditions.

With our latest round of funding, we are working to expand our virtual care services into telehealth and treatment for chronic conditions. Customers now have the ability to take care of their health conditions, long term.

What was your "back-to-the-wall" moment and how did you overcome it?
In the early days, we nearly ran out of money. We were pushing and putting everything we had into the business, including taking out personal loans. We managed to close a financing round just in time. If you believe in it, it will land.

Where would you like your business to be in three years?
LetsGetChecked has plans to continue to expand globally. In our immediate future, we are rolling out CarePathways, a 360-degree customer care journey that will provide virtual care for patients with ailments and chronic conditions. We have ambitious plans to expand our telehealth services, pharmacy capabilities, and at-home diagnostics over the next few years.

What are the big disruptive forces in your industry?
There is increased demand from consumers for convenient and safe healthcare in the wake of the pandemic. Our business model and technology is disrupting healthcare by allowing consumers to take control of their health, manage their conditions, and reduce the time spent waiting for appointments as well as diagnoses.

What are you doing to disrupt, innovate and improve the products or services you offer?
For LetsGetChecked, owning our entire supply chain and the end-to-end experience has been a major priority since the beginning. We want to ensure our customers have the most reliable and efficient service possible.

How has Covid impacted your business? How do you expect things to unfold?
When the pandemic hit, we knew we could have an important role in helping the fight against Covid-19. Because we own our entire supply chain, we had the infrastructure to add Covid-19 testing to our offerings quickly.

In May 2020, we received an emergency use authorisation to begin selling home-use Coronavirus tests in the US from the FDA. We began selling Coronavirus tests to Irish customers in November of last year too.

Since our founding in 2015, we have delivered more than 2 million tests and served more than 300 corporate customers with testing services and biometric screening solutions.

What is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?
Just make sure it's something you believe in. Starting something from scratch is a rollercoaster and it's easy to throw in the towel during the low times. If you truly believe in it, you will hang on and make it happen. It may sound obvious and simple, but that is the fundamental starting point.

To what extent does your business trade internationally and what are your plans?
As a virtual care company, the patient comes first. We provide a seamless user experience and a convenient, reliable and secure healthcare experience. At LetsGetChecked we manage everything end-to-end which includes manufacturing, logistics, lab analysis, physician support, and prescription fulfilment.

LetsGetChecked is available nationwide in the United States and most EU countries. It is co-headquartered in Dublin and New York, with teammates all over the world. We own a CAP accredited, CLIA certified laboratory in Monrovia, California, and opened our Dublin laboratory earlier this year, which has allowed us to further expand into the European market.

Peter Hamilton

Peter Hamilton

Peter Hamilton is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in business