The entrepreneur who went from ‘total poverty’ to a Lamborghini

Shed-maker Sean Brett talks boozy purchases, dealing with Brexit and never being boring

Sean Brett, chief executive of Steeltech Sheds, at the company’s headquarters in Tuam, Co Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Sean Brett, chief executive of Steeltech Sheds, at the company’s headquarters in Tuam, Co Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

Seán Brett would be the first to admit that he doesn’t always make the most sensible purchases, particularly after he’s been drinking. The two life-sized Transformers models that sit outside Steeltech Shed’s headquarters in Tuam, Co Galway are proof of that, as is the massive replica Coca-Cola-style truck that also awaits visitors to the facility.

But Brett, the founder and chief executive of Steeltech, which designs, manufactures, distributes and assembles sheds and garages, is as interested in having fun as in making money.

And as far as Brett is concerned, he has earned the right to spend his money however he wants. Given he started out raising piglets to sell for slaughter at market at the age of eight, before going on to start several successful businesses, it’s hard to disagree with him.

Other big purchases the entrepreneur has made in recent years include a Lamborghini bought at auction from the UK’s equivalent of the Criminal Assets Bureau shortly after it was seized from one of Britain’s biggest drug dealers. Another buy was a €25,000 motorbike acquired “from someone in the pub” a few weeks ago.

“The Lamborghini was the worst buy of my life. It has cost me a fortune but it’s an amazingly beautiful car and I wouldn’t be parted from it,” says Brett.

It’s the day after a bank holiday and Brett is sitting in Steeltech’s head office, which is situated on the Galway Road, just outside Tuam town.

“I’ve come in to work for the rest after a rough week at the Galway Races,” he says.

Brett founded Steeltech in 1994 in Carrowbrowne, near Galway city. Last year, it relocated to the 40,000 square foot former Coca Cola factory in Tuam as part of a major expansion that will see it more than double its workforce by 2017.

The company, which also manufactures garages, home offices, chalets and greenhouses, currently employs 130 people. Having achieved a growth rate of more than 30 per cent each year during the past five years, and with high hopes of achieving big success in the UK, Brett is bullish when it comes to the future.

Targets

“Our target is to do €15 million this year in turnover and, in five years, I’m saying we’ll do €100 million and that I’ll have the yacht, the private jet, and all that. Most people laugh at this when I tell them my goal, but I’m absolutely serious,” he says.

Steeltech has retail bases across Ireland and, while business is booming locally, it is to the UK and mainland Europe that Brett has set his sights on for further growth.

As the company’s products are delivered flat-packed and then assembled on site, it is relatively easy for Steeltech to manufacture for export. The firm has established a separate subsidiary for the UK market and has already set up in five locations there with the aim of having between 40 and 50 retail bases by the end of 2016.

The idea of steel-made sheds and chalets doesn’t seem particularly revolutionary, but Brett contends that, in the UK, they are a rarity, with concrete and timber-designed products being more commonplace. Such materials may suffice when used purely to store items such as lawnmowers but they are also often badly designed and prone to leaks and draughts.

Steeltech, whose business is roughly split 70 per cent consumer and 30 per cent business, sees massive potential in steel-made, insulated home offices and chalets. It is this segment that the firm is particularly keen on targeting in Britain.

“We’ve always had enquiries from people in Britain about buying our sheds because the ones that are made there are generally very poor. The guys making them in the UK don’t even seem to know how to display them well in retail spaces, let alone to offer incentives such as insulation as standard and a promise of no maintenance,” he says.

Impact of Brexit

Most companies with exposure to the UK market may be busy tearing up their business plans following the Brexit poll result, but Brett is determined to go ahead with his expansion there. He even hopes to set up a separate manufacturing facility in England within a year.

“Like everyone else, we were hoping for a different result in the vote. What’s happened is not ideal but we’re not going to let it stop us from proceeding. We’re going flat out for success,” he says.

“We’re already been hit by the fall in sterling and are probably down around €100,000 purely in our order book on business done in Northern Ireland. I’ve no doubt we’ll run into other problems that we haven’t as yet foreseen as well but at the same time we’ve researched the market properly and no one is doing what we’re doing there,” he adds.

Further expansion elsewhere is also on the cards says Brett.

“We have a lot of Polish people working for us and have built up a lot of contacts there so we’re also looking up setting up a factory there and supplying into the German market.

“Maybe in four or five years, we’ll also look at the US as the market there is pure bullshit, just like the UK and German ones,” he says.

The biggest mortal sin

As you may have already gathered, Brett, a finalist in the 2015 EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards, is not your usual businessman and he has no problem with anyone knowing that.

“One thing I tell my sons is never to be sheep. That is the biggest mortal sin and I think that unfortunately most people are,” he says.

Brett certainly didn’t make it the easy way. There was no MBA for him or a handy leg-up from connections. Brett was brought up on a small family farm near Ballina, Co Mayo and he’s the first to admit that his upbringing was tough.

“I always wanted to make money. That was my great motivator early on because I was bought up on a small 15-acre farm Mayo and it was total poverty. It had a massive influence on me because if there was one thing I was sure of it was that I didn’t want to be poor.

“The thing about growing up like that is that it is horrible. Some people love farming but you’ll never find anyone that hates it as much as me. I absolutely detest it,” he says.

Early success

His time on the farm wasn’t wasted, however, as it was there he found his first business success.

“When I was eight years old, my brother and I were given a piglet each to raise as my parents had gotten into pig farming by that stage. We fed them along with the other pigs and sold them later at a profit at market. We had to pay back my parents for the food the piglets had eaten but we still had money left over with which we bought more piglets.

“By the age of 13, we were doing pretty good compared to everyone else at school and, while my brother sold all his pigs to buy a motorbike, I sold mine and bought 18 apple trees and started selling the produce from them to market. The idea of doing business was instilled in me from a very early age and the lessons I learned then have stayed with me,” he says.

Having dyslexia means he was more creative than most, Brett believes, and therefore certainly not prepared to be a sheep himself.

“I had the massive benefit of having an open and creative mind because it wasn’t all educated out of me,” he says.

Beyond schooling

Brett left school at the age of 14 to become a trainee mechanic. Two years later, he started buying and selling cars. When this didn’t take off, he began flogging shrubs, plants and trees on market stalls.

After a short period working in London as a machine operator in the construction sector, he returned to Galway. However, after spending a year unemployed, he set up his own painting and decorating business and, after selling it on, established a coal distribution business.

“The painting dried up in the winter months so I bought a tonne of coal and started going around housing estates. It was really tough early on and I had serious competition from other lads flogging the stuff. I remember one particular Saturday night only selling one bag of coal on an estate but three years later everyone there was a customer.

“I approached things like a professional, wearing overalls, getting business cards done up, doing flyers with special offers on them and so on and that made the difference,” he says.

Setting up Steeltech

Brett got into shed manufacturing a short time later, getting the idea for the business after seeing customers on the estates he trawled looking for them. For a while, he successfully ran the coal distribution company and Steeltech side by side before deciding to concentrate solely on sheds.

“I had someone into me to buy a shed before we’d even got round to putting the sign outside the premises,” he recalls. “That’s when I knew I had something good on my hands.”

The company thrived, extending its line of products and building a network of branches across the State.

Unlike most businesses, Steeltech opted to “go big or go home” during the recession, investing to expand at a time when other companies were retrenching.

“The recession was the best thing that could have happened to us. Orders dried up from around September 2008 and, by early 2009, we were in trouble.

“I decided that if we were going to go out we’d go out with a bang so we did the opposite of what most people were doing and expanded rather than tighten our belts, developing new lines and opening in more locations. It was a risk but one that paid off,” says Brett.

The competition

While there may be rivals both here and overseas, Brett is dismissive of them, believing that none have products that come up to scratch. If anything, he says, he’d like a bit more competition.

“You need competition to thrive. We’ve never been in such a strong position and I’d nearly enjoy the challenge of having a competitor. But there’s no one that’s near us at the moment and, if anyone were thinking of it, they’d probably need to have more than €2million in start-up costs alone to take us on,” he says.

Brett still retains a key interest in all areas of the business – from design to sales – and he’s always looking at new lines that will bring further growth for Steeltech.

“We haven’t even followed up properly on some promising areas, such as manufacturing standalone conservatories or chalets for the homeless. We recently built a three-bed chalet for someone down in Cork that took 10 days and only cost €47,000 and we’ve had a lot of queries about making conservatories,” he says.

These day, money is no longer the main motivator for him, Brett says, but he admits the insecurity of having been born without it still impacts on him.

“I could relax from a financial point of view because I’m very comfortable where I am but I’d get quickly get bored. I love coming to work and the older I get, the more ambitious I get,” he says.

“There are those who think I’m mad to be continuing on but the worst thing I could think of anyone saying about me is that I was boring,” Brett adds.

Panel: Curriculum Vitae

Name: Seán Brett

Title: Founder and chief executive, Steeltech Sheds

Age: 56

Lives: Oranmore, Co Galway

Family: Married for the second time. Three sons

Something you might expect: Brett likes anything with an engine

Something you might not expect: He has an interest in Buddhism and believes it is important to forgive, but not forget, transgressions.

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