Westport-headquartered company with big plans to expand

EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist Harry Hughes, Portwest

Portwest, which was founded by Charles Hughes in 1904, is a global safety supplier that designs, manufactures and distributes a full range of specialist and safety workwear and work gloves from eight warehouses globally.

The Westport-headquartered company is owned and operated by three brothers Cathal, Harry and Owen Hughes who together have built the business from one that recorded turnover of nearly €200,000 in 1979 to one with revenues of more than €140 million last year.

The company, which has its headquarters in Westport, Co Mayo, designs and manufactures personal protective equipment, workwear and outdoor leisurewear, employs more than 2,000 people worldwide and its products sell in more than 100 countries.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?


Continually growing the business every year by 25 per cent even during the financial crisis.

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

Portwest currently sells in over 100 countries around the world. We have five warehouses in Ireland, UK, Poland, Dubai and the US and three in Australia. Our catalogue is printed in 26 languages. We recently just made the acquisition of a company in Australia so we will be looking to expand our presence in the ASEAN market. Over 90 per cent of our turnover is from outside of Ireland.

Describe your growth funding path

1) Assess the finance available to fund growth – the business planning process starts with a five-year financial plan. This is regularly reviewed and informs what the company can afford to do in the coming years.

2) Identify new markets and ranges to drive growth – once the financials are understood we identify the method of growth. Growth has traditionally been achieved through the development of new products, identifying new markets and hiring additional sales people to manage these markets.

3) Plan the capacity to service these new markets/ranges – capacity has to be planned to ensure Portwest can maintain sufficient stock in the right places to service all our markets.

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

To increase turnover from the current €140 million to €250 million. To keep growing our current markets in Europe, the US and Australia. Have the two new factories operational and a warehouse in China.

Have you started to feel the effects of the economic upturn within your sector/industry?

Our business continued to grow and thrive during the economic downturn but with the upturn in the economy across the world there is more optimism, more enterprise and therefore more opportunity to sell safety workwear and PPE. Particularly there has been an uptake in oil and gas and construction and these are two of the main sectors purchasing our products.

How are international political developments such as the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote likely to impact on your business?

Our biggest market is the UK. So Brexit will have an impact with uncertainty to what trade deal they will make with the EU and the devaluing of sterling. We have warehouses within UK and Europe, so we are at no disadvantage over our competitors.

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

Telling a parent that you do not have a position for their son or daughter.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Underestimating the time, effort and resources it will take to build and sustain a successful business.

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

Keep it simple. Understand the needs of you customers and figure out how to service these needs better than your competitor.

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor

Charlie Taylor is a former Irish Times business journalist