Jim Callery, founder of the Westward motor group, was appointed Irish distributor for Scania trucks in 1976. It was quite a coup for the Roscommon man, who secured it through resourceful audacity.
He had heard that two senior Scania executives were in Ireland and managed to track them down to a hotel in Ballsbridge in Dublin. He left Roscommon at the crack of dawn and made the hotel lobby by 7am. He waylaid the startled Swedes and, over their full Irish, convinced them to visit Roscommon before their return flight. The rest, as they say, is history.
Callery went into farming when he left school. To supplement his income he opened a small filling station in Strokestown, Co Roscommon, and began selling used cars, tractors and commercials.
In 1968 he became a Chrysler dealer and shortly afterwards won a big order to supply 200 cars to the self-drive market. The only problem was getting the money to finance the deal.
“It was virtually impossible to borrow money in the Republic, but I managed to convince the managing director of Ulster Finance to give me the £40,000 sterling I needed to get started. We’ve remained friends to this day”.
A problem with Chrysler paintwork gave Callery a lucky break. "I heard a large number of cars were being recalled because of the paint finish so I asked what would become of these vehicles," Callery says.
“There was a week of talking, and at the end of it I bought the lot. My customers were mainly farmers who didn’t care about the paintwork. I made a good deal of money on these cars and used it to develop and grow the business.”
By the mid-1970s Westward had become a flourishing car, tractor and light commercials business and, at its height, employed about 200 people. To complete his portfolio, Callery set his sights on a heavy trucks brand and approached Scania.
“Initially we got nowhere but when we turned up at their hotel, they knew we were serious,” Callery says.
“We had a job getting the required IR£150,000 bank guarantee but I was up in Dublin one day and met the then managing director of Ulster Finance, Ken Wall, on the staircase of their building. I stopped him and made our case. I think it went against his better judgment, but he put his neck on the block for us. For this alone, I am glad we turned Scania into a success.”
The Westward group currently employs about 100 people. Callery notes the market didn’t fall with the downturn – it collapsed.
“We had over 100 vehicles in our compound and couldn’t return them,” he says. “We had to scour every right-hand drive market in the world to shift them. Needless to say, we took a big hit.
“It’s a shock to the system when you go from selling 1,000 units a year to 150. This year we will sell around 300. The market will never go back to where it was [but] our dealer network is small and efficient. It’s like a family and we have survived by pulling together.”
Callery puts the resilience of his business down to the long-term retention and commitment of key staff, good training and a strong dealer network. He also believes in focus. He exited the car business in the 1990s to concentrate on developing Westward’s range of Scania products: trucks, buses, coaches and engines. The business is still primarily family-owned but senior staff have shares.
While Westward has faced its share of challenges, Callery says he is content with its performance and endurance.
However, his other “love” – the restoration of Strokestown Park House and grounds – is a different story. For many years, Callery clashed fiercely with the Pakenham Mahon family at Strokestown Park over his car business being so close to their estate.
However, his relationship with the “big house” subsequently improved and Callery was tipped off that the estate was being sold. It was bought by Westward in 1979 for about IR£400,000 (excluding the contents) prior to auction.
Cost of upkeep
"Financially it's been a bit of a disaster," Callery says candidly. "The constant cost of repairs, refurbishment and upkeep are a nightmare. That said, I dug the hole myself.
“We opened the house to the public in 1987 and the Irish National Famine Museum was opened in 1994. We have since opened the pleasure gardens, the fruit and vegetable gardens and the woodland walk. We are the official national famine museum . . . and get around 40,000 visitors a year”.
Callery in now in his 80th year but still active in the company. His recipe for longevity in business is “tenacity – never give up – luck and a good degree. I didn’t have one but in this day and age it can only help,” he says.