Management books, the kind written by brain-deadening chicken soup for corporate soul types, say that, in business, timing is everything. Nonsense. And Mayo twins Ciaran and Mick Crean, of car parts website MicksGarage.com, are living proof.
The Creans’ timing was demonstrably brutal, yet they have built their zany and irreverent business into Ireland’s most promising indigenous online retailer, growing at 30 per cent annually and heading for €15 million in sales this year.
Now, about that timing.
Mick began developing the idea in his Mayo bedroom in early 2003, a terrible period for a new website, coming in the wake of the dotcom crash. But he ploughed ahead and Ciaran joined him in 2004.
MicksGarage did its first outside fundraising in December 2008, bagging €560,000 just as Anglo Irish Bank was collapsing. Their timing could hardly have been worse. In December 2012 – peak austerity, when the rest of us were crying ourselves to sleep at night – the Creans raised another €2.3 million.
Last year they decided to make a major push to export more product into the UK and acquired a warehouse in Barnsley, the armpit of Yorkshire.
That was in April. Eight weeks later, the British shot their own proverbials off by voting to quit the European Union, sending sterling into a tailspin and making Irish-sourced products 15 per cent more expensive overnight.
“We just couldn’t believe it. Margins suffered straight away,” says Ciaran, putting his hands to his head and swinging back in his chair at MicksGarage headquarters in west Dublin.
Yet the twins have dusted themselves down and devised a plan to shift more of their cost base to the UK in order to make Brexit work in their favour. To help fuel their foray, they raised €1.5 million from Investec in December.
With a customer base that is more than 80 per cent male, the site has a distinctly blokey, offbeat persona
“We’re not sitting back and waiting for Brexit to kill us. We’re ambitious,” says Ciaran. “It’s a cold wind that doesn’t suit somebody,” Mick chimes in.
Mayo men, the pair of them, to the tips of their fingers.
All on the site
MicksGarage is basically an Amazon for car parts and accessories. Need a fuel gauge for your Fiesta? Mick’s your man. Seat covers for your Ssangyong or hubcaps for your Honda? The website has you covered.
With a customer base that is more than 80 per cent male, the site has a distinctly blokey, offbeat persona.
On its blog, staff recently wrote about their €500 company rally car, Charlotte the Starlet. The site sells bespoke air fresheners dubbed Eau de Mick, which hang on a tree in the lobby of its Parkwest complex.
Upstairs on a whiteboard, staff names are scrawled beside what appear to be lap times, under the heading "Staff in a reasonably priced car", a nod to a famous Top Gear guest racing segment.
“You can’t make brake pads sexy; we’re not BooHoo,” says Ciaran, referring to the fashion e-retailer. “So we thought there’s no point being too serious. We may as well bring levity to it.”
MicksGarage ships to 50 countries every month, mostly from its 30,000sq ft Parkwest facility, which employs 53 staff. A further five work in the new 34,000sq ft Barnsley warehouse, and a couple of staff run a procurement office in Poland. Group staff numbers should more than double by the end of 2018.
It is the clear Irish market leader, although 50 per cent of its business already comes from the UK, which is the focus of the next stage of their strategy.
MicksGarage is limbering up for a major growth spurt. The Creans have a grand plan to build a €100 million-a-year business over the next four or five years. Naturally, the timing sounds somewhat flexible, and they will eventually need to raise a further €10 million or so in fresh capital to fund it.
Literally no money
Since that launch in 2004, MicksGarage has been a classic 13-year overnight success. For the first five years, the Creans “bootstrapped” the tiny business with little or no outside financial resources. “We had literally no money,” says Ciaran. “We just didn’t know any different.”
They later attracted funding from top names on the corporate circuit, including Paddy Power Betfair chief executive Breon Corcora; Paddy Power cofounder Stewart Kenny and its former chief executive, Patrick Kennedy; builder Michael Stanley; and former Grafton Group chairman Michael Chadwick. But management control, as well as a combined stake that appears to be somewhere near 40 per cent, remains in the hands of the brothers.
Although twins, Mick and Ciaran are definitely not identical, neither in appearance nor nature. It doesn’t take long in their affable company to spot the difference.
I have brothers, I tell them, but if I had to run a business with either of them, I’d be arrested for assault and battery. What’s the dynamic when you’re in business with your twin?
There is silence for a minute, and they look at each other and grin. “Do you want the truth or the makey uppy version?” beams Mick.
He is the Mick in MicksGarage, having studied motor management at college. He learned how to start an online business step-by-step from a book, and is chief technical officer and operations director.
Mick describes himself as the “entrepreneurial one”, a systems-focused techie who personally designed and built the bulk of the site’s extensive, and bespoke, back-end systems.
Ciaran, who comes from a software and business analysis background, is the chief executive: the cooler, more strategic one. He is less garrulous than his brother, and appears to weigh his answers much more carefully.
Complement each other
“I’m very much into the strategy and financial side,” Ciaran says. “We complement each other. But do we have heated discussions regarding the right thing to do? No doubt about it. It would be strange if we didn’t, because we’re both passionate.”
Mick is more blunt: “We didn’t get into business together by design, it just happened. Lookit, my parents had six children within five years of each other. There was killings when we were kids. But while you may want to kick the s**t out of your brother on a daily basis sometimes, there is serious trust there. You don’t get that in the same way from someone you employ.”
The Creans hail from Knockmore, just outside Ballina. Their father worked for more 40 years as a van driver by day, and for more than 20 years as a bar manager by night.
“His was the only wage coming into the house,” Mick recalls. “Dad was a massive influence on the pair of us in terms of work ethic. That’s been critically important. We still do huge hours, but nothing compared to him, and it’s not like he got massive wages for it. He just got on with it.”
After college, Ciaran went off to the Netherlands, London and then back to Ireland to work for software businesses. Mick worked for motor parts companies in Ireland and Germany. He then went to Australia with his then girlfriend, now wife. When he returned, he was unemployed and developed the idea for the site as a way to get himself back into work.
It's about growing the brand and getting into the national psyche, so that MicksGarage is the first place you think of when you need a roof rack or whatever
“Our next door neighbour in Mayo was this wealthy Englishman who owned quarries,” Mick says. “We didn’t have an awful lot, so I was always jealous. He used to take me under his wing and say, ‘Michael, do something for yourself’. That’s where the desire came from.”
In the early years of the business, Mick and Ciaran alternated between working full- and part-time until it could sustain them both. Growth took off around 2012/13.
A fellow Mayoman
Local boys come good, MicksGarage is now the shirt sponsor for the local Knockmore GAA club. Enda Kenny, a fellow Mayoman, has also been to their headquarters twice. The Taoiseach officially opened the company’s Parkwest facility in 2013. During the last general election, it was chosen as one of the venues to launch Fine Gael’s “Keep the recovery going” slogan.
When the conversation steers towards the long-term future of the business, Ciaran takes the wheel. This is clearly his territory. “In Ireland, it’s about growing the brand and getting into the national psyche, so that MicksGarage is the first place you think of when you need a roof rack or whatever.”
Several times a day, Irish customers ring up and say “Hi Mick” to whoever answers. “It doesn’t matter who it is; everybody is Mick,” Ciaran says. “We don’t even correct them any more.”
The challenge facing the business in the UK is different, he adds. “There, we’re a challenger brand. That needs a different perspective. We used to service the UK from Dublin, which gave us a two- or three-day lead time. Too long. We made the strategic decision to go into Barnsley and now we ship from there.
“Now we’ve got next-day delivery in the UK. It’s essential for our customer service model – that’s what our business is based on.”
Although much of its value is tied up in its industry-renowned back-end systems (Mick’s forte), what is clear that MicksGarage also has a readily transferable brand. Crean Solutions, the holding company, has registered trading names such as Micksbikeparts, Micksworkwear, Micksoutdoor, Micksgarden and Mickstractorparts.
Will they open up a suite of other sites?
“It’s not baked into our strategy today,” says Ciaran. “We’d need to be doing €30-€50 million in the automotive sector to look beyond it. Yes, we have a finely tuned operating model and brand that we would like to bring to other sectors. But not yet. We’re focused on the UK.”
Exit or sale
Everybody who starts a business eventually thinks about the big payday. That’s the whole point. Get rich or go bust trying.
“I think we made a statement of intent in 2008 when we took on our first investors. When you do that, you’re getting on a train,” says Ciaran. “The only way to get off is to provide a return. An exit or a sale has to happen at some point.”
The Creans have variously looked at spinning off or licensing their brand or back-end operating systems to other businesses, but have shelved those ideas for now. Another option might be to sell out to a car marque – Peugot/Citroën in 2015 bought out Mister Auto, one of MicksGarage’s peers.
So how much might be in this for the Crean boys?
With the complicated mix on the balance sheet of ordinary shares and convertible preference shares (essentially debt that might become equity), it is difficult to speculate a firm value on the business. The shares issued for the recent Investec round appear to have put a figure of about €20 million on MicksGarage.
On paper, the brothers’ stakes might currently be worth about €4 million each. If they bring MicksGarage to the next level, that could grow exponentially.
Mick indicates he may move on to other projects in the next year or two: “I’d love to do other things. I’ve no time for any of the politics that comes with running a business.”
Ciaran, however, sounds like he is in it for the long haul – to grow MicksGarage and bring the investors to an exit. “We just don’t know when that will be or what it will look like.”
Until then, best keep the foot on the pedal. The brothers’ race isn’t run yet.
Mick and Ciaran Crean, founders of MicksGarage.com
Live: Both in Dublin
Families: Both are married and each has three children
Something about them you might expect: Mick is obsessed with testing software. He prefers that to watching sport. Ciaran, meanwhile, does most of his shopping online . . . naturally for an e-retailer.
Something about them that might surprise: Ciaran has a genteel side, as a keen fly fisherman and a reader of history books. Mick says his three boys "think I'm an eejit because, for a techie, I can't work the TV control". He also knows every character in Fireman Sam and Paw Patrol.