‘Brexit is the biggest disruptive force at the moment’

EY Entrepreneur of the Year finalist Ashley McCulla of McCulla Ireland Ltd

At the age of 21, Ashley McCulla realised that it was up to him to start leading the family business founded by his father. McCulla Ireland Limited is a temperature-controlled storage and distribution company that serves Britain, Ireland and continental Europe.

While the company now has a turnover of almost £28 million, it hasn’t always been plain sailing, with some of the challenges far outside McCulla’s control.

In 1996, for example, when a BSE outbreak hit the UK, beef movements which accounted for about 90 per cent of McCulla’s exports, effectively stopped overnight. At that time, the company cut its fleet from 16 trucks to five, a decision McCulla says was “emotionally challenging”.

However, it has rebounded, growing to own more than 100 trucks with a diverse customer base in a variety of sectors from food services to supermarket and specialist pharmaceutical transportation.

Celebrating its 50th year in business this year, McCulla has two facilities in Ireland – in Lisburn, Co Antrim, and in Dublin – and has diversified into niche sectors while also building its own energy division, Alternity Biogas Energy, which includes an anaerobic digester plant to enable the company produce all its own energy.

In the coming years, McCulla plans to move to 100 per cent sustainable, bio-methane, gas-powered trucks in an effort to practically wipe out its carbon footprint. And with all of this continued investment, the company is ensuring it’s well placed for the next crises that might hit.

Describe your business model and what makes your business unique:

Our business model is to focus on removing our customers problems and to become an extension of their production line. At our core, we are a high-end, temperature-controlled logistics company and we are working to become self-sufficient for all our energy needs. Our vision has been to anticipate the needs of our customers while focusing on the environmental factors. This is what makes us unique.

What moment/deal would you cite as the ‘game changer’ or turning point for the company?

The BSE outbreak caused a considerable amount of emotional and financial challenges. But it also forced us to strip back what had been my father’s business model and to rebuild the new McCulla company in line with my vision. This experience also taught me that every cloud has a silver lining if you work hard enough to look for it!

What were the best and the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?

The best advice was: “You catch more flies with honey than you do with vinegar.” Basically, you get what you want with kindness, not aggression, whether in negotiations or leading people.

I try not to follow bad advice!

How will your market look in three years and where would you like your business to be?

I think the market will grow at about 12 per cent over the next three years, so it’s pretty positive. However, it is my intention for McCulla to beat the market by at least 50 per cent. We will be faced with high increases in environmental taxes, but, with our green credentials and bio-methane powered trucks emitting 90 per cent fewer carbon emissions, we will have the edge, both in environmental ethics and in financial terms as bio-methane has half the fuel duty of diesel.

What are the big disruptive forces in your industry?

Brexit is the biggest disruptive force at the moment. The uncertainty and extended delay is exacerbating the current shortage of driver workforce and stopping us being able to make solid plans for the future.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make and what is the single most important piece of advice you would offer to a less experienced entrepreneur?

The most common mistake is allowing your ideas to be belittled by others as they can’t see what you can. Don’t be talked out of doing what you feel is right! The single most important piece of advice I would offer is to engage a team to try and model the outcome of your plan/idea at an early stage. This will allow you to test if your belief is right and navigate its birth.