EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards: meet four industry finalists

Profiles of four of the eight nominees in the industry category

Antonia Hendron, M50 Truck and Van Centre

Antonia Hendron, M50 Truck and Van Centre

 

Four of the eight nominees in the industry category of the EY Entrepreneur of the Year competition are profiled this week. The awards are run in association with Julius Baer, Enterprise Ireland, Invest NI, The Irish Times and Newstalk. The nominees will vie for the title of EY Entrepreneur of the Year at an awards ceremony later this year.

Antonia Hendron, M50 Truck and Van Centre

Instead of going straight into the family business, Antonia Hendron pursued a career in sales and business development when she finished college. When her father sought to bring her into the family business, Hendron was put through a formal interview process and told in no uncertain terms that a position in the company wasn’t a birth right.

Since 2018, she has been managing director of M50 Truck and Van Centre, a company which sells and services commercial vehicles. She has since grown the business to a stage where it now employs more than 100 staff, supporting the group’s Mercedes Benz commercial franchise for north Dublin as well as providing maintenance services at Dublin Airport.

Since joining the company in 2003, Hendron has seen tough times. The recession saw the company reinvent itself to build a new business arm, M50 GSE, which started by providing maintenance and fleet management services to the Aer Lingus ground fleet. The company subsequently won contracts with DAA, Gate Gourmet and other companies on the Dublin Airport campus.

Today, the company also provides maintenance at Shannon Airport while it has expanded its Mercedes Benz franchise range and recently secured the Fuso franchise.

What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?

In 2009 our business dropped by 50 per cent in just over three months. Van sales went from 250 to 25 units overnight. I had never experienced a recession before and we had to overcome difficulties such as implementing headcount reductions, restructuring the business overheads to match the reduced revenue stream and at the same time looking for sustainable opportunities in what was a depressed economic business environment.

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

With 50 per cent of our turnover previously coming from our operation at Dublin Airport, our priority would be to get back on target to what we had projected for 2020. I would also like to continue to grow our Evobus business and develop the Fuso brand.

How has Covid-19 impacted your business? Are you still feeling the effects?

Our turnover in M50 Truck and Van dropped by 75 per cent in the second quarter and in the airport it dropped by 90 per cent for the same period. We anticipate that it will be at least next year before the aviation business returns to any significant level of activity, or maybe even longer.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

They miscalculate the amount of funding they require when starting from scratch. Also, most of my entrepreneurial friends struggle with work-life balance and it can lead to burn out.

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

Keep a close eye on your finances and always keep in mind that turnover is vanity, profit is sanity.

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

Well there have been many along the way, each of which was a game-changer at the time. Selling our Dublin 1 premises in 2007 at the height of the property boom and moving to our current location on the M50 has enabled us to maintain our position as the number one truck and van repair facility in Dublin. Taking over Crosson Commercials, and with it the Mercedes Van franchise, in 2004 has had a significant positive influence on the direction of the company.

Ed Donovan, Advanced Medical Services
Ed Donovan, Advanced Medical Services

Ed Donovan, Advanced Medical Services

While working as operations manager of a private hospital, Ed Donovan got the idea to set up a mobile cardiac screening service. Thus, Advanced Medical Services (AMS) was born in Co Cork in 2010. Since its foundation, more than 300,000 people have availed of one or more of its services, which include cardiac screening, flu vaccinations, diagnostic testing, GP and nurse services and, more recently, Covid-19 testing for the sports and corporate market.

At the start, AMS was “one man and a van”. Now, the group employs 16 staff full-time and about 40 contracted medical staff. Its customers include those in sports and education as well as health insurance and the pharmaceutical industry. And while the group predominantly works in Ireland, it also has clients in Britain and recently provided services in Switzerland.

Donovan, the group’s chief executive, has worked in healthcare all of his working life. Initially he worked for an outpatient radiology group in New York before returning to the Republic to take up a role with a private hospital. Struck by the volume of young people getting procedures for heart issues, Donovan researched other jurisdictions and learned about cardiac screening in Italy which managed to reduce incidents of Sudden Adult Death Syndrome by 89 per cent over a 25-year period. Armed with that knowledge, he established AMS.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

Getting the business off the ground and winning our first customer. At the beginning you hear no more than yes and seeing your idea become a reality is the greatest achievement to date.

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

We began working with Laya Healthcare in 2012 and that had a significant impact on the business during the early days. Since then we have expanded the range of services and have had a few more game-changing experiences and clients over the years.

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

A few people had told me to remain working in my job and work on starting the business on the side. It takes a lot to get a business off the ground and requires all your focus and efforts so thankfully I didn’t take that advice.

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

I envisage that we will have doubled the size of the company and have experienced significant growth in the medical technology side of the business.

What are the big disruptive forces in your industry?

Covid-19 has definitely been a disruptive and unexpected force to our business. We provide cardiac screening and health checks onsite for companies, schools and sports clubs and obviously this side of the business has been impacted by Covid-19. We are now looking at ways of offering testing remotely and have introduced home-based health checks. Our technology has enabled us to pivot to this quite quickly. We have also started providing Covid-19 testing for sporting and corporate clients.

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

Having to let someone go if it hasn’t worked out. I didn’t get into business for that, but hard decisions have to be made from time to time for the greater good. Fortunately, it is a rare occurrence.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

While it is important to do your homework and research when starting a business, I have seen people doing too much research and not enough doing. Some call it analysis paralysis.

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

Burn the bridges and go for it. I would certainly advise a younger entrepreneur to do their research but once they have made a decision, then they should just go for it and give it everything. If you have a fall-back position then I believe you are less likely to succeed.

Neil and Paul Fitzgibbon, Ard Rí Group
Neil and Paul Fitzgibbon, Ard Rí Group

Neil and Paul Fitzgibbon, Ard Rí Group

Over the past 31 years, the Fitzgibbon family has grown the Ard Rí group from a local craft producer into an international manufacturer and distributor of homeware products. Since their father retired in 2007, Paul and Neil continued expansion of the business from its beginnings in Kerry into Dublin, Britain and China. Today, the company employs about 680 staff to deliver services to a network of more than 1,200 retailers across Ireland and Britain.

It was in 1989 when Noel Fitzgibbon, who comes from a long tradition of Kerry stonemasons, established Ard Rí marble, manufacturing handcrafted fireplaces in Tralee. Starting with a small factory with five employees, it has since expanded its range and substantially grown its workforce.

When Neil and Paul took over, they worked hard to improve control of their own supply and delivery chains and to build the company’s own transport network to supply doors, stoves, architrave and other homeware products.

The group now has two large distribution centres in Britain, a distribution centre in Dublin, two factories in southern China and an additional distribution centre and headquarters in Tralee.

Over the coming five years the company is expected to enter five new markets and double turnover from €65 million to €130 million, growing its workforce to more than 2,000 staff. By 2025, Neil and Paul expect Ard Rí to be one of the biggest manufacturers and distributors of homeware products in the EU, growing by 2030 to be among the biggest manufacturers and distributors of homeware products in the world.

What lightbulb moment prompted you to start up in business?

Our father Noel Fitzgibbon created the Ard Rí group in 1989. The 80s in Ireland were a difficult time, in particular for a small rural town like Tralee. Our father had a vision to build a strong local business making fireplaces and selling them around Ireland. When we took over the business in 2007, we realised the potential to turn it into a truly global company, driving job creation in our hometown.

What is your greatest business achievement to date?

In the early 2000s we navigated language, political and cultural differences and opened a factory in China producing the products we had previously been buying from Chinese suppliers. One of the family learned Mandarin and moved to China. We knew that if we could get control of our supply chains, we could control and master product quality, delivery and output.

What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?

As a self-financed company, we struggled financially when entering the British market; we struggled to break into a market that was larger but culturally different from Ireland. We knew we had a great product and with just one week’s cash reserves in place, we re-mortgaged our homes and invested everything we had in growing in Britain.

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

The best advice we got was to learn how to sell your own product. If you don’t know how to sell your product, don’t expect anyone else to be able to. The worst piece of advice we got was to take things slowly. The market won’t wait for you. You have to be innovative, nimble, open to change and you have to move fast to have the upper hand.

How has Covid-19 impacted your business? Are you still feeling the effects?

We closed our distribution centres in Ireland and Britain and our factories in China during the Covid-19 lockdown. Our sales staff worked from home but our retail partners were largely closed. This had an effect on our bottom line but sales have bounced back aggressively since we reopened in early June. This June was our second busiest month on record since we started trading.

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

Start selling your product or service quickly, don’t wait until it is perfect! Whether you are selling doors or software, make sure you have mastered the ability to sell your own product.

Seamus O’Hara, Carlow Brewing Company
Seamus O’Hara, Carlow Brewing Company

Seamus O’Hara, Carlow Brewing Company

Having started his working life in the biotechnology industry in the UK, Seamus O’Hara became interested in the real ale revival. In 1996, having moved back to the Republic in 1991, O’Hara established the Carlow Brewing Company. After spending time researching and experimenting, he sold his first products in 1998.

The brewing business was a part-time endeavour at first for O’Hara. He spent 10 years working at Enterprise Ireland and in 2001 left to co-found Seroba BioVentures, a specialist life-science venture capital business. In 2011, he moved full-time to Carlow Brewing and has since seen substantial growth in the business. While the company was originally located in Carlow town, it moved to Bagnelstown in 2009 to a 10,000sq ft facility. It has since grown further, and now occupies a 50,000sq ft brewing, packaging, warehousing and office facility.

A wide range of beers and ciders are produced and sold under the company’s proprietary brands while it also supplies own-brand beers to retailers. The company exports more than half of its annual production volume to more than 35 countries in Europe, Asia, Australia and North America. From its Carlow base, it employs 48 staff as well as another 45 staff in its Urban Brewing bar, restaurant and small-batch brewery.

What lightbulb moment prompted you to start up in business?

Dissatisfaction as a consumer having lived abroad for a few years where there was a lot more interesting choices for beer consumers. The lightbulb moment was probably connecting that with the emergence of small craft brewers in the US which gave me the idea that you don’t need to be a massive company to get into brewing.

What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?

There have been a number but the biggest challenge came in 2001 on the back of the dot com bubble burst – and a number of our export customers went out of business (at that stage we were 75 per cent export). We overcame it through perseverance and really believing that there was a positive future for our business. We boot strapped and operated very lean for a few years, while we gradually built back up momentum in the business.

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

Right now there are significant challenges in the hospitality sector, one of our main customer bases and it’s hard to see past the challenges this has put on our business. We expect this to continue for some time. I’d like to think that in three years we will have managed to navigate this and still have a strong business having availed of the new opportunities that will undoubtedly arise from the challenges.

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

The hardest thing was at the start of Covid-19 when we had to meet staff and put some on lay-off and others on short working time.

What is the most common mistake you see entrepreneurs make?

Probably underestimating the challenges and having the attitude and resources (especially financial) to see through that, especially in the early stages.

Describe your growth funding path.

Funding for growth has been provided by reinvesting profits and also through grant support, and an equity investment in 2017 by a Spanish brewery. We also have a good bank relationship. We are always looking out for new funding opportunities as brewing is a capital intensive business.

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

The worst advice was to use focus groups to help develop products. The best advice was not to put all your eggs in one basket. In effect, develop a differentiated customer base. This has stood to us through various setbacks, including the recent Covid-19 crisis.

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