'I knew I could make timber gates at a cheaper price'
A Leaving Cert student has hit the jackpot with his timber alternative to steel sheep gates
Published 02/09/2015 | 02:30
What started as a transition year project has turned into a major money-spinner for Carlow Leaving Cert student Stephen Agar.
"I was looking around for something to make for a mini-business project that we had to complete as part of our transition year programme, and we had all these pens made out of bits of pallets for the ewes lambing at home. I really didn't like all the messing around with baling twine, and looked at developing a better alternative," explains Stephen.
"I'd seen steel ones, but knew that I could make a timber version myself, and probably at a cheaper price," he says.
The result was a set of sheep gates that Stephen promptly put up on the website DoneDeal to see if he would get any takers.
"My dad thought I was mad - that sheep farmers wouldn't have the money to be buying sheep gates. But I proved him wrong within about 30 minutes, since I got a call from a Kilkenny man looking to buy all 15. He only had them home when he rang me to see if I'd make another 35 for him!" he recalls.
However, Stephen's first customer pointed out a flaw in the product that the young businessman immediately set to fixing.
"The first gates didn't have any anchors to fix them together - instead I was relying on cable ties.
"But I hit on using these adjustable galvanised eyes that allow up to four gates to be connected at one point, while still being able to cope with being set up on uneven ground.
"I looked into patenting the design, but I was advised that it would cost me €10,000 to lodge something that would only last for 10 years, and realistically probably be skirted around by other manufacturers by tweaking the design or components slightly. So I've just ploughed on without it," he says.
All the timber is all Irish, processed locally, pressure-treated and semi-plane finished, along with double legs and diagonals for extra strength and durability. The student hopes that the gates will last for 20 years.
"I've only ever got one gate back - it broke at the knot so I replaced it straight away. But the mill that processes the timber is friendly with the family so I trust them to give me top quality timber that has been properly dried out and treated."
The experience gave the Kilkenny College student the confidence to invest further in the business, creating jigs and getting tooled up to be able to manufacture the gates more efficiently.
"The first gates took me about 45 minutes each to make, but I only had my dad's saw, measuring tape and a hammer back then. Over the last two years, I've invested close to €2,500 in better hammer guns, saws, and jigs to the point where I can now churn one out every six or seven minutes," he said.
At this stage Ballymoon Sheep Solutions, the company set up by Stephen to market his products, has sold over 2,500 gates, which retail at €22 each for a 5ft unit.
"You can buy a bad steel gate for as little as €26 each, but good ones will cost you north of €35, so that's a big advantage of my gate. It's also lighter than a lot of steel versions."
The project impressed his teacher so much that Stephen found himself entering various young entrepreneur competitions locally and nationally, culminating with his fourth place out of 16,000 students in a national enterprise competition.
The success of the venture has allowed the student to branch out into other lines, with a V-shaped meal trough the next development.
"I designed it with water escape holes cut at either end to prevent water lying in them, and again try to keep them priced as reasonable as possible, with the standard 8ft version selling for €15. I've sold 400 of them so far," he says.
The latest addition is a fostering/adoption gate that fits in with the standard gates. The locking bar on the gate has three settings on both the top and bottom to allow for different size ewes or hoggets. It is priced at €35.
Having successfully completed his Leaving Cert, the budding entrepreneur now hopes to study agricultural science at Waterford IT.
"I'll keep on manufacturing, and hopefully it'll pay my way through college, but I hope to broaden my horizons a bit more in third level."