Wednesday 26 October 2016

A brush with the colour king

Kevin O'Connor is following in his father's footsteps at Colourtrend. Paint is in his blood, he tells Sean Gallagher how

Published 15/05/2016 | 02:30

Kevin O'Connor of Colourtrend with Sean Gallagher. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Kevin O'Connor of Colourtrend with Sean Gallagher. Photo: Steve Humphreys

It's almost impossible nowadays to turn on your TV without coming across a programme about building or remodelling your home. We can now watch as great design ideas come to life before our eyes. Each stage of the process layers upon the last - culminating in the creation of the most attractive of living environments. Central to each, is a blend of carefully selected colours. Neither too bland nor too stark, these come together to create just the right mood to match each space.

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"It has long been proven that the colours we surround ourselves with have a definite effect on our moods and well-being," explains Kevin O'Connor, managing director of Colourtrend. Set up in 1953 by his late father and located in Celbridge, Co Kildare, this 100pc Irish-owned paint manufacturing company employees 85 staff and has an annual turnover of more than €15m.

Arriving to the company's manufacturing plant and head office - a magnificent stone building that dates back to 1841 and once housed the local famine workhouse - he paints a pretty picture.

"Our products can largely be divided into two different classes - decorative paints and industrial coatings," explains Kevin. "Decorative paints are those used on interior and exterior walls as well as on trims such as woodwork, skirting boards and radiators and include everything from regular matt and soft sheen finishes to more durable finishes such as full gloss, satin and egg shell.

"In all, we have thousands of colours for customers to choose from," he adds. "Our industrial coatings side of the business, which represents about 10pc of turnover, provides industrial grade paint for use by manufacturing companies. These include the likes of Patterson Pumps in Mullingar and Burnside Engineering, as well as Sulzer Pumps who use them on their ranges of heavy duty pumps for sewerage treatment plants, Thermo King Europe who use them on their large refrigerated truck units and CRH who use them to coat their roof tiles."

The Colourtrend range of products is sold primarily through a network of selected independent paint merchants. Dotted across the country in almost every town, these stores represent about 60pc of the company's business. Most are family run businesses who started out as basic hardware shops and over time morphed into modern stores selling paint, wallpapers and fabrics. They are also sold through their own Colourtrend branded stores. Six in all, these are located in Waterford, Mullingar, Dundalk, Swords, Belfast and in Celbridge.

As we begin our tour of the facility, we stop off at the on-site store. Beautifully laid out, this serves as a showcase for other retailers as to how best to present the Colourtrend range. Next door, staff are busy in the manufacturing hall where the next batch of paint is being produced.

"The process firstly involves making a paste by blending key ingredients such as the pigments that gives colour and opaqueness, the resin which enables it to stick to surfaces, additives that preserve it and thickeners which give it body and texture. Finally, a water-based solvent is added to improve the paint's flow. Recent years have seen a move away from solvents such as white spirits in favour of water-based thinners," explains Kevin.

The company was originally set up by Kevin's late father, Ronan O'Connor. Originally from Blackrock in Dublin, he had studied Chemical Engineering in UCD before emigrating in 1950 to San Francisco. There, he landed himself a job at a paint manufacturer and was soon offered the opportunity by the owners to move to Mexico to help set up a new branch of the company.

"My father thought to himself that if he was going to leave the US in order to set up what was effectively a new business, then he would go to where he knew and loved best - Ireland. And that's exactly what he did. The following year, in 1953, he returned home and set up what is now Colourtrend," explains Kevin. "Growing up, I recall helping out, mixing ingredients and filling the pots. I think I might have paint in my veins instead of blood," he adds with a laugh.

Kevin followed in his father's footsteps, doing Chemistry at Trinity College and then heading to the US for an MBA at Arizona State University. While his intention was to gain international experience by working in the US before returning home, his plans were cut short when his father fell ill - and Kevin returned home to help out.

"As it transpired, my father and I enjoyed another five great years, working together in the business," he adds proudly.

In 1988 Kevin took over the running of the company and immediately began to differentiate the business from that of his major competitors - all of whom are large multinationals. He focused on higher quality paints and switched from using traditional vinyl resin to a more durable acrylic base. While his competitors manufactured a limited range of about 60 colours, Kevin innovated by introducing in-store tinting machines that enabled distributors and retailers to use a white base to which various colour mixes could be added to generate thousands of different colours and shades - something that also allowed retailers make better use of their limited display and storage space.

Between 2000 and 2003, the company invested over €5m in the manufacturing facility, as well as increasing their warehousing capability to support their plan for growth. This was followed in 2006, by a revamp and modernisation of the entire brand with the new tag line - Passion for Colour. That same year he opened two new Colourtrend-branded stores and since then has grown that to six.

Outward looking and forward focused, Kevin became increasingly active in a number of global and European paint associations where he helped develop new technologies as well as being a member of a number of international contract purchasing groups which have helped him source ingredients at better prices letting him match the prices of multinational competitors.

"We are targeting the UK market and would like to develop the US market, building on our position as an iconic Irish brand," he adds.

Kevin is very passionate about family businesses. His daughter Rachel, who has a Masters in Business from Duke University in the US, has now joined the company.

"While this is a family business, we run it like a plc," insists Kevin. "That means we strive for best practice in everything we do. We have independent directors, as well as an independent chair. We hire the best talent we can find and continuously upskill them, while endeavouring to hold onto our core family values of respect, friendliness and professionalism," he adds.

The decision by Kevin O'Connor's late father to return home to Ireland to start the business proved a good one. And while not exactly as planned, Kevin's own decision also turned out to be hugely successful - not least because it gave him the opportunity to spend five wonderful years working with his father.

I am sure his father would be proud of his achievements to date. Today, as Kevin continues to build a thriving international business, perhaps he too, will one day, pass it on to his family.

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