Ann O'Brien is managing director of Kent Stainless. Set up in 1982, by her father Pat, the company has grown to become a world leader in the design and manufacture of stainless steel products.
With so many businesses struggling to survive in the highly competitive world of manufacturing, Kent Stainless actually doubled its turnover between 2009 and 2012. Last year, the company achieved revenues of €16m with 70 per cent of that coming from exports.
I visit Ann in the company's 80,000 sq ft factory outside Wexford town, to discover how she has managed to achieve such success. It's a story of continuous innovation, right from its very origin.
"The business was set up by my father, after he was made redundant from his job with a local engineering business," explains Ann. "He started out doing general steel fabrication work. However, he soon realised he needed to develop his own range of products in order to differentiate the company from other manufacturers."
Today, the company can boast an impressive list of Irish and international customers. These include: sports stadiums such as Croke Park and Aviva here and Wembley in the UK; airports and transport projects such as the Luas, Terminal 2 in Dublin, Hong Kong and Jamaica; pharmaceutical firms such as Abbots and Pfizer in Ireland, Wyeth in the Philippines, Novartis in the UK, Johnson & Johnson in Belgium and GSK in Nairobi. It wasn't an overnight success but rather a steady step-by-step approach.
"In 1990, the company began designing and manufacturing stainless steel internal drainage products such as gullies and manholes," explains Ann. At the time, the company was targeting business involved in milk and beef processing and as well as those in the drinks industry; all of which had a requirement for internal drainage systems in their factories.
"After that, the company extended its focus to include the pharmaceutical sector and the Cork area, in particular, was fast becoming one of the leading pharmaceutical centres in the world at the time," Ann recalls.
"Once we got inside the door of these companies, we would look to see what other products they needed and then we would start manufacturing them also," she explains.
From there, they began adding hospitals, prisons, hotels and swimming pools to their ever expanding customer base.
By the late Nineties, the company turned to manufacturing products such as gullies and recessed access covers for external drainage.
In 2001 a design phenomenon in the construction sector, streetscapes, started to take hold. The firm responded by developing stainless steel street furniture that included outdoor seating, litter bins, bollards and cycle racks. Things began to take off for the business.
By 2007, the company realised that it needed to look beyond Ireland. Keen to break into the UK market, it took a contract to supply stainless steel manhole covers and drainage products for a street-scape job in in London.
"We knew we would lose money on the job. But we had to do something proactive to break into the market," explains Ann. It was a tactical move that paid off.
An architect who was working with Norman Foster & Partners, the design architects on many large and prestigious projects throughout the UK at the time, noticed their work.
"His office was right next to the site we were working on in Battersea and, one day while he was walking along the street, he looked down and spotted our stainless steel manhole covers," says Ann.
By chance, he also happened to be the architect that was working on the new Wembley Stadium contract. He immediately contacted the company and shortly afterwards, Kent Stainless won the contract to provide hundreds of decorative traffic bollards, cycle racks and drainage covers for the Wembley Stadium.
The contract was worth more than €250,000 to the company. More importantly, however, it launched them into the UK market where they have consistently been working since.
As a result of this, the company developed a range of anti-terrorist bollards for large sporting arenas including stainless steel plant enclosures.
"These planters also double as large shrub and flower beds. They are heavily reinforced and anchored into the ground to prevent them being rammed or removed during attacks by terrorists or vandals," explains Ann. "We also designed anti-terrorist litter bins which won't fragment during explosion in the case of a bomb being placed in them."
In 2008, Kent signed the largest ever contract to be awarded in the UK and Ireland for stainless steel furniture. It was for the new light rail system for Dublin – the Luas. This included a range of passenger shelters, outdoor seating and bins. In addition, Kent partnered with a Clare-based electronics display company, Data Display, to design and manufacture a range of digital display signs for the Luas network. In total, the contract was worth €5.8m to the company.
In 2011 the company completed a contract on the Terminal 2 building at Dublin Airport where it supplied stainless steel railings, litter bins, flag poles, security camera poles and recessed manhole covers. Kent also designed a unique range of pavements studs, embedded in the area around the terminal, which help assist those with visual impairment to safely navigate the pedestrian crossings. These studs were so well received that their design has since been adopted by the Transport for London Agency which is responsible for designing rail and bus infrastructure throughout London.
"That same year, in 2011, we also began looking at the possibility of doing business in the Middle East," Ann says. Shane Curtin, the company's sales and marketing director, along with Michael Hurley, the technical director, took a trip to Qatar to chase an order for manhole covers, worth €150,000.
"Because of the searing heat there, they can't leave rubbish in bins for normal collection. So when you walk down the street in Qatar and you throw food, litter or an empty drinks can into a litter bin, the rubbish is automatically vacuumed into an underlying tunnel and delivered to a collection point that can be miles away," Shane explains.
The trip proved to be a turning point for the company. Instead of coming back with an order for €150,000, the two men brought home a signed contract worth €5.2m. In addition, it came with a six-month delivery timeline.
"Understandably, it put the company into a tailspin," confesses Ann. But Ann and her team quickly got to work and delivered the project on time and within budget. The following year the company received further contracts from the Middle East, this time worth €7.6m.
While the negative side of emigration cannot be disputed, Ann is experiencing an unexpected and positive aspect of the recent exodus from Ireland. "Many of the architects and engineers that worked on infrastructural projects in Ireland over the last 10 years are now working in the Middle East," says Ann. "They remember the quality of the work we carried out on those projects and are now bringing us in on projects there," she says.
Ann knows the stainless steel business well. She joined the company straight after school and worked her way up the ladder. At night, she studied human resource management in the National College of Ireland. In 2007, Ann took over as managing director.
She brought with her a clear understanding of what it takes to make a great company. "First focus on getting great people and then great customers," she explains. She seems to have achieved both her objectives.
The company employs 102 staff in its Wexford plant. It now has established offices in the UK, Holland and in Qatar, in the Middle East, where sales & marketing manager, Willie Colfer, moved recently with his wife.
Ann has great praise for all the staff and is keen to stress that "no one person runs the company. We have great staff, a strong management team and board", which includes former president of Thermo King, Sean Kinsella. Her father Pat is the chairman of the board and she has three brothers and a sister working in the business.
What has made her company so successful, I ask. "Anyone can weld two bits of steel together," she tells me.
"But what we are selling is 30 years of experience and technical know-how, as well as outstanding quality in both design and materials. All our products come with a 10-year guarantee," Ann adds confidently.
Ann O'Brien has built an exceptional business. She has built that business around great people, great products and great customers. She has focused on developing new and innovative products that add value for her customers. And she has been brave enough to lead her company into new markets and new territories to find new customers.
Above all, she has taken risks. She has continually stretched herself and her company outside their comfort zone. Therein lies a valuable lesson. In the end, isn't it there where all our future successes lie – in that space beyond our comfort zone?