From farm to pharma, a returned emigrant tells his inspiring tale
Pascal Keogh left his family farm for London but returned home and now runs a Meath packaging firm.
This week I travelled to Co. Meath to meet Pascal Keogh at his pharmaceutical and healthcare packaging facility in the City North Business Campus, near Stamullen - one of three such facilities he owns.
I am intrigued to learn that Pascal didn't set out to become the owner of a packaging business. In fact, he started out in farming. But emigration combined with a terrible family tragedy all conspired to change the direction of his life.
Today, his company, Millmount Healthcare, has become one of Ireland's leading packing firms with over 160 staff and an annual turnover of more than €6m. His story serves to demonstrate what opportunities exist everywhere for those willing to pursue them and those willing to work hard.
Staff in the facility are all decked out in protective white lab coats, hairnets and special shoes. Unlike other general manufacturing plants, this is a highly specialised facility where regulations are strict and only controlled access is allowed. That's because Paschal and his team pack highly sensitive products for some of the world's top pharmaceutical and generic drug manufacturers.
"We contract pack for many well-known companies across the pharmaceutical, nutraceutical, veterinary and medical device sectors," says Paschal. "Some 98pc of all products packaged at our facilities are exported, predominantly to Europe, North America and Australia," he adds.
As we tour the facility, Pascal explains how the company specialises in blister packaging and bottle and tub filling of tablets and capsules using a range of high-speed packaging lines. These fully or semi-automated lines have the capacity to fill up to two million tablets in a single shift.
"Versatility is one of our key differentiators," says Paschal. "And our ability to do quick changeovers from large to small runs means that for us no run is too big, and no job is too small," he says.
Once packed, products are stored in temperature-monitored warehousing where high-security procedures ensure that all movement both in and out of the area is monitored.
This is a highly regulated sector where everything the company does is governed by the Health Products Regulatory Authority (HPRA), formerly known as the Irish Medicines Board. Like the Food and Drug Administration in the USA, its role is to protect the safety, effectiveness, quality and security of pharmaceutical and health products.
For this reason, all staff have to be trained in Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) and Good Distribution Practice (GDP) which clearly lays down how materials are received, handled, packed, stored and shipped.
It's a far cry from how Pascal Keogh started out in life, in Slane, Co Meath.
"I didn't become an entrepreneur - I think I was born one," says Paschal with a laugh. "I grew up in a family of traders, we were always buying or selling something."
As a young child, he remembers his first introduction to the world of business which involved painting stones in different colours before writing the names of his classmates on them with Tipp-ex and selling them for a few pence. After school, he attended Multyfarnham Agricultural College in Westmeath, where he successfully completed the Green Cert in Agriculture. While he had inherited his grandfather's farm, interest rates were at such a high level at the time that he felt it would not be feasible to borrow the money needed to develop the farm. Instead, he decided to head to London in search of work with a view to earning the money he needed to create a sustainable viable farm enterprise.
"I can still remember the day when I left - a Monday in the summer of 1988," says Paschal. "I had just finished cutting a field of corn and headed straight from there to the airport."
The very next day he contacted a recruitment agency hoping to find a job in the construction sector. Because they had no construction vacancies available at the time, they asked if he would consider working in a pharmaceutical packaging company that was looking for general factory operatives. Keen to get a job quickly, he accepted.
"I spent the first three months at the end of a production line squeezing tubes of toothpaste by hand to check that they weren't damaged," Paschal says.
However, in less than a year, he was appointed as head of the company's production, at which point he was now managing over 100 staff. For the next 10 years, he enjoyed a varied career in the packaging sector that included roles in manufacturing, sales and operations.
However, around the same time, tragedy struck his family and he returned home to Meath. His two brothers and two sisters, all of whom suffered from cystic fibrosis, became ill and subsequently passed away. It was an incredibly difficult time for Pascal and his family. His desire to remain at home saw him return to farming for a period.
But only a few months later, he received an enquiry from the owner of a drug manufacturer in the UK for whom he had worked while with a previous employer.
"He explained that he was not getting the service quality he needed and asked if I would consider setting up a packaging business here in Ireland. That's how it all started," says Paschal.
He bought two old packaging machines and having secured 2,000sqft of workspace in an incubation centre in Navan, run by the then-county enterprise board, he was now officially in business for himself.
However, given the strict regulations that govern the industry and before he could pack a single product, both his facility and processes had to be fully audited by the Health Products Regulatory Authority. After a lengthy and detailed process, he secured his licence and was now ready to go.
Each week he received shipments of loose drugs in bulk containers from the manufacturer in the UK and each week he packed them in his small factory unit and shipped them back to the company ready for sale or distribution to end customers.
Keen to expand his business, Pascal recalled that during his time in the UK, he had noticed that many packaging companies there were packaging products that had been manufactured in Ireland.
With his facility now up and running, he targeted and won business from these companies, which saw it as a way to reduce expensive transport costs.
"Business then began flooding in. At the time we had just five staff and we were running 24 hours a day. I was the MD, the production supervisor and the book keeper all rolled into one," says Paschal. "And the same facility that had seemed scarily big when we started, was now quickly beginning to look scarily small," he adds.
In 2002, and in order to meet growing demand for his services, he rented a second facility in Drogheda, this time with 12,000sqft. However, by 2008, even this was bursting at the seams. So shortly after, he opened a third, much larger, state-of-the-art facility, in Stamullen, Co Meath, with 44,000sqft. The move proved pivotal for the business, allowing it to cater for increasing demand from its customers while at the same time, diversifying into other, more specialised packaging services.
"For example, we were able to develop specific packaging rooms for sports nutrition products that are consumed by the likes of national rugby players and professional athletes.
"For this reason, the packaging of these products needs to be kept entirely separate from other pharma type products, as even a few particles per million can cause issues for those subject to drug testing in their sport," he says.
At the same time, Paschal converted the Navan building into a high potency drug packing facility where specialist cancer and other drugs could be packed in much stricter conditions than other drugs required. Waterford-based drug manufacturer Eirgen became the very first customer at this facility and today, Millmount packs all its products here.
As the pharmaceutical industry globally strives to cut costs, many firms are now looking at ways to limit the number of suppliers they will deal with. For this reason, Paschal is positioning Millmount Healthcare as a full provider of all packaging services from existing blister and bottle packing to those involved in clinical trials, cold chain, warehousing and logisitics.
One such area which he recently moved into, and which is proving a big success, is that of late-stage customisation.
"This is where large US type drug manufacturing firms who are accustomed to producing a product for a large single market struggle when they come to enter the European market.
"In the likes of the US, companies typically only need one packaging style and are required to deal with only one regulatory body. However, when they come to sell into the EU, they have to contend with multiple languages, different packing requirements and a variety of separate regulatory agencies all with similar yet different requirements," explains Pascal.
"We are perfectly placed to use our expertise and local knowledge to take in their products in bulk format and then package them here in Ireland specifically for these individual EU markets. It's definitely a niche that is proving increasingly popular with manufacturers," he adds.
Pascal Keogh was born to be an entrepreneur. Today, with over 160 staff and an annual turnover of €6m he is realising that dream. Over the next five years, he plans on increasing that turnover to over €20m. With three separate facilities and a highly skilled and committed workforce, he's set to achieve that too.
His story is a real inspiration to others who left Ireland in search of work and who dream of finding a way to come home. Had he not got on that plane all those years ago, his life might well be different than it is now.
It just goes to show how a single decision can change the course of our entire lives.
Company Name: Millmount Healthcare
Business: Contract packaging of pharmaceutical and healthcare products
Set up: 1996
Founder: Pascal Keogh
Number of Employees: 160
Location: Headquartered in Stamullen, Co Meath with additional facilities in Drogheda, Co Louth, and Navan, Co Meath
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