Monday 25 September 2017

From horse drawn carts to high-tech ambulances

The Quinn brothers are an example of the glue that holds our communities together, providing sustainable job opportunities

Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

RUNNING one business is challenge enough for most of us. Running two would seem almost overwhelming. Not so for brothers Micheal and Sheamus Quinn. Together, they run Quinn Refrigerated Vehicles and SIP Energy Ltd (Structural Insulated Panels).

"Well, they are really related businesses," explains Micheal as he welcomes me to their factory just outside Athenry, in Co Galway.

"One business makes insulated panels for vehicles that keep products cool during transportation, while the other makes insulated panels that are used in house building to help keep people warm," he explains.

"It all started more than 200 years ago," says Sheamus as he takes up the story. "Our great grandfather was a blacksmith who spotted an opportunity to make horse drawn carts. Our grandfather then diversified into manufacturing tractor trailers."

Time passed and their father Tom eventually took over. He developed the trailer business – but, in keeping with the family's genetic pre-disposition to creativity and innovation, he too diversified. In the Eighties he spotted an opportunity to provide enclosed refrigerated vehicles for transporting food produce to the ever-increasing number of retail stores and supermarkets that were sprouting up around the country.

Today, under the stewardship of Micheal and Sheamus, Quinn Refrigerated Vehicles has become a leading manufacturer of refrigerated temperature-controlled vehicles in both Ireland and the UK.

Their vehicles are used to transport refrigerated goods such as dairy, frozen foods and pharmaceuticals. They can proudly claim many of Ireland's best known brands among their customer base – including Pallas Foods, Kerry Group, Tesco, BWG, Cuisine de France, Corrib Foods and Supervalu.

As is the case in so many businesses, both brothers began working in the firm while still at school. Before joining the business full time, Micheal studied mechanical engineering at the Regional Technical College in Galway.

"When I joined the company, I started out as a fitter and welder on the factory floor," he says.

"Back then 12- to 15-hour shifts were not uncommon, nor were 80-hour working weeks. But I loved getting stuck into every part of the business," he adds.

Sheamus studied structural civil engineering in the Regional Technical College in Galway and worked with firms such as the Coffey Construction Ltd before joining the family business.

It's a common trait in family business that parents leave it too long before handing over the reins of control to the next generation. Not so with Tom Quinn. Micheal and Sheamus pay tribute to their father's foresight in seeing the need for a succession plan.

"Our father and the company accountant brought the two of us together and explained to us that, if we wanted to take over and really grow the business, then we needed to become managers and not just workers," explains Micheal. That's exactly what they did.

The company now manufactures approximately 210 trucks each year. It receives a significant amount of repeat business; a testament to its emphasis on quality design and production.

In 2003, the brothers entered the UK market for the first time. It took time to gain traction there but in 2011 they won the contract to provide trucks to Dawson Rental, the premium brand of fleet rentals in the UK. Their first contract for 70 vehicles was worth more than €1.8m.

In recent years they entered into a partnership arrangement with the Wilker Group to manufacture ambulance vehicles largely for the UK market. With operations in Offaly and the UK, the Wilker Group has 65 per cent of the UK market for front line A&E ambulance and emergency vehicles.

Micheal remembers well the day their ambulances passed the safety crash tests and were fully CEN approved.

"It was May 12, 2009. I remember it because it was an important day for the business – and it was the day our first child, Katie, was born," he says proudly.

Later that year Quinn received its first order for ambulances, worth more than €1m. Today it exports 70 per cent of all refrigerated vehicles and ambulances it builds.

When and why did they set up the SIP Energy business?

"It came about in 2004 when I was building my own home," explains Micheal. "I was really disappointed with how the house was being insulated and felt there simply had to be a better solution."

"Essentially what Quinn Refrigerated Vehicles does for trucks is to create an inner panel and an outer panel between which we place a core of high quality insulation in order to retain the temperature inside the vehicle," Sheamus explains.

"So we started to wonder if the technology we were using in the building of refrigerated bodywork could be transferred to the building of homes."

Over the following year, the brothers took numerous trips to the United States to investigate the latest developments in SIP construction there. On return they set their sights on developing structured insulation panels which would not only meet existing building energy regulations, but which would surpass them.

In 2006 they established SIP Energy Ltd (Structural Insulated Panels) and built a new state-of-the-art manufacturing plant on the site of their existing facility. Initially they concentrated on the domestic housing market but with the downturn in construction here, they soon were forced to shift their attention to the UK market. Today they export more than 60 per cent of all products to the UK.

"We also have our own trucks, our own cranes and our own installation crews – and that makes us the only company that can design, manufacture and install the SIP System on site," explains Sheamus.

In total, the company employs 68 people: 36 in Quinn Refrigerated Vehicles and 32 in SIP Energy Limited.

"A company is only as good as the people working in it and we are blessed to have a great and dedicated staff," explains Micheal.

"It's like one big family here and that becomes even more evident when we are under pressure to get products out. Everyone puts their shoulder to the wheel," he adds.

Turnover has grown to €7m; €4.5m in Quinn Refrigerated Vehicles and €2.5m in SIP Energy Limited.

How do the two brothers divide the work load without fighting?

"All decisions are made jointly," explains Micheal. "I look after design, engineering and production; basically everything inside the factory," he adds.

"And I look after everything outside the factory – such as the site surveys, transport and delivery and installation of the SIP system on site," explains Sheamus.

Down on the factory floor, the brothers introduce me to their father, Tom, a quiet and pleasant man. Is he still involved in the business? "He is not only involved," says Micheal, "he remains the backbone of the whole place."

I wonder if they find the current climate challenging?

"Manufacturing is a tough business – but it's even tougher if you are located in the west of Ireland," Micheal tells me. "We have to work very hard to remain competitive. Everything we make has to be transported to customers, so hikes in fuel and energy costs have a real knock-on effect on the business."

However, the brothers remain positive about the future as they focus on growing their refrigerated vehicle and ambulance business.

In addition, they have begun targeting housing associations, school projects and larger scale developers in the UK with their Structural Insulated Panels.

They were even approached recently by the Japanese Trade Board about supplying SIP technology for use in building homes there. It certainly looks like exciting times ahead for the brothers.

During my visit with Micheal and Sheamus, I developed a great respect for the Quinn family. Over three generations they have modernised and constantly reinvented their business, from horse drawn carts and tractor trailers, to high-tech refrigerated trucks, ambulances and energy-efficient homes.

They have invested in innovation and technology. They have grown from a business that focused solely on the Irish market to one which now exports 70 per cent of everything it manufactures.

And most importantly, the Quinns have created sustainable employment opportunities in an area that badly needs them.

Like all small and medium sized enterprises around the country, they now form the backbone of their community; in many ways, the glue that holds our communities together.

These and other companies like them, provide a large part of the answer to Ireland's economic future.

They are a company worthy, not only of our admiration, but of our support to ensure their continued growth.

Leaving Athenry, I can't help but imagine what wonderful things the next generation of Quinns will get up to.

Irish Independent

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