The driving force behind Horseware Ireland kept his faith and turned a sideline business into a worldwide leader in equine products
IF MEDALS are ever awarded for perseverance and tenacity in business, this week's entrepreneur certainly deserves the gold.
Tom McGuinness, managing director of Horseware Ireland, has faced more than his fair share of challenges and disasters. But faith in himself, and in God, has given him the power to overcome.
Thirty years ago he started a small sideline business sewing horse blankets or rugs, by hand, and over the years has grown the company to become a world leader in equine products.
Tom showed me around his 80,000-sq ft facility in Dundalk, in Co Louth, which is just one of a number of factories the company now owns. In the showroom, life-size horse mannequins are draped in beautifully engineered horse rugs that are designed to keep horses protected from the elements, from flies, bugs and even over-exposure to the sun. There are hosts of other accessories too, including head collars, bridles, saddles and even horse boots. In addition, Tom shows me the company's extensive range of clothing and accessories for the fashion-conscious rider.
Tom's story is an unusual one. He grew up in Dundalk where his family ran a local riding school. While attending agricultural college in Tyrone in 1970, Tom felt it wasn't for him and decided, instead, to go on the missions. "I had what you might call a spiritual experience," explains Tom. "And it changed my life."
He spent the next eight years as a missionary, mostly in South America. "I had no money and I lived on faith," says Tom. "I got used to believing that things would somehow work out and that the universe would conspire to do me good. And it usually did." Today his faith remains a big part of his life.
In 1979 he returned to Ireland where he met and married Carol, an American woman who had come to study here. He ended up taking over the family's riding school, qualified as a riding instructor and was happy to divide his time between running the school and competing himself.
Things changed, however, when their first child was born. "A sense of responsibility suddenly hit me," says Tom. "I now had to think about financial security."
He remembers too, the day in 1983 that he came up with the idea for the new business. He was putting a rug on a horse at the time and was thinking to himself how poorly it was made and how it leaked all the time.
He thought it might be possible to use the same material for horse rugs that was being used in duvet covers and spent the next year working on a design to secure it on a horse when it was in motion.
Around the same time he stumbled upon a book, How to Start Your Own Business. The chapter on market research motivated him to contact a number of horse owners he knew, to get their feedback on his idea. The response was hugely positive and so he went into production.
"The first 100 rugs I made weren't very pretty," admits Tom, laughing. He later bought a sewing machine and taught himself to sew. A year and a half later, he closed the riding school, converted it into a small factory and Horseware Products Ltd was officially set up.
His first big break came in 1990 when he discovered hydrophilics, a formulation that could be applied as a coating on the rug material that would absorb water and moisture away from the horse's body. It made the fabric waterproof, breathable and didn't make the horse sweat.
"I was so blown away with the results that I took every penny I had and placed the biggest advert I could afford in the Horse and Hound magazine. The response was such that I simply couldn't make enough rugs," says Tom.
The company grew steadily, cornering the horse blanket market for the next five years.
Keen to break into the export market he contacted high profile people he knew in the equestrian world. When people like Paul Darragh were sending their horses abroad, Tom made sure that they arrived to their new owners wrapped in Horseware rugs. Enquires grew and soon he was exporting rugs to Sweden, Denmark, France and Germany.
In order to meet production requirements, he bought a new 30,000-sq ft factory in Dundalk. Soon afterwards he bought another factory but this time in the United States. "We realised that if we were serious about cracking the US market, we needed to have a presence there," Tom explains. Shortly afterwards, however, the first of two major disasters struck the business.
"The factory in the US was flattened by Hurricane Floyd, the equivalent of modern day Sandy," says Tom. "To make things worse, the place was full of stock that we were getting ready to ship. Everything was destroyed."
It wasn't long before disaster number two struck. Less than a year later, the factory in Dundalk totally burned down. It could have spelt the end for Tom but, determined to keep going, he immediately set up in temporary premises, working two shifts to keep orders fulfilled.
In 2001 the company moved into its current premises but, as hard as they all worked, increased competition and high manufacturing costs resulted in the company making significant losses. Again Tom wouldn't give in.
"It wasn't in my DNA to walk away," he says determinedly. He was, however, forced to get out of manufacturing and moved production to China.
But his troubles didn't end there. "At the same time, the bank decided to pull the plug and told me that they would no longer support me because I was manufacturing textiles," says Tom.
He decided to invite his senior management team to buy into the business. It turned out to be a smart move and the business grew successfully from then on.
The company currently employs 120 staff in Ireland and a further 370 between its three factories in China and Cambodia.
The company's turnover has grown dramatically too. From a modest €2,000 in 1983, the company will generate sales of more than €30m in 2012.
He attributes this success to "having great staff and great managers who are all focused on satisfying our customers," says Tom. "We have invested heavily in process and control systems and we constantly innovate. Every part of the business is like a set of links in a chain, with each one being dependent on the other."
A myriad framed awards adorn the walls of Tom's office. It's easy to see his pride in the business.
There are many pictures too of Tom in his full riding gear. He has his own Horseware polo team and also loves to jump his horse, Dunsloghy Foxy. He has qualified for the amateur championships in the RDS for the past three years.
So what's next for Horseware?
"We are currently launching a new product called Hypocare, a spray which rapidly kills bacterial, viral and fungal infections and can be used to clean and flush wounds and injuries," he explains.
The company is also developing a new business to focus on individualised product ranges and is currently seeking to raise funds through a new EII Investment Scheme.
But it's not all about business for Tom who has not lost the missionary drive that first motivated him. In order to give back, he recently set up a project in Cambodia to develop solar kits for homes for the third world for those who have no electricity. More recently he built a school for the poor in Cambodia.
The story of Horseware is an incredible story of growth against a backdrop of challenges and adversity. The story of Tom McGuinness is equally impressive. If being a missionary is about doing good and being of service to others, then Tom McGuinness deserves a gold medal for both.
I cannot but be inspired by a man who, by his example, shows us that business is not always about making money but about using it to make a difference.