Innovation and positive outlook keep Frank in the driver's seat
Frank Lennon has overcome setbacks in both his business and personal life to steer his specialist bus outfitters on the road to success
Published 07/07/2013 | 05:00
FOR many people who are out of work, the road back to meaningful employment can often be a challenging one.
Frank Lennon, from Ardee, Co Louth, had been unemployed for three years when, in 1989, he landed himself the role as manager of a small community business. Today, he and his wife own the company. They now employ 38 staff, and this year their business will have a turnover of more than €1.7m.
His story serves as an inspiration and an encouragement to all those who are looking for a brighter and more positive future.
Ardee Coach Trim Ltd specialises in the fit-out and refurbishment of buses, coaches and minibuses.
"We manufacture and re-furbish bus seats, supply and fit aisle carpets, window curtains, head rest covers and seat belts. We also repair and respray bus exteriors, and we even sell second- hand buses," explains Frank.
"Our aim is to be a one-stop shop for bus and coach operators on the island."
However, Ardee Coach Trim did not start out like most businesses. It was set up as a community development project by local voluntary groups that wanted to create jobs in the community as a response to rising unemployment in the area.
Soon after the business began trading, Frank – who had originally trained as a mechanic – was invited to become manager. The company got its first big break soon afterwards when Dublin Bus became a key customer. As business grew, however, its location in the middle of Ardee town left it heavily restricted for space.
"We simply didn't have room to grow," explains Frank.
"That created a dilemma for the community representatives at the time. Should they expand the business and take on the additional cost of moving premises, or should they wind the business up altogether?"
However, in 1994 Frank and his wife, Anne, stepped in with a third option: they offered to buy out the company and run it themselves. They immediately set about building new premises on the outskirts of Ardee town with the help of their local Enterprise Board.
It was an exciting period for the new entrepreneurs. Their new facility provided them with the space and capacity they needed in order to grow and, over the following year, they managed to double their turnover.
Shortly afterwards, they received a welcome boost when they won their first contract to start manufacturing seats for Dublin Bus.
By 2004, and under increased pressure for space, they were forced to build even larger premises.
"This was an important step for the company as it allowed us to design a better layout for our workflow and to create greater efficiencies in our production processes," explains Frank.
As Frank takes me on a tour of the new company premises, two double-decker buses stand imposingly at the entrance, in the signature yellow and blue colours of Dublin Bus. These, Frank tells me, are about to be adapted into open-top buses for use by Dublin City Tours.
We visit the metal fabrication area, where crews are busy bending and shaping lengths of steel to make the new frames for bus seats.
Once ready, these are brought to a nearby area for painting. Here paint, in the form of dried powder, is sprayed on to the surface of the steel using a spray gun. As the dried paint particles pass through the specialised gun they are electrostatically charged, causing them to jump on to the waiting metal frame, as if the frames had suddenly been turned into large steel magnets.
Once fully covered, the now powder-laden metal frames are brought to the large ovens where they are hung freely like sides of bacon in an industrial cooker and baked at temperatures of 2000 degrees C.
"This powder coating process helps the paint form a type of smooth and extremely hard-wearing outer skin that is suitable for high volume traffic," Frank tells me.
In a separate area of the factory, workers strip old seats while another team are huddled around a large cutting table, carefully measuring and cutting lengths of fabric and foam that will be used to cover the seats.
As we finish our tour, he shows me a jeep which his eldest son Ciaran – a mechanical engineer – has remodelled for use in nearby Boliden Tara Mines.
The newly adapted vehicle will be used underground in the mines to transport both workers and equipment.
It's easy to tell that everyone here takes great pride in their work.
The first big challenge for the company came in 2004 when a large international bus building firm, for which they had done work, went out of business. Frank was caught for more than €180,000.
"That was a massive body-blow for us at the time," he explains.
He was forced to let staff go in order to downsize or right- size the company. It was a difficult time for both Frank and for the business.
"For the next year-and-a- half we lived on an extended overdraft," admits Frank.
"But we knuckled down and worked harder than ever to rebuild turnover."
He began targeting new customers, and in time won additional contracts with companies such as Ulster Bus and Wright Bus as well as a host of independent bus and coach operators – all of which helped the business slowly return to profitability.
Frank's next big challenge came when the economy tanked.
"The transport industry took a massive hit in the downturn, both with increased costs and the lack of cash flow as a result of banks not lending," he says.
Because many of his customers were small, independent coach or bus operators, they simply couldn't afford to pay for new vehicles – yet the vehicles they had needed to be either refurbished or replaced if they were to keep operating in business.
Frank came up with an innovative response: a rent-to-buy scheme whereby bus operators would rent the buses from him until such time as they were in a position to buy them outright.
"While it had huge implications for our cash flow, it proved a real win-win for both us and our customers," explains Frank. "So much so that we sold more than 70 buses using the scheme."
However, Frank's biggest setback came in 2008 when he lost one of his five sons to suicide. His death devastated Frank and his family.
"Oisin was one month shy of 22. He was a twin, and was full of life and fun," Frank tells me with pride.
Frank points towards the two large windows in his office that look out on to the factory floor. On one side is a picture of a smiling Oisin, looking handsome in his black-tie graduation outfit.
To the left of the window is a large calendar that blocks out Frank's view of the very location where Oisin took his own life. It is something that Frank faces every day when he comes to work.
But he believes that Oisin is still very much around the place.
"I believe he is still with us," Frank says earnestly. "I even had a conversation with him recently where I told him that I had to get back and focus on business and make sure that we kept the business on track," he shares openly.
Frank believes in life after death. That belief, and his real and continuing connection to Oisin, is what sustains him and helps him cope.
"It changes you though," he admits. "It makes you appreciate life more, makes you value your family more, and it makes you more determined to carve out a better work- life balance."
His wife Anne works full-time as a social worker and is a source of great strength to him both inside and outside the business.
Three of his remaining four sons – Ciaran, Eoin and Cathal – work in the business, while Domhnall, the fourth, attends college but helps out when he is not too busy studying.
Frank is incredibly proud of his sons and proud to have them involved in the business with him.
However, it also creates its own challenges, as he begins to reflect on how to put a succession plan in place to hand over the business to them when the time comes.
But for now, though, his focus is on continuing to grow the business. He has many ideas for innovative projects that he wants to take on, such as developing his own model of minibus and designing a new range of lightweight seats for the urban bus market. He also recently launched a range of wireless camera systems for transport vehicles.
Frank Lennon has faced, and overcome, many challenges in his life. When he was unemployed and got the opportunity to take on the role of manager of Ardee Coach Trim, he grabbed it with both hands. When the chance came to buy out the community-based enterprise, he grabbed that too.
Over the last 18 years he has grown a successful business through challenging times and in one of the hardest pressed sectors: that of transport.
And he has faced the greatest heartbreak imaginable for any parent: the tragic loss of a child.
Through it all, he has demonstrated characteristics true of most successful entrepreneurs: a positive and optimistic outlook for the future and a steely determination to cope with whatever life throws at you.
As I leave Ardee Coach Trim, I am confident that whatever challenges confront him and through whatever troubled waters he needs to navigate, one thing is certain; Frank Lennon will either find a way or make a way.
I know for sure that I have not just been in the company of a great entrepreneur but of a very sound and decent man.