Business Irish

Monday 22 September 2014

Keep your shoulder to the wheel and keep on trucking

Published 18/11/2012 | 05:00

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A mixture of determination, resilience, an enterprising mindset and sheer hard work has driven Fred Clarke, says Sean Gallagher

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'We definitely have to fight harder than ever. There's a greater emphasis on quality and people are rightfully looking for value for money'

According to former American baseball player, Sam Ewing: "Hard work spotlights the character of people: some turn up their sleeves, some turn up their noses, and some don't turn up at all."

Fred Clarke is one man who has never been afraid to roll up his sleeves. His is an inspiring story that demonstrates what can be achieved through hard work, resilience and an enterprising mindset. This week I travelled to Bailieborough, in Co Cavan, to meet Fred and to learn about Agrigear, the company he set up 32 years ago.

Agrigear is one of the largest wholesale suppliers of tyres and wheels in Ireland. As Fred gives me a tour of the place, I am amazed to see the sheer volume of tyres and wheels that fill the company's premises and the expansive concrete yards that surround it.

There are tyres to suit every type of car and truck as well as for every sort of farm, construction and grass-cutting machine imaginable.

It's like a man-made mountain range of black rubber everywhere I look.

Fred didn't start out in the tyre business. His first love was machinery.

"Even when I was at school, I was always more interested in making or fixing things than doing homework," laughs Fred.

He went straight into farming after school and, in order to expand, he began to rent additional land. At one stage he had more than 1,000 acres rented on which he grew barley and wheat as well as milling grain for himself and others.

While still farming, he set up a contract building company erecting silage pits and grain stores for other farmers. It was the mid-Seventies and Fred was employing about 30 people.

He then decided to diversify even further and, along with two other business partners, built a 600-unit piggery. During 1978 and 1980, economic conditions worsened. Diesel prices rose dramatically and interest rates soared a staggering 23 per cent.

To add further to his troubles, bad weather meant that Fred experienced a poor yield from his crops during those years, culminating in serious financial losses.

It could have spelt disaster for Fred – but he was determined not to give up.

"I had my fingers in too many pies," he admits readily. "There were just too many things to control."

He closed the piggery, sold most of his farm, including 100 acres he had received from his father. "That hit me hard," he says.

In the summer of 1980 he went to Holland to visit a business contact who shared his interest in machinery. While there, the two men visited a local car-dismantling business and before he knew it, Fred had bought 1,200 good quality second-hand wheels and tyres. At a price tag of only £1.50 each, he thought he couldn't go wrong.

It was a hunch that paid off. He shipped them to Ireland and began selling them from his farm at £10 each. His friend even loaned him the money to buy the stock.

It was an act of kindness Fred never forgot. Word spread and, when his stock sold out, he began travelling to Holland every month to buy more. His tyre business had taken off.

Some of the tyres he imported did not readily fit standard European-sized wheels and so he began to manufacture new wheels.

"That was the start of the manufacturing end of our business," says Fred. "And it represents almost one-third of our business today."

During the mid Eighties, the weather was so bad that turf contractors were struggling to get their cutting machines to travel on waterlogged bogs. Fred discovered that, if he bolted two wheels together on each side of the machine, this would spread the weight of the machine and thereby make it less inclined to sink in the wet ground.

It proved a great success and was an invention that he later went on to patent. Today these quick-fit dual-wheel systems are used by many farmers and help harvest valuable grass and tillage crops when the land is too waterlogged to allow standard machinery to do the job.

In 1999 Agrigear was appointed the main distributor in Ireland for tyre manufacturer Nokian, and in 2001 it also became the main distributor for Indian-based manufacturer BKT.

To expand his reach, Fred developed relationships with a national network of 50 agents throughout the country, most of whom owned their own garages or machinery stores. These agents helped Agrigear grow and they remain a vital element of the company's on-going success.

The company now employs more than 40 staff and Fred is adamant that they are key to the continuing success of the company.

Being a Cavan man, Fred is coy about giving me the company's turnover figure. The last 30 years of business have made him more cautious – but he tells me that the company is profitable and grow-ing steadily.

"We have experienced, on average, between 10 and 15 per cent increase in sales each year over the last 10 years," says Fred. It's a significant achievement.

In 2007 the company built a new 20,000 square foot facility to support its future growth plans. It also began making wheels for third-party manufacturers of grassland and farm machinery who are experiencing huge growth in export sales to such places as South Africa, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden and Holland.

Agrigear is now also focusing on growing its own direct export sales, and the company recently shipped wheel units to Saudi Arabia and Russia.

To support its current drive, the company hired a new marketing manager, Sandra Deering, who has helped it create a new corporate identity and website which will be important for both domestic and export sales.

It's a busy place, and its obvious that much is happening for the company.

Back in his office, I ask Fred if he is finding business tougher now.

"We definitely have to fight harder than ever," explains Fred. "There's a greater emphasis on quality and people are rightfully looking for value for money."

In the current climate, getting paid remains a big challenge for all companies. It was a lesson Fred, like many entrepreneurs, learned the hard way. We are joined by John McGauren, the general manager. "In business, a sale is never a sale until you get paid for it," John is keen to stress.

Fred's wife, Joyce, arrives with a warm welcome and bearing tea and biscuits. Joyce plays an active role in the business. But she is also an entrepreneur in her own right.

When the couple lost their dairy herd some years back through disease, she decided to buy six young Friesian heifers and, over the years, grew the herd back to more than 60 cows which she, herself, milked every day.

She clearly understands the long hours and determination needed to make the business successful.

So too does their son Alister and his wife Rose, both of whom have key roles in the company.

Family is important to Fred and it is easy to see that he is proud of both his business and his family.

He is wiser now than when he started out, but he is no less committed and equally unafraid to work hard.

As I pulled out of Agrigear, I left with a clear view that there is only one direction in which Fred and Agrigear are going – and that's forward.

The wheels are definitely in motion.

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