The cranes of Donegal go global to lift the sector out of recession
Founder Seamus McMenamin was the first man to introduce the self-erecting crane to Ireland
During the height of the building boom, the sight of cranes across the skylines of our cities and towns served as a powerful reminder of just how much we as a nation had come to rely on the construction sector.
Today, while dramatically fewer in number, these cranes are beginning to make a welcome return, perhaps signalling better times ahead for the many thousands of construction workers who lost their jobs during the downturn. Their return too heralds some hope for the many thousands who are eagerly waiting to buy or rent a new home.
One man who rode the wave of success when it was up - and who equally suffered when the tide went out - is Seamus McMenamin, founder and managing director of Mantis Cranes.
Last week, I visited him in his manufacturing facility near Ballybofey, Co Donegal, to learn how he has managed to survive the last few years and what he has been doing to sustain and rebuild his business after the economy collapsed. His story is certainly one of perseverance, tenacity and dogged determination.
As we tour the factory, Seamus explains how he first introduced the concept of self-erecting cranes into the Irish market in 1999. Unlike traditional tower cranes which are much bigger and more expensive to erect, self-erecting cranes come pre-assembled in the factory and can be transported to a building site on a single trailer. Once connected to power, they automatically unfold by means of an inbuilt hydraulics system, a process which is both quick and inexpensive.
"Their compact design makes them ideal for use in low-rise developments of up to six or seven floors. Developers and contractors find them particularly valuable when they are required to work in areas where space is limited. Such was their popularity during the boom years that we became market leaders in Ireland," explains Seamus.
He remembers 2006 as a memorable year for him, when he was nominated for the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year awards.
"However, two years later, the downturn came and it had a devastating effect on our business. Almost overnight, we lost 90pc of our turnover. Most of the developers and contractors we were supplying either went out of business or stopped building altogether," he adds.
He was slow to react at first. Like many others in the industry, he was expecting the soft landing that so many commentators had predicted. However, that soft landing never materialised. The collapse was as sudden as it was dramatic. It brought with it his first major challenge - to downsize his company.
"I found it really hard to let people go," he insists. "Your team is everything. We had, and still have, great employees, many of whom have been with the business since it was founded. As an employer, you feel a strong sense of responsibility to your staff and your community and you want to do your best for them. Eventually, though, we had to make some very hard decisions in order to survive," he explains.
Determined not to surrender to the clouds of doom that hung over his business, and with a number of cranes already manufactured and sitting in the factory's yard, Seamus began exploring new markets for these cranes. Attracted by the amount of building activity that was going on in the Middle East, he, like many others at the time, began travelling to that region in an effort to open up opportunities there.
"The Middle East really didn't work for us. To be successful, you really need to have a local partner on the ground there," he explains.
However, having spent a considerable amount of time travelling around the world he eventually managed to secure orders from places as diverse as Qatar, Oman, Brazil and even Mauritius, to where he has already shipped six of his cranes.
His real success, however, came when he turned his attention to his nearest market - the UK. While building had slowed down there too, its decline had been less severe. He had already set up an office in Durham in 2005 but because of the strength of the construction sector in Ireland at the time, he had not been able to give it the attention it had required.
Things are very different now. In 2011, he set up a second depot, this time closer to London to service the market there. Over the intervening years, Mantis Cranes grew to become the number one player in the UK for the rental of cranes for low-rise construction projects.
One thing which becomes clear from speaking to Seamus is that he is not one to sit back and wait for things to happen.
Seamus grew up on the family farm on which the factory is built. Having completed the group certificate, he left school at the age of 16 and began working in a local engineering company, primarily servicing the local agricultural market. There, he served his apprenticeship as a metal fabricator and continued to work his way up in the company, eventually becoming assistant manager.
"Unfortunately, because of its heavy reliance on the local market, the company didn't survive the recession of the mid-1980s and it eventually closed," he explains.
Shortly afterwards, in 1986, Seamus set up his own business, McMenamin Engineering. While initially focusing on erecting farm buildings, he quickly moved into the higher value business of providing roofing and structural steel fabrication for local hotels, factories and warehouses. This business is still in operation today, and although smaller in size now than during the height of the boom, it continues to employ 12 staff.
Reflecting on his experience with his first employer, he says he grew nervous about being overly dependent on a local market and so went in search of a product which he could manufacture and which might offer export potential.
After much searching, he eventually came across the idea of self-erecting cranes, which although popular in Europe were not yet so popular in Ireland or the UK. In 1999, he set up Mantis Cranes.
"Apart from the usual challenges of raising enough funding to finance the business, our biggest challenge was in educating the market about these lesser known self-erecting cranes," explains Seamus.
Wisely, he started by targeting high-profile sites where his cranes would be visible. In a high-risk move he offered his cranes to contractors for a free trial period. If they liked them they could start paying for them. It was a strategy that paid off.
"We never actually got any of our cranes returned," he says with a smile. "Once contractors saw the benefits of using them, they were converted. If we had tried to sell the cranes without contractors first having experience of them, it simply wouldn't have worked," he insists.
Business grew year on year right up until the crash in 2008. At that point he had managed to secure over 70pc of the total rental market for cranes in Ireland. Today, he continues to focus on rebuilding his business within Ireland and although still slow, he sees some activity returning to the sector.
Prices are extremely competitive and projects can take up to six months to come to fruition, but enquiries are up and he remains optimistic for the future.
In the UK, he has established Mantis Cranes as the market leader in the rental of self-erecting cranes and is continuing to grow that market, both in terms of his customer base and the range of cranes he is offering.
Recently, he again began researching ideas for new products which can utilise the skills and expertise he has built up in both his companies, Mantis Cranes and McMenamin Engineering.
He is currently working on developing a range of access platforms which can be mounted onto specialised vehicles for use by utility companies for the installation, maintenance and repair of services such as overhead power lines, transformers and poles in outlying areas.
"These machines will be capable of coping with challenging and mountainous terrain as well as getting operators to heights of up to 30 metres to reinstate services," he explains enthusiastically. "When - and not if - successful, this will help to reduce our current over dependency on the construction sector," he adds.
Over the past six years, Seamus has confronted many challenges and faced much change.
He has successfully led his company from a position where 90pc of its turnover came from the Irish market to where it now receives over 60pc of revenues from outside Ireland.
Not only has his company managed to survive the downturn but has gone from being a solely local and Irish-focused company to one which is now outward facing and export led.
If hard work and tenacity count for anything in the world of business then Seamus McMenamin and his team at Mantis Cranes deserve whatever success they get.
Company: Mantis Cranes & McMenamin Engineering
Business: Self-erecting cranes and structural steel fabrication
Set up: McMenamin Engineering formed in 1986 and in 1999 he founded Mantis Cranes
Founder: Seamus McMenamin
Location: Headquarters in Donegal, with UK offices in Durham and Northampton
SEAMUS'S ADVICE FOR OTHER BUSINESSES
1. Don't ever be left wondering 'what if . . . '
"It's better to try something and fail or have to change direction than never to have tried at all. If you have an idea, run with it, otherwise you will always be left wondering what might have been."
2. Failing to plan is planning to fail
"It might sound obvious but you have to do your homework in advance and do it well. Set out your plan and while this may change as you go along, at least you have a clear direction to pursue."
3. Don't be afraid to ask for advice and help
"Being the entrepreneur and chief decision maker can often be lonely. Don't be afraid to ask someone you trust for an honest opinion. Sometimes, this can help you see the wood from the trees."
Sunday Indo Business