If you want goals, you need goalposts
Inspired by Jack Charlton, Sean Tobin's company progressed from making steel gates to professional goalposts
This weekend, in every city, town and townland through Ireland, clubs will come together to tog out to play their favourite sport. Whether it's GAA, soccer, rugby or hockey, the shared objective of every team member will be to secure victory over their opponents by scoring more goals or points than them.
But to score goals or points, you first need goalposts. So this week, I headed to Tallow in Co Waterford to meet businessman Sean Tobin, whose company - Goalpost Ireland - manufactures the majority of goalposts and pitch equipment sold today in Ireland.
It's early afternoon and the sun is shining as I pull into Tallow. Just around the corner from Sean Tobin's home and production facility is the spot where Charlie McCarthy grew up. Charlie was the late father of soccer legend and former Irish team manager Mick McCarthy - and because Charlie came from here, his son Mick qualified for the Irish side and went on to win 57 caps as centre-half and captain of the Irish squad.
There's a large grass area to the front of the factory which is covered with all sizes and types of goalposts - GAA, soccer, rugby and hockey. In an instant, I find myself transported back to my days as goalkeeper with my local U-12 GAA club in Ballyhaise, Co Cavan. Even though a juvenile set of posts is much smaller than the standard adult size (6.5m wide and 2.44m high), I remember just how lonely a place a goalmouth can be.
"Full-sized soccer posts are a bit higher, but over 7.3m long," explains Sean as he catches me eyeing these up.
I'm thinking how hard it is for anyone to protect such a large space - and my respect for professional goalkeepers moves a notch up the scale.
"In total, we manufacture 28 different sizes of goals to cater for different sports and different age groups within each sport, from juvenile to senior," explains Sean enthusiastically. "We also supply nets, flagpoles, corner flags, line marking machines and team shelters. And we make equipment for other sports too, such as tennis, volleyball, badminton and basketball," he adds.
To one side of the large open yard are pallets of shiny aluminium metal poles. This is the raw material from which the new posts will be made. On the other side are pallets of beautifully finished and neatly wrapped, bright white posts ready for shipping to awaiting clubs.
What about Croke Park? Where do they get their goalposts from?
"We do them," he tells me proudly. "We fitted our first set there in 1998 and this year we were back again with a new set, and a new design. And we've also supplied goalposts to Pairc Ui Chaoimh, Cusack Park and many others," he adds.
"Today, we supply GAA, rugby and hockey clubs nationally. We are also the nominated supplier to the FAI. In addition, we supply county councils, universities, schools and colleges across the Island. We've exported goalposts to the UK, Europe, the USA - even to the Emirates GAA Stadium in Abu Dhabi," he goes on.
It's a great achievement for the small business from Co Waterford. Greater still, considering that Sean didn't actually start out with the intention of making goalposts.
Having grown up in Dungarvan, Sean Tobin started his working life as a postman. The job didn't really excite him and he left shortly afterwards to join a local engineering and fabrication company which specialised in making metal gates and railing. He worked there for the following seven years until, in 1980, he decided he was ready to go out on his own and set up his own business, Tobin Engineering.
"At the time, I focused primarily on the local agricultural sector making everything from gates and railings to cattle crushes, you name it, I made it," he says with a hearty laugh.
"The only problem with that was that there was one of me in every town in the country. So it was almost impossible to differentiate myself from what everyone else was doing. But when your back is to the wall, you've no option but to find a way to make things work," he adds.
Determined to find his niche, he began to explore various options. His opportunity, however, came from something he hadn't quite expected.
In 1986, Jack Charlton had been appointed manager of the Irish soccer team. Four years later, he led Ireland into the 1990 World Cup Quarter Finals. Few will forget June 25 - when Ireland beat Romania on penalties, with Packie Bonner pulling off the save of his career and David O'Leary putting the ball in the net to secure victory. It was a time of soccer mania in Ireland. And Sean Tobin was very carefully taking it all in.
Everyone in the country was talking soccer and kids everywhere, decked out in green jerseys, dreamed of the day they would play for the country. Against the backdrop of this hysteria, Sean began to wonder if there might just be an opportunity for him to harness this growing army of new soccer stars.
"Back then, most goalposts were makeshift things. Many were made from lengths of wood, others were welded together in local machinery shops with few standards and little focus on health and safety. I realised I already had a 13,000 sq ft workshop and all the staff and machinery to start making proper goalposts" explains Sean.
And if he was going to manufacture soccer posts, then he could just as easily make them for the GAA and others too. He did his research, sized up some prototypes and quickly got to work. Within weeks, he was on his way to Dublin to showcase his work to both the GAA and the FAI. The feedback was positive. His instinct about the gap in the market had been spot-on.
Back home he got into action and geared up his production facility, leaving the making of gates and such like to others. He had found his niche. But his first challenge was getting the word out about his new venture.
"Irish people are great to support each other," explains Sean. "I began to identify key individuals in each county who were willing to act as ambassadors and champions for me and who quickly began referring business wherever they could. Soon orders were flying in," he adds.
While making the product wasn't a big challenge for him, marketing was. He quickly realised that to be successful, he would have to create a brand that explained quickly and easily what he did. So he changed the name of the business from Tobin Engineering to Goalpost Ireland. A profile on Mike Murphy's Up and Running TV show about new businesses plus an interview with Gay Byrne on the Late Late brought even more business.
With a loan from his local Leader group, he produced a new website, logo and professional marketing material. And with this funding he was also able to build a new powder coating plant to generate a smooth and durable paint finish on his newly branded goalposts.
He was now playing in a different league.
It's a family business. His wife Frances has been involved from the early days and, in 2002, they were joined by their daughter Siobhan as financial controller. Two years later, another daughter, Lorraine, joined. Having studied business in Cork Institute of Technology and multimedia in the Institute of Technology in Tralee, Lorraine looks after marketing.
It's a formula that seems to be working well. Their joining the company also served to allow Sean greater freedom and flexibility to what he does best in the business - meeting and networking with existing and potential customers.
But he's not finished yet. Looking to the future, he tells me he has three key objectives.
"Firstly, I want to double turnover to €2.2m over the next three to four years. Then I want to increase export sales from 10pc of revenues today to 25pc over the same period," explains Sean confidently. "Finally, I want to see my daughters take over the responsibility of running and growing the company - something I know they are more than capable of doing," he adds proudly.
His greatest joy is going to Croke Park and sitting there with a sense of pride and satisfaction as he watches competing teams play into goalposts designed and manufactured by his company. "It's a great feeling," he says with a big smile.
Has this been a good year so far for him?
"It's been great," he responds chirpily. "The silage is cut, the hay is in the shed and Waterford have already beaten Cork three times this year. Sure, what more could a man wish for?"
Sean Tobin is a born entrepreneur. He is also a great character with a positive and uplifting personality. He loves going to work every day and loves what he does. Looking back to his early days making gates, he can be proud he has found both the niche he was looking for.
For further information, please contact Goalpost Ireland, Tallow, Co Waterford Tel: (058) 56326 or www.goalpostireland.com
Sean's advice for other businesses
1 Empower your team
"The student must always be encouraged to surpass the teacher. Build confidence in your staff so they can trust their own instincts and capabilities. If they can't make decisions confidently, then they will always hold back."
2 Planning prevents poor performance
"Perfect planning prevents poor performance. If you don't plan properly, you can never expect to get good results consistently. A good carpenter will always tell you: 'Measure twice, then you only have to cut once.'"
3 Passion and resilience
"Loving what you do is essential to long-term success. So too is the recognition that there is no substitute for perseverance and good old-fashioned hard work. If you ardently desire something, then aggressively pursue it."
Sunday Indo Business