Friday 24 October 2014

How one man found the courage to take on the world and win

After the semi-state where he worked shut down, John Byrne set out to create his own destiny

Sean Gallagher

Published 06/07/2014 | 02:30

They Set Them Up, We Knock Them Down: Sean Gallagher and John Byrne at CPS Robotics in Tuam, Co Galway. Photo Brian Farrell

'I think Irish manufacturing companies can supply products that are as good, if not better, than anyone else in the world," John Byrne tells me, as we set out on a tour of his 50,000sqft manufacturing facility in the IDA Business Park, in Tuam, Co Galway. "Sometimes though, I think, as Irish people, we are slow to say that because it might seem like we are blowing our own trumpet," he adds modestly.

John is managing director of CPS and along with his 70-strong workforce, he designs and builds automated machines which are used by large manufacturing companies throughout the world. Having started the business, in 1993, after the company in which he worked closed down, his customers now include large multinational companies in industries that include medical devices, pharmaceutical, electronics, life sciences, food and beverage and FMCG or fast moving consumer goods. He can also count among his growing customer base a long list of well-known clients, among others, Hewlett Packard, Medtronic, Transitions Optical, Boston Scientific, Baxter Healthcare, Procter and Gamble, Hollister, Vistakon and Celestica.

"I never imagined that we would get to a stage where we would have clients in places like the UK, Germany, the USA, Brazil, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Puerto Rico, Italy and Mauritius," he adds. But he does.

John grew up near Tuam. After school he served his time as an apprentice fitter with Irish Sugar, where he stayed until the semi-state closed.

"That was back in the major recession we had in the late 1980s. There were few opportunities around at the time and decent jobs were hard to come by," he explains.

Keen to get back to work, John tried his hand at a number of jobs. Most were part time or temporary. With little expectation of finding something challenging or more long term, John eventually turned his attention to starting his own business.

At the same time Action Tuam was set up as a community response to the rise in unemployment as a result of the closing of the sugar factory. Located in a disused textile factory, the initiative provided a shared workspace as well as training and other support facilities to those interested in setting up in business. It was an early example of a community incubation centre and proved very effective.

"Any of us with an idea for a new business were given access to expert guidance and support from a panel of experienced business consultants and mentors," explains John. "Being located in a recognised enterprise centre helped us look more professional. The concept is commonplace now, but it was a really innovative approach back then - many of those who started with Action Tuam have gone on to be very successful," he adds.

There's a saying that "those who get to where they are, had to start where they were". And John's experience as an industrial fitter had taught him that conveyor systems were among the most common pieces of machinery used by manufacturers everywhere. So that is where he decided to start.

He focused his initial efforts on designing and manufacturing simple conveyor systems targeted at the pharmaceutical sector. These typically included a conveyor belt that allowed customers to transport products or components on a production line with little human involvement, thereby increasing output while at the same time reducing staff numbers. His work was so well received that, over time, it led to more and better jobs, which in turn led to bigger and better clients.

Around that time too, a company called Transitions Optical set up in Tuam. They were industry leaders in the manufacture of photochromic lenses, a type of lens which darkens on exposure to sunlight. John developed such a strong working relationship with them as a customer that he made the decision to relocate his factory to the same industrial park where they were, so as to be better able to service their requirements.

"Similarly, in the way that many other companies now have account executives, we decided to allocate dedicated members of staff to look after each of our clients," explains John. "In this way we moved from the concept of working for our client companies, and instead, focused on working with them. While we had to continue to compete with firms that were much bigger than us, we realised that our customers appreciated the intimacy that came from working with a smaller company like us. This approach, has since become an intrinsic part of our business mentality and, I believe, the foundation of our success," he insists.

As business began to take off, John increased the degree of automation - even robotics - in line with his clients' requirements for increased productivity levels and higher efficiencies. In tandem, he expanded design capability and took on more automation engineers and software staff which, in turn, allowed him target even more exciting opportunities. Among these was the opportunity to undertake work for the international divisions of multinationals who were based in Ireland and for whom he had been working.

Thus began the export phase of the firm's growth.

Like all companies, however, John faced his own fair share of challenges.

"If you have never done it before, then starting a new business is like stepping into the unknown. Sometimes it's probably better that you don't know all the challenges that lie ahead or you might never start," he says with a smile.

Even as his company began to grow and become more successful, the challenges he faced didn't become any fewer; they simply changed. Such as when he first began working with large blue chip multinationals. He quickly found that their capacity for products stretched the company to its limits. Although demanding, it also had the upside of forcing him and his staff to continuously improve their own internal systems and their own capabilities.

"What we are doing now is something we could only have dreamt of a few years ago. We have evolved to where we are now only because our customers gave us the opportunity to work for, and learn from, them," explains John. "We are blessed now too, that we have a well-educated staff, most of whom are from the local area, who are world-class at building machines," he adds.

But like many firms, John struggled at first to find staff with the right skills. For that reason, his focus now, where possible, is on training his own staff, often through apprenticeships, and then giving them the opportunity to progress within the company.

"We are also a little unusual in that we like to do everything in-house. As part of our one-stop-shop service, we take a project from initial design stage though fabrication, then mechanical and electrical assembly right through to programming and testing and final installation and commissioning," explains John.

I ask if he is benefiting from the improvement in market conditions?

"Like all businesses we were badly affected by the recession. Many of our clients simply stopped spending or were forced to put projects on hold for up to two years. As a result we had to cut costs and unfortunately that meant letting some people go," explains John.

However, by doing so, the company was in a much better position when things picked up again in 2011. John was able to take back those whom he let go as well as hiring more staff. In fact, his staff numbers have more than doubled and his turnover is now even higher than it was before.

John also learned a very valuable lesson as a result of the downturn: not to be overly reliant on a small number of sectors. As a result of this, he has strategically refocused the business to include a broader customer base which he believes will both offer more opportunities, and at the same time limit his future exposure should any one sector stop performing.

What are his plans for the future of the business?

"We are at the stage now where we are beginning to jog, but where we have not yet broken into a run," John tells me laughing. "Because all of the machines we make here are one-offs, we are constantly looking for ways to increase output as well as achieving greater efficiencies.

"We have recently begun investing heavily in R&D in an effort to standardise certain component parts of our machines rather than designing every piece from scratch each time," he explains.

Like most entrepreneurs who achieve success, John Byrne started his business in a small way. As his business started to expand so too did his confidence. Having built a highly skilled workforce, he was able to introduce increased complexity and offer more complete services to his growing customer base.

John differentiated his company from others though building strong relationships with his customers which ultimately provided opportunities for him to export throughout the world.

And though suffering a temporary setback as a result of the downturn, John and CPS have now emerged leaner and more strategically focused than ever before.

As a modest and unassuming man, John Byrne may not be well accustomed to blowing his own trumpet. However, as I leave Tuam and reflect on his success, I believe he has much to be proud of. Having lost his job, he managed to turn his life around by having the courage to start his own business.

Today, his story serves as a beacon of hope and encouragement to others who find themselves in a similar position to where he once was and who, like him, are starting out on their own entrepreneurial journey.

John’s advice for other businesses

You need to make a profit  if you want to survive

“Even though customers will always want the best deal they can get from you, genuine clients know that you still have to make a profit if you are to survive and be able to continue to offer them the services they need.”

Every job is an  investment in the next

“You may not make money on every project you undertake but every successful job delivered is an investment in the future and will hopefully result in more and bigger orders over time. You have to be able to take a longer term view of your business.”

Never stint on quality  or on flexibility

“Be flexible, do whatever it takes to deliver what your customers want. But make sure that what you deliver works. Your products and services will form part of your customers’ offering to the market and so you need to make sure you can stand over what you deliver.”

If you have a business worth talking about, please contact Sean at seangallagher@independent.ie

Business Masters

Company: Conveyors & Packaging Services

Business: Customised automation solutions

Set up: 1993

Founder(s): Deirdre & John Byrne

Turnover: €7.5m

Employees: 70

Location: Tuam, Co Galway

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