Sunday 23 October 2016

Never give up on a good thing

Henry and Shirley O'Kelly tell Sean Gallagher how changing their business model helped them to survive

Published 21/08/2016 | 02:30

Sean Gallagher, centre, with Shirley and Henry O’Kelly of Timbertrove Country Store. Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher, centre, with Shirley and Henry O’Kelly of Timbertrove Country Store. Photo: David Conachy

Every week I get to meet amazing entrepreneurs. I get to hear their stories, their triumphs - and often, more importantly, their challenges. Through these articles, I get to share the lessons these brave and inspiring individuals have learned in the hope that their stories will serve as a beacon of encouragement to other business owners and would-be entrepreneurs.

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This week's couple - Henry and Shirley O'Kelly, from Timbertrove - are a wonderful example of just how much resilience is required to run a small business. Established in 1986 and located just below the Hellfire Club in Rathfarnham, their business enjoys the most magnificent views over Dublin Bay and the Dublin Mountains.

The company, which started out making garden sheds, later diversified into other timber products such as fencing, playground equipment and wooden furniture. More recently, it added a country store and cafe. It now employs 27 staff and has an annual turnover of more than €2.3m.

Like many other businesses, the last few years have brought the O'Kellys incredible challenges. They saw their turnover all but disappear and have lost all the family's savings in an effort to keep their business afloat. Through it all, their indomitable spirit, together with their absolute determination to survive, has seen them reinvent themselves and find new opportunities and new ways forward for their business. This is their inspiring story.

Henry O'Kelly grew up on a small farm in Killakee beside where the business is located. His father also ran a local plant hire business in order to make ends meet. At the age of 15 and having developed a love of machinery, Henry left school to join the family business. In his spare time, he cut silage for local farmers and dug foundations for many of the new houses being built in the area.

"Having grown up surrounded by trees, I decided to combine my interest in machinery with my love of timber - and in 1986, I set up my own small sawmill business," explains Henry. "I had very little money and the only thing I owned at the time was an old red tractor," he recalls.

Henry's model was simple. He bought trees from Coillte, cut them into planks and sold them to locals in the building business. The problem was that he wasn't making much for his efforts.

"Eventually it dawned on me that if I made something out of the timber myself, I would make a much higher margin than simply selling planks. That's when I started to make my own quality garden sheds. Instead of getting €20 or €30 per sale, I was now getting up to €500," he adds.

Shirley grew up in Churchtown in Dublin, where her family ran a well-known motorcycle shop. She too left school at the age of 15 to take up a job in a motor company where she worked her way up from a role in sales to become transport manager and then general manager. Having met Henry, she left to join his business full time - looking after the finances while he concentrated on operational matters.

Henry had a natural flair for design, which led him to diversify into other timber products such as fencing, dog kennels, garden furniture, wooden gates, decking and customised timber features.

Fast forward to the early 2000s when the house building boom was in full swing.

"We had built up a strong customer base among many builders and developers," explains Henry. "In addition to garden sheds, we were supplying the fencing that separated the houses on sites - up to as many as 500 homes on a single site. We had started making playground furniture and won contracts with the likes of Dublin Zoo and Fota Wildlife Park. Everything was going well. At that point, we had 50 employees and a turnover of more than €4m," he adds.

In 2008, however, disaster struck. The collapse of the construction sector saw their sales evaporate overnight. "We fought hard, but we had to make redundancies, which was heart-breaking," admits Henry. "I went back on the tools, back into the workshop where I started all those years earlier. But that's what we had to do," he adds.

In an effort to sell the sheds they had made as well as drum up orders for new ones, they booked a small stand at the Ploughing Championships, where Henry focused on selling his sheds while Shirley and their three young children sold a range of gifts as a way to generate enough money to cover the costs of the show.

"As hard as we tried, people just weren't buying. They just weren't spending money on their gardens and our products, lovely and all as they were, weren't seen as essential," admits Shirley.

However, they were determined to keep fighting on. In the run-up to Christmas that year, they decided to put on a magical Santa experience, building a Christmas village from the garden sheds that they had made and couldn't sell.

While it turned out to be a roaring success and helped during the winter season, overall the business was still leaking cash. At that point they made the tough decision to invest all their savings into the business in an effort to keep paying the staff that were left and to keep the business afloat.

"Ultimately, we ended up losing everything," admits Shirley solemnly. And it wasn't just the business that was badly affected. The whole experience affected Henry and Shirley personally.

Married with three young children and working 24/7, they spent those years living in constant fear and trepidation. "It changes your personality," admits Henry honestly.

By 2012, with the business on its last legs, Henry and Shirley knew that they had to make one last-ditch effort if they were to turn things around.

"That's when we decided to turn off the TV and stop listening to the news,"explains Shirley. "Instead, we began reading business management and personal development books and focused only on what we could do to change our own situation," she adds. "Given the scenic area in which we are located, we decided to open a cafe to service the growing number of walkers, cyclists and tourists that were visiting the area. It was this that eventually saved the business.

"Who would ever have thought that a cafe could turn around a sawmill? But it did - and now our top-selling product is a scone."

More recently the pair set up a country store and gift shop onsite, and in the process have created a thriving retail destination that now opens seven days a week and attracts more than 4,000 customers a month.

Their mood is different now and their outlook brighter. The recent increase in new house building has brought about a welcome increase in sales of their garden sheds and timber products. While life hasn't gotten any easier, things have stabilised and they can now see a future.

Sometimes people ask me why I am such a champion of entrepreneurs. It is because of people like Henry and Shirley. Their bravery is uplifting and their courage inspiring. They are willing to risk everything to follow their dreams. In so doing, they create jobs in areas where large multinationals never can.

As the backbone of our economy and the glue that holds our communities together, it's time their contribution was recognised. Henry and Shirley may not be millionaires, but they are two of the most inspirational people I have met. I hope their story serves as an encouragement to those who are struggling to reinvent themselves and stay positive in the face of life's challenges.

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