Building on a passion for healthcare
John and Norma O'Neill swapped their banking jobs for a business supplying healthcare products
When distilled right down, the purpose of most businesses is to help meet the needs of others. Nowhere is this more evident than with this week's entrepreneurial duo, husband and wife team John and Norma O'Neill. Together, they run O Neill Healthcare.
"We're the sort of company, we hope you or your family will never need," says John. "But when you do, we want to make sure that your life or the life of your loved ones is made easier and more comfortable by what we do," he adds.
Set up in 1999 and based in Baldoyle Industrial Estate, Dublin, the company specialises in the supply of medical devices and supports to people with special needs, paraplegics and quadriplegics as well as tracheotomy and laryngectomy patients throughout the island. With 10 staff and a turnover of €2.3m, the company has grown to become leaders in their field.
"Roughly speaking, a paraplegic is someone who has lost the use of two limbs while a quadriplegic will have lost the use of all four limbs," explains John. "In most cases, such patients will have specific requirements regarding their mobility and the length of time they are in either sitting or lying positions," he goes on.
"Tracheotomy and laryngectomy patients are those who have had surgery and where a hole or stoma has been created in the person's neck allowing them to breath thought this opening or through a tube inserted into their trachea or windpipe. Laryngectomy involves a similar surgical procedure and involves the partial or full removal of the larynx or voice box," explains Norma. "These procedures are usually carried out as a result of the patient suffering a stroke, cancer of the larynx or oesophagus or as a result of an accident or major trauma. In each case, these patients require aids and devices to help them communicate more easily with other people" she adds.
"We deal with a wide variety of age groups from young children to the elderly and in all types of settings such as hospitals, long-term care centres, nursing homes or in the person's own home," interjects John passionately.
As we speak, John and Norma constantly refer to individuals and families with whom they have worked. It's clear that, for them, this is not just about business. They are personally concerned about and invested in the care of their many patients.
"It's incredibly rewarding," insists Norma. "We're always touched when we get cards or testimonials from patients who are grateful for what we do. It's hugely satisfying to know that you are making a real difference in the quality of people's lives, often when they are at their most vulnerable," she adds.
Next door to the company's office is a large warehouse. Here the shelves are racked and stacked with all manner of equipment. In the mobility products section, there is a wide selection of manual and electric wheelchairs ranging from those that are self-propelled by the user to other more specialised electric tilt-in-space ones that provide added comfort and functionality. Looking around, my overriding feeling is one of gratitude. I realise how lucky I am that I don't need to use a wheelchair. I reflect too on just how much I take for granted the simple acts such as being able to walk. As John shows me a range of children's' buggies and wheelchairs, I am even more grateful that my young son doesn't need these either. The reality is that we never know if such challenges might visit us or our loved ones.
Returning to the conversation, John points to the wide range of bathing, showering and toileting aids which they stock as well a variety of hoists, slings and lifting aids to make lifting safer and more comfortable for both patients and care givers. Holding up a series of night positioning wedges or pads, he explains that these are used by people with cerebral palsy to help improve their posture at night so that they get a better night's sleep and as a result will be calmer throughout the following day.
"Over here, we have a range of specialist mattresses for people with dementia, Parkinson's or who suffer from chronic pain," explains John. "Besides the muscle tension that typically comes with Parkinson's, many people also suffer from extreme fatigue. With built in micro-stimulation technology, these mattresses generate tiny movements that help relax muscles and calm restlessness. Similarly with dementia, improving the patient's sleep patterns can reduce night-time wandering, the need for sleep aid medications as well as daytime irritability. And that's a big plus for both the patient and the care giver," he adds.
In the communications section, Norma demonstrates a variety of speaking and communications aids used by tracheotomy and laryngectomy patients and those with autism. These include digital voice amplifiers which help project a person's limited speech function as well as electronic keyboards that generate speech. There are also devices that have pre-recorded phrases or that use pictures to build sentences.
"We work with a lot of occupational therapists, physiotherapist and speech and language therapists as well as with doctors, ear, nose and throat consultants, nurses, nursing homes and specialised service suppliers such as Enable Ireland, Central Remedial Clinic, St Michael's House and St John of God Services. These are all responsible for assessing the needs of patients and prescribing appropriate solutions," explains John. "However, our real customers are the people that use our products every day," he adds.
John O'Neill grew up in Donegal Town. During school holidays he laboured on local building sites with his uncle's construction firm, something that helped instil in him a strong work ethic. After school he spent a year working in the local post office before getting a job with TSB bank in Phibsboro in Dublin where he would spend the next four years.
While there, he met and married Norma who worked in the nearby branch of the AIB bank. Norma had grown up in Clontarf and, after joining the bank straight from school, would end up working there for the next 21 years.
After four years working with TSB, John decided he was ready for a change.
"It just wasn't the sort of culture or work environment in which I wanted to spend the rest of my life," he insists.
So in 1985, John left TSB to work in Norma's father's surgical supplies business where he worked his way up from warehouse manager to sales director over the next 14 years. In 1999, and eager to do his own thing, he left to set up O Neill Healthcare. Having built up a strong reputation within the industry, it wasn't long before he was approached by a number of international brands inviting him to represent their interests in Ireland.
Working from home initially, he would set out every morning with at least four wheelchairs packed into his car. For months he travelled the length and breadth of the country, meeting with and pitching to nurses, doctor and therapists and anyone who would give him a hearing. Before long, he had built up a solid customer base and as his customer base grew so too did the list of new distributors and suppliers that contacted him with a view to supplying their products.
Two years later, Norma left the bank and joined the business full-time as financial director and head of sales of voice and communication devices. Shortly afterwards, John's younger brother, Pauric, also joined the company to represent them on the west coast of the country. They were now making progress. As their reputation and that of their products spread, they began receiving more and more invitations by therapists and health professionals to assist in the assessment of patients and to make recommendations on the most suitable types of products to use.
"But for us, it's not just about selling products. We are committed to ethical prescribing and that means being willing to walk away from any product that doesn't properly help the patient," insists John.
In 2004, they purchased their current premises, in Baldoyle; a move that enabled them to increase their level of stock and develop a showroom facility for customers. Around this time too, they joined Plato, an SME support initiative, and also enlisted the support of a personal business mentor - two moves, they feel, which really helped them prepare for scaling the business. With this extra space and now focused more than ever before on growth, they decided to target the nursing home market.
"We are really hopeful that we can make an impact in this market, particularly with our range of specialist mattresses for people with dementia. We know that these patients often have trouble sleeping at night and can end up restless and roaming around their rooms at night. Often, too and as a result of a poor night's sleep, patients can tend to sleep a lot during the day," explains John.
Looking to the future, the pair are keen to double the company's turnover over the next five years. Part of this involves travelling to trade shows and exhibitions abroad in search of new products and innovative devices.
John and Norma O'Neill care deeply about what they do. For them, it's more than just a business. It's a way of life. But what better way to make a living than dedicating your life to helping improve the quality of the lives of others. And reflecting on John's comment to me when I first arrived, I do hope that I never need their services. But if such a day should ever arrive, it's comforting to know that there are people like John and Norma there to help.
For further info: O'Neill Healthcare Ltd, Unit 106 Baldoyle Industrial Estate, Dublin 13. Tel: 01 832 6509 Website: www.onhealthcare.ie
Sunday Indo Business