Business Your Stories

Thursday 23 February 2017

First cut is the deepest - but that's not the only string to Charlie's bow

Throughout his working life, Charlie Dolan has managed to turn adversity to his advantage and he's earned his success

Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher and Charlie Dolan examine some prototypes at Irish Waterjet Profile in Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath. Photo: Tony Gavin
Sean Gallagher and Charlie Dolan examine some prototypes at Irish Waterjet Profile in Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath. Photo: Tony Gavin

There are many reasons why people choose to start their own businesses. One of the most common is where a person loses their job.

This week's business began for that very reason. Charlie Dolan had been working for Powerscreen, the world's largest manufacturer of stone-crushing equipment for most of his adult life. However, when, in 2003, the company relocated its Kilbeggan operation to Northern Ireland, Charlie found himself out of work.

He had always had an interest in starting his own business - and this seemed the right time.

While working with Powerscreen, he had seen how the company used a large number of rubber components in their machines which, when placed between the various moving parts of the machines, helped reduced the wear and tear of these other more expensive parts.

Most of these rubber parts had been traditionally cut by hand - a process that was neither safe nor efficient. As he began to explore ideas for his new business, Charlie decided that he could design and manufacture these rubber parts for his former employer, and for others. Today, Charlie's company, Irish Waterjet Profile Ltd, employs 17 staff and has an annual turnover of €2.2m.

"We specialise in the cutting and manufacturing of a wide range of rubber, plastic and polyurethane parts for the quarry, mining, agriculture, recycling and engineering sectors," explains Charlie as he welcomes me to the company's new 35,000 square foot production facility in Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath.

Everything in the factory is neatly laid out. Even the offices of the admin staff are spotless. Such tidiness can tell you a lot about the mindset of its owner as well as how a company functions.

In the production area, staff are busy cutting and packing all manner and sizes of parts.

"These will be used as parts for stone-crushing machines," explains Charlie, lifting up a heavy piece of rubber.

"Naturally, there is significant friction created from the heavy-duty nature of the work these machines do, in breaking down larger stones for use in construction or road making.

"As a result, the moving parts in these machines get damaged from the constant rubbing against other metal parts and this can quickly lead to a lot of wear and tear. To reduce this, we design and manufacture hard-wearing rubber parts that are placed between these moving parts to help protect the machines at the point of contact," he adds.

The rubber used here comes in large rolls of up to 100m in length, sourced from Asia and Eastern Europe, where Charlie regularly visits to ensure the quality of his materials.

Much of the production work in the factory is now automated. Customers send in computerised drawings specifying the exact design of the part they wish to have made, as well as the type of material to be used. These designs are then imputed into large CNC (it stands for computer numerical control) machines that cut the rubber and plastic materials quickly and accurately.

Where precision cutting is essential, high-pressurised water is used. At a pressure of up to 65,000psi or pounds per square inch, this is even more powerful than computerised knife-cutting technology -and because it doesn't generate any heat during the cutting process, has the added benefit of not marking the rubber as it is being cut.

In another area of the factory, staff are using heavy punching tools and slitting machines to create holes and openings in the newly cut parts.

Others are busy stacking completed parts into large wooden pallets for shipment to their many customers in the quarrying, mining and stone-crushing sectors - customers such as Powerscreen, Terex Finlay and McCloskey International.

But their work is not limited solely to the quarrying sector.

"Since starting out, we have also branched out into producing rubber and plastic parts for the agricultural machinery sector for machines such as specialised livestock feeding equipment and slurry spreaders, or hydraulic tanks and highly automated hay and silage balers and wrapping machines," explains Charlie.

Among his many customers in this sector are well-known names such as Keenans and Tanco, both from Co Carlow, McHale from Co Mayo, Conor Engineering from Clare, Belmac Engineering from Offaly and Abbey Machinery from Tipperary.

"And we also manufacture for other well-known companies, such as Combilift in Monaghan - a global leader in forklift manufacture - and JCB in the UK, who specialise in the manufacture of diggers and earth-moving equipment," he adds.

With many of his customers active internationally, his products are now being exported to the UK, mainland Europe, South Africa, Canada and the US. It's something that makes him proud.

Charlie Dolan grew up in Clara, Co Offaly, where his family ran a bar and a local milk distribution business. From an early age, he can remember the enjoyment of working behind the counter, or going on the road with his father to collect the money from customers for their weekly supply of milk. The young Charlie began to dream that one day, he too, would have his own business.

After school, he completed a four-year apprenticeship with Born Na Mona in Ferbane, and in 1984, he moved to the US in search of work.

For the next few years, he worked with a number of engineering firms in New York - until love intervened and he returned home to Ireland to get married. Once back, he landed a job with Powerscreen International in Kilbeggan, the largest manufacturer of stone-crushing and screening equipment in the world.

Charlie joined the company as a supervisor and eventually progressed his way up to become a technical support manager. In that time, he spent a good deal of his time installing large-scale stone-crushing machines all over the world. However, in 2003, having spent 16 years with the company, Powerscreen decided to relocate the factory to Northern Ireland and Charlie, along with many others, was made redundant.

"There was little hope of finding a job locally at the time, so I began to look at starting my own business," explains Charlie. "I had seen Powerscreen use a lot of rubber parts while I was working there. These were cut by hand using basic Stanley knives.

"It was a process that didn't produce a very high-quality output, generated considerable waste of raw materials, and worse still, regularly resulted in accidents and operator fatigue," he adds.

Charlie then began researching the problem and discovered that there was a waterjet machine on the market that could cut rubber and plastic accurately while eliminating wastage, guaranteeing quality and providing safe working conditions. He decided to approach his former employer with this new solution - and with them as his first customer, he set up Irish Waterjet Profiles later that year.

Finding the money to buy the machine, however, was his first big challenge.

"It was hard to get traditional funding at the time," explains Charlie. "I had to convince the funders that there was a market for my product - but to do that, I first had to buy the waterjet machine to make the samples. It was a real chicken and egg situation," he adds.

Determined not to give up, he invested his redundancy payment together with his personal savings on the waterjet machine - and was soon on his way.

Like most new entrepreneurs, he quickly had to learn how to manage his new company's working capital requirements.

"I hadn't really anticipated the length of time it would take from providing my initial samples to receiving my first actual order. That took almost six months," admits Charlie. "And you still have to pay all your overheads and live during this period. It was a real eye-opener.

"Thankfully, too, I was able to get good advice at the time from my brother Dervill, who is an accountant," he adds.

Business grew steadily, and soon Charlie had a number of large customers in the quarrying and stone-crushing sector. However, in 2008, he would face another challenge when one of his largest customers closed for four months because of the economic downturn.

"At the time, that customer represented over 75pc of our revenues. While it was a really difficult time for the business, it also became the catalyst that helped us grow. We decided then to change the business model so that no customer would ever again represent more than 25pc of the turnover," explains Charlie.

"To achieve that, we had to begin winning new customers in new sectors and in new geographical territories," he adds.

After careful consideration and much research, Charlie decided to focus on the agri sector which, at the time, was beginning to experience significant growth both at home and overseas. Soon after he secured his first orders from Keenan's, McHale and Tanco.

Today, as he profiles his customers for me across the various sectors, I realise that the majority of them are established businesses, most are exporting, and all are doing well. So much so that he has been able to grow his own business by 20pc year on year.

Looking to the future, Charlie continues to research new products and new opportunities. In collaboration with Queen's University in Belfast and with welcome support from Enterprise Ireland, he is developing a range of polyurethane parts for conveyor-belt systems, which he hopes will see him expand his sectoral reach even further.

"Most of the conveyor parts used on production lines are currently being imported - and I believe we can replace many of these with a more advanced and higher quality product," explains Charlie.

His track record to date would certainly lead you to the conclusion that he will deliver on this.

Before I leave, Charlie introduces me to his 17 staff. Four of these used to work with him in Powerscreen Ireland and have been with him now for the last 10 years.

"The team here are very loyal and incredibly dedicated. They are constantly looking for ways to improve themselves and the company as a whole," explains Charlie. "What has definitely become apparent to me over the years is that without their hard work and support, the business would never have survived or be where it is today."

Charlie Dolan is a hard-working, hands-on, entrepreneur. Having being made redundant and facing the prospect of unemployment, he drew on the experience he had gained in the stone-crushing machine sector to come up with the idea for a new business.

He used his knowledge of the sector and leveraged existing contacts and relationships to secure his first sales. When one of his customers closed for a prolonged period in 2008, he didn't wallow in despair - but instead, used the experience to reshape and redefine the business so that he would never again be over reliant on individual customers or sectors.

His foresight resulted in him developing new sectors and new markets. And today, he continues to research new products and new opportunities that will ensure the long-term sustainability of his business.

I ask him to think of all that he has achieved - and probe deeper: what is he most proud of?

"Being able to create jobs in my local area," he replies without hesitation. Having lost his job in Kilbeggan, he is now back in the same place but this time creating jobs for others. Charlie Dolan certainly has much to be proud of.

For further information, contact: Irish Waterjet Profile Ltd, Moate Road, Kilbeggan, Co Westmeath. Tel: (057) 9320528 or go online to www.iwpl.net

Charlie's advice for other businesses

1 Continuously research your market   "The needs and expectations of customers can change and the only way to stay on top of your business is to continuously research the sector and your customers. Once you've done that, then start to do it all over again. It's something that needs to be a continuous process."

2 Ensure adequate funding "Often as a new business, you don't get credit from suppliers and need to pay upfront for materials. On top of this, you will be asked to offer credit to your own customers. The challenge then is about how to manage your cash-flow requirements."

3 Know your costs inside out "It's important to price your product correctly, taking into account cost of raw materials, staff and overheads. But if you import materials, you will also need to consider things such as currency fluctuations, which can impact significantly on profits."

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