independent

Friday 24 October 2014

Wexford company with the world at its feet

maria pepper

Published 07/05/2013 | 05:42

Kent Stainless was founded as a small general engineering company in 1982 by Pat Kent of Kayle, Foulksmills.

Today, it is a leading manufacturer and global exporter of stainless steel products with offices in Qatar, Holland and the UK.

The passenger shelters, timetable stands, waste bins and bollards you see at every Luas station in Dublin were made by Kent Stainless.

Every single bollard outside Wembley Stadium in London came from its factory in Ardcavan, Wexford.

All the stainless steel fittings at the new Terminal 2 in Dublin Airport were made there.

You can find also find Kent products in Jamaica Airport, in Kenya and in South Africa.

You'll come across them in Cork Airport, in the Dublin Docklands and in many of Ireland's top hospitals, clinics and nursing homes, as well as in Portlaoise and Mountjoy Prisons.

Several of the big public outdoor art sculptures to be found on roads around the country and also in the UK were constructed by Kent Stainless to artists' specifications.

Thirty years ago, the company started with Pat Kent and three employees.

Today, there are 104 employees including metal fabricators, sheet metal workers, fitters, designers, sales and administrative staff.

Towards the end of the 1980's, stainless steel began to emerge as the material of the future. Ireland's beef, dairy, food and beverage industries were expanding and the pharmaceutical hub in Cork was taking off.

New facilities were being built and they all needed integrated drainage systems.

Kent Stainless invested in research and development, employed engineers and designers and began to develop a range of stainless steel drainage products for these growing industries.

Kent teamed up with an Irish company importing stainless steel drainage from Europe which started to distribute its products during the ensuing decade of growth.

Through its work with manufacturing companies, Kent Stainless identified new products it could make including clean room equipment and surface protectors.

It made rooftop units for air-conditioning systems and scanner frames for the paper mill industry.

At the beginning of 2000, the company started to adapt interior products for outdoor drainage.

In 2002, Kent Stainless acquired Solids Technology in Dublin, manufacturers of de-watering equipment for waste treatment plants.

Solids Technology employees re-located to Wexford and are still with Kent today.

Since then, the company has installed 800 of these machines throughout Ireland.

It was this piece of equipment that helped Kent Stainless break into the international market.

In the mid-2000's, Kent developed a range of streetscape products including dustbins, bus shelters, bike racks and bollards.

More London at Tower Bridge became a showcase project for these and the Kent range of exterior drainage.

'When we took this project on, it was right next door to a prestigious firm of architects Foster and Partners,' said Kent managing director Ann O'Brien.

'We had a team of architects walking across our products every day.'

'One day we got a phone call from them to tender for the bollards at Wembley Stadium.'

Kent won the contract and went on to be nominated for more projects.

In 2008, the company won the biggest contract ever awarded in Ireland or the U.K. - for Dublin's rapid light rail system, the Luas.

Every piece of stainless steel in the Luas network, every light pole, railing, bin bollard, advertising stand and shelter was manufactured in Wexford.

In an office at company headquarters in Ardcavan, you will find a mock Luas station which stands as a small monument to this lucrative project.

It was a three-year contract but Kent Stainless is still doing business with RPA, the main contractors.

In 2010, the Wexford company saw an opportunity in the Middle East where there was growing investment in infrastructure.

Sales director Shane Curtin and technical director Michael Hurley went out to Qatar for a few days to chase a €150,000 manhole order and came back with a project worth over €5 million.

It was the biggest contract since the Luas but this time it had to be executed in six months instead of three years.

'They wanted it so fast we went into a tailspin. But we never missed a deadline date,' said Ann.

The order came from a China based company called Sino Hydro and necessitated the immediate employment of an extra 20 Kent staff.

It was for ventilation grilles and recessed manholes in a new high-tech town called Lusail under construction in the desert.

Now, instead of factoring in the effects of rain and cold on its product finishes, Kent staff had to take account of intense heat and sand.

The underground service system is so advanced in Lusail that when you throw your used coffee cup into a bin, it's vacuumed away to a recycling facility 40 kilometres away!

Kent's reputation in Qatar grew quickly on the strength of Lusail and other companies placed orders.

Between 2011 and 2012, Kent shipped 800 tonnes of stainless steel from Ireland to Qatar, 50 tonnes of which had to be air-freighted because it was required without delay.

In January of this year the company opened a sales office in Qatar which is run by Kent sales executive Billy Colfer from Wexford who made the move with his wife Emma who works with Zurich Insurance there.

Billy and Emma are settling in well and have even been known to attend a GAA table quiz in Qatar!

Setting its sights on the international market was a wise move for Kent Stainless.

From a downturn position in 2009, the company doubled its turnover in 2012.

As a result, it grew its exports from 20% to 75%.

This success came on the back of heavy investment in plant and equipment both in 2007 before the recession hit, and in 2012, along with the the development of a highly-skilled workforce.

'Since 2009, we have also spent a lot of money on sales and marketing. We developed a new website and new brochures,' said Ann.

Eighteen months ago, the company opened a sales office in Holland to cover the European market.

It employs two Dutch personnel who have sales and technical expertise.

The company also has a sales office in the U.K. along with agents and distributors in various locations to cover the rest of the world.

Kent Stainless brochures are now published in Arabic and a selection of European languages.

The Irish network in foreign countries works well for Kent Stainless, according to Ann.

'The Irish abroad are a huge help to us, especially those who did business with us here before the recession and are now working with companies around the world.'

Functionality is not its only speciality - the company also turns its skills to art.

Among the outdoor art installations and sculptures made in the Ardcavan factory are the 100 ft high Tree of Life outside Carlow Visual Arts Centre, the 'Joie de Vivre' sculpture in UCD and the Jigsaw Puzzle on the N25 Charlestown by-pass in Sligo.

Many years ago, Kent Stainless made the big cubes outside the RTE studios in Donnybrook.

The company is a committed supporter of the Apprenticeship Scheme and among the workforce are a number of skills competition winners including Ken Cloney who represented Ireland at World Skills, Eamonn Maloney and David Bierney.

There is a a strong co-operative ethos at management level.

'We have a very strong management team and no one person runs the company,' said Ann.

The international success of the firm has not gone unnoticed and a number of coveted awards have come its way including the Exporter of the Year Award in 2012, an accolade previously won by high-profile outfits such as Diageo and Bausch and Lomb.

A fortnight ago, Kent Stainless scooped the International Business Award at the Leinster provincial final of the Ulster Bank Business Achievers Awards and will compete for the national title later this month.

Kent Stainless holds the quality standard ISO 9001 since the late 1990's, the health and safety mark ISO 1400 since 2010 and the environmental standard ISO 18000 since 2012.

Wexford People

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