Tuesday 24 October 2017

A passion for fast cars is driving force behind rally school

Turning a love of high-performance cars into a growing business has not been without its obstacles along the road for one entrepreneur

On the right track: Sean Gallagher with Rally School Ireland owner David Smyth at the track in Scotstown, Co Monaghan
On the right track: Sean Gallagher with Rally School Ireland owner David Smyth at the track in Scotstown, Co Monaghan
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

David Smyth has achieved something most people only ever dream of – he has managed to turn his hobby into a full-time business.

From a young age, David was fascinated with fast cars. As soon as he was able, he took up driving high-performance cars as a hobby.

Today he owns Rally School Ireland, a business he founded in 1999 in his home village of Scotstown, Co Monaghan. Moreover, he now employs 10 staff and will this year generate sales of close to €750,000.

As I arrive in Scotstown, I am immediately surprised to see the scale of the school's facilities, including its purpose-built rally track and the impressive array of cars that are available for customers to drive. These include a Porsche, a Ferrari and a range of BMWs, Audis, Subarus, Mini Coopers, a Nissan 350z and even some older more classical rally pin-ups – the Mk 2 Escort and the BMW 325.

David then shows me a number of cars that were originally built for speed but which have since been banned from competition because they are simply too fast. These include the Audi Quattro, with its 400 horsepower engine, and the Austin Metro 6R4, which has the capacity to go from 0 to 100 miles in as little as 10 seconds.

"We have invested over €2m to date and are delighted now to be recognised as Ireland's premier purpose-built motorsport facility. This really is as good as anything in the world," he says proudly.

David's customers include both individuals and groups who come from all over the country. With its impressive spectator watch tower and canteen facilities, the place has become popular with corporate customers who use it for company days out, team-building or as a special treat for some of their clients who might like to fancy themselves as a rally driver for a day.

While the business is typically targeted at the 18 to 50 age group, the school's customers have included some visitors as young as 10.

"The oldest lady who tried her hand at driving on the track was 68," David explains. "She ended up doing hand-break turns in a bright red Ferrari and leaving black tyre marks all over the tarmacadam. Her grandchildren, who were looking on from the watch tower, thought she was a real hero," he laughs.

A sizeable amount of the business's turnover comes from gift vouchers.

"Gift vouchers are an ideal gift for both car enthusiasts and adrenaline junkies," David explains, moving into full salesman-like mode.

"They are perfect for birthdays, Christmas presents, Father's Day and other special occasions," he adds.

While it might be expected that only men visit the centre, David is keen to point out that about 10 per cent of his customers are women. And the number is growing.

The business also gets a lot of stag and hen parties who spend the day on the track before going out on the town at night.

"But there's much more to the business than just catering for those seeking fun, excitement and adrenalin," David explains. "The track is a very safe and controlled environment where people have the opportunity to undertake safety driving training," he says.

This has become a big part of the company's business and caters for everyone from teen drivers, learning to drive for the first time, to fleet and business drivers, keen to improve or refresh their safe driving techniques.

The school has also teamed up with BMW to offer BMW's driving experience, which provides customers with the opportunity to experience the safety and stability features of BMW cars, both during normal weather as well as during winter road conditions.

"The brand association with BMW, as one of the top recognised brands in the world, has proven a real benefit to our own brand," says David.

In addition, the facility has now become the national centre for motor sport in Ireland where those wishing to be involved in rally driving must first get their licence.

David Smyth grew up in Scotstown. His passion started from a young age when he remembers standing on the bonnet of his dad's Mini rally car. He was three years old.

After leaving school, David attended Dundalk Institute of Technology where he qualified in mechanical engineering. He spent the next 11 years' working in the construction and telecommunications sector in London where he specialised in developing fibre optic networks throughout the city.

When he decided to return to Ireland, it was to his hobby of motor sports that he turned. During his time in London, he noticed that some companies had begun taking their staff to high-performance driving centres as part of team-building exercises.

He set himself the objective of trying to see if he could replicate, in Ireland, what he had seen in the UK. He spent the next while travelling throughout the UK where he audited as many as nine separate facilities. Taking the very best elements from each one, he quickly built up a picture of what he wanted his own rally school to look like.

Although a potential risk at the time, his decision to locate the business in his native Monaghan has proved positive for David and has allowed him to attract customers from the local area as well as places such as Donegal, Northern Ireland and the Dublin market.

His wife, Veronica, grew up only a few miles away. "I married the boy next door," she jokes. "And I always liked to shop local," he retorts with a grin.

David looks after sales and marketing in the business and comes up with new and innovative ideas to help grow sales. Veronica works in the business as financial director while David's brother, Malachy, is technical director.

Having previously travelled the world, servicing and preparing rally cars with the Subaru Rally Team, Malachy plays a pivotal role in ensuring that the school's fleet runs smoothly.

"I managed to drag Malachy away from the World Rally Championship with the promise that, between us, we could develop a world-class facility at home. And we have," says David.

There have been challenging times though for David since he first set out on his journey of self-employment. The first challenge came just as he was about to launch the business.

"Just as we were putting the finishing touches to the facility, the bank pulled one third of the loan which they had agreed to give us. It almost crippled us," he admits.

A piece of advice from his uncle at the time helped him through the period. It was a piece of advice that has stayed with him.

"He told me that I had to make the business earn its keep. It's advice that I have followed ever since," he explains.

He remembers too when he started, the challenge of not having any money with which to market or promote his new venture.

"Back then there was no internet or Facebook. Whenever we got customers to the rally school, we worked hard on giving them a great experience so that, once happy, they would spread the word to other people about how much fun they had here. In that way, word of mouth became our most important marketing tool," David explains.

His approach worked, and today most of his business comes as a result of referrals from satisfied customers.

The downturn also affected the business adversely. While turnover dropped from a high of €1.5m in 2007, he is relieved to see that it is growing again and this year hopes to see turnover come close to €700,000.

But it's not all about money for David. In 2011, he fitted three of his vehicles with hand controls, including the Ferrari and Porsche, so that they can now be driven on the track by wheelchair users.

He also provides a co-piloting service for those who are blind or visually impaired. In this way, those who are visually impaired still have the opportunity to experience the buzz of driving high-performance cars in a safe and controlled environment. It's an experience that gives him great personal satisfaction.

David has lots of plans for the future. "We are developing our winter driver and skid training where we fit new driver training technology to our cars which allows us to simulate what happens in the event of a driver going into a skid.

"People's first skid is usually their first accident," explains David. "Our training really helps them understand what happens and how to deal with such circumstances safely," he adds.

"We are also launching a new road safety training programme for response personnel such as those involved in law enforcement, fire and ambulance services. It's the same as what is currently used to train these personnel in the USA," he explains.

David has plans to target the UK market and will also acquire a number of left-hand drive cars which he believes might help open up the European market as well.

Meeting with David, it's obvious he loves what he does. Today he gets his adrenalin buzz as much from seeing other people enjoy driving as from driving himself.

With courage and much hard work, he has managed to turn his childhood hobby into a real and sustainable business which now supports 10 jobs.

In addition to helping people have fun, he uses his skills and experience to teach others how to drive with increased safety, thereby reducing accidents and deaths on our roads; an admirable outcome from a very inspiring entrepreneur.

Sunday Independent

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