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SHINE A LIGHT: Paul Martin, Sean Gallagher and John Keohane at the Verde HQ in Cork. Photo: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

SHINE A LIGHT: Paul Martin, Sean Gallagher and John Keohane at the Verde HQ in Cork. Photo: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

SHINE A LIGHT: Paul Martin, Sean Gallagher and John Keohane at the Verde HQ in Cork. Photo: Daragh McSweeney/Provision

NOT everyone can claim to literally light up the world wherever they go but this week's entrepreneurs, John Keohane and Paul Martin, do it for a living.

In 2010, they set up Verde LED to focus on the design and manufacture of high quality LED lighting products for the commercial sector.

Less than four years on, they are already exporting to 16 countries and have built up a strong customer base that includes multinational companies, factories, hotels, universities, retail chains, shopping centres and data centres.

As they give a tour of their modern headquarters and showrooms in the centre of Cork city, John explains how LED products differ from more traditional forms of lighting.

"LED stands for 'Light Emitting Diode'," he explains. "The best parallel example might be how analogue has now largely been replaced by digital technology in terms of improved quality. It's very similar in lighting."

LED lights provide the same light output as traditional lights but use between 60 per cent and 70 per cent less energy.

They last about five times longer than traditional lights and have an average payback period of less than two years. In addition, they deliver significant reductions in carbon emissions, an important factor for companies seeking to reduce their carbon footprint.

"This is very important for our customers many of whose businesses are open for long hours and who are very focused on achieving cost savings by reducing their energy usage," says John.

The company has completed an impressive list of projects. These include: Apple's European headquarters in Cork; over 20 GAA grounds nationally; the National Basketball Arena; Neptune Stadium; O2; McDonald's restaurants; University College Cork; University of Limerick and the NUI in Galway.

Some of their most prestigious international projects include: a one million square foot data centre in London; Vodafone and the Mercedes Benz showrooms and dealer network in Germany; the headquarters of Petrobras Oil in Brazil; UNITE-the largest student accommodation provider in the UK; the Austrian Tennis Federation; Marks & Spencer stores in Cyprus; 53 stores belonging to bakery chain, Zorbos, in Cyprus; and a number of facilities in China for PCH.

John Keohane grew up in Cork city. His father, Sean, ran a hugely successful subcontract manufacturing and supply chain management company called BG Turnkey. At its peak, the business had operations in eight countries and its customers included leading multinationals such as Apple, Microsoft, Intel, Dell and Philips.

Having completed a degree in finance in UCC, John was keen to set up his own business. "I always felt that I would end up working for myself one day, so why not start straight away," he explains.

Many of his friends at the time were emigrating to Australia or Canada either to work or travel. But John was determined to try and make a go of things in Ireland.

His business partner, Paul Martin, grew up in Longford. He completed a degree in commerce from UCD and worked with the Longford County Enterprise Board before moving to Cork.

"We had no predetermined idea as to what the opportunity might be, but we were both passionate about the energy sector," John explains.

"We did a lot of research into the sector and quickly realised that companies everywhere were looking at ways to reduce their energy costs. We began to explore which products might help them achieve such savings and came across LED products," says John.

While LED technology had been around for many decades, the performance of the technology had improved dramatically in recent years and the price had also reduced considerably, positioning it now as a viable option for businesses.

However, at the outset, John and Paul found that their biggest challenge was getting their first customers.

"In the beginning, people would enquire as to who we had already done work for and where they could see our products installed," says John.

"Naivety is a great educator," he adds. "We made the mistake of trying to sell to large companies first but soon realised that we should target smaller ones and particularly those closest to us."

Having readjusted their focus, they won their first contract with Apple in Cork. With a reference site and the added credibility of having worked with a highly respected client, customers became increasingly interested in what they were offering.

The inability to access credit from banks also proved a challenge for the pair in the early days. However, as they look back on that period, they are now more philosophical about it all.

"In hindsight, starting our business in the middle of a recession actually turned out to be an advantage because it forced us to operate as a lean start-up," says John. "And we have retained that focus ever since," he adds.

Did his father give them any advice starting out?

"He told us that the secret to a successful business was about looking after our customers and that we should consistently seek to deliver quality products and outstanding customer service," says John.

And they duly took that advice on board. Today, quality and customer service have become the two cornerstones of their business.

"It's not just about shipping boxes for us," explains John. "We provide a one-stop shop approach where we start by auditing a customer's premises. Then we create a lighting design, analyse the projected payback time for the investment made and supply and install the final products."

Most successful businesses have a turning point after which they experience a dramatic upturn in their fortunes. For Verde LED, this came in 2012 when they won the contract to retrofit their lighting into Global Switch's new data centre in London. At one million square feet, it is the largest data centre in Europe.

"It immediately boosted our confidence and also demonstrated to prospective clients the scale of the projects we were capable of delivering. The business really took off after that," John says.

In 2012, and keen to break into international markets, the company exhibited at the Frankfurt Light and Build Show. The response was hugely positive.

"Overnight it transformed the business and brought us to a whole new level," says John. "It connected us with important global distributors in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the US."

The company went from supplying customers in Ireland and UK to supplying customers in four different continents.

Recruiting the right people has also been central to the company's success.

From the outset, the pair sought to attract staff with the right mix of experience and expertise and whose specialist knowledge would help distinguish them in the sector. Today their team includes staff with degrees in energy, lighting design, microelectronics and software development. One person even has a special master's degree in dimming of high-powered LEDs.

"No matter how good your products are, you're only ever as strong as the team around you that help make it happen. Thankfully we have a fantastic team of highly qualified, energetic, hard-working people who love what they do, and this shows when dealing with our clients," says John.

What about the future?

"We are branching into lighting controls and will soon be launching our own Smart Wireless Control System at this year's Lighting Fair in Frankfurt," John says. "We are very proud too, that all the hardware and software for the product has been developed, in-house, over the last 18 months."

This new wireless system will be ideally suited for large office, commercial or multi-national-type customers who have a requirement to be able to control different areas of large buildings via wireless controls. The lighting format and sequencing will now be able to be configured and re-configured at any time from a customer's PC.

"It will also offer a further 50 per cent-plus energy saving on top of that already achieved by the LED products themselves, giving clients up to a 90 per cent energy saving. This will be truly revolutionary within the sector once it is rolled out," insists John.

They are also looking at entering the refrigeration space, where they will provide their lighting products for use in fridge and cabinet space within retail stores.

Like many opportunities that entrepreneurs come across, the pair got into this almost by accident.

"We were installing our lighting in large retail stores when the store owners asked us if we would look after the lighting for their fridges. So we developed a capability in that area and are now in the process of rolling out that business as well," says John.

They are on target to double their turnover this year to €10m and hope to reach between €20m and €25m over the next three years.

John Keohane and Paul Martin are two inspiring young entrepreneurs. With no background, initially, in lighting and armed only with a desire to start their own business, they developed state-of-the-art lighting products to help deliver cost savings to the commercial sector.

Their commitment to quality and customer service, as well as their focus on innovation, has enabled them to develop a hugely successful international business. The impressive list of global brands and customers with whom they now work is a testament to their dedication to these key principles.

It's hard to resist the obvious comment, that for these two entrepreneurs, the future definitely looks bright.

 

JOHN’S ADVICE FOR NEW BUSINESSES

1 Look to the export market “Ireland is a very small market. If you want to scale your business then you must seek to export. And develop strategic alliances with good international distributors.”

2 Keep costs under control “Many businesses underestimate how long it takes to get those important initial sales. Develop a discipline for controlling costs from the start.”

3 Have unwavering self-belief “Love what you do ... though not always easy, you’ve got to develop an unwavering belief in yourself and your business. This will help win over potential customers.”

If you have a business worth talking about, please contact Sean at seangallagher@independent.ie

Sunday Indo Business