How adversity fuelled accidental entrepreneur on road to success
Coach hire company boss is 'living the dream' after researching business to find gaps in the market
'I'M living the dream, Sean, I'm living the dream." That's Paddy Matthews' response to me when I ask him how he is doing. Sitting in his office in his company's headquarters in Co Monaghan, Paddy tells me that every morning he has to pinch himself to see if his life is real.
Life wasn't always this good for Paddy. Years on the road as a truck driver had taken its toll on his health, leaving him with such severe back pain that he ended up being on disability benefit for almost six years.
While Paddy never set out to become an entrepreneur, he now finds himself as the owner of one of Ireland's largest coach hire companies. Today, he owns 35 buses and coaches, operates 148 services daily, transports more than 4,500 passengers each day and employs almost 70 staff.
Paddy Matthews grew up in Dundalk. At the time, he remembers the town as a thriving hub of industry and manufacturing.
His father worked as a driver with CIE and Paddy's first memories are of helping him deliver flour, sugar and other goods to local shops which had just arrived into the area by train.
After school, he got a job working with the Customs service along the Border and later with a local manufacturing company called Ecco. But Paddy soon learned that being inside all day was not for him.
"I didn't like the idea of being confined," he explains.
He chose instead to follow his father's footsteps and took a job as a lorry driver delivering building supplies to local construction sites before eventually becoming a long-distance truck driver.
"The next 18 years driving on the Continent saw my weight more than double from 9 stone to 18.5 stone and the resulting damage caused to the discs in my back meant that both the doctors and myself feared at the time that I was heading for life in a wheelchair," he admits.
During a visit to his local Rehab training centre, it was suggested that he should consider doing a course in transport management.
He had just completed the course when a local bus owner approached him and offered to sell him his 16-seater mini-bus.
"At the time we had six children; three of our own and three foster children. Getting the eight of us to Mass on a Sunday morning was a bit of an ordeal. So we decided to buy the mini-bus partly for our own use and partly with the idea that we might set up a small sideline business doing school runs and the like," explains Paddy.
Soon he was busy ferrying children to school during the day and teams to matches in the evenings and at weekends. Because of the number of players, substitutes and coaches involved in each team, he was forced to swap his small mini- bus for a larger one. Gradually one bus led to two and, before long, he had amassed a fleet of eight.
Realising that his buses were largely being used in the mornings and evenings only, he settled on the idea of providing a daily service from Dundalk to Dublin along the new M1 motorway.
"To do that, we had to apply for a licence and that wasn't easy because it meant having to compete with the State bus service which was being heavily subsidised," says Paddy.
Undeterred by the challenge, he pushed ahead. Eighteen months later and his licence granted, Paddy was now well placed to deliver a more ambitious future for Matthews Coach Hire. However, the next few months would prove even more challenging.
"In the beginning, our buses travelled up and down the motorway to Dublin every day almost empty. To be honest, most people didn't think it would work," admits Paddy. "At the time, too, it wasn't cool to travel on a bus," he adds.
However, in 2012, the collapse of a section of the viaduct at Malahide estuary on the main Dublin-Belfast line changed that. Trains could no longer go all the way from Dundalk and Drogheda to Dublin with passengers having to complete the last leg of their journey by bus.
Paddy seized the opportunity. He began to promote his bus service as a better alternative. After all, the price of his bus was half that of the train, customers were guaranteed to get a seat and the service was also 20 minutes faster than the train. Paddy also offered free WiFi on his buses.
"This period was a major turning point for the business and, importantly, we have managed to retain over 70 per cent of those customers who made the switch at that time," explains Paddy.
How was the business affected by the downturn?
"When the Celtic Tiger died in Ireland, our business literally took off," Paddy explains. "A lot of households saw their incomes drop and consequently, they were forced to get rid of their second car. As a result, people who had been driving to Dublin on a daily basis, now began taking the bus."
The company also benefited greatly from the introduction of the annual Taxsaver ticket whereby passengers were now able to recoup almost half of the cost of their bus annual ticket.
"We also got the added benefit of getting a significant element of our annual turnover paid upfront at the beginning of the year," says Paddy.
The downturn also brought a dramatic increase in the number of college students who had, until that point, been living in Dublin. Suddenly it became cheaper for them and their parents to have them stay home and travel to college on a daily basis rather than pay for rent and food.
To further target this market, Paddy began running daily services to Dublin City University, University College Dublin and a number of other city-based colleges.
Paddy realised that, because colleges were closed during the summer, he had to find alternative ways to utilise his fleet during this period and so decided it was time to start his own tour company.
Heeding the advice of leading investor Warren Buffett, he decided "not to test the water with both feet" and instead, started with day trips to places like Belfast, Glendalough and Kilkenny.
In 2012, with his confidence increasing, Paddy teamed up with Jenny's Irish Tours in the US and began offering authentic Irish tours focusing on themes including historical, equestrian, golfing, music and whiskey tasting. Earlier this year too, he invested in two high-end 75-seater coaches costing €480,000 each.
Not everything, though, has gone smoothly for the Monaghan entrepreneur. In 2008, the Government decided to discontinue the fuel rebate scheme for private operators which would see Paddy lose almost €350,000 a year. Paddy took a positive and pragmatic attitude to the challenge and, dividing this amount across the number of buses he had and the number of trips he made each year, he was able to work out that if he could increase numbers by just two passengers per trip, he could make up for the loss.
"Once we had broken it into an achievable goal, the entire company worked as a team to achieve the increased numbers. What started out as a potentially damaging blow to the company actually turned out to be a positive motivating factor in growing our business," he explains.
Eliminating waste is something that is important to Paddy. All drivers are trained in fuel management systems in order to reduce fuel consumption and CO2 emissions. In addition, the company has introduced a leader board system where drivers compete with each other on the basis of the amount of fuel they use.
Paddy is adamant that the attitude and friendliness of his staff towards passengers is one of the keys to the ongoing success of the company.
"We hire the right team and our leadership style is then one of delegation and empowering staff to work on their own initiative," he explains.
And true to his philosophy of delegation, Paddy has recently decided to step down from his role as managing director and will be replaced later this year by his son, Noel, who looks after fleet management and quality for the company.
"We are continuing to grow the business and are adding new routes such as the recent Saturday service between Dublin and the Titanic Experience in Belfast," Noel says.
However, he is adamant that the real growth in the future will come from in-bound tourism. In that regard, he has just returned from a six-day promotional tour to the US and later this year will attend a major trade show in China as part of the company's move to develop links there.
Twenty-five years ago Paddy Matthews faced the real threat that he might never work again. He responded to that challenge with a sense of positivity and pragmatism. Over the last 20 years in business, he has held true to these same principles and added to them others such as determination, courage and resilience.
He has shown too that he is not afraid to embrace change or to adopt an approach that is both outward-looking and forward focused. His story is one of triumph. It is also a strong reminder to all of us that we have, within us, the power and the potential to overcome whatever adversity life throws at us.
Paddy and Noel’s advice to new companies
1 Trust yourself
“Sometimes you have to trust your instincts — even in the face of contrary advice from others. It may take time, but if you know your business and believe in what you are trying to accomplish, it usually works out in time.”
2 Create the right ethos for you
“It is important to establish the correct culture in your business. And you can only achieve this by setting and following high standards and always trying to improve and better what you are doing now.”
3 Set goals constantly
“You can never stop setting goals. You continuously need things to focus on and to move towards. Goal-setting helps keep the business moving forward and keeps your staff motivated to continue to achieve.”
Company Matthews Coach Hire
Business Passenger transport and tourism
Set up 1995
Founders Paddy and Mary Matthews
Number of employees 67
Location Inishkeen, Co Monaghan
Sunday Indo Business