Everything's coming up roses for flourishing tree business
Sean Gallagher meets SAP Group founder Tom Walsh, who is making hay out of trees – despite having tried to retire twice
MOST of us love trees. Apart from their natural beauty, they play a vital role in our survival by helping produce the very oxygen we breathe. They provide valuable sources of fuel and shelter and the wood from them is used to make everything from furniture to musical instruments, sporting equipment and even paper.
In recent years, trees have increasingly been used to enhance our building environments – including our streets, parks and home gardens. Here, they enhance privacy, reduce noise and bring natural elements into otherwise urban settings.
With this in mind, I travel to Maynooth in Kildare, to visit Tom Walsh, founder of the SAP Group of companies, Ireland's largest supplier of trees, shrubs and landscaping services. Set up in 1972, the business currently employs more than 200 staff, across three separate companies, and although down considerably from the height of the building boom, this year the company will turn an impressive €16m.
Keen to share the credit for the business's achievements, Tom quickly introduces me to each of the managing directors of his three companies.
The original SAP Nurseries Company is now run by MD John Flanagan; SAP Landscape Services is headed up by MD Geoff Moran; while Fons van Wezel runs the SAP Holland business.
It's been a busy 40 years for the Tipperary man. Now in his early 70s, Tom has retired from the business twice, but twice he has been lured back. As I accompany him on a tour of the facilities, Tom gives me a quick lesson in horticulture and plant terminology. I am curious to learn how he has managed to build such a successful company and what it is that keeps him going.
Like most businesses, Tom's success didn't come overnight. Having qualified in agriculture from UCD, he and a group of colleagues, all of whom have since moved on, decided that there was an opening in the market to provide plants and shrubs to the growing number of landscape contractors and garden centres that were popping up around the country.
"We recognised that there were few commercial nurseries operating in Ireland at that time and that the vast majority of plants and shrubs were actually being imported," Tom explains.
"Is the company called after the sap that comes from trees?" I enquire.
"Not at all," Tom laughs. "The name comes from the area of bog in Kildare, where we first started the business in 1971. SAP actually stands for South Allenwood Plants."
With that clarified, he explains how the company got its first big break in 1975 when Tom teamed up with highly renowned architect Sam Stephenson.
"Sam had won the contract to design the new Central Bank headquarters in Sandyford in Dublin and he asked if I could help with the design, landscaping and supply of shrubs," Tom explains. "From there, the business really began to take off.
"Around that time too, a significant number of multinational companies began arriving in Ireland and they had a requirement for well- designed landscape environments, which also helped put us on the map," he adds.
The company's impressive list of customers includes, among others, hotels, multi-national firms and local authorities. Among these are the K Club, in Kildare, Kileen Castle, in Co Meath, the Four Seasons Hotel in Ballsbridge, Dublin, as well as firms such as Microsoft, Hewlett-Packard and Pfizer.
The company has also carried out many prestigious and landmark projects for local authorities throughout the country, including the Luas line and the landscaping that aligns many of the country's new motorways.
The increase in landscaping work led Tom to set up SAP Landscapes as a separate company in 1976. Now located in Ballygoran, near Maynooth in Co Kildare, the business focuses on all areas of landscaping, from design through to installation and on-going maintenance.
"Our biggest business is actually in landscape maintenance," explains managing director, Geoff Moran.
"You only landscape a job once, but after the shrubs and trees have been planted there is a requirement to maintain them."
Today, SAP Landscapes maintains 400 separate sites around the country and employs 140 staff.
In 1985, motivated by the combined need for more space to scale the company's tree planting programme and the poor growing conditions of the existing site in the Bog of Allen, Tom began looking for a new home for his nursery. He found it in the form of a 50- acre farm in Cahir, in Tipperary, which came complete with a 100-year-old farmhouse. Shortly afterwards, Tom and his wife Valerie and their four young children relocated to the heart of the Golden Vale. He found an additional 150 acres to rent locally, and was now on his way to scaling his business.
"Today, the SAP Nurseries Company continues to grow trees and shrubs, on a large scale, which we supply to professional landscapers, garden centres, stud farms and golf courses," explains the company's MD, John Flanagan.
"We currently employ 45 staff in this business," he adds.
Tom is particularly proud of having supplied the trees used in the rejuvenation of Dublin's O'Connell Street, as well as those used in Dorset Street, as part of its redevelopment. He is proud too of the work the company did for the Ritz Carlton Hotel, in Powerscourt, Co Wicklow which, at a value of more than €2m, turned out to be the company's biggest contract ever.
"How did the recession affect the business?" I ask.
"We began to feel the effects in 2007," Tom explains.
"We had a paving division at the time which was generating almost €13m per year, but we decided to exit that because of the potential exposure we had to non-payment by some developers and contractors who we expected were likely to go out of business."
Having initially been forced to lay off staff, Tom decided it was time for a different approach.
"When all the sad cutting of staff was done, there was only one way forward for the company and that was to go out and win more orders," he says determinedly.
He began to focus increasingly on the landscape maintenance side of the business and spotted a gap in the market for a dedicated winter maintenance service. Tom proudly shows me the company's new fleet of gritting machines and snow ploughs which, together, cost over €1m. Now, five years on, the company has grown to become the largest private winter services contractor in Ireland.
The company also began to notice a decline in its nursery business as a result of both reduced consumer spending and the dramatic fall off in building of new homes. As a result, Tom began focusing his attention on the export market and, today, SAP Nurseries supplies trees to nurseries in the UK, France, Holland, Belgium, Germany, Poland and Latvia.
"We even shipped our first consignment of trees to Russia recently," interjects Tom proudly.
Demand for smaller shrubs and potted plants also fell and, to address this, the company targeted large retail outlets such as Lidl and Aldi, which themselves had opened large gardening sections and had quickly become big players in the plant-selling business.
"Growing trees is a challenging business and not for the faint hearted," stresses Tom. "It can take anywhere from six months to 25 years before you have a product to sell."
Given the long lead-in time involved, Tom decided to set up a separate trading company which could source certain types of trees for his own nursery and landscape businesses and which could also trade independently.
Today, that business, SAP Holland, under the stewardship of its MD, Fons van Wezel, is an international tree trading company. Located in Zundert, in the Netherlands, it supplies wholesale nurseries in more than 15 countries throughout Europe and currently employs 25 staff.
"And what about the future?" I ask.
"At home, we will continue to increase our general and winter maintenance business and will continue to target local authorities, supermarkets, shopping centres, airports and multinationals in that regard," he explains.
"We are also keen to continue to grow international sales, both through our nursery business and through our Dutch-based trading company."
Over the coming week, at the National Ploughing Championships, the company will launch a new and exciting venture. Gift of a Tree.ie is an online business which offers gift vouchers for those wishing to give a tree as a present. On redemption, the company will deliver and plant the selected tree for the recipient.
"It is a perfect present for weddings, births, retirements and even as a memorial to a loved one," explains Tom.
Tom's knowledge of the horticultural sector is extraordinary. It comes from having spent a lifetime working in a business that he truly loves.
He tried retiring twice; once on his 60th birthday and again last year, when he reached 70. Why did he come back, I ask.
"I see too many opportunities for the business not to be involved," he tells me. "And I haven't anything else better to be doing," he says, laughing. "Sure, this is my hobby and I love every moment of it."
Tom Walsh is inspiring, both as an entrepreneur and as a person. He is witty, engaging and full of enthusiasm for life. His optimism and positivity are infectious.
He has worked long and hard for his success. Even when faced with the downturn in the economy, he didn't give up. Instead, he turned his attention to finding solutions to the challenges he faced. He focused on finding both new business opportunities at home and new markets abroad.
He has worked hard to build a loyal and committed team around him. It will be interesting to watch if he will retire, as he plans, when he reaches his 75th birthday.
But in Tom Walsh's own words: "When you're doing something that you love, it doesn't seem like work at all."
Maybe that's the lesson for the rest of us.