Extending your home can be child's play

John Sherry's success has sprung from catering for the growing number of people who are now working from home, says Seán Gallagher

John Sherry and Sean Gallagher at the Garden Rooms HQ.

Seán Gallagher

While some companies, such as Yahoo, announced the end to it in 2013, the idea of staff working from home is nonetheless something that has grown in popularity in recent years.

Whether driven by the desire to eliminate unproductive commute times to and from the company's office, the need for companies to reduce office accommodation costs or as a means of offering flexibility to staff with young families, many companies are now allowing their staff to work from home, either on a full-time or part-time basis. The availability of high-speed broadband and services that allow for online virtual meetings has also helped make working from home more feasible.

For some, the desire for a better work-life balance has led them to set up businesses from their homes, where they now contract their services to multiple clients, as opposed to having a full-time employer. For others who lost their jobs during the downturn, starting a low-cost business from their home became their only option.

Whatever their reasons or circumstances, for those who do work from home, self-discipline becomes a must and any idea of working from the kitchen table is soon replaced with the realisation of a need for a dedicated workspace that offers peace and quiet away from the hustle and bustle of normal family life.

While many choose to work from a converted spare bedroom or attic space, others are now opting to build a purpose-built home office space in their garden.

This week, I visited John Sherry, who has tapped into this growing market with his company Garden Rooms.

As he shows me around some showrooms at his premises on the Ashbourne Road, just off the Finglas exit on the M50, he explains that customers can choose from a number of set designs which can be customised to suit individual demands and requirements. Modern in design, these rooms range in size from 11sqm to 25sqm.

"Many people love the idea of being able to pull the door after them in the evenings, so that they can literally walk away from their work - even if it's only a few steps up the garden to their home," explains John.

One of the obstacles facing people who want extra space in their home is planning permission. But Garden Rooms are specifically designed to be planning-exempt. And they also qualify under Revenue's Home Renovation Incentive (HRI) Scheme, where homeowners can avail of income tax credit at a rate of 13.5pc.

And with prices ranging from €13,000 to €28,000 for a complete design and build, it's an attractive package for many.

"The typical time on site is only about two weeks," explains John. "And we offer a complete turn-key solution, including everything from lighting and plumbing to insulation and flooring to high-end windows and doors. The only thing we don't do as standard is paint - but if that's what a customer wants, we can do it," he adds.

Not only are these rooms used as home offices, they can also be used for gyms, home yoga studios, hang-out dens for teenagers or dedicated study areas for those doing exams.

In another area of the yard is a display of children's outdoor playhouses, slides and climbing frames. This is the second part of John's business.

While he doesn't manufacture these himself, his extensive range (with full delivery and assembly service) is proving so attractive to parents that he has now become the largest supplier of children's outdoor play equipment in the country.

Focused on children from the ages of three to 10 (with prices ranging from €700 to €1,400), it's a valuable second revenue stream.

"It was the play equipment that helped us survive the downturn," admits John. "While most people had stopped spending money on building or adding to their homes, parents continued to spend on their children. Without this, we wouldn't have survived."

John Sherry grew up in Loughshinny, a small fishing village in north County Dublin. His father - an aircraft engineer with Aer Lingus - advised John from an early age that throughout his own career, he should seek to be the master of his own destiny. It was advice that John took seriously. Living close to the sea, he recalls as a child, picking periwinkles during summer holidays in order to make some extra pocket money.

"We got £28 per hundredweight - but it would take two of us a week to pick that much," explains John. "The poor winkles were nearly dead by the time the winkle man arrived to do business. We used to have to drag buckets of sea water up from the tide and throw it on the dying winkles to bring them back to life so we could get our money," he adds with a laugh.

As he grew older and more enterprising, he spent summers working on his uncles' farm in Clones, Co Monaghan, where he looked after the cattle and drove the tractor.

"When I was 17, I was faced with two choices: go up to Clones to look after the farm and my two elderly uncles or go to college. And while I loved the land, the farm wasn't really big enough to make a living on. I chose college," explains John.

After studying accountancy in the College of Commerce in Dublin's Aungier Street, he got his first job in the fast-moving consumer-goods sector, looking after the financial accounts for Pillsbury Ireland, which at the time was the agent for brands such as Green Giant, Old El Paso and Haagen Dazs ice cream.

"I was never suited to accounting. It never really excited me," admits John. "There were only three of us in the Irish office, so I could see just what the marketing manager was doing in things like brand building - and that appealed to me far more than accounting. So I decided it was time to switch careers."

To help, he signed up to a part-time degree in marketing at Dublin Business School and with this new qualification under his belt, he found a sales and marketing job in office furniture.

"I'd already decided that I wanted to start my own business and that I'd use the job as a stepping stone to that. But first I had to come up with a good idea for a business," explains John.

He noticed that sales of computer desks were rising and chatted to his customers about this. This was his first indication that more and more people were beginning to work from home.

More thorough research showed that people preferred to have a dedicated workspace, rather than piling files onto the kitchen table. Believing that an extra room in the garden was the solution, in 2003 John left his job to set up Garden Rooms (suitably, in the back yard of his family home in Loughshinny).

He initially offered unique designs for each customer but soon realised that it wasn't possible to achieve any degree of economy of scale by buying quantities of components such as doors, windows, roofing and light fittings, so he adapted his business model and came up with a series of pre-designed plans which, although standard, allowed for some element of customisation.

With the economy doing well, success came quickly. However, faced with the fact that most people carried out home improvements from spring to late autumn, John learned to plan schedules and budgets to address seasonality.

In 2007 he moved to his current rented premises on the site of an existing Garden Centre on the Ashbourne Road in Finglas and invested in building a showcase of sample rooms, so people could see first-hand what each design looked like.

However, that same year the challenges began.

"That year the downturn began - and our business, like so many others, was hit badly. Turnover fell by as much as 80pc. It was an awful time - we had to let go four full-time staff and 14 sub-contractors who'd been working with us," admits John. "We only survived because we didn't take a salary and lived off savings and a redundancy payment my wife had received."

By this time married and with small children, John began to look around for other ideas - and spotted a gap in the market for solid and durable outdoor play products. So in 2010 he launched Garden Play, and more than 2,500 playhouses, swings and climbing frames later, this business has become the largest supplier of outdoor play equipment in Ireland.

He is happy to see the improvement in consumer sentiment and an upturn in his business. So much so that he is now launching a new division - Simply Extend - where he hopes to undertake complete design and build of new extensions of up to 40sqm. Again exempt under planning permission laws, he says the trend is for people to improve existing homes, rather than moving to larger, more expensive ones.

John's goal is to reach a turnover of €5m over the next five years. With the economy improving, and his proven track record of finding solutions to every challenge he has encountered, John Sherry looks set to construct more than just extensions. He looks set to build a very successful business.

For more information: Garden Rooms Ltd, Beechvista, Coldwinters, Ashbourne Road, Finglas, Dublin 11. Tel: (01) 811 0646 Web: www.gardenrooms.ie www.gardenplay.ie & www.simplyextend.ie