Wednesday 21 March 2018

Gearing up for change and driven to succeed in the fast lane

When Karl Walsh took over the wheel of his family business, the Irish School of Motoring, he built on the dream his father had realised

LIFT-OFF: Karl Walsh and Sean Gallagher at the Irish School of Motoring office and training facility in Finglas, Co Dublin.
LIFT-OFF: Karl Walsh and Sean Gallagher at the Irish School of Motoring office and training facility in Finglas, Co Dublin.
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

If you are among the thousands of Irish motorists who have taken driving lessons, then this story might interest you. It's the story of how driving instruction first got started in Ireland.

It all began when a young Irish emigrant, John Walsh, from Co Waterford, left Ireland in the late Fifties in search of work and a better life. Many years later, he returned home to Ireland with the dream of starting his own business: a school that would teach people how to drive.

Almost 50 years later, the Irish School of Motoring (ISM) has become Ireland's leading driver-training business, with 25 staff, more than 150 franchisee instructors nationally and an annual turnover of over €3m.

His son Karl now runs the business and welcomes me to its modern office and training facility in Jamestown Business Park in Finglas, Dublin.

"We continue to be the market leaders in all types of driver-training, including cars, trucks, coaches, mini-buses and motorcycles," Karl explains.

But first he wants to tell me how it all started.

"My father, John, grew up on a farm near Dungarvan. He was one of 11 children. The tradition at the time of giving the farm to the eldest son meant that he, because he wasn't the eldest, was forced to emigrate in search of employment," Karl says.

John was only 18 when he left for London. There, he got a job, first as an electrician and later as a driving instructor with the British School of Motoring (BSM). He loved teaching people how to drive and quickly worked his way up to management level within the company.

In 1964, he got word that a formal driving test, similar to that which already existed in the UK, was about to be introduced in Ireland.

John saw his opportunity. He returned immediately to Dublin and made his way directly to the company registration office. His sole intention was to register his new business, 'The Irish School of Motoring'. To his disappointment, the name had already been registered.

However, John wasn't about to give up on his dream without a fight.

"He really had his heart set on that name," explains Karl.

Eventually, he managed to track down the two men who were named as directors of the registered company and before long had persuaded the first man to sell his half share for £1,500.

However, convincing the second director would not prove so easy. John would have to pay the grand sum of £9,000 for his share.

"That was a lot of money in those days, especially when you consider that the company wasn't actually trading at the time," says Karl.

But John didn't have that kind of money. He was facing having to give up on his dream when his brother, Pat, stepped in and gave him the money he needed. John and Pat became business partners, and the proud owners of the Irish School of Motoring Ltd. With all their money now gone, the pair had to live in a caravan for the next three years as they worked to build the business.

In 1974, just as they were starting to make progress, a petrol crisis threatened to close the business and wipe out everything the pair had worked so hard to build.

"With his back to the wall, John realised that the only people who could get petrol at the time were petrol station owners," explains Karl. "So he persuaded his bank manager to lend him the money to buy a small petrol station on the North Circular Road, which he never opened to the public but, instead, used it to buy petrol for his own cars."

As a result, the business survived, and John and Pat went on to open a total of 16 offices throughout Dublin city.

Listening to Karl, it's easy to see the admiration and respect he has for his father.

"My father instilled in me a strong work ethic from a young age," explains Karl. "He let me know that I wouldn't get anything in the business unless I had first earned it, like he had." He's now grateful for that valuable lesson.

Karl was only 20 when he joined the business. He started at the bottom, trained as an instructor in every type of vehicle and gradually worked his way up to become manager of the business.

"It wasn't easy when I took over. We simply had too many staff, too many offices and too many moving parts to manage," he admits.

Karl soon realised that the model for running the business needed to change. Having studied what was happening in other markets, he came to the conclusion that the only way forward was to run it on a franchise model. Instructors gradually changed from being employees to becoming self-employed. The transition was a challenging one as everyone got used to the new regime.

Karl spent the next three years building an IT infrastructure and booking engine that would allow customers to book their own appointments through a fully automated online system.

"It eliminates unnecessary calls, forward and backwards, to customers to schedule appointments. The customer is now fully in control of which appointment time, and which instructor, they wish to train with," he explains, adding, "Payments, too, can also be received electronically and, with confirmation emails to customers built into the system, it introduced a much greater degree of efficiency throughout the business."

The process of getting instructors to change was not without its challenges, as many instructors were previously unaccustomed to using smart technology. There was a process of education and training involved to help them gain fluency and confidence in the new system.

Happily for Karl, the system proved a great success and played a significant role in the business achieving steady growth, year on year, over each of the last 10 years.

"The real beauty of migrating the business to a franchise model is that instructors are more motivated than ever because, after all, they are running their own businesses," explains Karl.

There are no buy-in fees for franchisees but they do pay a weekly fee to the company which goes to support central advertising. In addition, they pay a commission per customer referred to them by ISM but are also free to generate their own business, external to ISM referrals, on which they pay no commission.

The business is one of few in the country that has not been negatively impacted by the recession.

"The introduction, by the Road Safety Authority, of a mandatory minimum of 12 lessons before a person can be approved for their driving licence, was a welcome step for road safety," explains Karl. "But it was also a valuable opportunity for the industry and helped protect the sector against the recession."

Keen to find new opportunities, Karl recently opened two new companies: ISM Training Services and ISM Driver Recruitment.

"ISM Training Services provides health and safety-based training including such courses as fork-lift driving, safe pass, first aid, manual handling and hazardous chemicals training," explains Karl.

"ISM Driver Recruitment is essentially a recruitment company matching drivers with relevant jobs."

The company currently provides driver training for more than 6,000 car users and almost the same number for drivers of trucks, fork-lifts, buses and motorbikes.

"We want to be the trainers for anything that moves," laughs Karl.

While the company remains a family business – with his father, John, his uncle, Pat, and himself, being equal partners – Karl is very clear that the on-going success of the business is due to the commitment and work of the staff, some of whom have been with the company almost from the very beginning.

What continues to drive him, I ask.

"There are two times in the week which I love the best," he tells me. "Friday evening at 6pm when I go home to my wife and two children, and Monday morning at 8am when I arrive to meet my other family; my work family."

He adds resolutely, "This business is all I know. I am excited about the opportunities that exist to continuously grow it in the years ahead."

He sees untapped opportunities in the Cork area and plans to open an office there soon. Similarly, he wants to establish a customer contact centre in Northern Ireland in the near future, to service that market.

As I reflect on the driver-training industry, I begin to realise the attractiveness of a market which has the capacity to continuously replenish itself as people continue to reach the age where they will either want to, or need to, learn how to drive.

But the real story of the Irish School of Motoring is about the initiative of its founder, John Walsh, who spotted an opportunity when he realised that driving test legislation was about to be introduced in Ireland.

It is about his determination and resolve, particularly during the fuel crisis, when, fearing for the very survival of his business, he bought a petrol station just so he could get access to the fuel he needed to run his vehicles.

It is also about Karl's initiative in moving the business from an employee to a franchisee model, which allowed the company to grow and scale while streamlining overheads and staff costs. The introduction of smart technology together with diversification into other areas created further opportunities for growth and increased revenues.

As I leave the Irish School of Motoring, the only advice I can think of to give Karl and his team is simply to drive on.

Sunday Independent

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business