Every day around the world, companies are involved in transporting huge volumes of raw materials to their factories for use in the manufacture of all manner of products. Similarly, once produced, these finished goods must then be transported to distributors, retailers and to end users in every part of the world.
When it comes to the specialised work of transporting liquid products, one Irish company is leading the way. Based in Cardonagh, on the Inishowen Peninsula, Co Donegal, SIA Flexitanks have developed an innovative method of transporting expensive liquids such as oils, chemicals, liquid food and drink.
Last week I caught up with Damien McClean, the company's founder and managing director, and his European director Greg Comer, at the premises of one of his customers - a well-known global drinks company. Here one of his flexi-tanks has just been filled with alcohol and sits on the tarmac ready to be brought to Dublin Port for its onward journey to its final destination in Asia.
Swinging open the door of a standard 20-foot steel container, Damien reveals one of his flexi-tanks. For the most part, it looks like a large inflatable bag or balloon. Placed carefully on the floor inside the rectangular steel container, the deflated structure begins to expand as soon as liquid is pumped into it. On initial inspection, it looks very similar to the bag in a box of wine - but on a much bigger scale.
"Transport and shipping companies who deliver products on behalf of companies already own thousands of these general-purpose steel containers and our flexi-tank solution is an easy and affordable way of converting standard containers into bulk liquid vessels capable of carrying up to 24,000 litres at any one time," says Damien.
"They also have the added benefit of being disposable, so there is no cleaning or no requirement to have them transported back to the company once the goods have been delivered. This makes them more convenient and much cheaper to use compared to other traditional alternatives such as steel tanks or large plastic drums," he adds.
Damien's customers are mostly blue-chip companies in the oil, chemical and food sectors. Among the type of products shipped are car lubrication oil, petrochemicals, ingredients for use in the manufacture of toothpaste, UHT milk, palm and vegetable oils and alcohol in the form of liquid malt, cider and heavier concentrates. Wine makers also use Damien's flexitank to transport wine in bulk from countries such as Spain, California, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, as do olive oil and fruit juice producers from the Mediterranean.
His tanks are also used to carry natural latex which has been harvested from the rubber trees in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand and which are used in the manufacture of rubber gloves, condoms and similar products.
"The one thing all our customers have in common is a requirement to have their high value produce delivered in a safe, efficient and environmentally friendly manner. And our flexi-tanks allow them to achieve this," he adds.
I wonder if these flexi-tanks can be torn or somehow burst in transit?
"No. They are made from the latest in thermo-plastic technology which makes them incredibly strong and highly resistant to puncturing. In addition, their one-piece construction design eliminates any seams and allows them to expand without fear of tearing," explains Damien
It's an incredibly innovative and well thought out design - one which Damien came up with after more than 20 years working in the global transport and logistics industry.
Damien Mc Clean grew up in Malin, on the Inishowen Peninsula, in Co Donegal. After school, he studied electronics and telecommunications in what is now Letterkenny Institute of Technology. He later moved to London to take up a role in operations with a company called Sea Containers, which specialised in the transportation of bulk liquid products throughout Europe.
When the part of the company in which he worked was sold, new owners Trans Ocean invited him to relocate with them to Southampton in the UK. He stayed with the company for the next 10 years where he became the general manager of their global technical division.
It was during this time that he first came up with the idea of developing his polyethylene disposable flexi-tank. Up to that point, many transport or shipping companies were using a type of flexi-tank that was made from heavy rubber material. However the problem with these was that they were expensive to buy - and, because they were reusable, they had to be transported back to the customer's premises after they had been emptied. In addition, once returned, they were required to be thoroughly cleaned before reuse.
They also had limitations in that not all liquids could be transported in them, as some reacted against the rubber material causing either contamination of the contents or corrosion of the rubber tank itself. To avoid this happening, and in order for transport companies to determine which liquids were or were not suitable, companies had to first submit samples of their products so that a compatibility test could be carried out.
This got Damien thinking. He had noticed that most of these liquid samples came in small bag type containers which were made from polyethylene. He noticed too, that these samples did not react against the polyethylene.
"This gave me the idea to develop a disposable flexi-tank structure that would be made from this polyethylene material.
"This had a number of key benefits; it eliminated the possibility of the contents reacting with the tank itself, was much cheaper to make than its rubber counterpart and because it was much cheaper, could now be disposed of once emptied thereby saving the company both time and money," explains Damien.
Damien later moved to the US to work, but he continued to work on his invention as well as taking the opportunity to complete an MBA.
In 2007, he returned home to Ireland and in 2011 he set up SIA Flexi-tanks. Since then his flexi-tank model has been adopted by many leading companies across the world resulting in year upon year growth for the business.
However, Damien's journey has not been without its fair share of challenges. Firstly, he faced the challenge of raising sufficient funding to hire the right team and to build up the necessary level of stock of flexi-tanks. In this regard, he was fortunate to receive the support of a Middle Eastern- based investor who became a silent partner in the business.
With blue-chip companies tied in to annual budgets and tender processes, Damien had to bide his time to secure contracts. While this resulted in the business taking longer to develop, the lower costs of his flexi-tanks, and the fact that they were disposable, gradually served to win over new customers. However, as with most good ideas, it wasn't long before others too began making similar flexi-tanks.
"There are now 10 factories in Qingdao Province in China alone," he explains. "But many of our customers have told us that they choose to work with an EU-based business because of what they refer to as 'sleep easy service' or reliability."
A major part of his success to date is that he has managed to build a global network of offices and agents which gives him extensive international reach as well as local knowledge in these foreign markets. Keeping large numbers of flexi-tanks in stock has also proved an important selling point.
"Not having a flexi-tank when a customer requires one somewhere in the world is something you just can't allow happen in this business," Damien explains to me. "We also have a very experienced management team who have built up a strong reputation within the sector - and that proves absolutely vital when it comes to asking a customer to trust you with 24,000 litres of extra virgin olive oil or chianti," he adds.
His staff all have distinguished track records in their respective industries and considerable experience in all aspects of control and regulations associated with flexi-tank container operations which he feels helps his business stand out among other competitors.
Damien is ambitious for the future and is keenly focused on positioning the company for further growth. He hopes to grow the business through strategic partnership arrangements with large distribution companies, freight forwarders and shipping companies.
In addition, he is currently considering entering into a joint venture deal with a large Asian-based manufacturing company, which has the capacity to open up even bigger markets for the company throughout Asia.
Damien McClean is a bright, affable and dynamic individual. Before starting his own company he developed a thorough knowledge of the sector in which he now operates.
His innovative thinking and problem-solving skills allowed him to identify a gap in the market for a new, more efficient and more affordable solution to transporting high-value liquid assets around the world.
His clear focus and strategic mind set have also enabled him to turn his invention into a successful and truly global business. And although few of us will ever see his product, much of what we drink or consume will likely have been transported to us using his flexi-tank design.
Company name: SIA Flexi-tanks
Business: Transport of bulk liquid products
Set up: 2011
Founder: Damien McClean
Annual turnover: €5.3 m
No of employees: 28
Location: Headquartered in Carndonagh, Co Donegal, with offices in Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Houston, Texas
DAMIEN’S ADVICE FOR OTHER BUSINESSES
1. If something is not working, act quickly...
"It's best to nip it in the bud early. Otherwise problems will continue to niggle away at you. Similarly, if someone on your team is not delivering results, set clear deadlines and take action. Don't waste time or money - or risk other staff, who are performing, becoming less motivated."
2. Don't give credit to people you think might not pay...
"No matter how much you are asked or how nice they might seem, never give credit to customers who you think might not pay up, or who do not match the criteria in your credit policy. Hold out, don't give in. If it looks like a dog and smells like a dog, then it probably is a dog. Trust your own intuition."
3. Don't believe anyone who says it's easy being a CEO...
"Being the CEO can be challenging, incredibly demanding and often very lonely. You carry a lot of responsibility for the business, as well as for the finances and the team. However, there are few jobs more rewarding - and once you have been one, it's almost impossible to do anything else."