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Interview: O’Donohoe kicks Wavin into growth mode as construction takes off 

After years of painful cuts following the 2008 crash, Michael O’Donohoe has now primed Wavin Ireland to thrive, writes Sean Pollock

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The next 5-7 years offer ‘nothing but growth’ for construction. Photo: Gerry Mooney

The next 5-7 years offer ‘nothing but growth’ for construction. Photo: Gerry Mooney

The next 5-7 years offer ‘nothing but growth’ for construction. Photo: Gerry Mooney

Michael O’Donohoe isn’t one to shirk a challenge.

The country director of Wavin Ireland, a construction sector pipe manufacturer, distributor and supplier, was once a second dan in martial arts, achieving a black belt when he was just 17. His martial arts skills led O'Donohoe to represent Ireland at an international level, having finished second at the English national championships.

“When you’re in your twenties and your testosterone is at its peak, you do these stupid things,” he laughs. “I stopped when I got too many black eyes and got a job. I couldn’t be going to work the whole time. It was like fight club, you know.

“I quit the taekwondo when I turned 40 because I damaged a disk in my back. Ironically from doing martial arts for a long time, I had worn down a disk.

“I took up golf,” he adds. “It’s a totally different skillset. I’m passionate about golf now, and I love it.”

O’Donohoe’s sporting career may be less combat-oriented now, but his time in business has seen him go toe-to-toe with some significant challenges.

Since he joined Wavin Ireland, which is part of 12,000-employee strong Dutch-headquartered Wavin Group, O’Donohoe has led the business through four restructuring processes in around 13 years. The latest round was only finished recently.

“They were tough times,” he says. “You get to a stage where each round becomes more difficult.

“The personal element at a human level of having to deal with all of that as well — look, it’s not nice. It’s not a nice part of any particular job. These are decisions which many people in similar situations have to face during this time.”

O’Donohoe is a firm believer that Wavin Ireland is now through the other side of those challenges, but that doesn’t mean he will now be sitting back and resting on his laurels.

Wavin Ireland was synonymous with the Celtic Tiger in many ways. The company sold much of the pipes laid down in the ground for the plethora of residential houses that sprung up around the country pre-credit crunch. In 2007, turnover hit a whopping €70m.

In 2007, Wavin was one of the first companies to notice the economic winds had changed. Orders for new pipes dried up. The Celtic Tiger roar was about to be reduced to a whimper, and Wavin would feel the pain in its sales. Having hit that 2007 high, revenue crashed to a meagre €14m in 2013.

The lessons of the credit crunch remain firmly fixed in O’Donohoe’s head. Having taken over the top job in 2014, he has overseen an impressive business recovery. Even with Covid dampening construction activity, he is confident Wavin is in rude health for the future.

“The lockdown happened last March, and our business declined by 85pc,” he said. “We were only supplying essential projects. Most of the staff were laid off or at home under the government support scheme.

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“When it came back on May 18, it came back with such a wallop, and the strength of that return was maintained throughout all of last year to such an extent that we actually had a good year. We hit our numbers in terms of our business performance.”

O’Donohoe says the pandemic took out around eight weeks, but the rest of the year was “very strong”. December sales were nearly 50pc stronger than the year before and the company struggled to keep up with demand. This year's restrictions have resulted in a decline of 30pc year on year - not as sharp as some might have expected.

“We are still confident that if construction comes back [next month] that with what is in the pipeline and the tailwind with demand and the pressures on the system that we will see another strong recovery like we did last year,” he says. “It’s just to get to that return.”

Growing up, O’Donohoe didn’t think he’d end up in the world of hardware.

The Wavin Ireland boss was brought up in the shadow of Croke Park on Dublin’s Clonliffe Road.

“You had Hill 16 on one side, and the Hogan Stand on the other,” he says. “Interestingly, I have no interest in GAA. Zero.”

O’Donohoe’s mother was a traditional housewife, while his father was out fighting battles of his own. He was the general secretary of the Sales and Marketing Union of Ireland, something O’Donohoe remembers fondly.

“You can imagine the debates we would have had in the house,” he says. “Everything was an argument and a debate.

“We would sit down and have a review for our pocket money every year,” he laughs. “Discussing what the rate of inflation was, the cost of living and why I [felt I needed] an extra 50p or whatever it was.

“It was all [a] great experience,” he adds warmly. “Lord rest him.”

After school, O’Donohoe took up a degree in chemistry and mathematics at what is now TU Dublin. His university years also led to him taking up a couple of side ventures.

While studying for his degree, O’Donohoe started his own self-defence classes, which he offered across Dublin. He also worked at the former offices of the Sunday Independent on Middle Abbey Street in services.

“It taught me enough to know I didn’t want to work in journalism,” he says.

After college, O’Donohoe had some doubt over which career path he wished to pursue. In chemistry, he felt he would either have to do a PHD, do research or work in the industry, while with maths, he thought finance was the only option.

“I felt I didn’t have the personality to pursue either type of environment,” he says. “This wasn’t for me. I knew it wasn’t.

“I said ‘no, what can I do’ and I felt a career in sales was an obvious one. I pursued technical sales and got a job with a laboratory supply company selling laboratory equipment. That used my scientific background.”

From around 1991 to 2008, O’Donohoe continued working in technical sales in science. The roles took him across the globe. His last position before joining Wavin involved him acting as the sales director for a business across six countries.

With a young family at home, O’Donohoe started to feel like he needed a change.

A chance encounter saw him take the plunge with Wavin after a former classmate secured a new role with the company and needed a replacement in Ireland.

Wavin was a well-known brand. Besides being the Irish market leader, O’Donohoe knew the company behind the Wavin plastic hurley and hula hoops well. With its presence in Ireland since 1958, many have perceived the company as Irish.

Despite his feelings toward the move, O’Donohoe still needed some convincing.

“It took a couple of months to be fair,” he says. “I couldn’t see the immediate fit.

“The attraction in terms of the positives were enticing. In the end, I just said, ‘look, let’s give this a go and see where it brings me’.

“I remember his [former classmate’s] words at the time were ‘look, this business is cyclical and we are going through a downturn’. No one anticipated that the downturn was going to last around seven years.”

Joining the company as a commercial manager saw him managing distribution and sales teams. It was a tough time for O’Donohoe, with the financial crash starting to take hold.

“It was challenging,” he says of those early years at Wavin. “I felt for quite some time like I was a fish out of water. Because of the onslaught that was happening in terms of the deterioration in the market and the business, it was not a pleasant time.”

Having overseen several restructurings, O’Donohoe was promoted to country director for Ireland in 2014 and has never looked back.

“We started to climb out of the soup in 2014,” he says. “We’ve grown on that [sales] year on year during that time. So, having been through all of that pain, I was certainly going to make sure I was around for the return to growth.”

Heading up Wavin isn’t the only feather in O’Donohoe’s cap. He was recently named president of the Hardware Association Ireland.

The association that O’Donohoe heads up represents 400 members from hardware merchants to distributors, suppliers and manufacturers. Combined, the members employ around 26,000 people paying wages and salaries of nearly €588m.

O’Donohoe hopes to improve building standards and make the industry more attractive to younger people. He also plans to work with the Government to re-establish the Home Renovation Incentive (HRI) scheme, which proved hugely successful when it was last available.

“There is an enormous amount of money stuffed in the mattresses of the people of Ireland,” says O’Donohoe. “To me, it would be wholly remiss if the hardware sector was not in a position to avail of that.”

Significant challenges affect the sector, which O’Donohoe is only too aware of under his new role and in his position at Wavin.

Brexit has created pressure on Ireland's supply chain with paperwork causing delays for some crucial products needed by the construction sector here. A shortage of containers from China has also caused delays and impacted costs.

O’Donohoe said he is aware of shortages of certain products, including timber for pallets. Some supply issues have also led one construction company to significantly delay a residential development project it was working on. It could not locate a particular item needed to complete the job and so couldn't finish it.

With an expectation that construction could soon explode back into life, O’Donohoe also has a warning.

“If we are back in April and you decide to go ahead with a project on a Friday, don’t order on a Monday and expect it to arrive on-site on a Tuesday,” he says. “You’ve got to understand there is going to be a lead-in time. There is going to be strong demand with everyone doing the same thing at the same time.

“It’s that situation where you go to the local supermarket, and there is nothing there,” he adds. “You have to understand that.”

 The future looks bright and across all parts of construction, there is set to be high demand over the next five to seven years, particularly in residential and FDI construction projects, he says.

With an expected surge in demand, O’Donohoe is now in an enviable position where he hopes to grow Wavin. He has his eyes on hitting revenue of up to €50m over the medium term and developing the customer service team as demand requires.

It’s a long way from the doldrums of the financial crash, but after all those years, it looks like O’Donohoe has kicked Wavin back into shape.

“I think the future is good,” he says. “Will we have our challenges? Yes, we may have some hiccups along the way.

“I’m strongly of the opinion that the medium-term five to seven years ahead is nothing but growth,” he adds. “Once we can get through the Covid situation, and as an industry, gear up to meet that increased demand, it has an optimistic and bright future for everyone concerned.”

CURRICULUM VITAE

Name
Michael O’Donohoe

Age
51

Position
Country director of Wavin Ireland

Lives
Ashbourne, Co Meath

Education
O’Connell Secondary School, Dublin; BSc Applied Science — Chemistry and Maths — TU Dublin; MSc Executive Leadership — Ulster University;

Previous experience
Technical sale representative — BM Browne; Sales manager — MacTec; Commercial Manager — Marigot; General manager Ireland — Sartorius;
Sales director North Europe — Sartorius Stedim Biotech

Family
Wife Helen. Children Clare (23) and Aoife (21)

Pastimes
Golf

Favourite film
Once Upon a Time in the West

Favourite book
Dune by Frank Herbert

BUSINESS LESSONS

What’s the best bit of career advice you have received?
I think being honest and being true to yourself. I have always called it as it is. I have never dressed up a situation.
Having the belief in what you are saying, being true to yourself and not trying to hide something [are important].

In terms of managing teams, how do you get the best out of people?
I don’t micro-manage people. I take people on for their skillset and the type of individual they are. I believe in getting the right people on the bus and worry about what seat they sit in afterwards.

Over your career, what is the one lesson you would share with people?
It depends on the situation. Certainly the recession in Wavin was a unique set of circumstances in terms of having to act fast.
The lesson from that is in general is try and keep your finger on the pulse in the business and the market as close as you can. You will always be surprised. We are surprised all the time by uncertainty, which is the only thing that seems to be increasing.


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