Business Irish

Saturday 24 March 2018

It's never too late to turn childhood dreams into a true global success

Robin Rennicks postponed his retirement to finally become a toolmaker with his family's support

Team effort: Conor Rennicks, Sean Gallagher and Robin Rennicks. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Team effort: Conor Rennicks, Sean Gallagher and Robin Rennicks. Photo: Gerry Mooney
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

ONE of the most enjoyable aspects of writing these stories each week is the opportunity to meet with, and learn from, some of Ireland's most inspiring entrepreneurs. Few of these men and women are household names. Many of their companies are not even recognisable by members of the general public yet their work has an impact, often significant, on our daily lives.

Some of these businesses are sub-suppliers. That means that their products and services are not sold directly to the public but instead, constitute important components in the production of other products. These companies are like individual voices in a choir; not complete on their own but without whom the entire performance would not be possible.

One such company is Prodieco. Based in Dublin, Prodieco specialises in manufacturing parts for blister packaging machines that are used by pharmaceutical companies around the world in the packaging of tablets and capsules. These blister packs, usually made from laminate materials or aluminium foil, are used to help extend the shelf life of tablets as well as providing protection against humidity, contamination and tampering.

Prodieco chairman Robin Rennicks and his son Connor, the firm's operations director, hand me a range of samples of different blister packs of tablets similar to what can be found in any pharmacy or convenience store. As he pops a tablet from its individual cavity, Robin explains how each blister pack differs depending on the size, shape, number of tablets and nature of a particular product.

In order to better understand what the company does, Robin and Connor take me on a walk through their highly automated manufacturing facility.

"We manufacture dedicated format parts for up to 50 different types of tablet packaging machines," explains Connor. "The biggest challenge for us is that every single product we make is a once-off part and because of that, there is no potential for mass production as might be the case in other businesses," he adds.

Some 97 per cent of all components made by the company are exported to more than 50 different countries including the UK, Germany, Italy, North America, Brazil and Russia. Robin is quick to acknowledge the support he received from Enterprise Ireland which, he feels, was instrumental in helping him break into these new territories. The company's impressive list of customers includes nine out of the top 10 pharma companies in the world including Pfizer, Novartis, Sanofi, Merck Sharp & Dohme, and GlaxoSmithKline. In addition, it supplies some of the world's leading generic drug manufacturers such as Mylan, Teva and Activis.

Continuing our tour, Connor and Robin explain how, given the complex nature of the pharmaceutical sector, process and precision is everything in their business. From the initial customer contact where staff take detailed technical specifications to the design department where specialised design engineers create drawings, layouts and 3D modelling of each tool; everyone understands the need for rigorous attention to detail.

"We are literally working in microns," says Robin, and before I can ask, he elaborates: "That's a unit of length equal to one millionth of a metre."

Next, I meet the staff in the planning and programming department whose job it is to ensure that all work is correctly scheduled. This ability to respond quickly to the needs of its customers has now become one of the company's unique selling points.

In the production area, CNC (or computer numerical control) machines are busy grinding, turning and cutting pieces of metal into different shapes and designs in what is a highly automated process.

Once completed, the parts are brought to the assembly area where each one is tested, validated and quality-control-checked by a team of highly qualified test engineers before being allowed to be dispatched to customers.

Finally, we stop off in the R&D department where new products and services are continuously being researched and developed to ensure that the company remains at the forefront of this highly specialised industry.

When Robin and Maureen Rennicks took over the running of the company in 1999, its focus up to that point had predominantly been on manufacturing precision machine parts for the IT sector. Robin and his team soon came to realise that many of their IT customers were beginning to relocate their manufacturing operations to the Far East where lower labour and operating costs existed. Seeing this growing trend, they decided to shift the company's dependence away from the IT sector and instead to focus exclusively on the rapidly growing pharmaceutical sector.

"At the time, we set ourselves an ambitious goal of becoming global leaders in blister pack tooling," explains Robin.

But, making such a shift was not as easy as Robin had first thought.

"It took almost five years to fully make the transition. During that time, we suffered a huge fall-off in turnover and it took us a long time to build that back up again. While it was a tough experience at the time, it was definitely the right decision in the long run," he insists.

Robin Rennicks grew up in Blackrock, Co Dublin. After school, he got a job in a bank.

"What I really wanted to do was work with cars or become a toolmaker. However, my parents had different ideas. They wanted me to get a permanent and pensionable job," says Robin.

However, working in the bank was not the most fulfilling of roles for the young Robin. Often finding himself reduced to delivering mail to local businesses, he felt increasingly unchallenged. He decided to move to London where he took up a position in a different bank and later moved with that same bank to work in the Middle East.

A chance meeting on a visit home resulted in him being offered the opportunity to work in Ireland, this time in the car business. Before long, he had started his own tyre re-moulding business which he would eventually sell in 1968.

As he was finalising the sale of this business, one of his suppliers suggested that he should take a look at a new product that was growing in popularity in the Far East; that of reflective signs. These reflective signs were increasingly being used in the manufacturing of road signs which, with their aluminium sheeting and embedded glass beading, helped to dramatically increase the visibility of road signs at night.

Robin immediately seized on the opportunity and soon after set up Rennicks Sign Manufacturing. Over the next 30 years, he grew this business to become one of the largest manufacturers of reflective road signs in Ireland and the UK. At its height, the company employed more than 250 staff. In 1999, at the youthful age of 66, Robin sold his business with the idea of retiring. But his retirement was short-lived when he and his wife Maureen opted, instead, to buy Prodieco that same year.

He is extremely proud too, of his staff whom he tells me are incredibly dedicated and specialised in what they do.

"We have more than 140 staff and while we have family members in the business, we see the company as a real team effort," insists Robin.

"The fact, too, that we have recruited about 70 new staff in the past four years alone has created a really good balance between continuity and innovation," adds Connor.

What about the future?

"We are committed to growing by 20 per cent over the next three years from a mix of existing and new markets," explains Connor.

The company also has exciting plans to design its own range of products to improve the efficiency of its customers' blister machines. These new machine parts will focus particularly on how tablets are fed into packaging machines and how broken or fragmented tablets can be removed without causing damage or slowing down the packaging line.

Having spent the day with Robin and Connor Rennicks, it is clear that they have finally achieved their ambition of turning Prodieco into a global leader in its field. It is clear too, that, from the design centre, through production and testing right up to all levels of management and customer service, the company has managed to develop an unrivalled attention to detail and excellence in everything it does.

While there has been much commentary recently about the potential for Ireland to further develop its manufacturing capability, this is one company that is most definitely leading the way.

Robin Rennicks wanted to be a toolmaker when he left school. His parents' wish that he find a permanent and pensionable job steered him away from his desired career. It was only in 1999, at the age of 66, when he had sold his sign manufacturing company with the view to retiring, that he finally achieved his childhood ambition.

Robin is a true inspiration. He is also a living example of how it is never too late to follow your dreams.

Robin and Connor's advice for new businesses

1 Know your customers

"It is really important to know your customers. Knowing their strengths and weaknesses allows you understand what it takes for them to be successful in a competitive market and how you can help them in that endeavour."

2 Keep getting better

"To be successful you have to commit yourself to continuous and never-ending improvement. Not just in terms of products, but also in terms of your processes and your people. This is the only way to stay ahead of the pack."

3 It's not a 40-hour week

"Starting or growing a business demands incredible dedication, long hours and calculated risks. But with the right market, the right team, a lot of hard work and a bit of good luck, you can achieve what you set your mind to."

Business Masters

Company name Prodieco

Business Design and manufacture of machine parts and tooling for the pharmaceutical industry

Set up 1962

Founder Bought in 1999 by Robin Rennicks (originally set up by Jeff Barker)

Turnover €17m

Number of employees 140

Location Cookstown Industrial Estate, Tallaght, Dublin 24

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