'I've been in a hurry most of my life'
Since starting out in 1971, Leitrim man Pat Gallagher has built a hugely successful business in England, writes John Reynolds
'I named this Leitrim House, and back in Leitrim, I have a holiday home called Kent House," says Gallagher Group chairman and founder Pat Gallagher in the boardroom of his office in Aylesford, in Kent - a county some refer to as 'the garden of England'. Having started out with a £2,000 digger and a first year's turnover of £36,000 in 1971, he has steadily grown the property, civil engineering, construction and aggregates business to one with over 300 employees - including three of his children (another daughter teaches business studies) - and a turnover of over £110m (€124m).
Indeed, construction may be in the wider genes as well. Ray and Des O'Rourke - the owners of engineering and construction firm Laing O'Rourke - are cousins of Gallagher. "They're a pair of geniuses. I once joked that Hitler and [Irish demolition company founder] Tom McGee knocked down a lot of London, and they and a lot of other great companies have rebuilt it," he affirms with a laugh.
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Gallagher chose not to follow his cousins' path however, with their operations in Australia, Canada and the Middle East. "Ray is the genius at finding the work, and Des made sure it got done. Not all of us can emulate their success though.
"I'm very ambitious for our business although, unlike the O'Rourkes, I'm more comfortable not having to get on a plane to look at our projects and we have a three-year plan to develop more properties along the M20 corridor here in Kent, with the other divisions growing steadily as well.
"There can be a risk at times in taking on too much work, spreading yourself too thin. The business could get out of control. You need to be able to replicate the factors of, for example, your local success, and it takes a high degree of management, and of the right people. The O'Rourkes have managed to replicate their success in London to that extent," the 70-year-old says.
Profits for several Gallagher Group companies in 2017 amounted to about €5m, and rental yields for properties the firm owns are approaching 10pc. The firm is firmly rooted in the local community. The company sponsors local football club Maidstone United, and built its stadium. Gallagher has grown fond of this corner of south-east England in the 53 years since he moved here with his parents (his father emigrated to find work) and younger brother Michael when he was 17.
"Kent is a beautiful county, and its people have been very supportive of our success. I realise now that I and the Gallagher Group business might not have done as well in London as I have done here. It's quite rural, with a lot of fruit and hop growing. In some ways it's almost a home from home, as compared with rural Leitrim. The longer I live here, the more I grow to love it. I also worry terribly about the disruption that might be caused to this area by Brexit, though.
"The majority of our work is here in Kent, Sussex and Hertfordshire, occasionally farther afield as well. There's greater competition for work in London, and we mightn't be able to compete. The logistics side is a challenge too, getting your materials and equipment in and out of the city."
The area around nearby Maidstone is dotted with offices and various commercial buildings that Gallagher's business has built for blue-chip names including Scania, Marks & Spencer, Aldi and Next, as well as a number of local authorities. At the moment, the firm is also building Leicester City FC's training camp, working with McLaren Construction, whose owner is a friend of the Irishman.
"If I'm passing some of these buildings around Maidstone, I might stop and look in the gate for a few minutes to admire the work that our staff have completed. We like to think we take an extra bit of care of the design. When we're walking around a finished development, the quality of our work should speak for itself.
"If it's one of our own buildings and not for a client, we don't always let the calculator dictate to us. That can mean the occasional cost overrun, and my team will moan at me. But I can see where the money has been spent."
As Gallagher gives me a tour of the area in his Range Rover, we stop briefly at a Scania service centre his firm built, where new trucks and coaches are parked up and waiting to be checked over. Two of the trucks are for the Gallagher Group, then on the way to a Marks & Spencer development that's underway, we pass one of the company's cement mixers.
From the one digger in 1971, the firm now has a fleet of over 55 of them and more than 80 trucks of various sizes, as well as an array of other equipment and machinery.
As we survey the large Marks & Spencer site, the Leitrim man questions the site foreman about a couple of tasks under way, keen to make sure they're completed to his approval.
We move on to one of the firm's two quarries, where material from development sites is brought to be sorted or recycled, while the Kent ragstone that's unique to the site is used in many buildings that the company has constructed. Giant 85-tonne dump trucks are busy at work. Each of them costs about £500,000, Gallagher points out.
Does he have any secrets of management to share that he might have learned as he's grown the business? "There's really no comparison to learning the hard way. You treat people as you'd like to be treated yourself. With good people around you, do the job right and make money. Pay your bills on time as well. What we do can be a tough business, but if you're tough with it, you can achieve success."
He admires former Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson, known for his tough management style. Gallagher and his cousin Ray are both very driven. "To some extent we take great pride in doing what others might see as the undoable. Your pride kicks in. What we do is heavy, hard work. There's no glamour in it, but nor do I ridicule it.
"I loved groundwork and civil engineering as soon as I got started, and I saw an opportunity to learn about it while doing it. The synergies with the quarry and aggregates, and then property, came later. But wherever I could earn a pound, I would do whatever work was available, whatever the size of the project.
"There was no work-life balance. Nor was there time to think about another way of life. You had to get on and do the work you were capable of doing. We'd work as many hours as we could all week - I was always wanting to get more and more work done in a day. My grandfather, Paddy, was known as 'Paddy Hurry.' Perhaps like him, I've been in a hurry most of my life."
As soon as Gallagher could see over the counter, he began helping out in the shop his parents had back in Knockacullion, he recalls. In that sense he's always worked from a very young age.
He names various people he worked for before he founded the business, in a garage, a factory, and for Kent County Council, before labouring and plastering with two Cavan brothers, prior to working with Galway man Pat Burke, a civil engineer who had just one digger, who he saw a chance to emulate.
His business "wouldn't be where it is today without the loyal and hard-working people I've met here in Kent". "It was thanks to them that we steadily kept winning more and more work, and that remains true today. I thank God for that when I go to Mass," he emphasises, reeling off a long list of names, most of whom are still firm friends who he sees regularly.
Gallagher has kept his Leitrim accent. He has an old-style Nokia phone, as well as an iPhone. He doesn't do emails, preferring the freedom from them - meaning, in practice, a PA will handle them - and will call you back if you text him, so he's a bit old-school in that respect.
Construction, like every other business, is changing thanks to technology. Robotic blocklayers, modular construction in factories, and remotely-driven diggers and other machinery are coming down the track. "I'm fascinated by the increasing use of technology and what it can do. Then I think back to some of the horrendous conditions I worked in when I started out. Significant improvements, especially in health and safety, are very much welcomed."
Gallagher received a Lifetime Achievement Award from business network the British and Irish Trading Alliance in 2017. He admires the work of the organisation, its board, staff and its Cork-born founder, Paul Whitnell.
"The award meant a lot to myself and my family. Paul has a way of opening the doors for smaller companies and larger ones on both sides of the Irish Sea. We're buying a lot of pre-cast concrete products from Ireland, for example, thanks to his efforts. The organisation is very much about helping people in business connect with each other and get tangible results: jobs, recruits, deals, customers and suppliers," he says.
With the lifetime award under his belt, and after almost 50 years in business, is Gallagher thinking about retirement anytime soon?
"I'll leave it to my children to decide who will be the next boss. It's not an easy business, so they'll need to be tough - people talk more about resilience nowadays - at times as well. My generation is old-style, hard-working, roll up your sleeves and get stuck in. The next generation are hard-working and more modern-thinking," he says.
"I prefer not to think about retirement. I don't want to work until I drop, but I don't want to give it up completely either. I'm flat out at the moment while we have so much going on, but I'll back off in my own way."
Chairman and founder, Gallagher Group
Aylesford near Maidstone in Kent, and Co Leitrim
Rosary High School, Carrick-on-Shannon; Technical college in Drumshanbo, Co Leitrim
Various jobs before he founded the Gallagher Group: in a garage, a factory, Kent County Council, and plastering and labouring
Married with two sons and two daughters
Supporting Maidstone United; the occasional rugby match if Ireland are playing; horse racing, breeding cattle; spending time with family and friends; travel; TV comedies and documentaries.
Reading the Racing Post, and about business in Irish and UK weekend newspapers.
Occasional trips to Spain. Tries not to miss the Ballinamore festival in Leitrim. Looking forward to a trip to New York.
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