Tuesday 11 December 2018

Meet the Sligoman who pitched in for World Cup final

From Russian soccer grounds to American Football, George Mullan has made SIS Pitches a global phenomenon

George Mullan of SIS Pitches at the Showgrounds, Sligo. Photo: James Connolly
George Mullan of SIS Pitches at the Showgrounds, Sligo. Photo: James Connolly

Gabrielle Monaghan

An estimated three billion viewers worldwide watched France defeat Croatia in the World Cup final on July 15 at Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, on a pitch made by an Irish company. But George Mullan, the chief executive and owner of SIS Pitches, had already left for the green, green grass of home.

The 56-year-old flew to Ireland straight after the England-Croatia semi-final, content that the six playing pitches his firm constructed for the most expensive World Cup in the history of the beautiful game were up to scratch.

After spending a day at his Sligo home, from where he runs a company that employs some 350 people around the world, Mullan flew out to Chicago for a meeting. His focus had already shifted to the firm's next project: laying its first American Football pitch at Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers.

SIS Pitches is now one of the world's largest sports pitch companies, having carved out a niche in designing, constructing, installing and maintaining pitches. It has provided pitches for previous World Cups, Uefa Champions League finals, and for high-profile clubs such as Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Chelsea FC, and Manchester United.

The Russia 2018 contracts will have added €24m to the Irish company's sales over two years by the end of 2018. But that revenue - and the kudos of a global stage for its product - was hard-won and occasionally fraught.

Mullan set his sights on the World Cup project five years ago. With the experience under his belt of installing pitches at stadiums across Eastern Europe, SIS Pitches won a contract for Spartak Moscow's home ground. It also opened an office in Russia that employed local staff and went on to secure a contract to build pitches for Luzhniki Stadium as well as for other stadiums for the tournament.

"When we were in the middle of the work for the Spartak Moscow stadium, he [Russian President Vladimir Putin] went into Crimea," Mullan says. "Economic sanctions followed and we were sitting there wondering if our clients at Spartak would be on an economic blacklist."

Russia 2018 was the first time a World Cup final had ever been played on anything but all-natural grass. The Irish company built the pitches using a combination of its SISGrass hybrid system, which involves injecting artificial fibres into real grass to add stability to the playing surface, and its SISAir product, which can drain a pitch in seconds if it rains and has under-soil temperature control.

It's a far cry from a mucky village GAA pitch.

SISGrass, which was only launched in 2015, is the company's flagship product and has already been installed at St George's Park, the English Football Association's national football centre, at Chelsea FC's training pitches and at the new Besiktas stadium in Istanbul.

"SISGrass is the real driver in sales and profitability," Mullan says. "It will have brand new sales of €9m this year."

Mullan developed an interest in sport while growing up in Sligo, where he tried his hand at everything from rugby to GAA and tennis. His family were in the cattle trade and this background in buying and selling proved useful during the first chapter of his career, when the MBA graduate went into medical sales for American Cyanamid. The conglomerate was disassembled after being acquired by American Home Products - the drug company that later changed its name to Wyeth and was eventually bought by Pfizer.

Mullan was tasked with restructuring American Home Products assets in North America, South America and Europe and spent stints living in New Jersey and Kansas City. While working on turnarounds out of Amsterdam, he learned that his personal assistant's husband was a partner in a playing-pitch company called Support in Sport. After meeting his PA's husband a few times, he became impressed with the company's technical expertise.

"They had a small business that could take a pitch out and replace it in a few days, which was quite unusual," Mullan says.

At the time, Mullan and his wife Jo had been resisting efforts by his employer to transfer him back to Kansas City and he was keen on striking out on his own. So in 2001, he bought into Support in Sport, which was by then in financial difficulty, turned it around, and renamed the company SIS Pitches.

"When I did that, my salary went down about 98pc," he says. "And I no longer had a private jet, which had been fun until I realised what an awful waste of money it was."

Mullan, his family and SIS Pitches moved to the UK, the company's largest market, in 2003. He started developing artificial grass for sports surfaces and cold-calling Premiership clubs to sell the product.

"It was really about knocking on doors," says Mullan, who returned to Ireland in 2008 so his two children could go to school here. "All of the clubs were having problems with pitches during mid-season and we could take it out and give them a brand-new pitch 24 hours later."

Nowadays, the big clubs come to him. However, the more lucrative market for SIS Pitches is in training grounds rather than playing pitches. To win the contract for 31 of the 100 training pitches at the Qatar World Cup, which will be held in 2022, the company has had to deliver some stadium pitches. Its 130 employees in Dubai, where SIS Pitches also grows turf, are working on the project.

However, as a result of the embargo placed on Qatar last year by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, Mullan's 45-minute flight from Dubai to Doha is now an eight-hour trek via Bahrain.

But the Sligoman has been accustomed to navigating tense geopolitical landscapes since his pharma days.

In Colombia, some 20 years ago, he arrived in Bogota to sack a managing director for defrauding the company. When he landed at the airport, he was greeted not only by the MD but also by two large intimidating men. He was pushed into a jeep and driven around Bogota for two hours while pretending to the irate MD that he hadn't planned on firing him. Mullan did so anyway the next day and left the country immediately.

When Mullan's staff were building a pitch in Basra, they had to be protected by the Iraqi police, the Iraqi army, and the US army. And while en route to Basra airport, Mullan discovered it was closed because of a terrorist attack. The Irishman wasn't even deterred by the aftermath of the Angolan Civil War - he built 14 pitches for the 2010 African Cup of Nations even though there were no water tanks, good roads or a secure electricity supply.

While the legal entity SIS Group is run from his home in Sligo and on the move - Mullan despises working from an office - SIS Pitches didn't have a base in Ireland until 2017.

"Everyone in Ireland works from home from a laptop, but we'll eventually need to set up an office here, somewhere out of Dublin, and open a warehouse," says Mullan, who is evangelical about the beauty of Sligo.

SIS Pitches now offers the same turnkey service in Ireland that it sells from its offices in the UK, the Netherlands, Turkey, Russia, Dubai and Angola. It even sells the residential artificial lawns that are popular among maintenance-weary downsizers. As a result, SIS Pitches has already clocked up revenue of €4m in its home market to date.

The pitch provider likely generated total sales of €63m in 2017, up from €54.5m a year earlier, according to Mullan.

"Because most of the pitches for the Russian stadiums were done in 2017, we hit peak Russian sales last year," he says. "We will continue to have exciting growth over the next few years, and we have no debt, no borrowings, no overdraft and are significantly profitable."

In the UK, where SIS Pitches has its manufacturing base in Cumbria, the company has just won "the biggest artificial grass contract" in the country from the British government. Mullan declined to identify the project because contracts haven't yet been signed, but values it at £15m (€16.9m) over four years. Earlier this month, the company opened a £2m factory in the Cumbrian town of Maryport to cater for the UK and Irish markets.

Mullan's hairy encounters in countries such as Iraq and Colombia means he's not daunted by the possibility of a no-deal Brexit. But that doesn't mean he's not preparing for it.

"I don't think it will happen," he says. "But if it does, I'll just have to get on with it. When you're used to dealing with places such as Russia and Kazakhstan, you just have to get over it.

"If Brexit means, say, tariffs of 20pc for us, we will up sticks and move to Eastern Europe. We have looked at opening a plant in the Czech Republic - you could set up a factory there in 12 months."

SIS Pitches has also diversified into other sports. It has installed a pitch in Japan for next year's Rugby World Cup, constructed the first synthetic pitch for professional rugby players at Saracens RFC, and has just installed wickets at the Oval and Lord's cricket grounds.

Mullan pulled out of a planned joint venture for China because he realised he "didn't fully understand the market". So he decided to concentrate instead on the US, which he sees as having the greatest potential for SIS Pitches.

He hopes the Green Bay Packers deal will land the company contracts from other NFL teams, and also has his eyes on America's 16,000 golf courses.

"The US is huge for us and have to decide whether to set up there direct, like we did in Russia," Mullan says.

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