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Passion on and off the field secures hurley-maker international success

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PUC FADA: Sean Gallagher with Sean and John Torpey at Torpey's Hurleys, Co Clare. Photo: Eamon Ward

PUC FADA: Sean Gallagher with Sean and John Torpey at Torpey's Hurleys, Co Clare. Photo: Eamon Ward

PUC FADA: Sean Gallagher with Sean and John Torpey at Torpey's Hurleys, Co Clare. Photo: Eamon Ward

When I meet entrepreneurs, I never cease to be amazed at their courage and inspired by their achievements. Entrepreneurs, by their very nature tend to be interesting people and most have great stories to tell.

This week, I found myself visiting one such charismatic character. His name is John Torpey and he is a hurley maker. In fact, John Torpey has been making hurleys professionally for over 30 years.

Listening to his story, the common theme that runs through it is one of passion; passion for his business, passion for the game of hurling, passion for the community in which he lives and passion for his family.

Before he gives me a tour of his factory, and over coffee with his wife Mary and son, Sean, in their log cabin home next door, John is off, telling story after story, each flowing into the other.

There are stories about life growing up on the family farm, about how proud he is of his family and stories about his time playing hurling. There's the three Leinster Junior championships he won as well as the All-Ireland Junior medal he won while playing for Wicklow when he worked there.

There are yarns too about the great men he played with and against, the battles he fought and the great friendships that were forged during his time on the playing field.

He is equally enthusiastic when he tells me about how he got started in business and how challenging the early days were. Today however, John Torpey takes great pride in watching players walk out on to the pitch in Croke Park, in front of 80,000 spectators, carrying hurleys that he and his staff have made.

Set up in 1981 and located near Kilkishen, Co Clare, Torpey Hurleys now manufactures more than 70,000 hurleys each year, has a staff of eight and turns over close to a half a million euros.

Customers for his hurleys include leading sports shops such as Elverys, Lifestyle, O'Neills, and Heatons Sportsworld - as well as many independent stores, clubs and individual players. And in keeping with the times, the company also recently launched their online store which is already generating substantial sales revenues.

To highlight how well it's doing, John reaches for his new smart phone and proceeds to show me some of the online orders for hurleys that have come in over the previous few days.

"Look, there's one from Melbourne, Australia, and another one from Indianapolis, in the US," he tells me pointing at the list of new customers.

"Despite many people having emigrated in recent years, they are joining local clubs in their adopted countries but they are still keen to get a new hurley shipped over to them from home," adds Sean.

"Here's another few," interjects John excitedly. "These ones are from Germany, Canada and New Zealand - and there's even one from South Korea," he adds proudly.

John Torpey grew up on the family's small farm in Belvoir near the village of Kilkishen, Co Clare. He remembers getting his first hurley from his uncle Paddy who had made it himself.

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"That was the day the first seeds were sown," recalls John fondly.

After school he served his time as a shop assistant in a hardware store in Ennis town before moving to Co Wicklow to work in the hardware business there, as well as in Dundrum, where he mostly looked after their timber departments.

However, when his father died, John returned home to take over the running of the farm - as was the tradition at the time. His entrepreneurial streak was already emerging though, and he turned his hand to everything from milking cows and growing and cabbages to breeding collie dogs.

"I was doing whatever I could think of to make a few quid," he tells me. And that's where it began.

One damp winter day, unable to do much productive farm work, John realised that it was time to explore doing something else to supplement his farm income.

"Up to that point, I had always made my own hurleys. Then other players began to ask if I would make some for them too. So I began to make hurleys on a part-time basis for local players like Ger Loughnane, Sean Stack, Enda O'Connor and Sean Hehir.

"Over time too, I found that players were coming from further afield. The busier I got at making hurleys, the more I realised that I couldn't do that and the farming at the same time. So, in 1981, I bought my first woodturning lathe, set up a make-shift workshop and officially launched Torpey Hurleys on a full-time basis," explains John.

While farming had its challenges, John soon learned that so too did his new hurley-making enterprise.

To start with, in order to make good quality hurleys, John needed a consistent supply of good quality ash timber. The problems at the time was that he couldn't find a consistent source here in Ireland. Luck however intervened when he heard there was a good supply of ash in the Netherlands. Today, he and his son, Sean, fly over five times a year to personally select every tree from which their now famous Torpey hurleys are made.

"The wood you need to make a hurley differs greatly from that which is used in carpentry and general construction," explains John. "To make the curved head of a hurley which is capable of withstanding the force of other hurleys, you need a curved grain. And this can only be found at the very bottom of the tree where the root turns into the base," he adds picking up one of his hurleys to demonstrate the point.

John's first big break came in his second year of business. He was exhibiting his hurleys at a Scór competition in Millstreet, Co Cork, when he met a man called Joe Edge. Joe was working as a buyer for a number of large retail stores, one of which was Arnotts. After seeing the quality of his hurleys, he invited John to begin supplying Arnotts.

"And while the sports section there is now run by Elvery Sports, we've been supplying the store ever since 1982," says John proudly. "Six months later Lifestyle Sports also came on board, and things grew steadily from there," he adds.

The company's next big break came in 1995, when Clare won the All-Ireland Hurling final for the first time in 81 years.

"Because many of the players that day were using our hurleys - great men like Davy Fitz, Brian Lohan, Frank Lohan, PJ O'Connell, Conor Clancy and Ger 'Sparrow' O'Loughlin - the media began to take an interest in what we were doing," explains John.

As word spread about the quality of his hurleys, more and more players from around the country began to buy Torpey hurleys. Soon too, schools and camogie clubs began contacting the business, as did a number of larger retail stores.

In recent years, John and his company received great coverage when Taoiseach Enda Kenny presented US President Obama with a Torpey hurley on the occasion of his visit to Ireland. Similarly, when the current Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Ireland, he too received the gift of a Torpey hurley, as did Rory McIlroy during this year's Irish Open.

With the stories still coming strong, John and Sean take me on a tour of their factory and of the hurley-making process.

In the goods inwards area, the trees which the pair selected on their last trip to Holland, have just been delivered in large 40-foot container.

These have already been cut into individual planks of wood, each of which will be used to make a single hurley. The planks are left in the factory for six months where they can dry slowly.

A stencil is then used to draw the template of a hurley on each individual plank. Next, it's on to the cutting and moulding area, where a band saw is used to carve out the hurley from the stencil markings. Once shaped, the hurleys are then sanded and finished by hand.

It's an amazing sight to see the rhythmic movements of the men's hands as they smooth off each hurley, completing the process that has obviously taken years to perfect.

After more than 30 years in the business, John is now in the process of passing on the running of the company to his son. Sean has just returned from Loughborough University in the UK, having completed a degree in Sport Technology, specialising in the engineering of sports-related products.

He too has a love for the game and for the business. Having worked recently as a development engineer in Germany with the Adidas innovation team, he has lots of new ideas on how to take the business forward.

But as if I had any doubt, John is quick to let me know that he has no intention of taking it easy.

Smiling, he tells me he once came across a quotation on a calendar that read: 'The sure way to miss success is to miss opportunities'. And he's one man that doesn't miss many opportunities.

Recently, while sitting on the forecourt of his local filling station, he got the idea that, rather than sending the sawdust and shavings from his business to landfill, he would convert it into wood fuel briquettes instead. With support from the Leader Programme and the Clare Local Development Company, he sourced the right machinery - and now his Belvoir Briquettes are already on sale in shops in the locality.

As I leave, John is busy again on the phone. He is planning an upcoming concert at the West County Hotel in Ennis to raise funds for the Kilkishen Cultural Centre and Crumlin's Children's Hospital.

It's of personal importance to him because of the great care that hospital gives his granddaughter. For all his success, John Torpey knows what's important. And that's not just business, it's family and community. What a man.

 

BUSINESS MASTERS

Company: Torpey Wood Products

Business: Manufacturing of hurleys and sporting products

Set up: 1981

Founder: John Torpey

Annual Turnover: €450,000

No. of Employees: 8

Location: Belvoir, Co Clare

 

JOHN'S ADVICE FOR OTHER BUSINESSES

1. Know your business, know your product

"You only get one chance to make a good impression, so be sure you know everything about your product so you can be confident when it comes to selling it."

2. Keep good credit-worthiness no matter what

"Honour your commitments and develop a reputation for paying what you owe. Then when things are difficult you are more likely to get you the support you need."

3. It's a bad tree that bends with every wind

"You have to have a plan for your business and you have to work that plan. You can't allow yourself to always be swayed this way and that. Focus on quality and affordability."


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