Steel shed boss shows his mettle
Sean Gallagher meets owners of small and medium-sized businesses and shares the lessons they've learnt in building their companies
If ever you wanted to meet a truly inspiring entrepreneur then you need look no further than the subject of this week's article. Having grown up on a small farm in the west of Ireland and having left school early, Sean Brett's determination has seen him grow his business, Steeltech Sheds, into the country's leading manufacturer of steel buildings. Set up in 1994 and now employing 170 staff, his company will reach annual revenues of more than €20m by the end of this year.
"We make all type of steel sheds from 2m x 2m in size, to our largest one which is 100m x 9m right up a full-blown three-bedroom chalet," says Sean. "These are used by our customers - 70pc of our customers are domestic and 30pc commercial - for everything from storage sheds and car garages to garden rooms, greenhouses, gyms and home offices," he adds.
While the company has its headquarters in Tuam, Co Galway, they also have 25 other locations in Ireland and a further 12 locations across the UK.
"We also have our own in-house design team which enables us to do bespoke designs for customers on top of our standard ranges. While all our sheds are made from galvanised steel, customers can add tiled roofs as an option if they want. We also include insulation as standard and every building comes with a 20-year guarantee," Sean adds.
Sean grew up on a small 15-acre farm outside Ballina, Co Mayo. Drawing inspiration from his mother who ran her own small garden centre, Sean left school at the age of 14 to become a trainee mechanic. Within two years he was buying and selling cars.
"Growing up without much money made me determined never to want for money ever again. So when the car business didn't take off, I started selling plants and trees from a stall in local markets," says Sean.
Having later moved to London for a year where he got a job driving a digger on building sites, he returned home this time to Galway.
"It was the 1980s in Ireland and there were few jobs available so I ended up being unemployed for a year. One day, my then girlfriend was asked if she knew of a painter that could paint a house for someone and she immediately said I was a painter. Before I had time to think about it, I was painting my first house a few days later," he says.
In an effort to grow his new painting and decorating business, Sean placed an advert in the classified section of his local paper only to be disappointed when he didn't receive a single enquiry. "Having checked the ads section, I realised that there were lots of similar ads for painters just like mine and that to be successful I would need to do something different. So I put an ad in that read 'Rooms painted from £15 a room, paint included. No charge if not satisfied'. After that, the phone never stopped ringing and in no time, I had a few lads working for me," he adds.
However, because house-painting was quiet during the winter months, Sean decided to start a sideline business selling coal.
"I bought a tonne of coal and started going around housing estates selling it door-to-door," says Sean. "It was really tough in the beginning. I remember going into one estate where there were 225 houses and discovered that there were six other people delivering coal in the same estate every week. I remember one particular Saturday evening only selling one bag of coal within the whole estate. I began approaching things differently to the others such as wearing overalls, getting business cards done up and doing flyers with special offers on them. I never knocked on a door trying to sell someone a bag of coal.
"What I wanted was to acquire a new customer who over time would result in repeat business and recurring revenue," he adds. "Within three years, I was the only one still there by which stage everyone there had become a customer."
While delivering coal to people's homes, Sean noticed a lot of customers were replacing their old steel oil tanks with modern plastic ones. At the end of each night's deliveries and with his coal truck empty, he offered to take away these old steel oil tanks for a small fee.
"Before long I had amassed a large stockpile of these tanks and because the coal business was quieter during the summer months, I began recycling these oil tanks into steel coal bunkers which we sold the following winter," he says.
It was while delivering these to customers' homes that Sean noticed the growing market for garden sheds and how some wooden sheds were of poor quality. So in 1994, he set up Steeltech Sheds.
"I continued to run the coal and the steel shed business side by side for the next 12 years and everything was going great until 2008 when, as a result of the recession, orders began to dry up for the sheds," says Sean. "In hindsight, it turned was the perfect example of an opportunity dressed up as a problem. We negotiated hard with our suppliers and cut our costs dramatically. Then we slashed our prices by 30pc at the same time as opening new showrooms around the country. This enabled customers to see first-hand the wide range of options available and importantly, allow them to more easily visualise what these would look like in their back gardens. Sales just took off from there."
While the company entered the UK market in 2016, things did not take off as quickly as Sean had hoped. And while he had hoped to have a factory open in the UK by now, the uncertainty surrounding Brexit has persuaded him to put these plans on hold. Instead, he began exploring other markets, in particular Germany.
"Germans love quality and we are in advanced negotiations with a partner in Germany who builds large steel buildings and is interested in taking our smaller units to the German market. It's a perfect fit that works for both businesses," says Sean.
What's are his plans for the future? "I am focused on world domination of the steel shed business. That's my ultimate goal. And even if this is not achieved in my lifetime, I'm confident that in time Steeltech will go on to be the world's largest shed company."
SEAN’S ADVICE FOR OTHER BUSINESSES
Keep it simple
Every effort should be made to make things as simple as possible in business both for your staff and your customers. Complexity makes it harder for your customer to buy as well as making it more difficult for your business to scale. Simplicity is key.
Keep your head
Don’t take yourself too seriously. The race is not always won by the fastest but often by those who keep running after others have pulled out of the race. When faced with problems and disagreements, stay focused on the bigger picture. Ask yourself if this particular issue will matter in five years from now. If not, let it go and move on to more important issues.
Sales are the lifeblood of any business.
While every part of a business is important, sales are the most important. If you don’t have sales you don’t have a business. Simple as that. Therefore read, study and learn everything you can about sales. That’s what will bring ultimate success.
THE ability to spot opportunities and then to have the courage to pursue them, are key attributes of all successful entrepreneurs. None more so than Sean Brett, founder of Steeltech Sheds. Combining his flair for spotting opportunities with his natural ability for sales and marketing has seen him become a leader in his industry.
Business: Manufacture and sale of steel buildings
Set up: 1994
Founder: Sean Brett
No of Employees: 170
Location: Headquartered on the Galway Road, Tuam, Co Galway, with 25 locations across Ireland and 12 in the UK.
- If you have a business that’s worth talking about, please contact Sean at firstname.lastname@example.org
Sunday Indo Business