IN 2001, John O'Loughlin was flying high. He was CEO of Qualceram, the company he founded with John Byrne in 1988 and the bathroom suite business was booming. The previous year, Qualceram had taken over the much larger Shires group, making it the largest independent manufacturer of bathroom suites in the UK and Ireland.
The manufacturing and distribution company had expanded rapidly from its Arklow base and was admitted to the London and Dublin stock exchanges in 1997. But while sales peaked at €106m in 2001, all was not well. Qualceram leveraged itself heavily to buy the Shires group, in the expectation of being able to write down the debt quickly with Shires' higher turnover. Instead, however, the business lost ground in the UK.
But the biggest body-blow was yet to come and Qualceram-Shires was hammered by the slump in the Irish house-building market, where it generated 45 per cent of its business. The group sold its headquarters in Arklow in 2007, but the business couldn't be turned around and in 2009 it went into examinership. A number of Qualceram-Shires subsidiaries were bought by international competitor Ideal Standard and continue to operate profitably.
Undeterred by their experience with Qualceram-Shires, in late 2009 O'Loughlin and Byrne set up Inver Bathrooms, which manufactures and distributes luxury bathroom suites. Two years on, the company employs 20 people in Arklow and O'Loughlin says that business is good. "If houses are not changing hands, people tend to invest in their homes and when people renovate they want to buy higher quality suites."
The UK makes up a large percentage of Inver Bathroom's revenue and sales continue to grow steadily. According to O'Loughlin the company will expand slowly and, for the time being at least, "small is beautiful".
Sunday Indo Business