My big idea: Rip-off Republic the biggest challenge for Ward Screens boss
WICKLOW-based serial entrepreneur Kevin Haig has built his latest business around the need for privacy in hospital wards. The father of two is now exporting around the world, but is very critical of the prices charged by Irish business suppliers.
"We are a small manufacturer of Irish-made privacy screens for hospitals and healthcare facilities. Designed and built in Dublin, our privacy screens have been exported to Australia, Canada and the UK, and are selling well here in Ireland. Ward Screens have a host of benefits over hospital curtains. They reduce sound by up to 40pc and since they are easier to clean than curtains, make for better infection control.
I set up the company in 2009 with neighbour, Steve Brock, who came up with the idea and approached me. I was already in business – I set up Lifeline Hangover Defence, 10 years ago. Thus I had the warehouse space and a little spare cash and Ward Screens seemed a good investment. Steve has since returned to the UK so now I run the company along with my son.
Our main competition comes from one Swedish company, so our product development has focused on outdoing them. One of our key design features is that our screens are modular – if they are damaged, individual components can be replaced. This is not the case with competing products, where the whole unit needs to be replaced if one module is damaged.
Sourcing parts locally has been a real challenge. We are only three years old and, like all small businesses, we struggle to keep costs down. Where possible, we want to buy Irish components. But we find that in most cases it is cheaper for us to purchase components abroad. For example, I've just ordered a batch of springs. We have purchased from a UK supplier, but were delighted to find that they now have an Irish distributor, and duly approached them. The price offered was over 20pc more expensive than that offered by the UK manufacturer – so what incentive is there for us to buy Irish? The list goes on and on; in fact virtually every component we purchase comes from outside Ireland, simply because it is much cheaper.
Of course we get the usual excuses – "it has to be shipped" and "it's a small island economy so things are more expensive". I'm sorry, but I don't buy that – especially when I can mostly get free shipping from the UK. Northern Ireland is on the same island, and I don't believe that businesses there experience the same prices. I think it comes down to two things – a hope that people will not shop around and basic greed.
I also believe that until we all start working together to drive prices down then the recovery will be slow at best. We've seen what price competition can do in supermarkets, with the result that our annual Christmas shop is now virtually the same price as in the North. This is a direct result of consumers shopping around and buying where the value is best.
Securing finance was also a challenge. We found that there was very little support available, particularly from the banks and enterprise agencies. It was very much a case of "we're on our own". Though South Dublin County Enterprise Board did give us funding to attend an exhibition in the UK and helped us in our first few months of business.