Quality at a fair price ensured not just survival, but success - even during the recession
For the majority of businesses in Ireland, the recession resulted in a struggle for survival, with many forced to cut staff numbers as a result. However, for Jim Toal, founder of Fairco Window s & Doors, in Dublin, the opposite was true - his company expanded and thrived during the economic collapse.
"Even in the middle of the recession, we were able to turnover €4m a year," he reveals. "As other companies went out of business, we ended up with more and more market share - and we were expanding and hiring staff when everyone else had to laying off people."
Toal set up the company in 1999, following an 11-year career in sales, much of which was spent in the domestic windows market.
Having secured a lease on a property in Clontarf, he opened his first showroom on a small budget with the help of his wife, Suzanne. With just a van and a handful of students hired to ring on the doors of homeowners in the surrounding areas, Toal spent months driving around Dublin making house calls to potential customers.
"From an early age, I just wanted to be an entrepreneur," he says. "My parents went ballistic when I was working in sales at 18. They felt I should be in college, and that I should get a paying job instead of working on commission - but it was something that I wanted to do. I enjoy meeting people and I like the challenge of selling something."
By designing windows that were both attractive and safe - a combination that was unheard of during the Nineties - the business soon grew to be the leading brand that it is today.
"Typically the PVC windows that had come into Ireland in 1984 were from Germany. They were good but were aesthetically unappealing. They had very heavy chunky frames and people wanted a slimmer look.
"I was lucky to work with a company that were big in the UK, and with my help they designed a window that was designed and moulded to look like a timber window. We specced it up with the best locks and it did really well.
"Through word of mouth and recommendations, we soon went from doing about £240,000 in our first year of trading, to breaking a million pounds in our second year - which was phenomenal," he says.
These days, innovative design is still key to the company's success. It recently launched Ireland's first burglar-proof window and door system - which is backed by a large insurance company.
Toal is passionate about offering customers a high-quality product at a fair price.
"From the day I started, I have always believed that if you are going to sell something, it has to be the very best or you are wasting your time. If I had come along in 1999 with a regular windows system, I wouldn't be in business now.
"It took us about a year to get the burglar-proof window to the market, as we had to pass all the tests to make that claim. In the first month of it being launched last November, it made up about 1pc of our sales. Now it makes up 30pc.
"You need to know your market and your customer and you need to be able to service that market and be adaptable. The motto that we instil in all our sales people is that we sell fantastic products at a fair price. We aim for value for money."
As well as a showroom in Terenure, the business is also home to Ireland's largest show house - The Hamptons. Located in Santry, Toal likens the show house to a "permanent ideal homes exhibition" and says it plays a big part in the company's sales.
Displaying Hamptons-style windows and interior design, the American-feel is inspired by the years Toal spent there in his early 20s.
"America had a very positive effect on me," he says. "I gained a wealth of experience in customer service while I worked there - and in my opinion, they are still the market leader in customer service.
"I came back knowing that sales was something that I was good at and I decided to knuckle down and set up my own business.
"I really fell in love with the architecture and style of the Hamptons - and I swore that if I ever had the money I would build a house in that style myself.
"We have been designing Hampton's timber-look windows since the company began and when the opportunity arose in 2011 to buy an old car garage, I thought it would be the perfect chance to build a showroom in the same style. We were inundated with people coming to have a look at it and it really helped to drive up sales."
In recent years, Toal has expanded Fairco to include several sister companies. Ventura, run by Arlene McIntyre, also operates from the Santry showhouse premises. It designs and sells the Hamptons-style furniture on display there.
As well as a trade window company, Toal also set up Stormglaze, a budget-friendly windows and doors company, in 2008.
"When the recession hit, we introduced a second range where people could avail of our windows and doors at a cheaper price. The collection is more limited than our Fairco range - but it's still of high quality and the company has been doing really well.
"All in all, we employ about 40 to 50 people in total between the different companies and we sell and install between 22 and 28 jobs a week - 50 weeks of the year. Doing over a 1,000 installations a year means you have to be providing a good quality service," he says.
While Toal's businesses were never rocked by the recession, he has noticed how things have changed and become tougher in recent years.
"The margins have got a lot skinnier than they have ever been and the consumer is holding all of the cards now," he says. "There is so little business that the consumer can drive a hard bargain now - in fact they've become very skilled at it over the last few years.
"There is no doubt that business is there and the enquiries are up - we are up about 13pc this year compared to the first six months of last year - but profits wouldn't be up by any great shakes. You have to work harder for less now."
A father-of-three with years of business under his belt, Mr Toal looks back with admiration on his 29-year-old self and the drive he had when he first started out as a young entrepreneur.
"I look back at the money I had, the risks I took and the signing my name to things that you do when you are beginning - you know, I just wouldn't have the energy for all of that now.
"But you do it at the time. You live in the moment and don't think of the future. You just try and get on with it - and that's what I did back then."
Although the domestic windows industry is a competitive market, Jim Toal says that his company has found a strong client base and he looks forward to expanding the business further.
"We have developed a niche and we have a market among discerning customers who are interested in doing up their home with a long-term view. They'll ring around and get other prices - but at the end of the day, it always comes down to quality and price, and we offer that.
"We hope to be a dominant force in the home improvement sector in the future and we would like to be a household name."
More information at www.fairco.ie
Sunday Indo Business