Thursday 22 March 2018

Cherry picker firm aiming high

Sean Gallagher meets owners of small and medium-sized businesses and shares the lessons they’ve learnt in building their companies

Sean Gallagher with Fergus and Frances McArdle. Photo: Tony Gavin
Sean Gallagher with Fergus and Frances McArdle. Photo: Tony Gavin
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Anyone who has ever had a requirement to work at height will be familiar with Height for Hire. Set up by Harry McArdle in 1978, Height for Hire has been to the fore in its sector for almost 40 years. Today the business is run by Harry's children, managing director Fergus and operations director Frances.

Headquartered in Ashbourne, Co Meath and with 20 locations across Ireland, the UK, Hungary and Slovakia, the company employs over 200 staff and has annual revenues of almost €30m, half of which comes from outside of Ireland.

"Essentially we rent out cherry pickers which enable people to work safely at heights ranging from 4m to 90m. With over 2,000 machines to choose from, we offer the widest range of cherry pickers in Ireland and the UK," says Fergus. "There was a time in the past when people may have taken chances by operating from ladders or using makeshift platforms from which to work, but thankfully with these machines, better education and improved safety standards and regulations, that is almost a thing of the past," she adds.

The company's machines are used in a variety of sectors from construction and wind energy to telecommunications, sports, entertainment, film and TV. They have worked on projects such as the Olympic Games in London, The Kelpies equine sculpture in Scotland and the redevelopment of both Lansdowne Road and Croke Park. They've even helped erect stages for acts such as U2 and Ed Sheeran and have been used on film sets from Game of Thrones in Ireland to Die Hard 5 in Budapest.

Fergus and Frances grew up in Termonfeckin outside Drogheda, Co Louth. In 1978, their father Harry came across a truck-mounted aerial platform that was working on the tall chimneys of a local industrial plant in Drogheda. And having spent a couple of hours watching workers go up and come back down again safely, he left with a sore neck - and a new business idea.

Having begun importing cherry pickers, Harry got his first big break in 1982 when he secured an order for six boom lifts for the Aughinish Alumina site in Limerick. The arrival of large multinational companies into Ireland in the '80s and '90s also helped as these resulted in the construction of many large-scale building projects all of which required solutions for safe working at heights. Then, in the mid-1990s, having tested the UK market with a depot in Scotland, the company went on to roll out four depots in the UK in Manchester, London, Newcastle and the UK Midlands.

"Business was always part of the family," says Frances. "Growing up, there were no mobile phones so the office phone was diverted to the house. We all got familiar from an early age with taking messages from customers looking to rent machines, and spent our summers either working in the office or in the yard," she adds.

Having studied architecture in UCD, Fergus worked for a time in Barcelona before joining the business in 2000. In 2013, he became MD and today divides his time between Dublin and Manchester. Frances completed a master's degree in English in UCD before going on to qualify as a safety instructor and trainer of cherry picker operators. Her vast knowledge of the sector, and of safety standards and legislation, made her the perfect choice to become the company's operational director.

Today, she is regularly invited to speak at health and safety events across multiple sectors.

"Our greatest business achievement is that we have been able to expand in tough times. Like a lot of other businesses, we too were hit by the fallout from the global recession, experiencing a 70pc drop in turnover," says Fergus. "In these back-to-the-wall moments you have two choices: wind it up or you stick around and fight. We chose to fight. We decided to get even closer to our customers, and by partnering with a range of hardware type providers around the country, we succeeded in rolling out a series of localised depots."

"Setting up our 24/7 phone support technical support team was also an important step and enabled us mobilise rapidly in any given location no matter how remote, something that has helped us target other growing areas such as the wind turbine maintenance market," says Frances. "Our machines now all have a QR code system which is a unique identifier containing the plant number as well as the certificate of thorough examination, machine specifications and quick-start guides. This feeds in to a bespoke in-house software platform where our service records are recorded digitally in one central location and where they can be accessed by our engineers at any time, no matter where they are."

Another huge growth market is self-drive machines for heights of up to 20m, which can now be collected by customers themselves and because they are mounted on a three-tonne chassis, can be driven using a standard car driving licence.

This makes such services more readily available to homeowners, farmers and small business owners. For those not inclined to working at heights themselves, they can hire a trained operator as part of their package. The company also runs a successful used machinery business that trades on five continents.

"Our future plans include focusing on developing the self-drive machine side of our business as well as continuing to roll out even more local depots. We will also concentrate on developing a Europe-wide large truck-mounted business as well as developing the trading arm for our used machines," adds Fergus.

Fergus and Frances's entrepreneurial achievements were recognised earlier his year when they were selected as finalists in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year programme.

While they may be the public faces of the company, both insist that they are supported by a strong leadership team that includes other family members in various management roles.

"Because we see ourselves as educators of those working at height, success for us is also about ensuring everyone gets home safely to their families," says Frances. "We like to think of ourselves as a company that is big enough to do the job but small enough to care," she adds.

Sunday Indo Business

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