Thurles is famous for being the place where the GAA was founded. It's also well-known as the birth place of aviation tycoon Tony Ryan, pop star Una Healy and comedian Pat Shortt. From a few miles down the road, another name to add to that list is Jack O'Dwyer, the founder of Pressure Welding Manufacturing.
ack started as an apprentice mechanical fitter in 1964 and honed his craft in the sugar factory, the power stations and other great industrial giants of the time. The one word he used regularly when I met him was "quality". This was clearly a priority with his mentors at the time and it has been Jack's abiding ethos ever since.
Mechanical fitting also involves other associated tasks such as metal fabrication and welding. As Jack built his career, the entrepreneurial spirit was starting to bubble. In 1979, he moved to Australia for a year to make money, working on diesel engines in an open cast iron ore mine. He returned and quickly built his reputation on projects in Valley Ice Cream, Procter & Gamble, Erin Foods and Pinewood Healthcare.
I'm always curious about those anxious first steps that SMEs take when deciding to hire their first employee. But it wasn't a big decision for Jack to recruit more craftsmen. The business flowed in on the back of their reputation for quality work. Pressure Welding Manufacturing (PWM) became a formal entity in 1980.
Around that time, several pharmaceutical and food and beverage companies were set up. Their needs for precision metal fabrication and welding, using stainless steel, are very specific. Tanks, trolleys and pipes often have to be custom made to fit high specification installations.
The 'Orbital Welding' Milestone
In 1988, Jack discovered a new technology and was one of the first to introduce computerised orbital welding in Ireland. (In my non-technical description, this is a form of computerised precision welding where the join in a pipe is clamped and the weld is seamless both inside and outside. Yet it is traceable to the exact point of joining.) This was a £50,000 investment at the time. For a small company, it was indeed a brave move.
Orbital welding is a highly skilled process that demands a certain level of dexterity. This is both perfect and expected in high-purity industries where hygiene standards are stringent. PWM now have five such machines that are mobile and can accommodate working on a client's own site.
The business secured some great customers such as Amneal Pharmaceuticals, Merry's Liqueur (food and beverage), Procter & Gamble (cosmetics) and as sub-contractors to some of the best known names in semi-conductor manufacturing.
PWM didn't escape the ill-wind that came with the downturn in 2008. Many other engineering companies closed down. PWM was faced with temporarily scaling back from more than 20 employees to three. It helped that the business had grown conservatively and hadn't taken on unnecessary debt. Nevertheless, Jack himself went back on the tools as needs determined.
Today the business employs 15 people and, faced with a new future, daughter Sinead joined the family business. Although coming from a different industry, she decided to give this a try for six months. That was in 2015, so clearly it was a success. "We have similar personalities, our skills complement one another and our roles and responsibilities are very clear," said Sinead.
Jack now focuses on the technical side of the business and leaves all of the other management to Sinead. They have a shared vision for the future and a strong value around showing respect to all they come in touch with.
When they scaled to a level that made them eligible for support from Enterprise Ireland, they took great value from their appointed mentor. Together they built a three-year blueprint which gave them a revised vision and strategy (north star).
The main pillars of that included succession, stabilisation of the business and export to new markets. The great benefit of that process was to get access to strategies that large corporates employ and having them adapted to suit PWM.
Mindset changes in the industry
PWM is in what most people would describe as a male-dominated industry. Sinead admits to having been a little anxious about that at the start but has been welcomed with great respect wherever she goes. Determined to build on her father's track record and to take the business to the next level, she started a part-time Trinity MBA. This involves projects, practical experiences, leadership and personal development and a general knowledge of strategy and finance. This has already helped her thinking, given her structure and a confidence to face the future.
Tipperary is a changed place from when Jack started out. While there is some local investment, most big projects are centred in Dublin and Cork. Growth for PWM will have to come from these locations and from outside Ireland.
With a renewed sense of purpose and desire to scale, Sinead is as dynamic as her father. They will soon hire a chief engineer to work with Jack and ensure a structured transfer of technical knowledge. But make no mistake, Jack will also be around for years to come.