Thursday 24 January 2019

The lawn ranger is riding 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 Mark O'Loughlin, MD of Sanctuary Synthetics at their HQ in Naas, Co. Kildare. Photo: Tony Gavin
Sean Gallagher with Mark O'Loughlin, MD of Sanctuary Synthetics at their HQ in Naas, Co. Kildare. Photo: Tony Gavin
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Set up in 2002 by Kildare native Mark O'Loughlin, Sanctuary Synthetics specialises in the supply, installation and wholesale distribution of artificial grass. Based on Military Road Industrial Park in Naas, it employs 14 staff and has an annual turnover of €2m.

"When I exhibited at my first trade show, in the RDS in 2003, people laughed at me for introducing the idea of an artificial grass product given that we have so much natural grass here in Ireland. However, I was so convinced of the benefits of artificial grass that I was determined not to be put off," says Mark.

"I thought back to the time when people said the same thing to the founder of Ballygowan when he talked about selling water. And look how that turned out. However, this initial reaction made me realise that it was going to be a challenge and that I was going to have to educate the market about the concept and benefits of using artificial grass before I would be able to sell to them," he adds.

Mark imports the synthetic grass from Holland ,where it is manufactured. The grass is used in everything from residential gardens and apartment balconies to graves where it makes for a warmer and more sustainable covering.

"What we tell our customers is that there is no more muck, no more mowing and no more maintenance," says Mark.

A perfect solution too for childcare settings, it is increasingly being used to replace concrete and tarmacadam in playgrounds and primary school yards around the country.

"Lots of schools now don't permit children to run around for fear they might fall on the concrete which is a real pity. However, with synthetic grass, it is much safer so they can run around without the fear of hurting themselves," he explains. "And we can even design in different colours, and with cartoon characters and giant footprints to make it more playful."

Installing the artificial grass is relatively straightforward although labour intensive. The existing soil is dug out and, where possible, retained for use in raised flower beds or the like. Once levelled, finely-ground crushed stones called 804 are then laid out and patted down similar to what you would expect in a typical patio installation. Finally, the artificial grass is rolled out and secured by using treated timber edging.

Mark also does a lot of work for corporate clients, ranging from smoking areas in bars to hotels which use the grass area for, among other things, all-weather locations for weddings photographs. He has also installed his synthetic grass in the footwear areas of the Life Style chain of sports outlets and even installed an artificial putting green on the top floor of Ryanair's headquarters.

"It can be used in almost every setting with the exception of astro turf football fields, which is a more specialist area," insists Mark.

The company also has approximately 150 wholesale customers who include a mix of landscape gardeners as well as event and marketing firms who use the artificial grass for displays, on trade show stands and at event launches.

Mark grew up on a farm in Kill, Co Kildare. After studying marketing and administration in DIT, he spent most of the next decade travelling before eventually settling in San Francisco where he set up his own landscaping business.

In 1999, he returned to Ireland and again set up a landscaping business with friend and colleague Niall Kavanagh. The pair's innovative approach saw them develop some of the country's first log cabins. Sadly, Niall passed away prematurely. "Then in 2001, I was in Orlando with a pal at a PGA golf show when I came across artificial grass on putting greens for the first time. I was blown away with how realistic-looking it was and that's when the light bulb went off in my head," says Mark.

Having researched the market he found that most sales of the product were to countries where the weather was too hot for grass to grow. Then it dawned on him that because Ireland was the direct opposite and grass grew too quickly, artificial grass would be an ideal solution to any number of applications.

He has been exhibiting now at flower show Bloom for the last 11 years and over that time has won many awards for his show gardens. In 2011 he received a silver medal for his Sanctuary Alice in Wonderland garden, another silver medal in 2013 for his Sanctuary Wizard of Oz garden and again in 2016 when he received a silver medal for his Sanctuary Secret Life of Pets garden.

"This year we are showcasing our Sanctuary Nature Garden in association with the Phoenix Park Special School and the 'Sanctuary' upside-down garden which we believe to be a world's first. Our tag line, 'Look at your lawn a different way', is designed to make people understand the importance of embracing difference."

Having worked hard over the years, it was a comment from one of his staff that changed how he now thinks about business.

"One day when I was discussing with one of my team about how hard this work was, he quoted his grandfather whose favourite saying was that 'an ounce of commerce is worth a ton of work'. That's when I changed from being a landscaper to a businessman," admits Mark. "I realised there and then that if I was going to build the business I had to work on it and not in it. And I had to work smarter, not just harder."

With a new headquarters and showroom now open in Naas, he is continuing to seek out new applications for his artificial grass.

"I love what we do here. There is great satisfaction in seeing someone's lawn or garden transform from a mucky mess into a clean, tidy and maintenance-free area that they and their families can enjoy in comfort," says Mark.

"I now want to continue to expand our reach, expand our workforce and grow the business. There's a great irony through as I look back at my time growing up on the farm. My father was a cattle dealer and now I sell grass that doesn't even grow," he says with a laugh.

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