Wednesday 17 January 2018

Check out Alpha: all the signs are there

Owen Kennedy trained as a solicitor - but he found that he hated the job. He tells Sean Gallagher how he left and has never looked back

Sean Gallagher with Owen Kennedy of Alpha Sign Nameplate & Decal . Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher with Owen Kennedy of Alpha Sign Nameplate & Decal . Photo: David Conachy
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Tucked away in a small manufacturing facility in the Kylemore Park North industrial estate of west Dublin is a company that few members of the general public will ever have heard off. Yet most of us will see or touch their products on a daily basis.

That's because their business has less to do with promoting themselves and their brand - and more to do with promoting the brands and products of their customers.

Alpha Sign, Nameplate and Decal Company was set up in 1993 by former solicitor Owen Kennedy and his business partner Cormac O'Connor. Today, they employ 16 staff and have an annual turnover of €1.5m.

"We make everything from the signs over a business's premises to the nameplates on their door," explains Owen as he shows me around the company's expansive display area. "Signs are like silent salespeople - they continuously advertise your business and work quietly for you 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he adds with a laugh.

In addition to signage, the company also make employee name badges, architectural lettering, award plaques as well as CE markings and ISO safety labels. They are also specialists in the manufacturing of assets tags.

Made from hard-wearing materials such as laminated vinyl, anodised aluminium and etched brass or stainless steel, these are fitted to capital equipment, often along with bar codes, serial numbers and QR codes, to help identify and keep track of valuable plant. As we talk about the name of his company, Alpha Sign Nameplate and Decal Co Ltd, I ask Owen what a decal is?

"Decal is short for decalcomania. These are types of stickers or designs which are prepared on special outdoor grade plastics that can then be transferred on to another surface such as glass or metal," he says.

Keen to give me a lesson in how this all works, Owen takes to the factory floor to meet his team. As we chat, I discover what a great character he is. For him, business is not all about money - it's about enjoying what he does.

"I love this work, I love people and I love looking after our customers as if they are an extension of our staff," he adds eagerly. "Over the last 23 years, I've also come to the realisation that I tend to do business with people I like and who like me."

Around the walls and shelves of the display area are samples of work he has done for some of his valued customers. Among them are many recognisable brand names including tech giants Microsoft, Intel, Google and Amazon; public sector and semi-State firms such as An Post, the HSE, DAA and Iarnrod Eireann; food and pharmaceutical companies such as Coca Cola and Amgen; machinery and automotive manufacturers such as Caterpillar, John Deere and Aston Martin cars. There's also a number of universities and colleges.

The company also has a growing number of international customers, with 15pc of their turnover now coming from exports, particularly to places such as the UK, France, Mexico, Switzerland and Germany.

As we move into the manufacturing area, staff are busy on the printing presses. Some are producing large black and yellow adhesive labels that will eventually go on the side of hay balers or fertiliser spreaders for one of his key customers.

As I watch, it's plain to see that extreme care is taken to ensure every label is individually handed and checked for quality. On a large bench nearby, a staff member is operating a machine that releases tiny drops of resin on to decals, creating dome or bubble-like shaped labels that will eventually make their way on to one of his customer's expensive IT equipment.

Elsewhere, staff are busy rolling out a series of Tiger Floor markings. Made in black and yellow, red and yellow, and red and white, these highly visible and durable markings are used on factory floors and in clean room environments to help guide staff and visitors as to where they should or should not walk.

While he is now very much at home in the manufacturing world, that's not where he started out. Owen grew up in Clonskeagh in Dublin. He was first introduced to the world of selling at the age of 10 - flogging match programmes at his local rugby grounds. This was his first taste of business and he loved it. "I used to position myself right in front of the crowd as they made their way in to the game and, as a result, I always sold more than all my other schoolmates put together," explains Owen. "I realised then at a young age that I born to sell. I really was. I also learned other valuable lessons, like if you are in the right place at the right time, then people who have a need for what you are selling will buy from you," he adds wisely.

After school, Owen studied law in UCD and having served his apprenticeship in a legal practice, qualified as a solicitor through the Law Society of Ireland.

"The only problem was I hated every minute of it. I just couldn't wait to get out of the place," says Owen vehemently. "Then one evening, I happened to be in a bar when I met a man who was just about to set up a new company, making signs. We got chatting and he invited me to come and work with him for a while until I decided what I wanted to do next.

"I ended up staying there for 15 years and becoming general manager of the company. But after helping him make a pile of money, I decided it was time for me to paddle my own canoe. So I joined forces with another work colleague, Cormac O'Connor, and together we set up our own business, Alpha Sign Nameplate and Decal Ltd. And thankfully, we haven't looked back since," he adds.

The pair turned out to be a perfect team with individual skills that complemented each other. Cormac, a welder by training, looks after the production side of the business, while Owen takes care of finance and sales functions.

Owen's in-depth knowledge of the business, together with the huge number of contacts he had built up over the years, helped bring in some initial orders. But like every new business, the pair needed to proactively drive sales in the early days.

"I took out the Kompas directory, rang every company I could find and then went out there and knocked on doors. Basic as that - but the business just grew from there," explains Owen.

In 2012, the company bought Taylor Signs, a corporate sign business which had gone into liquidation. Well-known within the industry, the company had 60 years of trading history and was responsible in 1961 for creating the iconic 'Why go Bald?' neon sign off George's Street.

"This acquisition turned out to be a good move on our part and one that helped us really grow the corporate signage part of our business," adds Owen.

At 64, Owen still has lots of energy. He also has lots of ideas for the business and wants to see it grow and expand.

"I don't want to see the business get so big that I can't offer our customers the type of personal service and attention they are used to. I still want to be able to get into my car at any hour of the day or night and drive halfway across the country if a customer needs something.

"For example, I have had customers who have run out of CE Mark plates for their products. Their machines were already manufactured and sitting on the factory floor, but couldn't be shipped until they get these plates, which are required by the EU machinery directive.

"Because our mission is to support our customers run their businesses, I've often headed off in the middle of the night to bring them the plates they needed in time for their morning shipment," explains Owen.

While he sees himself continuing to contribute to the business for as long as he can, he does think about the future and life after it. He tells me that he has a long list of interesting things he wants to do, including travelling more.

For now though, his focus is definitely on growing the business and exploring new product ideas. His son, David, recently joined the company and is working in the sales department alongside him, as well as on the company's website, digital and social media campaigns.

"If David grows to like the business as much as I do, then who knows, maybe one day he will take over. But for now, I love what I do. I love all the people I meet. And I love the great and loyal team we have built up here.

"Above all, I love being able to help our customers in what they do," insists Owen. "Sure what more could one ask for?"

A great philosophy indeed.

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