US President Benjamin Franklin once noted: "When you're finished changing, you're finished." That phrase must have been in the back of the mind of Derry Sheehan, MD of Avonmore Electrical at Roskeen which now has 80 on its payroll, the highest number since the company's formation nearly 60 years ago.
The company made a clever move and purchased the Dublin-based Campbell Electric motors in December 2015. The purchase means Avonmore Electrical are now the sole Irish agents for both electric motor sales repairs for ABB (Asea Brown Boveri), who are regarded as the biggest players globally in robotics, power and automation technology.
With Avonmore Electrical now firmly embedded with the ABB family, the company will again be upping their staffing levels in time to come. The Corkman met with Derry Sheehan who officially took over the family run-business from his father, Jerry a decade ago.
"We were after ABB for a few years and we pitched our company and our business model to them. They were impressed and for us it is absolutely huge business-wise to have ABB," said Derry.
Every day thousands of cars pass Avonmore Electrical and some may wonder just what the company does. There is their "bread and butter" work such as pump repairs and the catering for electrical requirements in the mining, pharmaceutical, commercial and heavy duty industry. However, in the last two years, Avonmore Electrical has installed a new plant at a cost of €500,000 as part of a €3 million investment plan.
"This is a long term investment. Initially we thought it would cost €1 million but now we're at €3 million. But, do you know what? it is justified as we have 80 people employed who nearly all come from Duhallow. I'm very proud of that," said Derry. The company is nowseen as a leading expert in the repair of wind turbines and heavy-duty pumps. The country has in excess of 1,500 wind turbines and Derry realised the massive potential for providing repair and maintenance services. It meant the plant had to be greatly altered to have the space for such repairs, which took almost two years to complete. Into the bargain, Avonmore Electrical is also the country's only expert in the repair of explosion proof equipment to be accredited by the British Approvals Service for Electrical Equipment in Flammable Atmosphere (BASEEFA).
Derry said the highest number of staff they had on their books was 73 people in 2006-2007 but, after the recession hit, that number had dwindled to 48 by 2009. Hard decisions had to be made and that meant redundancies. Derry described those years as being "a brutal time" not just for the company but equally so for him. "Business ebbs and flows, but I will never forget having to make staff redundant. I felt that no matter what I did it would be wrong, but I was trying my very best to do my best for everyone. We are a family-run company based in a rural area and I didn't just know my staff by name but I knew all their families and their children. Was that hard on me? Absolutely!" he said.
"These were men from my own town of Millstreet, from Kanturk and villages throughout Duhallow. The business environment was very tough and the recession took its toll on us. But I had to put the head down and work out a plan to get us back up on top. I don't and have never believed in having a defeatist attitude. The most important aspect of being in business, particularly family-run, is that you must move with the times," he said.
When asked just how bad was the situation, he said: "We were looking over the edge of a cliff wondering what is next? So, as I said you can either have a positive or negative attitude but I felt that we had many things on our side, we had high skills, an excellent location and it was about moving forward and branching out our business and our thinking."
"To show how serious the situation was, we were doing 40 per cent less turnover from the start of January 2011 compared to January 2008. It was, simply put, a brutal time." So, there were long nights and even longer days for Derry as he began to put a plan in action. The new business strategy meant going after new markets and being catapulted to being a leading expert in the repair of wind turbines and heavy-duty pumps. It meant upskilling, attaining further accreditation and edging the company forward in the business world. During the lengthy interview at his company, he also spoke about 'EX' motors - which are used in any area of factory or plant with the potential to have an explosive atmosphere from flammable substances like gases, vapours, mists or dusts. While many companies in this country claimed to be able to make valid EX repairs - none actually had IEC EX accreditation. So Derry added this to his portfolio, which helped advance the company's status as a leader in its field. He readily agrees that the IEC EX process was invaluable and he described it as being an "ultra-scrupulous" approach which requires high end detailed records. He also agreed that by having this accreditation also brought about a strong confidence in staff and once they had obtained certification, then the "new outlook trickled down through the whole company."
On the back of all this work, the company grew by 7-8 per cent in 2011, 2012, 2013 - nice steady growth. Things then accelerated in 2015 and not only was the heavy fog lifting but there was economic sunshine at last as they expanded by a whopping 21 per cent. "Never in my living memory did we see our expansion grow so fast. It was such a relief to see work pay off," he said.
"As we were after ABB for a while and because of our success in 2014-2015 we were back being profitable again and it allowed us to invest again and unless we had the money to pump back into the company, then we were going nowhere. It made sense to buy Campbell Electric motors," he said. "Again, this new business model was put in place and with the mammoth changes made to the plant, we had the room to work on wind turbines and heavy-duty pumps. It also meant that the company was more or less a construction site for two years. But ultimately, it meant our new business model was profitable. That was a huge relief," he said. Throughout the interview, he repeatedly and at length heaped praise upon the staff. He stressed that the "character" of the employee is a vital component. He said that, over the years, the company has had apprentices who were "exceptional," but they are a rare breed.
"The right attitude, the right character and the willingness to work - that's what I have always looked for," he said. Derry's own background is in electrical engineering and he has worked full time with the company since he was 19 years-years old when he finished college in 1990. Avonmore Electrical has been his first and only job. He was a cub when at 19 years-old he found himself standing next to his father, Jerry, who set up the company in 1958. But was his dad a hard-task master? With a smile, Derry leans forward and said that he learnt a lot from his father. "It is often said that the father-son relationship is one which is the hardest and one which is super-critical. I'll put it to you this way, I didn't get it easy, but did I learn? Absolutely!" he said with a laugh. In 2008 Derry became managing director and "the following year the economy melted."
Derry's brother John also works at the company, and his other brother Noel has his own business. By putting a new business model in place, he also attained further nods of accreditation - Environmental ISO 14001, which covers emissions and waste and the Occupational Health and Safety 18001.
"We are still here because we are innovative and simply because we had to be. I knew we couldn't stand still, " he said. He works from 9am to 7pm but on busy days he mightn't finish until 9pm. At weekends it wouldn't be uncommon to see him "up the mountains in Killarney" at 6am where he would walk until lunch time and be back home to Millstreet in time for lunch with his wife Janice and three children, Eabha (13), Holly (10) and John B (8).
He also makes it his business to "talk to people" who are in the same line of work as himself. He frequently chats with members of EASA (Electrical Apparatus Service Association) which), an international trade organisation of nearly 1,800 electromechanical sales and service firms in 63 countries. "It greatly lessens the burden when you have something on your mind which is work related and, from EASA I have made some very close friends over the years," he said. In 2010, the company held an open day, and Derry is again holding one for his customers on September 8.
"Our best advertisement is for our customers to come here and to see what we are all about. It has always been the formula that people deal with people and I don't want to break that formula," he said. On the day it's expected that in excess of 100 invited customers will attend from throughout a host of businesses such as dairying, local authorities, pharmaceutical, manufacturing, power generation and petro-chemical Industries. As the interview drew to a close, he remarked twice in quick succession how "business ebbs and flows" - and while that is absolutely true, the company has not only battled the recession but in effect re-invented, elevated itself and is moving ahead of the tide.