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Featured Business: AA Caterex
Name: Michael Gowran, Director of AA Caterex, a catering and bar equipment sales and services company
In the 13 years since the business was first established, Michael and Maura Gowran’s catering equipment company has grown from one service engineer to a diverse business with two parts: warehouse and distribution, and an engineering company.
The work of the engineering side of the business will be familiar to a lot of people across Ireland without them even realising it. The company builds commercial kitchens and bars, imports and resells commercial catering equipment from around the world, and designs turnkey commercial kitchens and bars, including the recent kitchen design of Dylan McGrath’s Fade Street Social.
Additionally, in 2011 Michael set up a service department to provide service and to deal with customer returns for Tefal in Ireland. This new service department is in addition to warehousing and distribution for Tefal. The service department also repairs commercial catering equipment.
The service side of the business came first, sales came later. Having worked for various companies as a service engineer in Ireland, the UK and Australia, Michael and Maura (an accountant) decided to have a go at their own business.
Thirteen years down the line, Maura heads up the warehouse and distribution end of the business, while Michael mixes sales and design with the regular servicing of equipment to keep in touch with customer needs.
Interview with Michael Gowran
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
Basically to be in control; I wanted to run my own thing and call the shots.
What have been the highlights to date?
A recent highlight is becoming the agent for American Range machinery in Ireland. Previous to that, it was buying our own warehouse unit, purpose built for us. That was a great achievement. Also, building our new showroom in Rathcoole.
How did you initially fund your business?
We funded it ourselves. We saved money, and AIB was very helpful from the beginning.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
It is nothing like the original business. Originally it was literally a man in a van going out repairing machines.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
I like dealing with customers – the sense of achievement after designing and building a kitchen, and seeing it working for the first time, is great.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
I spend as much time as I can with the children, that’s really how I do it. It’s a hard question to answer.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
I think Richard Branson is excellent and I also like the way Hector Grey did business. Hector Grey had a number of shops in Dublin city; he sold everything from a needle to an anchor. I liked his philosophy; he had a saying “It’s not how you sell something, it’s how you purchase it.” By doing that, you’re able to hand on a decent discount to your customers – if you can actually purchase it at the right price. Richard Branson’s philosophy is he’s never had an original idea in his life. He just copied others and did it better.
What tools do you utilise that benefit your customers or that make running your business easier or more profitable?
For me, the biggest breakthrough ever is the iPhone. It took me six months to learn how to use it but, once you get the hang of it, it’s just savage. We’ve put a number of new systems in place with the warehouse.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
I’m out there with the customers; I see what’s happening to them every day of the week, I’m in their premises. My customers have been with me for 13 years, you can see how their businesses have changed. We have to change and adapt to suit their business; if we don’t, we won’t be here.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
It’s a universal challenge – I won’t be the first to say it, I won’t be the last – it’s cashflow.
What do you think the biggest challenge to businesses in Ireland is at the moment?
It’s cashflow again. It’s the lifeblood of any business. Getting new clients, getting yourself out there – marketing. That’s a challenge, especially when you don’t have a marketing background.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
The gift of the gab, chatting with customers.
What has been the best reward in running your own business?
It’s not monetary, it’s more to do with freedom: the ability to choose and to steer it the way you want to steer it and not to have to “kowtow”.
What was the main catalyst for growth?
What changed our business was the recession. A lot of the big companies had folded and there were clients looking for somebody to take care of their service – first and foremost that’s what we do, we have a name for it – so they came to us. The business grew from that, we were able to facilitate them. Going back to Hector Grey, getting the agency for American Range made my purchasing power or my ability to sell better, as I was getting equipment at the right price directly from the manufacturer.
How did you scale/grow your business?
Stepping up my ability to purchase at the right price.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
I get them from all around me. I watch other businesses – not just in Ireland. When I go to America – I think they are the forerunners in business – I watch them and I do what Richard Branson does: I copy them.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
I just love it.
What’s your vision for the future?
I want to grow the business a little bit more – I don’t want it to be huge. I have three young sons, so hopefully one of them will go “I want to get into that, Dad”. I want it to be a generational company. I see the company going on for a long time.
What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?
I could go back to cashflow but, if you want to take money out of it, the real obstacle is yourself – if you doubt yourself and say you can’t do something, you’re not going to do it.
Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?
I was very lucky to have two or three good mentors in my life and I did listen to them – life friends much older than me; some in business and some not. They taught me a lot.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
Always watch your back door. It’s down to being hands-on. You want to see how the goods are going out. The first person who sees the goods is the customer, so you want to be in control of it.
What’s your favourite motivational business quote?
You get what you negotiate, not what you deserve.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
Put your head down and work hard. If they’re inclined to go into business, they’re probably that sort of a person anyway. I would definitely talk to older people who have been in business for a time. All of this has been learnt over 13 years of being in business, and we’ve made lots of mistakes – but you learn from your mistakes. So a mentor programme would be good for somebody.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
I would delegate faster. It took me years to delegate. Most people who get into business are control freaks anyway. Ten people can do the job as well as you – if not better.
Please be aware that all of the views expressed in this Blog are purely the personal views of the authors and commentators (including those working for AIB as members of the AIB website team or in any other capacity) and are based on their personal experiences and knowledge at the time of writing.
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