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Featured Business: Woodfarm Fencing Supplies
Name: Jason English, Managing Director, Woodfarm Fencing Supplies – manufacturers and suppliers of pressure-treated timber products.
Having the right person in the right place at the right time can play a key role in the continued success of a business. For Woodfarm Fencing Supplies, a family-run company in County Galway, the economic crash played an unexpected role in the succession of the business.
Established in the 1970s, the core business at the Ballinasloe plant was handed over from father to son, Jason English, in the last three to four years. Jason’s siblings Kenneth and Jane, as well as parents John and Mary, all play a role in the business.
Jason, who had built his own plastering business in Dublin over a 10-year period, took the opportunity to move back to the West in 2009 and get involved in the family business.
He came home for two weeks, started helping in the business, found he had an interest in it and made the move home.
Substantial investment in new machinery in the last two years has enabled the company to extend its product line and create five new jobs. It’s a machinery-based business, explains Jason – you can do nothing without machinery.
Jason has put a lot of hard work into expanding the business and hopes to grow his customer base and sales with the addition of further products.
In recognition of the superior quality of Woodfarm’s products, it was among the Manufacturing finalists in the Small Firms Association (SFA) National Small Business Awards 2013.
Interview with Jason English
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
My father would say out of necessity; out of no work; just to make a living. He had the choice to go to FÁS or to start up his own business – he chose that. He would always have been asked to temper firewood and that kind of thing. He eventually got the butt machine [a specialist saw for logs] from England and that started him up.
What have been the highlights to date?
Obviously, getting nominated for the awards [SFA National Small Business Awards 2013].
For me, personally, we bought a machine and set up a debarking line. We were limited enough in the product range we had. We spent €250,000 in the yard, but it brought a lot of new customers to the business. It created five jobs. It allowed us another product that we didn’t have.
How did you initially fund your business?
It was a shoestring budget. He [Jason’s father, who founded the business] got a small startup grant.
Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?
I took over the core business about three years ago and it hadn’t changed much in the previous 10 years. We invested in the place: we upgraded, we extended the sawmill itself, we added on machinery that allowed higher production and also a variety in the type of posts.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
I enjoy the industry itself. I enjoy the running of the place. I enjoy the machinery, to be honest with you. The fact of being able to go into work every day – there’s nothing worse than if you can’t go to work. I’m lucky to have it.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
Over the last couple of years, I’ve put massive hours into the place; we’d have double shifts running and that was tough. Our home is adjacent to the sawmill, so I’d be in and out for dinner. Even if I was in Dublin and travelling on the M50 I still wouldn’t be home til 8 in the evening. For me, there’s no travelling to and from work. Sometimes I get carried away with work. I’m beginning to set it up more that I manage it, rather than be involved in the production.
Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?
When I was in Dublin I would have seen a lot of rags to riches stories; ordinary fellas that did very well and weren’t cowboys. So, I would have taken a lot [of inspiration] from several different men at that stage. From my father and these men you would see it’s hard work that pays.
What tools do you utilise that benefit your customers or that make running your business easier or more profitable?
We have some computer-controlled machinery set up very well; that’s helped in taking out labour costs. We get much higher output out of the machinery.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
It has to be that any customer getting a load is happy and, by talking to the lorry drivers, you immediately hear back the reaction they got when they went in.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
In the last couple of years, for me, the biggest thing would be to sort out the cashflow so I can keep the sawmill running all year round and keep the men employed. AIB in Ballinasloe have been brilliant; we got a lot of investment from them.
What do you think the biggest challenge to businesses in Ireland is at the moment?
There needs to be a demand, first of all, for what you’re trying to sell. The second thing is collecting the money. It’s all about getting paid – if you’re not able to collect the money, you’re gone.
What part of running a business comes to you naturally?
I’m not bad at dealing with people – the lads in the yard, or customers.
What has been the best reward in running your own business?
Having a full-time job.
What was the main catalyst for growth?
Looking to drive the business on; looking to become one of the leading manufacturers of what we do. To have the place running efficiently, to try and pay everyone’s wages and make money for the company. So there’s something out of it and something to reinvest back into it.
How did you scale/grow your business?
By trying to get new customers and by sorting out the cashflow.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
I would be aware of what’s going on in the industry and what the new products are. I have an interest and I would be aware of them. I would be ambitious enough too; I wouldn’t be afraid to take the plunge and buy a new machine.
What motivates you to stay running a business?
I want to see our business being a success. A success to me is that all loans are cleared and the business is functional without me having to spend an 80-hour week there; that it’s properly managed and properly manned.
What’s your vision for the future?
The vision for the future is to hopefully add another product to what we are selling within the next year, and many more after that. To maintain the sales we have and to grow more – to get new customers and grow the turnover.
What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?
The cashflow is the hard work side of it. I have found AIB in Ballinasloe, to be honest, are really supportive and interested in what we are doing. If they weren’t being helpful towards me, it would be twice as difficult. From day one, they have been helpful, friendly and supportive.
Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?
When I was plastering, I worked for several guys. I was 25, they were 45 to 50. I would have taken some advice from all of them and I was lucky that the people I was working with were ambitious, successful and you would learn a lot from them. Even in our own case, since I was five or six years old, my father has been at that job; he’s had customers as long as the business has been running. I take advice from what he’s done too.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
The first contracting job I got myself as a plasterer was given to me by one of the fellas I looked up to. I was working in Rathgar. The man we were doing the job for was a fairly successful accountant, a very hard working man; the thing he said to me was “Work is the only way up”.
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
To have payment terms agreed. If there’s any doubt about who they are selling to, forget about it because, if they’re not going to get paid and aren’t able to collect the money, they’re going to be gone.
What, if anything, would you do differently?
There is nothing I would do differently.
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