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10 November 2015

Featured Business: Topform

Posted By: AIB Business

Name: John Flannery, Managing Director, Topform

Employees: 45

Since: 1976 (management buy-out in 1996)


Company Background:

It is rare to find someone who has handed over the reins of the business they’ve run for almost 20 years to someone outside of the family, yet continues to work there.

For Paul Glynn, owner of Topform since a management buy-out (MBO) in 1996, it was the way forward.

“It’s unusual, but something we’ll start to see more and more of,” says John Flannery, who was appointed managing director in April 2015.

Paul knew that to scale up the business to reach its real potential he needed someone with different skills to his own, and experience of growing a business on the international stage.

John has a long career history in the building products industry, promoting specialist products for various companies globally.

Based in Gort, Co Galway, Topform manufactures beautiful yet affordable laminate kitchen worktops for the building industry, with a clear focus on the repairs, maintenance and home improvements sector. It has an extensive business in the UK, targeted at the mobile home industry, which is supplied on a just-in-time basis on a par with the larger automotive supply chain.

In his first six months John has made small and subtle changes. The last thing you want to do in his position, he explains, is to make any decisions very quickly.

The fact that the business is people focused and that the many long-standing staff members are committed and on board with the new strategy has made his job easier.

“I think Paul was fairly astute. We don’t see it often, the owner-operator of a business handing the future of the business to somebody who has more experience in developing it to the next stage,” says John.

Paul has remained as Chairman and has specific roles related to the R&D function, which will drive opportunities for growth.

The business benefits from Paul’s availability, particularly when it comes to certain projects such as the implementation of a new ERP system. “With 21-22 years’ service, he is bringing his experience to bear where it is really needed in the business,” says John.


Interview with John Flannery

What was the inspiration for setting up your business?

The business was originally set up by a Canadian company. The current owner, Paul Glynn, bought it as part of an MBO. Paul had worked in the business for some time and had the opportunity to take the business, which was struggling, in a new direction.

How did you initially fund your business?

Paul funded it with his own money.

Have you diversified your offering from your original focus or set up other businesses?

We have diversified our product range and portfolio. We have directed the business towards higher value-added products. This has set us aside from competitors here and abroad. We tend to lead and our competitors to follow, as they tend to copy us and release products into the market when we’re already launching the next thing. We’re a very design-led company so we challenge what sells well. One of our tag lines is “We search the world so you don’t have to.”

What have been the highlights to date?

The main highlight is we have established a company in Gort, Co Galway that offers very stable employment to the community. It offers exceptional growth potential and development opportunity for people who join us. Also, we’ve been able to establish business as far as away as Australia. In recognition of that, we’re the current Small Firms Association Exporter of the Year.

What’s the bravest step you’ve made in relation to your business?

A number of years ago we had a board meeting where we really examined the types of products that we made and came up with the idea that our customers didn’t want our products at all. It’s humorous but it’s actually true; they wanted composite materials, they wanted granite and they wanted stone. We realised that everyone aspired to have those perceived luxury products but they couldn’t afford them or the maintenance associated with them. This is when we started to travel the world and find the colours and textures that somewhat replicated these other materials.

Another brave decision was when, in 2011, we said “The recession is over.” We banned the word. It’s amazing the change that decision brings about among the people in your business. Our view was that external factors could not dictate our future, and the management team needed to step up to the plate as it did during difficult times.

What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?

When we look at a product that arrives here as a raw material, see it go through the sales and production processes and onto a container, and get a picture from a user in Australia or New Zealand who’s installing it in a kitchen they’re going to sit in tomorrow morning. That’s something that makes us all very proud.

How do you achieve a work-life balance?

I’ve two small children so I’ve no choice in making the balance, which is a good thing. I spend a lot of time, when I’m not here or travelling, with my family. I play golf badly and watch a lot of rugby (especially Munster).

Are you inspired by any business figures or success stories?

I think someone like Jack Welch gives people the vision for scaling up a business and driving it forward. In our business we’re practitioners of the Rockefeller Habits, which is a programme promoted by a guy called Verne Harnish that brings huge advantages to us in the way we tackle day-to-day tasks and grow our business.

What tools or technologies do you use that benefit your customers or business?

We invest heavily in the latest machinery and technology associated with the woodworking industry. Our view has always been to over-specify the machines we need, so we buy the best. We’re conscious we’re on the west coast of Ireland and need to be self-sufficient, and we need reliable machinery. We tend to sell our machinery before it depreciates, therefore realising the potential value. One of our core values is to spend, invest and save.

Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?

We talk to our customers on a daily basis, and our senior managers talk to our customers on a monthly basis. We have an unrivalled lead time in our business. We don’t stock finished goods. In most cases you order something on a Monday and we deliver it on a Friday. This is a building product that’s made from scratch in that lead time; it’s quite unusual. It’s one of the things we call our brand promise. We’ve a cut-off on a Monday and then we start the production schedule.


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