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He sits quietly behind his desk in a rather unassuming office at the SDC Trailers’ Toomebridge headquarters, unflappable and considered throughout the interview.
Earlier this year, John Donnelly, owner of SDC Trailers and chairman of the Retlan Group, celebrated 50 years in business. He has much to be proud of, with close to a thousand employees churning out trailers of such high quality that SDC has enjoyed stellar success in recent years, becoming widely known as the UK’s leading trailer manufacturer, and one of Northern Ireland’s most successful businesses.
I’ve been asking him about any lessons he feels he can impart to budding entrepreneurs after his 50 years of experience, and after a moment or two’s thought, he offers up some very useful advice. “In business, things will always go wrong. The key is not to panic, remain calm and think your way through it. Preparation and thought are the key to business success, and that’s the best lesson I can give”.
Born in 1947, John started out working for his father who was a blacksmith. When his father took ill John ran the forge at the tender age of 16 and from there he decided to branch out and head for Belfast.
He took a job in Mallusk repairing Mixer barrels – dirty, loud and difficult work as he describes it. In October 1965 he went to work for Dennisons trailer manufacturers at Chimney Corner where he started out as a welder. Within a few years he was moving up the management chain within the company and by 1975 he was managing the plant.
It was at this point that he decided to take all of the manufacturing and business knowledge that he had accrued and make it work for himself.
He set up MDF (Metal Design and Fabrication) and based the company at the old Forge where he had worked for his father a decade earlier. He knocked the old building down and built a 4000 square foot factory making trailer chassis and within three years the new company was churning out 3,000 chassis a year. It was here that a valuable lesson was learnt which stood him in good stead when the world’s economy collapsed in 2008. Thirty years earlier, in 1978, MDF had a bumper year. Rather than splash out on a new car he put the money away and there it remained until the recession of 1980.
Despite the recession, MDF continued to expand and by 1984 he bought a 51,000 square feet factory building with support from LEDU. In the beginning MDF were only using a small part of the 51,000 feet but by the early 1990’s he needed to expand again, adding a further 30,000 sq feet to the site.
In 1997 he bought SH Waterson Engineering in Magherafelt, which made farm machinery, and in 1998 he bought SDC Trailers. He says that he thought long and hard about the purchase, but reasoned that since SDC were a huge customer of his existing company, it made good logical sense to do so.
The next ten years saw rapid growth in SDC’s output, but he now admits that the company was storing up a big problem which came home to roost in 2008.
“While we were very busy, we were dependent on too small a number of clients. When 2008 hit, many of those clients took a bad hit which left us limited in where we could go to replace the lost business. But I had an excellent management team around me, particularly Darren Donnelly as Executive Director, and the now Chief Executive Mark Cuskeran, and we didn’t panic. We put together a plan which involved cutting down the staff numbers, developing our LEAN Production capability, ensuring that quality didn’t suffer, and getting out there to find new customers. The staff were fantastic in how they worked with us during this time and that has never been forgotten. Everyone pulled together and we came through it.”
The company has replaced the 180 staff it had been forced to shed in 2008, and employed many more since then. SDC has recently opened its latest venture SDC Middle East to capitalise in the opportunities there and is also increasing its presence in northern Europe and Scandinavia.
So any final lessons gained after 50 years of experience?
“Make sure that you have the best people possible around you – I’ve been very lucky to have an excellent senior management team and workforce. That can be particularly true in terms of seeing potential in people and trusting them to develop, which I hope I’ve done throughout my career. That cannot be under estimated. Make sure that you know, and understand every aspect of your business, and plan well in advance what you want to do. Otherwise, don’t panic when things go wrong, and enjoy it. I still get excited when new customers land or new orders arrive”