Posted on Tuesday 12 March 2013 by Ulster Business

Interview

Entrepreneurs need to "always be nervous" and should "steal a little bit" of the best attributes and expertise from everyone they meet in business if they want to be successful.

Those were two pieces of advice given in a recent lecture by Dr Martin Naughton, founder and president of Ireland's largest privately owned manufacturing business, Glen Dimplex.

The entrepreneur normally shuns the limelight so it was no surprise to find more than 200 leading business figures crowded in to the University of Ulster's York Street campus to hear him interviewed by broadcaster Gerry Kelly.

Dr Naughton quipped that he prefers to keep a low profile because "in business an unknown enemy is hard to defeat".

A mechanical engineer by training he founded his appliance manufacturing business Glen Electric with ten employees in Newry in 1973 at the height of the Troubles. The business succeeded where others failed by focusing on doing a small number of products well.

In 1977 he bought Dimplex – an Irish company eight times larger than Glen Electric were at that time – out of receivership and took ownership of its brands. He continues as President of the Group, which now has a worldwide turnover in excess of €1.5bn, over 10,000 employees and 22 manufacturing plants worldwide.

Naughton said times of economic difficulty had traditionally been good for Dimplex, allowing it to buy up competitors which were living off their brands but not investing in new product design and development. After taking out those competitors Glen now has 95% of the UK heating business.

He advised other entrepreneurs to see recession as a time of opportunity, at the same time warning that starting your own business is "not for everybody" and that you "pay a price for everything in life".

"Sitting around complaining and moaning and groaning gets nobody anywhere. Building a business is about having a positive attitude, it is about rolling up your sleeves and getting on with it," he told Ulster Business.

"I think the key is investing in new products. Also, don't run before you can walk – conquer your own market first, focus on controlling that, and then move to the next easiest market for you. For most in Northern Ireland that means they should look to the South and then start looking across the water. But don't try to do everything at once, to conquer Europe and America at once, concentrate on doing them one by one."

Dr Naughton's said his own company is "structured for depression" following the global downturn and subsequent drop in consumer demand, with no borrowings for 15 years and large cash reserves in the bank. But he also said his senior managers are more positive now than they have been at any time in the last five years.

In 2003 Dimplex went into China, a country Naughton described as representing "both a great threat and a great opportunity" to the company. The threat comes from cheap competitors and the opportunity the vast number of increasingly wealthy Chinese consumers who aspire to owning Western brands. While Glen is manufacturing in China, its founder confirmed it has no plans to move its operations in Newry and Portadown.

"By constantly manufacturing new products we are able to manufacture in the Western world and stay competitive," he said.

"We're here because it is right to be here. We're an offshore island off an offshore island, therefore we have to compensate for that. We would be very positive about our future here. It is possible to compete and either you compete or you die," he added.

Dr Naughton believes there has been a sea change in the quality of management in Ireland, both north and south.

"I'm so impressed by the calibre of people I see in management that we have here and I'd have a lot of confidence for the future because of the quality of those people," he said.

"I think the people now who are going into business are much more educated than my generation, they are much more self-confident, much better travelled," he added.

"Some of our Northern Ireland executives who started with us as engineers, are now running global companies for us and have the capacity to do it. That's not because of sentimentality, that's because they are the best, most competent people."

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