Posted on Saturday 22 January 2011 byUlster Business
Medical products manufacturer TG Eakin may not be a household name in Northern Ireland, but the company has grown in to one of the region's most successful export businesses under the leadership of Managing Director Jeremy Eakin
It is important to Jeremy Eakin that the company he runs is an enjoyable place to work.
Based on the Ballystockart Road near Comber, the company was originally formed by pharmacist Tom Eakin, Jeremy's father, in 1974. It manufactures high-quality skin protection products for use in stoma and wound care.
The products developed by Tom Eakin were initially sold by another company under its own brand name, and it stayed that way until the early 1990s when the firm decided to expand by exporting and increasing R&D. In 2007, it acquired Pelican Healthcare a Cardiff-based supplier and manufacturer of specialist stoma and feminine health products.
It now exports to 30 countries, with key markets being the developed Western countries in Europe, North America and Australasia.
That export success led to the firm winning the Queen's Award for Enterprise last year, and Jeremy Eakin says it was recognition for its loyal and dedicated staff.
"It's good for a bit of publicity, it's good for customer relations, it's great for staff because especially in manufacturing people sitting in factories making the products don't tend to get a lot of recognition for what you do."
Eakin says he wants to retain the family business ethos created by his father, who remains involved with the company's R&D department.
"Something I feel very strongly about is that it must be a nice place to work. When I left university I went to work for a large company and really didn't like the culture of a big impersonal organisation. I came to work in the family business and really valued it and it is something I want to maintain," he said.
"We don't have lots of layers of management. There's a lot of staff socialising, we go go-karting and paintballing. The whole factory had a weekend away in the Slieve Donard in September. We generally have a lot of fun.
"The bottom line is you spend a third of your life in work, why come somewhere every day where you are miserable? Okay you've got to get paid, but you've got to enjoy it while you're here. I really believe that. Nobody should be working somewhere that makes them miserable."
When it outgrew premises in Dundonald the company converted the disused primary school at its current location into its main factory. Conveniently only five minutes drive from his family home in Dundonald, Eakin says he wants to keep the firm's headquarters in Comber, but is already having to rent warehousing space in Castlereagh.
"We are desperately in need of expansion and I think we will be able to do it at this site. In the short term we had to put some of our production and jobs into Cardiff. But the aim is that this is the group hub and we would prefer not to move. We want to double the size of this place hopefully by 2012."
That need for expansion confirms that the business is performing extremely well, and Eakin is positive about what 2011 holds.
"I am very optimistic because we are on the crest of a wave and there's no indication we'll fall off that. Our sales are growing, we have great new products that have been well received. I can see good, manageable growth for the next 5-10 years," he said.
"After saying that it is going to be much more challenging and we are going to have to fight for our sales because as you grow and become more successful your competitors grow sharper teeth.
"Even before the world economic climate changed, we were noticing that in many countries governments have clamped down on the price they are prepared to pay for our products, so our margins are getting tighter.
"It is forcing us to be more cost aware and productive, but we are good at that. We have a good history of reinvesting to automate and improve production methods and I'm confident we'll be able to do that without moving our production to China, which is what all our competitors have done."
While the firm has never had problems recruiting in R&D, sales and marketing or finance, Eakin says Northern Ireland's benefits culture has often made it hard to recruit for manual production jobs.
"Ask anyone in manufacturing they will tell you the same thing. We wouldn't be based in Northern Ireland now if Polish workers hadn't come to Northern Ireland five or six years ago, simple as that. We couldn't have survived," he explained.
"The situation is improving due to the increase in unemployment. The people we have got are fantastic, there are some real gems. But there are a lot of people who fill out applications because they have to and don't turn up for interviews."
The manufacturer has received some support from Invest NI, but Eakin is not fully convinced by the economic development agency's approach.
"If you are in debt or not making much money Invest NI are keen to help. In the years when we've been profitable or built up some reserves in anticipation of an investment, Invest NI look at your accounts and say you can fund it yourself, we're not going to help you. In terms of financial assistance we got no help until we bought Pelican and they have agreed to help us with some R&D projects."
He adds: "I think they focus too much on high profile news stories, such as bringing in an American company that brings a lot of short terms jobs. I think they'd be far better focusing on indigenous companies that started here, that are doing well. We're not going to move away. We own this company, our roots are here, our families are here. I'm not going to move to Slovakia to live, whereas some American board that's put a plant in Belfast can easily make a decision to switch it to Timbuktu."