Posted on Friday 25 January 2019 by John Mulgrew

Kieran 1

For Kieran Kennedy the O’Neills company journey has also been a personal one for the business boss for almost 40 years.

The company, originally known as the sportswear face of gaelic games in Ireland, it has now grown into a business selling right across the globe.

Since joining the Strabane-based sportswear maker as a stock controller in 1979, Sion Mills man Kieran has been at the core of the company’s growth for four decades.

“When I started there were 30 people, and 7,500 sq ft. Now we have 700 staff and 250,000 sq ft,” he told Ulster Business.

O’Neills has its main base in Strabane, and one in Dublin, with sales offices in the UK, France, Poland and as far afield as Australia.

Founded a century ago, the company’s relationship with the GAA blossomed a few years later.

“(It began) when we presented the first ball to the GAA in 1926 – the first white ball,” Kieran said.

Of course, it’s not just gaelic games that the firm is involved with. It’s growth its business right across the sportswear sector, to include rugby, cricket and soccer, among others.

“We cover a wide range of sports and education – the main business would be GAA.”

Kieran was appointed as general manager of the company in 1988. Since then, it has expanded on its home turf to include sites across Ireland, and beyond.

“We now have seven retail stores, including Strabane, Derry city, Magherafelt, Craigavon, Enniskillen, Newry and Belfast. Obviously if we can manufacture and sell directly to the public themselves, it’s much more beneficial to the business.”

Having been in a managerial role for 30 years, what is it that makes his leadership drive the company forward and ensure it takes in the right people, and retains them?

“It’s all about the staff, and you have to build a good relationship with the staff – and put yourself in their shoes. It’s about empathy. People (who work here) have been here a long time,” he said.

And Kieran – like other businesses which rely on both cross-border trade and workers from nearby Donegal – wants a withdrawal deal on Brexit which will help protect the existing fluid trading relationships across the island.

“I would be delighted. It’s not perfect. Our big concern would be over duties and tariffs – we have an intricate supply chain. Goods could be transported eight times before they are sold.”

The worst case scenario is falling back on World Trade Organization (WTO) tariffs, which could be applied several times during the transporting of goods between Northern Ireland, the Republic and the rest of the UK.

“If there is a hard border, there would be a staffing issue,” he said. “At the end of the day, businesses are flexible and work with the hands they are dealt.”

O’Neills is a company which has bucked the trend of clothing production being shifted to Asia or outsourced to third parties.

Looking to the future, while expanding both its global market reach and retail business, it is continuing to seek out new opportunities.

“We are looking at new markets and expanding in France,” Kieran said. O’Neills is the official supplier to French rugby squad Catalans Dragons, and is also planning a retail shop in Poland.

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