The business people that thrived despite the ill winds of Covid-19

It’s been a tough year to be in business in this country, and those in the small and medium business sector in County Roscommon were no different to the hundreds and thousands of others around Ireland who were left exposed and hanging out to dry given the vagaries of an economy that was battered and beaten during the pandemic.

Therefore, at the start of a new year, it seems the appropriate time to look back on some of the people who survived the storm and made a difference in the last 12 months before pushing themselves forward for the betterment of the economy and the people who work for them in County Roscommon and neighbouring counties. I know they won’t want to be described as ‘heroes’ – but in my eyes that’s what they are – because they not only survived the biggest industrial crisis the world has seen in decades, they have thrived all the way through it and gone on to even better things.

I went to school with Vincent Collins, the boss at Service Matters on the Golf Links Road in Roscommon town. It seems as good a place as anywhere to start this column because this Strokestown man proved himself to be one of the major success stories of the county in the last 12 months after the German firm CWS took a majority stake in his company in what’s estimated to have been a multi-million euro deal.

Vincent was actually ahead of me in ‘the tech’ in Lanesborough where he did the Leaving Cert in the 1980s. I think it’s fair to say he and his wife Margie were also miles ahead of most of the country when they moved in and spotted the potential for growth in the whole service cleaning and hygiene sector at the end of 1996, going on to employ over 80 people, supplying floor care and work care rental, washroom services and bespoke protective clothing across many industries. It’s hard to believe Vincent only had a handful of customers with the mats and the towels in those early days yet last year publicly available accounts for Service Matters indicated it generated revenue of €6.7m and posted an operating profit of €1.3m. With three more depots now in Limerick, the Fonthill Road in Dublin and in Coalisland, County Tyrone – along with the Roscommon central site – it is no wonder that CWS moved in to invest. The German-owned operation have over 11,000 employees in 15 countries and had their own turnover last year of €1.2bn, so the potential for further expansion of a really high value product on the island of Ireland is huge for them.

I have listened to Vincent talking about the new investment that CWS will bring to the operation and I know he is staying on to keep the show on the road so it’s a time of great hope and optimism for even more jobs in this firm. It’s ironic that the ‘ill wind’ that Covid-19 brought actually led to greater opportunities for Service Matters in some sectors as we all moved to try and improve our focus on keeping the workplace clean and more disease-free than ever. I really think that this is a good news story for Roscommon too. Vincent has come a long way since the days when he was asking the late Bart Clancy for advice and career tips at the Vocational School in Lanesborough. He and Margie have worked hard for their success and I know nobody will begrudge it to them.

The year began with another locally-based firm also gaining on the back of the said ‘ill wind’ of the pandemic. This time it was the medical products manufacturer Harmac announcing plans to expand its Castlerea facility, creating 60 roles as the company went into overdrive in their production to meet unprecedented global demand for surgical masks.

The New York-headquartered company, which also makes non-invasive ventilation products, said the new jobs were part of a major investment at the facility in Castlerea where they already employ more than 300 people. I was never actually in the plant until this year just past and I have to say I was stunned by the scale of the operation put together by Mick McEnroe and his team.

McEnroe is an Athlone man and was an accomplished gaelic footballer in his day – playing in goals for the Athlone club before the great Matt Scally came along – but it’s in the area of business that the former polymers student at AIT has most excelled, leading this Harmac operation to huge expansion. It’s only when you drive into the car park down there in The Demesne that you fully appreciate how much expansion has taken place in 2021.

The Harmac facility in County Roscommon was only established in 1998, and is a significant supplier to the Irish and European operations of numerous medical technology companies. Its key customers include Abbott Laboratories, J&J, Bausch & Lomb, Boston Scientific, Smith Medical and Holliste. These are huge growth areas on the world stage at the moment.

I don’t need to tell anyone how big the surgical mask market is after the events of the last two years and McEnroe and his team are going from strength to strength. The real winners here are the people of Roscommon, Galway, Westmeath and Sligo who are seeing dozens of local families finding really good and well-paid jobs in their own part of the country instead of having to move away or commute for hundreds of miles on a daily basis – so we owe Mick McEnroe and his colleagues a great deal of thanks.

In December, Deirdre Doyle, head of operations at a Louth-based homecare company, announced it was expanding its services in County Roscommon with the creation of a number of new jobs as part of a national recruitment drive. Established in Dundalk in 2006, ‘Myhomecare’ currently employs just over 220 people around the country – including homecare workers and administrative staff – and will be taking on a percentage of the new staff here in Roscommon and in the midlands and the west with job opportunities coming up for carers, including homecare nurses and assistants.

This is not the only company in this area that has expanded in the last 12 months. With our aging population, homecare continues to be a growing (and lucrative) sector and I know at least two more local groups who have taken on more workers since Covid-19 hit.

Our last good news story of 2021 is based in one the most unlikely of locations. I will never forget the first time I went down to Rooskey to the VistaMed factory just across the bridge on the Leitrim side of the River Shannon. It was October 2013 and 34 members of the staff at the medical device plant there had won a lotto bonus prize of about 2 million – taking home about 55k apiece. These were the days when the Lotto jackpot was actually won on a regular basis!

The truth is I never even knew VistaMed existed in this part of the world in those days. Apart from a small signpost along the edge of the road past the derelict Shannon Key West Hotel, there’s little or no evidence of the plant – yet it was from here that one of the big success stories of the year gone by began its days.

Nowadays, VistaMed is owned by German group Freudenberg Medical, with Managing Director Patrick Mulholland, who founded the business in 1999, retaining a 10 per cent shareholding.

It makes tubes and catheters for diagnostic and minimally invasive surgical procedures in the areas of cardiology, urology, endoscopy, neurology and pain management for major medtech companies and, from very humble beginnings here in that remote part of Rooskey, it currently employs 525 people at two manufacturing plants (Carrick-on-Shannon being the other location), as well as an R&D innovation centre in the County Leitrim town.

Just last October VistaMed confirmed plans to create 100 additional jobs at its facility in Carrick-on-Shannon. Those new jobs in 2022 will include positions created in management, engineering, technicians, operators, automation, quality control and validation and administration so there are plenty of opportunities for graduates and skilled workers who are from this part of the world to come back here and live in the county again.

VistaMed is a member of a strong MedTech cluster of companies in the North West and again there’s a strong Covid-19 dividend for most of these firms and their sales. No more than Service Matters, Harmac and Myhomecare, I know that nobody would ever wish that it would take such a horrific sequence of events and a global virus to lead to such industrial growth and success in business, but the reality is that our world will never be the same again after the pandemic and it is likely we will see further growth and even more jobs in all of these specialised firms in the coming year. It is an ill wind that is certainly doing some good after all.



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