'Imitation is the highest form of flattery... we're still in the number one position and we are a very strong innovator'
Powerscreen director Colin Clements describes how the washing and screening equipment manufacturing firm has helped Co Tyrone to become the machinery world’s Silicon Valley
It was established by Co Tyrone men Lee Mallaghan and Pat O’Neill in the mid-Sixties — and despite the challenges of the Troubles, Powerscreen became a world-beating exporter later acquired by US giant Terex.
And the Dungannon washing and screening equipment manufacturer has kept its strong Northern Ireland identity — a fact which Powerscreen global product director Colin Clements is very proud of.
Its massive machines are used on building sites, quarries and in mines around the world, though it has been buffeted by the highs and lows of the global economy. Last month Terex announced that a proposed takeover of the entire US business by Chinese company Zoomlion was off the cards.
Despite international events, Powerscreen has had staying power — many staff have been “man and boy” with the business, according to Colin.
Since 1999, the brand has been owned by US company Terex, which employs 1,400 people around Northern Ireland.
Many of its distributors in overseas markets are former Powerscreen staff — a form of Powerscreen diaspora.
Colin, who’s from Carrickfergus, is the son of a Presbyterian minister — but instead felt a calling to the world of engineering.
Next month the company celebrates its 50th anniversary. Coincidentally, 1966 was also the birth of FG Wilson, where Colin spent much of his career before joining Powerscreen/Terex three years ago.
“I studied mechanical and manufacturing engineering in Liverpool and joined FG Wilson in 1993, which was then a family business. But there was no engineering in my family. My father was a Presbyterian minister at Joymount in Carrickfergus.
“I guess I just liked tinkering with things as a kid. I had a habit of taking things apart — and probably not putting them back together very well. Dismantling is more my skillset.”
Studying technology at school gave him a further taste for engineering, while a teacher who had worked for Du Pont also passed on his enthusiasm.
He spent five years in FG Wilson, including 20 months at its now defunct division, Wilson Double Deck Trailers in Craigavon.
He returned to FG Wilson in Larne. “It would have been fairly dynamic and entrepreneurial at that time. Paul, Tom and Gordon — sons of founder Fred — were very entrepreneurial and took the business on to the global stage.
“At that stage it was all about fast decision-making, limited bureaucracy and access to top people.”
FG Wilson was first sold to Emerson Electric in St Louis before it was acquired by Caterpillar.
And he sees some parallels between the two businesses. “FG Wilson was founded in 1966, which seems to have been an era for entrepreneurial engineering in NI. Powerscreen has been owned by Terex for 17 years but I don’t think the ethos has changed dramatically from that entrepreneurial view. We do adhere to and abide by the corporate mandates but very much we can make our own decisions.”
But global economic conditions can hit Powerscreen hard. “Most business and equipment manufacturers took a sharp tumble in 2009 with the global crisis. Our business would be fairly susceptible to that global macroeconomic environment.
“A lot of our machines are used in aggregate production in mineral processing or in support for mineral processing. When you have fluctuation in the prices of iron ore, copper, gold, silver or even coal, we are influenced and impacted by that.
“Then a lot of our machines are used for construction and demolition, so when house building and commercial property is strong, our business is, too.
“We are still the number one global mobile crushing and screening equipment manufacturers.”
Terex has five main business segments — materials processing, which is Powerscreen, Terex Finlay HQ in Omagh, Terex Washing Systems, a recent off-shoot of Powerscreen, Terex Environmental Equipment, and Terex Minerals Processing Systems.
Brands are manufactured in different sites but the home of Powerscreen will always be Dungannon. “Traditionally Terex would put its name over the top of a legacy but Powerscreen is just one of three which they’ve kept, along with Dmag and Genie. They recognised the equity in the brand.
“We think of the vacuum cleaner as a Hoover, even if its made by a manufacturer other than Hoover — and just in the same way as Hoover became synonymous with vacuum cleaning, Powerscreen became synonymous with mobile screening equipment.
“Terex recognised that what it had acquired had such brand equity that you couldn’t possibly take it away.
“They bought the intellectual property and the sites and so forth, but they bought a dominant global brand.”
Its markets have varied. “Our primary markets have traditionally been the UK and Ireland. But the US and Canada has also been a very strong market for us. We also expanded out into Australia, South Africa, Russia, Brazil and Chile. But they’ve been affected by economic conditions, so we have expanded distribution into other parts of north and central Africa.
“We have also made good headway in some parts of the Middle East.”
He said Powerscreen had been a global pioneer in distribution. “A lot of the Powerscreen pioneers in the US and Australia were Powerscreen employees sent out as salesmen, who would tow the equipment behind them in a truck to demonstrate it. When they sold that equipment, they were shipped over more.
“An eye-opener to me is that probably more than half of North American dealers are Irish.
“Our dealer in Australia is from Donaghadee. Our big dealer in Canada, Brian Farmer, started out as an employee. Of six dealers in mainland UK, five of them are owned by Northern Ireland employees.”
One of the most remarkable aspects of Powerscreen is the large number of spin-off companies that have been formed, so much so that co-founder Pat O’Neill — who set up the company with Lee Mallaghan in 1966 — observed that Co Tyrone had become the Silicon Valley for heavy equipment.
“We have toe-to-toe competitors like McCloskey and Sandvick, and newer companies like Maximus and Anaconda. Some of those have been set up by former Powerscreen employees or subcontractors.
“For many years they used a lot of subcontractors for fabrication work.
“Over time some of those subcontractors decided they could do it themselves and became offshoots.
“Imitation is the highest form of flattery. We still maintain our number one position which we’re very proud of and we’re a very strong innovator.”
He takes pride in the continued role it plays in the Tyrone economy. “Most of the 1,400 employees are in Tyrone.
“And there are many other industries which support us, such as the subcontractors and component manufacturers — as well as all the elements of the service industry that gain employment.
“You can say that we’re the Silicon Valley of crushing and screening, and we have plenty of competitors that are adding to the economy of Co Tyrone. We may not like facing them in the market but from the global community standpoint it does help that the area has such strength.”
Q. What’s the best piece of business (or life) advice you’ve ever been given?
A. Be a genuine person. Don’t change your attitude or approach depending on who you are dealing with. Work with all levels of people equally and don’t alter your behaviour just because you’re interacting with someone above you in the organisation versus someone in your team.
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A. Put yourself forward for developmental roles or projects. You must continually stretch yourself as this will lead to personal development as well as, in many cases, career development.
Q. If you weren’t doing this job, what would be your other career?
A. If I knew that I might well be doing it today. I’m happy with the career choices I have made and the opportunities that have opened up to me.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A. Family and playing a bit of sociable golf. I’m fortunate to be a member of Royal Portrush Golf Club.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. I enjoy watching golf and the Irish players in particular. I’m a season ticket holder at Ulster Rugby and attend with my son, so have had plenty of good Friday nights at Ravenhill.
Q. And have you ever played any sports?
A. Many, but most to a pretty low standard. I spent a lot of my early years racing sail boats on Belfast Lough and other parts of Ireland and Scotland. I very rarely sail now and golf has taken over as my main outdoor activity.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. Last year I holidayed in New York and Florida. Heading to Italy this summer.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A. I read a lot from various authors, a mix of fiction and non-fiction. I heard a radio interview with Adrian McKinty a few years ago, who is originally from Carrickfergus, and have read several of his books.
Q. How would you describe your early life?
A. Good time had and enjoyed life with friends and family but as with many people, on reflection, could probably have worked a little harder in school.
Q. Have you any economic predictions?
A. Let’s get June 23 over us and see what happens after that, but we really need stability in local and global markets to ensure local manufacturers such as ourselves can continue to develop export business. Global economic conditions have remained challenging since the 2009 crisis so we don’t need to pro-actively drive any more uncertainty in to the mix.
Q. How would you assess your time with your company?
A. Eventful. There’s never a dull day — and despite Powerscreen being a 50 year old business every day brings new challenges and opportunities. There will certainly be more opportunities to come for all those associated with Powerscreen, now and in the future.
Belfast Telegraph Digital