McCulla powering ahead on road to greater success
Clare Weir looks at the Lisburn firm whose multi-million expansion includes plans for its own electricity source
It's an award-winning, family run business exceeding all expectations and growing year on year in one of the hardest-hit industries during the downturn.
And with plans for a £3m anaerobic digestion plant, a recent multi-million pound acquisition in Dublin and ambitious plans to increase turnover to £20m by 2015, McCulla Ireland in Lisburn is miles ahead of the competition and experienced an 8% growth during the last year despite the current economic climate.
Headed by Ashley McCulla, whose father founded the firm almost 45 years ago, the company, which employs around 150 people, is now moving into specialised logistics for food and pharmaceutical firms, two of the fastest growing sectors in Northern Ireland.
Far from the traditional image of a greasy, dirty, male-dominated haulage yard, the nine-acre business headquarters near Sprucefield boasts a staff gym and, as part of a fully integrated workplace, rents out units to smaller firms, including a company which runs McCulla's IT network and a parts manufacturer which supplies equipment for some of the company's 75 tractor units and 125 trailers.
McCulla also operates its own cold-storage unit, delivering a full service for many clients.
Staff levels are almost a 50-50 male-female split and there are family fun days and 'soup Fridays' – where two members of staff compete to make the best lunch for their co-workers in aid of charity.
Ashley is supported by his sister Carol, who is McCulla's financial director, and transport director Brian Beattie, who has been with the firm for around 13 years.
The company has invested heavily in telematics to ensure lower fuel consumption and cost savings and a fully qualified in-cab driver trainer has been employed.
Telematics can illustrate the speed, idling, use of cruise control and braking method of each driver, all of which are contribution factors to fuel usage, and special staff monitor and score each driver's performance.
And in a bid to cut energy costs, the firm has bought the site next door Blaris Industrial Estate, hoping to begin work on a combined heat and power plant next year.
It is hoped that the facility will power the entire McCulla complex, with surplus energy being sold back into the grid, while the by-product can be spread back on to farm land as a bio-fertiliser.
"Our electricity bills are huge," said Ashley. "This is a way of powering our own facility, controlling our energy prices over the next 25 years and we can make savings which can be passed on to customers, who are trying to win bids and tenders from large supermarkets who are always trying to lower their carbon footprint.
"We also estimate a 40% overspill which we can sell to the grid.
"Thinking ahead and staying ahead of the pack is what has helped us grow year on year during a very difficult period. During the boom years, we were paying off our debts, so when the recession hit, we were debt-free.
"We've just purchased a 55,000 sq ft depot in Dublin which we hope will help us grow in the Republic too.
"We don't want to stop growing, we want to be growing by 25% over the next two years and be making £20m in turnover."
Brian added: "As well as the telematics monitoring which helps save on fuel consumption, we've also invested in vehicles with dual fuel engines.
"As part of further expansion into the UK and Ireland, we've set up a blast freezing area for the benefit of the local agri-food sector where food can be frozen or thawed for onward delivery, as more and more homegrown produce is being exported abroad.
"We've also noted that the pharmaceutical sector is booming and as that is also a sector which requires products to be transported in certain temperatures, we are actively targeting that market.
"The company has also gone through a rebranding, which we hope has mixed our old recognisable image with a more continental style – our trucks can be seen in Switzerland, Germany, France and Spain so we do need a strong corporate identity."
Carol said that a collaborative attitude is what drives the company forward. "This isn't just a haulage yard, we rent to other businesses which offer benefits to ourselves and to whom we can offer benefits, we sponsor a local rugby and GAA team, we offer employment opportunities to the local community," she said.
"I suppose the biggest challenge we face in the industry is illegality.
"That can range from people using laundered fuel, to non-compliance over driving hours. Those who cut corners will obviously have big savings but we have a good reputation which we are very proud of.
"We are very strong in compliance and we are a good firm to work for. Some of our staff have been here for their entire working careers and the father of Mervyn Cardwell, who won the driver of the year award recently, used to drive for us also."
With older drivers now leaving the industry, the firm is keen to attract new driving talent.
The company runs the McCulla Arctic Challenge, teaming up with the Young Farmers' Club of Ulster to search for employees.
Young farmers take part in a one-day articulated lorry driving course at Nutts Corner, designed to show off their heavy goods vehicle driving skills.
Each entrant is shown the basics of how to drive a 16-metre articulated truck, before being asked to drive around a course designed to test them on their natural skills in areas such as accurate reversing and controlled manoeuvring.
Ten finalists then sit down and are grilled by Ashley.
Last year, Eamon McGarry from Crumlin was selected as the winner and was put through his HGV class 1 licence and given 35 hours of Certificate of Professional Competence (CPC) training.
"We like to think of the staff as part of the family," said Carol.
"My own children know that they don't automatically get to work here – they still have to go off and do their own thing, like I had to.
"The family ethos has really helped us build the company but we hire people here on their strengths, not because of who they are. Brian is here because he was recognised as one of the best in the business – we have a wide variety of skillsets and a varied workforce in terms of age, gender and experience, who all work well together."