Randox founder Dr Peter FitzGerald: I started my own business in a chicken shed as it was the only way I could go further in medical research
The Big Interview: Dr Peter FitzGerald
From a chicken shed in Crumlin to opening a clinic in Beverley Hills, Randox founder Dr Peter FitzGerald has brought his medical testing company on a remarkable journey.
As a biochemistry researcher at Queen's University in the 1980s, he decided that the only way to take his studies in the direction he wished was to set up a company - and Randox, named after a road in Crumlin, was born.
Its first order was for blood tests from Aberystwyth University, and its first international customer was in the US in 1983. It has since grown into a major business, mainly based in Northern Ireland, with turnover of nearly £96m, pre-tax profit of nearly £18m and a workforce of 1,400, including more than 900 people here. The company also expects sales for this year will surpass £1bn.
Its main manufacturing and research and development sites are in Crumlin, Dungloe in Co Donegal, Bangalore in India and Washington. But it also has offices in 20 countries and sells 2,000 products around the globe.
Despite being 66, Dr FitzGerald has no designs on retiring and is adamant there is no succession plan involving his children, who are aged 16 and 18.
The company's name has recently been in the news for a dizzying range of initiatives - buying the Dundarave Estate in Bushmills for corporate hospitality, including helping guests take part in Dr FitzGerald's favourite hobby, polo; taking on the sponsorship of the Grand National in a multimillion-pound deal; opening wellness clinics where customers can walk in off the street for testing for disorders using Randox kits; and buying the former Massereene army barracks in Antrim for the development of the Randox Science Park.
The wellness clinics are in or planned for locations as scattered as Dubai, Beverley Hills, Crumlin, Holywood, London and Manchester, and are for both testing and offering advice.
"Basically, we try to make people as welcome as possible in every shape or form," Dr FitzGerald explains. "We use blood testing to find things which will help improve health - lots of nutritional things, such as deficiencies or excesses in certain things. It's a very positive experience."
He admits that most users of tests in the setting of its clinics are healthy people.
"I would sum up that offering as one which helps improve people's minds," Peter says. "The people who are using it are interested in their wellbeing. We want to help with their long-term health. The vast majority who use the products are very, very healthy, but we find things which can help them."
The wellness clinics are a relatively new project for Randox. Its main business is manufacturing tests and instruments for diagnosing clinical conditions, as well as carrying out risk assessments on longer-term threats including Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. It also manufactures drug testing kits, including biochips for detecting the use of legal highs.
Appropriately for a lover of horses like Dr FitzGerald, it has additionally developed equine health programmes to minimise the risk of injury to horses by measuring the impact of training.
"I started it up because I was very keen on medical research, but I felt that the only way to do that long-term was to start a company," Peter says. "I was a biochemist working on multiple sclerosis at the time. So I set up in the back of my parents' house in a chicken shed."
Like many of our fast-growing companies, Randox has benefited down the years from Government support - although at the time it was set up, the support wasn't always monetary.
"The Government was very psychologically supportive in that time, and we had the pro-business policies of Thatcher," Dr FitzGerald explains. "That Government was very proactive in helping companies export.
"It wasn't strong financial support or anything like that, but it was very good early-stage psychological support from the IDB (Invest NI's predecessor, the Industrial Development Board)."
Recent Invest NI support has included nearly £5m towards the Massereene science park. "We are hopefully getting more, but probably only 1.5% or 2% of our funding has come from Government support," the Randox founder says. "Most is from retained profits and bank loans. "
But money is not his main motivator in business. "My main motivation is trying to develop things and make things which really help people's lives - and providing meaningful employment to people is another reward," Dr FitzGerald says. "But you do of course still have to make profits."
While Peter turned 66 in August, retirement is not on the cards, and he's not looking to his children to take over the company. "I have no idea what they'll do," he admits. "They're interested in life, but not the science route. But they are entrepreneurial."
The Randox founder lives with his wife and children on the Diamond Road in Crumlin, beside one of the company's research and development facilities.
Even though the firm now has 1,400 employees worldwide, including more than 900 here, his ambition isn't quite satisfied. "We would like to grow a lot more," Peter admits. "We are just a medium-sized company and this is only the start. We will keep putting money into research.
"We are around 10 or 15% of the way along with the Massereene science park, and we're spending around £12m in new manufacturing, new labs and a new IT centre. We have a lot more to do."
The company boss has learned not to make dogmatic statement ruling things out when it comes to the future of the firm. "I would not rule out going for an IPO (initial public offering), though there are no plans at this point in time," he says. "But circumstances change."
For now, he is eager to grow the 'direct to the public' part of the business through the wellness clinics. "We are opening one in Holywood in a couple of weeks, and we have one in London, one in Crumlin, one in Beverley Hills in LA, one in Dubai and in early next year we'll have one in Manchester," Dr FitzGerald says. "But it's not like a GP's practice. Basically, we try to make people as welcome as possible in every shape or form."
America is an important market for the business. It already has a site in Washington DC and is planning to start manufacturing in West Virginia. It has also ventured into food safety tests, and provides testing products to Ivy League institutions such as Harvard and Yale. As for the nation's President-elect, Dr FitzGerald is in no rush to judge Donald Trump.
"It's very early days and very hard to know what he's going to be like," he says. "With Hillary Clinton, you would have had a more accurate feel about how things might have been. The US is a very big market for us and we want to retain the open structure and free trade as far as possible.
"We never took a particularly strong line on the EU referendum, but we do want open trade throughout the world. We are very keen on people being able to move from country to country."
Opening the wellness clinics has helped the company reach the public while bypassing the slower route to market of selling to hospitals and healthcare providers.
It is also sponsoring the Grand National from next year, replacing alcoholic ginger beer brand Crabbie's. Former champion jockey and Co Antrim man Tony McCoy is set to be the brand ambassador.
"We've discovered people don't know what Randox is, so we decided it's time to come out and let people know who we are," Dr FitzGerald explains.
While the company spent millions securing the sponsorship, Peter remains tight-lipped on the precise amount.
His firm also bought the historic Dundarave Estate in Bushmills two years ago for corporate hospitality and as the location of a wellness clinic. "We get an awful lot of overseas customers who stay with us and we feel Bushmills is a great place to take people," Peter says. "That is working out very well - and polo, that occurs too."