Powering ahead of competition
The firm AJ Power opened its doors 12 years ago, but it already employs 125 people around the world with plans to double the size of the business in the next five years. However, with Ashley Pigott as managing director, the company’s success should come as no surprise.
Craigavon-based AJ Power designs, manufactures and supplies diesel generating sets and associated equipment to 55 countries around the world.
It was established by managing director Mr Pigott in October 2003, who brought with him a wealth of experience and knowledge of the industry.
Mr Pigott (63) began his career at FG Wilson in 1973, when just 12 people were employed. He spent 28 years there, with 14 of those as a director of the company.
“Fred Wilson was a very visionary man, he was a pretty big influence on me,” said Mr Pigott.
“I worked at FG Wilson as a summer job and never went back to full-time education.
“The growth of the company gave me some very senior management roles fairly early on in life.”
Despite his experience, starting up a business from scratch came with its own challenges.
“Five people walked into this building on October 1 and there was nothing here,” said Mr Pigott. “There was nothing here, we had to design, product test, validate it all, and all you’re doing at the start is writing big cheques every month.
“This is an expensive business — diesel engines are very expensive.
“The first product we actually sold went to the Athens Olympics in 2004 and I actually loaded it on to the lorry myself.
“I didn’t think it would end up being seven days a week every week but it still is.
“The big advantage is that when I joined FG Wilson there were 12 people there so I got dirt under my fingernails.
“I have lived through recessions in 1983 and 1991, so there is always going to be downturns but you just have to plan for these things.
“I can assure you 2008/09 was quite devastating but we still made a profit, we got through it.”
Mr Pigott believes the ability and dedication of the team at AJ Power has also been crucial to its success to date.
“We have a very strong team of people,” he said. “It is a question of faith in your collective skills.
“When the business started, we had some very senior people from FG Wilson and that has been important.
“I also knew the industry backwards so if something happens in Hong Kong, I know about it, I don’t have to leave my desk.
“I know a lot of people so contacts are important but if we don’t have products, we have nothing.
“The most important thing is product knowledge.
“Nearly 70% of our staff are graduate engineers and they are very well taught by our older members of staff.
“We get young people coming out with a first class honours degree in electrical engineering. They are hard to find.
“We start teaching them how to use their academic knowledge and put it into practical application.
“We employ linguists, our staff speak French, Spanish, Russian and Chinese, chartered accountants or graduate engineers.
“There are no marketing people — our sales people are mostly graduate engineers, so they really know the product.”
With 98% of products exported out of Northern Ireland, employees must be willing to travel.
“At the present time we have about eight people travelling around the world,” Mr Pigott said.
“We have two or three in south America, people in Africa, people in the Middle East and people on the way to the Far East.”
They have sold products to countries, including Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, Vietnam and the Middle East.
The company also recently opened an office in Sweden, and another base in Dubai.
“It is really there as a technical sales support in the region,” said Mr Pigott.
“It means we can be in the likes of Saudi Arabia in a matter of hours. We can fly to anywhere in Africa very quickly and it also means we can be in the Far East in eight hours.”
So while AJ Power employs 104 people in Northern Ireland, Mr Pigott said further expansion is likely to take place outside of the province.
He blamed bureaucracy for this.
“Over the next five years, the company will double in size and we have a fairly good track record of doing what we say,” he said.
“Unfortunately, a lot of that will be overseas.
“That is because we can’t seem to be able to buy on sensible terms industrial land here in close proximity to the business.
“When you spend seven years trying to do something you tend to give up.
“Sadly we don’t have armies of people to satisfy civil servants and if we move one mile away, we may as well move 10,000 miles away.”
Despite this, the environment at AJ Power means they have a very stable workforce.
“We don’t do it for the money,” he said.
“If dollars are your god, you will not succeed.
“You have to have inner belief.
“If you work hard and try to be smarter than the next guy then money will come to allow you to keep doing it.”