Telestack's Malachy Gribben: We are selling the equipment to sites in Asia and they can't believe our competitiveness
Malachy Gribben of Telestack tells Ryan McAleer about how he went from flogging Tina Turner T-shirts to selling ship-loading systems to Oman
From flogging home-made T-shirts outside a Tina Turner concert as a teenager to being appointed Powerscreen's global sales director at the age of 34, Malachy Gribben has always been achieving beyond his years.
Since helping lead a management takeover of Telestack in 2008, the Armagh man has helped the Tyrone engineering firm grow from a team of 20 selling £2 to £3m a year to a company of 160 people on course to achieve sales of £20 to £30m this year.
The father-of-three, who's approaching 50, has always stuck to what he does best: selling.
"From knee-high to a grasshopper, I was always wheeling and dealing, trying to earn a pound," he said.
"The earliest ventures would have been chopping up firewood and going around the houses selling it, with my mother driving me about because I was just 13 or 14 and didn't have a driving licence."
Attending Armagh Christian Brothers School from primary through to secondary, his entrepreneurial prowess was already clear.
After being taught to screen-print on to an old T-shirt, the wily teenager immediately saw the potential in running off a few for fans at a Tina Turner concert.
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"Me and a buddy of mine said, 'Flippin' hell this is easy. Sure we'll just go and buy 200 T-shirts and head off on the bus to Tina Turner in Dublin'. To be fair, the teacher let us do it."
Growing up in the countryside just outside Armagh city as the second eldest of five siblings, Malachy was never dissuaded from working.
"From the age of eight or nine years, I would've been on the building sites with my father in the summer, making the tea and being the go-for for this, that and the other."
While he regularly jets around the world selling Telestack's material-handling equipment, he has also kept close to his roots, setting up home next to his parents, Donald and Bernie, on the Keady Road.
He lives there with his Tyrone-born wife, Eileen (nee Cush), and their three children, Oisin (10), Annie (6) and Niamh (4).
"It's very important to switch off and down tools, especially with the family," Malachy said.
"They're at that age where the craic's great with them."
After studying a business studies degree at Jordanstown, followed by a master's in purchasing, he started his career in earnest with Benburb-based K'Mac - part of the Pilkington Glass group.
His desire to work across the Atlantic soon pushed him toward Powerscreen in nearby Dungannon, where he was initially appointed regional sales manager.
The engineering company was already earning global recognition for its material-handling equipment.
"I always wanted to go to America, and in those days, the only real route to the US was through Powerscreen," Malachy said.
He finally achieved his goal of working in the US in 1999, which was also the year that US giant Terex Corporation acquired the Tyrone company.
"I lived out of a suitcase for three years, but I got to see a good bit of America and Canada because of it, thank God," Malachy said."It was a great learning curve. A lot of the lessons I've carried forward with me. I wouldn't swap it for the world."
But after three years he approached a crossroads: either settle down long-term in the US or come back home.
He returned to Northern Ireland in 2002, and by the end of the year Malachy was appointed Powerscreen's global sales director, a major promotion for a 34-year-old.
"It was a rapid rise, for want of a better word, but back in those days, if Powerscreen thought you had it in you, they didn't let age stand in your way."
His relative youth often meant he had to prove himself with clients.
"In the early days, there were meetings around the world with big global players, and they could see there weren't too many grey hairs on my head to be the global sales director of a big organisation like Powerscreen.
"You have to really stand up and be counted and out-perform the guys that have the grey hairs. But once you get in front of them and show you've earned your stripes, it works out all right."
Malachy left Powerscreen in 2007 for SDC Trailers, but in 2008 an opportunity arose to take over Omagh engineering firm Telestack, as part of a management buy-in.
Never one to miss an opportunity, he saw great potential in the Tyrone outfit.
"It had a good name and great product line, but it was selling in very isolated pockets. It was at a stage where the opportunity was there to give it a more global sales focus."
Sticking to his strengths, he took the role of commercial director, with Adrian McCutcheon named as managing director.
Bringing with him his own network of global connections, the Armagh man sought about taking a good company and making it into a great company.
A decade on, Telestack has grown into a major player, with its materials-handling equipment broadly divided between the quarrying and aggregate side and the sea ports and terminal side.
It recently secured its largest single order - a £5m contract to supply a 560-tonne ship-loading system to Oman.
"In the last two years, we've grown about 70% in revenue and staff is up 20%-plus," said Malachy. "We're a global business on six continents of the world and we've always got orders and deals going, on from South America to North America, from Europe to Africa and Asia.
"Without a shadow of a doubt, our growth has been based around innovation, customisation and developing new products."
In 2014, Telestack was bought over by US-based Astec Industries, but the commercial director said that while the deal brought it under the umbrella of a billion dollar corporation, "we very much do our own thing."
"One of the criteria for selling was that they did not come in and interfere, that they left us to run the business," he added.
The following year saw the departure of Adrian McCutcheon, with Martin Dummigan appointed managing director at the start of 2016.
Even with the concern over Brexit, Telestack has continued to invest several million pounds into its 120,000 square foot facility on the Bankmore Road outside Omagh.
"We can't afford to sit back and wait and see what happens with Brexit," Malachy said. "At the moment we're sitting with the biggest backlog of orders in our history, so the business is there for us and we're fighting every day to keep customers on board."
Malachy said people are often surprised by the scale of Telestack's operation.
"Some of our equipment could be five stories high by the time it's fully built," he added. "They're just flabbergasted that something that big is built here and that we can break it down into containers and ship it around the world.
"Telestack as a business is probably a well-kept secret. Every day of the week we're either receiving a new order or testing a new machine, or building a new machine in a jungle in Africa or downtown New York. There's never a dull day."
The Tyrone company can even compete with firms in China and elsewhere.
"We sell to places in Asia and they can't believe our competitiveness, but it's based on the smart designs of what we do as well as the cost base," Malachy said. "We live on an island, so if we don't export, we don't survive."
He may be an Armagh man to the core and an avid follower of the county's GAA team, but Malachy has spent most of his working life around Tyrone people.
"I never miss the opportunity to wind them up," he joked. "It has been good craic over the years and being married to a Tyrone woman adds spice to it all."
Despite the 'mixed marriage', his kids' loyalty lie firmly on the Armagh side of the River Blackwater.
"Back in the day, Granny Cush might have bought the lad a Tyrone jersey," he said.
"I said, 'Granny, we don't need any dishcloths in this house'. He wore it to please his granny, but I don't think that he would wear it now."
He still takes the time when he can to follow his local GAA club (Armagh Harps) and the county.
"It's a good way to blow out the cobwebs, even though you might get stressed-out watching Armagh," he said.
Looking ahead to the future, he described Telestack as a company ready to come of age as a global player.
"The previous owners had taken it to a certain stage. I suppose I seen it almost as my adopted child," Malachy explained.
"With the Astec guys coming in, it's now maybe getting into the teenage years.
"Hopefully I've another good 10 years in me to kick it onto the next level, because I see great potential an opportunities for the business."
'Go with your gut, not just the typical theory'
Q. What's the best piece of business (or life) advice you've ever been given?
A. Don't just follow typical business theory - follow your gut feeling if it feels right.
Q. What piece of advice would you pass on to someone starting out in business?
A. Surround yourself with the best people you can afford.
Q. What was your best business decision?
A. Taking my first sales manager job at way below market salary just to prove I could do the job.
Q. If you weren't doing this job, what would be your other career?
A. Buying and selling in some shape or form.
Q. What was your last holiday? Where are you going next?
A. Canary Islands with Eileen. Italy with family.
Q. What are your hobbies/interests?
A. Sports. Global politics. Reading non-fiction.
Q. What is your favourite sport and team?
A. Gaelic football. My club Armagh Harps.
Q. And have you ever played any sports?
A. Club football (GAA) and with my local soccer club.
Q. If you enjoy reading, can you recommend a book?
A. Pop, the story of Coca Cola.
Q. And how would you describe your early life?
A. Strong family support to allow us all to do what we wanted to do.
Q. Have you any economic predictions?
A. The world will keep turning, so we just need to ensure we can deal with the peaks and troughs as they arise.
Q. How would you assess your time in business with your company Telestack?
A. A fantastic 10-year rollercoaster ride - and now I am ready and able for the challenges of the next 10 years.