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Blast from past helps manufacturer steer his business to finishing line

Applied Concepts’ Mark Clendennen says ‘Irish engineering is probably the best and most highly respected in the world’. Photo by Mark Condren

National Enterprise Winner Mark Clendennen has gone from selling go-kart designs in Offaly to selling blasting machines in Venezuela

Some people are born with it, some learn it and some are born with it and never stop learning. Mark Clendennen first went into business at the age of 12. By 17 he was importing goods. He worked his interests through formal education, trained, travelled and took his knowledge and enthusiasm back to Ireland. His company, Applied Concepts, has gone from strength to strength since moving manufacturing from China to Co Offaly.

"I was born and reared in a pub in Offaly so I worked from a very young age, serving pints, dealing with customers," says Mark. "At 12 I wanted one of these motorised go-karts. My parents wouldn't buy me one so I decided to build one. It took me six months to build the first go-kart but I was always into buying and selling stuff so I decided to sell plans and drawings on how to build your own go-kart." Pre-internet, he did business by putting a free advert into the Buy and Sell three times a week.

"We sold them at £25 and every week we would sell maybe six to 10 sets of plans." As his confidence grew so did his business vision. "I started to bring in parts from California so not only was I selling the plans, I was also selling hard-to-get parts for people build their own go-karts. Then I started selling the tools and equipment. Initially I was bringing these in from the UK and again, as I got more confident I started bringing in containers directly from China." All of this before he was 18.

He decided to formalise his long-standing interest in "making stuff" and engineering by studying manufacturing systems in University of Limerick. During those four years he was still running his go-kart business and for this became runner-up in the Enterprise Ireland Student Entrepreneur. It was the beginning of a long relationship with Enterprise Ireland and after college he joined their graduate programme.

"I knew I needed to brush up on my business skills and I really wanted to learn about export markets. They felt that I would be most suited to their London office, dealing with industrial products. I was based in London for two years, which was an absolutely fantastic experience - it opened my eyes to how a company could export."

Mark had always planned to come back to Ireland to set up a business and this he did in 2008. "In 2009 I did a small bit of travelling but I also did a lot of research and I thought back on the time when I was making go-karts. One of the items you needed to achieve a fantastic finish was a blasting machine."

An abrasive blasting machine is a pressurised vessel which uses a medium such as crushed glass, which is blasted out using compressed air to clear a surface which can be wood, metal, or concrete. It is sometimes referred to as sandblasting but sand is illegal because it contains silica which can cause silicosis.

Mark set up Applied Systems and initially he designed the blasting machines and had them made in China. In an Ireland reeling from the recession, finance was hard for anyone, but for a business the banks felt was too close to the construction industry it proved all but impossible.

Having the product manufactured so far away also created problems. "We found the Chinese unreliable from the point of view of long lead times. It would take four months for a container to land so that created cash-flow problems. Also there are five different sizes of blasting machines so you had to guesstimate what size you'd be selling [in four months]. So I did a feasibility study to look into whether it would be feasible or not to manufacture them here in Ireland."

In the early days of the business Mark had more time to work on the paperwork, to get the relevant CE approval. They set up in the village of Kinnity in Co Offaly, with Mark and one other employee "on a shoestring, approximately €20,000". It was hard work, sometimes toiling through the night trying to get everything done, but the business grew. Manufacturing in Ireland meant there was no longer any need to guess at sales in advance, cash flow improved and there was no difference in the price to the customer. Mark says quality also went up. "Nothing compares to Irish engineering. It is probably the best and most highly respected in the world."

Whilst hard work, good work and business acumen were clearly factors, Mark credits karma with one important early deal. For five months he was in negotiations with a company in Ethiopia which bought one machine, then out of the blue placed a large order.

"When I was 16 I was actually over in Ethiopia doing aid work for 10 days. When I was starting the business in 2010 that big order, it was worth 20pc of the year's turnover - it couldn't have come at a better time. The business was going to be under serious pressure without it."

Despite the funding issue, the recession was good for Applied Systems, Mark says. "Companies that would have historically got finance to buy new equipment, for instance in the haulage industry, rather than going out to get finance to buy a new trailer they were maybe buying a blasting machine, blasting the trailer that they had, repainting it and getting another 10 years out of it." Blasting machines are surprisingly eco-friendly in how they extend the life of products, offer upcycling and recycling possibilities, and use recycled glass.

Their purpose and scale of their use varies hugely, from a piece of machinery to buildings to ships. Customers range from vintage tractor enthusiasts to large corporations all over the world - from Athlone to Venezuela and Korea. "One of the reasons that we win business in these weird and wonderful locations is that we communicate," says Mark.

"We have fantastic product knowledge here and we also have very, very fast lead times in comparison to similar manufacturers across the globe. We hold large quantities of stock here so we can offer short lead times, sometimes same-day dispatch where most of our competitors would have a 30-day lead, minimum. "Our number one thing here is quality at all times. It is discussed on a weekly basis and we have very stringent quality-control systems in place."

Not surprisingly then the business continues to go from strength to strength. They now employ 10 people and in March moved into a new premises in Birr.

There are hiccups. Mark says that often the issues you do not foresee can cause delays, but he is full of praise for the help available too.

"I'd advise anyone looking to set up a business to go to their local enterprise office first of all. Offaly Local enterprise office is headed by Orla Martin who is a fantastic sounding board for our business. You simply can't put a value on having someone like that to bounce ideas off. They've been great on strategy for the business and grants for feasibility studies on R&D of new products. They offer mentoring and training which we use too."

Applied Systems is one of the LE star pupils, and current winner of the National Enterprise Awards top prize. "It's like a quality stamp, it has really helped to give us serious publicity and that has helped us to fast track new distributors." Capitalising on this is where Mark sees the future, working and travelling to get new overseas distributors for an idea born in the mind of a 12-year-old go-kart enthusiast.

Sunday Indo Business

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