22 Nov 2010

Irish hope: two entrepreneurs on a train

For some reason I found myself on the 21:15 out of Paddington bound for Newbury and beyond on Saturday night. You have to change at Reading. Two youthful men sat down on the seats in front of me and before we’d even left the station we were in conversation. They told me they came from Derry. So I knew they were ostensibly Catholics, though it transpired later that they had attended a mixed school.

Given that they came from any part of Ireland – North or South – I thought we would talk of Ireland’s financial woes. We didn’t. Instead we talked chairs.

They were brothers, 21 and 22. Their mother is an occupational therapist. About five years ago she started complaining to her boys, who were still at school, that too many of her older patients suffered from pressure sores. They needed chairs that would adjust to take the weight off the affected pressure points. So the boys did some research and made a couple of prototypes.

Today they have a turnover of some 30 to 40 chairs a week and employ 15 people near Derry to make them. Some are standard, some bespoke. One of the young men pulled his iPhone from his pocket and showed me a picture. Our discussion was animated and the guys presented as far more mature than their ages. Indeed they were incredibly bright and engaged. Both had been bound for university, both had left school early to get the business going.

The eldest brother, who is 23, runs the business in Derry. Of the two I met, one lives in Newcastle, the other in Newbury. They each drive a van packed with chairs a thousand miles a week. They have a network of 30 deliverers each.

True entrepreneurs with a sensational niche product. One told me that pressure sores cost the NHS £2.1bn a year. Each chair costs around £3,000 (complex devices that offer the body many different positions). They have no difficulty selling every chair they make.

As if that wasn’t enough to sow a bit of hope in the Emerald Isle, the real reason they wanted to speak to me was because they knew I had been to Haiti. They had too!

Seven weeks after the earthquake they had been to Haiti and scouted out a school they would endeavour to rebuild. Alas the hurricane that lured me for my latest visit grounded their follow-up flight.

Altruistic, hard working, bright, imaginative and running a “small business” that they had only set up in 2006. Niche markets don’t grow on trees but they found one when they were only 17 and 18 respectively.

A chance encounter, but an enriching one. Fabulous guys, I had no hesitation in giving them my card. I have had an email from them already. I’m boggled by what they have achieved so young and so fast.

Maybe amid this mayhem, the South should think small again – there’s some serious talent about, even if it has to be lured down from the North.

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