Kieran Hegarty, Materials Handling & The Tyrone Factor
A lot has been said and written about the growth and existence of a remarkable cluster of materials handling companies in deepest County Tyrone. But, like a lot of his industry counterparts, Kieran Hegarty reckons there is a pragmatic explanation.
Yes, there’s an engineering tradition around here,” he says from his office at Terex Corporation’s plant on the outskirts of Omagh.
“But I think it’s largely explained by the original ‘inventors’ of mobile screening machinery, Finlay & Powerscreen, starting up in the 1960’s. Then, over the years, people left those companies and started out on their own. A wider group of suppliers grew up around the main players,” he says simply.
Whatever the root causes, the materials handling cluster around Dungannon & Omagh is impressive by anyone’s standards. It accounts for a substantial slice of the world’s supply of top-quality materials handling plant….especially for the quarrying industry.
But, while other sectors within the reach of Matrix, the Northern Ireland Science Industry Panel, might have teamed up to look at common challenges, the materials handling sector remains a little more fragmented……and that’s a challenge and something that Matrix, and its sectoral group chairman Dr. Rob Hardeman of Seagate in Derry, will be keen to highlight. It’s not just about the fragmentation that exists, but looking forward, about the real value that can be gained from working together.
“One of the factors that sets us apart is that the main companies here in Tyrone are competing with each other for business around the world,” says Kieran Hegarty. “
We tend to meet each other at airports when we’re on our way to talk to customers in Europe, America or anywhere else.” Hegarty spends up to three weeks every month outside of Northern Ireland, hardly surprising given the fact that Terex sells 98% of its output externally and that it is owned by a multi-faceted industrial corporation with its headquarters in Westport, Connecticut.
The Terex NI President is a graduate of both Queen’s University and the University of Ulster and started his working life in the USA before returning home to join Finlay Hydrascreens in 1992. Both Finlay and its Tyrone neighbours Powerscreen were acquired by Terex in 1999.
Hegarty runs the group’s Materials Processing division, one of five key divisions within Terex. The others are divisions responsible for cranes, aerial work platforms, port/plant solutions and general construction equipment. Within Materials Processing, Terex runs three manufacturing plants in Northern Ireland – at Omagh, Dungannon and Ballymoney.
The company has some 1,400 employees working across the three sites. The division also has plants in the US, Germany, Austria and Malaysia.
The Tyrone-based Materials Handling sector might have achieved a strong reputation but it’s not without its challenges, according to Kieran Hegarty. “Those are the macro issues, but there are micro issues around our own industry to think about too. We’ve taken the long-term decision to concentrate our efforts on mobile machinery rather than look at static units, as some have done. It’s a clear policy decision to produce mobile machinery for the production of minerals around the world….and we think that it’s the right decision for us.”
A sizeable supply base has been built around the big materials handling players in County Tyrone, with small companies supplying everything from metal fabrications through to belting systems.
The big ticket engines and advanced hydraulics still tend to come into Tyrone from big global-scale suppliers.
“We’ve seen the growth of a strong industrial sector based around materials handling and that’s a good thing,” he says. Another key challenge for Terex (and others) is to try to establish a steady supply of good, young qualified engineers.
“There is definitely a very limited pool of talent here in Northern Ireland and we think that it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.
“We’re only too happy to work with the universities but it’s important that they become more proactive in the way that they engage with industries like our own,” adds Hegarty. “The aim has to be to increase the quantity of talent coming through education to industry. The quality is there, but the numbers are not. It’s as simple as that.”
Sales professionals, he goes on to add, are also thin on the ground…..especially those capable not just of understanding the intricacies of mobile stone-crushing machinery but also able to jump on an aircraft at a moment’s notice and sell the equipment to a plant operator in the middle of Africa. The machinery built at the Terex plant in Omagh and Dungannon is shipped to the UK, to Western Europe, to North America, to Australia and to India, amongst other destinations.
Traditionally these are machines powered by diesel engines but increasingly there is a trend towards hybrid diesel/electric power units….. although that’s less important in sub-continental marketplaces.
“We do face low-cost competition but at Terex we’ve taken it on head-first, by setting up a big plant in India to produce machinery with local specifications to suit the local marketplace.”
As for the Chinese, the Terex chief reckons that high transport costs make it well nigh impossible for the Chinese to export heavy machinery internationally. “However, China itself offers huge potential for our type of product in the longer term.”
He’s hoping that a new report by Matrix, the NI Science Industry Panel, into the Advanced Manufacturing and Materials Handling sector will encourage more Government support for industry here.
“I think that some form of increased support for R&D would be very welcome. For a business like our’s, R&D is everything. We’ve got to innovate and keep on innovating to win sales internationally.
“We also see huge potential in some new areas,” he says. “A good example is the environmental recycling of construction waste – brick, metals and wood – which we reckon can be a major growth area as more and more legislation is introduced to encourage recycling worldwide.
“But, for us, that’s one for the future. We’ve enough to keep us busy just at the moment.”