When it comes to Burn-in Boards, Declan is an industry veteran and his mild manner and low-key approach to his work belies a depth of expertise that is probably second to none in the global marketplace.
To kick off this occasional series of articles featuring the team at Abrel, we sat down with Declan recently to hear about his career, how he came to set the company up with partner Paul Comerford and to hear about the industry issues that affect customers in the current climate.
What we discovered is that Declans career and the evolution of Abrel is like a whistle-stop tour of the sector itself; with globalisation emerging as a dominant factor for anyone operating in this marketplace.
How did you start out in your career?
Well I did Electronic Engineering at University of Limerick(UL) and at the time there was a lot of work in the semiconductor sector – I worked in local manufacturing companies initially then I moved to Dublin where I worked with Trio-Tech. After a few years, I moved back to Limerick and got more practical experience working with semiconductors and electronic testing. Paul Comerford and I worked together for a number of years before we set up Abrel so we knew each other well and had complimentary skills, which means between us we can give strong leadership across both the technical engineering and the management sides of the business.
We decided to take the leap and set-up Abrel back in 1994 and at that stage there were a number of multi-national electronics manufacturers based in the Shannon Free Zone so Limerick was a great location for us. We were definitely in the right place at the right time and we quickly secured global players like Analog Devices – in fact they are still a client today and recently talked about our Burn-in Boards at the Burn-in and Test Strategies (BiTS) Workshop in Arizona. So in the early years we focused on the Irish and UK markets and we were pretty successful in gaining traction early on.
How did you go about building exports?
Enterprise Ireland (EI) agreed to support us once the business had grown to a certain size and they were a great help in giving us direction at that stage. We were able to secure a market grant which we used to help identify customers in Germany – which was of course a leading market in terms of Semiconductor activity.
EI also helped put together a shared office arrangement over there which meant a number of companies shared the resources and overheads of a single office. In those days – we’re talking about 1998, before the internet dominated business activity – having a physical presence in a country was important to break into the marketplace, especially in this business where there is such tight regulation and heavy documentation, and so on. Germany is still a key market for us but these days there’s no need for an office there – we use digital tools like FTP, Remote Access and Cloud.
What about logistics?
We’re lucky that Ireland is well served with good infrastructure in terms of logistics. Also because we’ve been shipping products globally for many years now, we have built up strong relationships with our logistics partners and the customs/clearance requirements are all managed very effectively.
From the time an order reaches us, to the customer receiving it – the cycle takes 6 weeks – though it can be quicker. Within that time-frame, the transportation typically takes 2 days if we’re delivering into Europe and it can be up to one working week if we’re delivering further afield.
How have you driven growth?
Well first of all we’re in the right market as electronics has been a growth sector globally for decades and we can only see this continuing. In Europe we’ve grown exports through agency agreements with different partners.
Like any business though we’ve had challenging times. Many of the manufacturers based in Ireland and the UK moved to South East Asia and we had to go where the business was. So, we decided to develop sales in the Philippines, Singapore and Malaysia. Again EI supported us, identifying local agents and helping us to set up a sales network. Over 30% of our Turnover is in South East Asia now.
One of the things that has enabled us to internationalize the business has been our willingness to meet the specific needs of each customer – we have a big spectrum of customers including Military and Aerospace clients, so the level of information exchange can be extensive and the required NDA’s can be complex. And of course, there’s different standards and regulatory requirements in each geography but we’ve managed to meet customer needs in this regard and our agents are a great help in identifying what needs to be done.
And if you were to pick 3 Secrets of Success?
First up, we specialise very tightly on our core expertise – burn-in boards and related products. Many of our competitors offer a broad range of solutions but we stick to our niche and that makes it easier for us to control quality.
Secondly, we have built up a level of inhouse expertise in this field that is world-class. We are fortunate to have a very low turn-over of staff which gives the business great continuity and customers have confidence in our ability to deliver.
Finally we stay very close to our customers and we build relationships over the long-term. This is a win-win and we probably only have about 100 customers but we work in a very collaborative way and this gives us all stability and confidence in the future.
So, what do you do for fun?
Well I’m kinda attached to my Microsoft Surface and it’s particularly handy if you do a lot of flying but realistically that’s more work than play. When I’m not in the office or flying out somewhere for work – I love to cycle and I do a little running; preferably in a warm climate on holidays with family! When you’re office-based for work; outdoor exercise is great for head space…..