O’Neills managing director Kieran Kennedy has been on quite the journey as he prepares to retire after 42 years that have seen it grow from a small business to a worldwide brand that has made an impact in places as far-flung as Australia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Strabane-based company has come a long way from its modest roots and Mr Kennedy will be leaving a brand that is synonymous with the GAA and the Irish Diaspora.
Mr Kennedy is modest about his achievements with O’Neills, citing the jobs he created in his native Tyrone as his proudest legacy.
“I started my career here at 16 and took over the management of the company at 24. Unemployment in Strabane was over 30 per cent, we had the tag of being the economic black spot of Europe,” he told breakingnews.ie
“My vision was always to try to improve that, I wanted to see as many jobs coming to this area as possible, and I think during my career I’ve helped to deliver on that vision.”
When the pandemic struck last March, O’Neills had to deal with a drop-off in orders while sports teams no longer needed equipment.
Mr Kennedy quickly came up with a solution that helped in the fight against the virus and kept staff in work as they took on the challenge of manufacturing much-needed PPE.
“Covid has been difficult but out of every problem there are opportunities. We took the opportunity during Covid to help the health service by producing scrubs and gowns.
“For me personally that was brilliant in terms of keeping the company going, keeping our staff going and also in terms of helping the fight against Covid.
“I would look at these issues, not just the pandemic, in terms of making the best of a bad thing. In every adversity, there’s opportunity, so we took the opportunity to develop PPE
“It helped us keep going through the first stage of lockdown. Fortunately we were able to continue the manufacturing process during lockdown. We only had about four or five weeks when it was part-time work, so we’re back to full capacity now, it’s fuller now than it has ever been in my career, so I think I’m leaving on a high in terms of what we’ve achieved, especially throughout the last year when we were faced with adversity and having to close the factory. We reopened within three days of closing, so it worked out well.”
He added: “The problem for us was once sport stopped our orders just fell off a cliff. Obviously GAA is a big factor, but thankfully we closed on a Friday, and we were back open again on a Wednesday. I’m not sure if we were lucky or smart, but it was a team effort from everybody. The health service backed us 100 per cent and gave us the orders.”
Another boost during the early stages of the pandemic came from a very unlikely source, the television adaption of Sally Rooney’s hit novel Normal People.
One of the show’s protagonists, Connell (played by Paul Mescal), famously sported a pair of O’Neills shorts which quickly went viral and led to a surge in orders.
“They’re seemingly still going viral,” said Mr Kennedy with a chuckle. “We’re having problems trying to meet demand on the shorts at the moment. I don’t know whether it was all the show, but the publicity was certainly welcome, and it was a big help to us during lockdown when people placing orders for shorts increased dramatically.”
While Irish people will be most familiar with their favourite county jersey, Mr Kennedy has helped O’Neills branch out into soccer, rugby union, rugby league and cricket along with a number of other sports.
This has helped to grow the brand and Mr Kennedy takes particular pride in their presence in Australia.
“We made a strategic decision a few years back that we would try to grow the business overseas, and we opened an office in Australia about six years ago and to be fair the Australian market is going phenomenally for the last year throughout the pandemic and the Australian market is one of the big things that has kept us going.
“We also have offices in France, three offices in the UK, there it’s mainly rugby league and schools and France is rugby as well.”
O’Neills recently signed a deal with Australian rules football side Adelaide Crows as well.
“Rugby is part of our Australian market as well with Penrith Panthers, and we have a lot of professional clubs signed up there. We’ve signed a contract with Adelaide Crows in the AFL as well and the demand for their gear at the moment is phenomenal for us. We’re struggling to meet demand, but we’d much rather be in a position where we’re looking at it than looking for business.
“It’s our biggest export market, it was previously France, but Australia is massive and the potential there is unreal.
“I’ve been there [Australia] and everything they do seems to be sport related, AFL, rugby league, rugby union, it’s a great market, and we’re well-placed to supply that market.
“We can get product to them quicker than they can get it from the Far East.
“We are a vertically integrated organisation. We make everything from start to finish, we buy the yarn, we knit the fabric, we dye the fabric in Dublin, we cut and sow it in Strabane as well, we control the supply chain which stands to us for quick delivery and turnaround for our overseas exports.”
The O’Neills brand has even gone as far as Africa under Mr Kennedy, as the official kit supplier for the Democratic Republic of Congo.
“When they won a big game in the African Cup of Nations they sent us videos of the crowds on the street, and it was hundreds of thousands welcoming them home with loads of people wearing O’Neills kits.
“It was mad, we couldn’t believe it, it was surreal, they’re lovely people to work with, and we have a good working relationship.”
O’Neills county jerseys are always a common sight for Irish people abroad, with a county jersey often going viral after being spotted at golf events.
“It’s great to see O’Neills jerseys popping up at the Masters and places like that,” said Mr Kennedy. “Everybody knows O’Neills in Ireland but worldwide too.
“Talking to anyone from the States they know O’Neills. We supply worldwide on a daily basis.
“The market is more accessible than ever before, they can go online and have their jerseys in the States in a few days.
“That’s what we aimed to achieve. We want to be the fastest, quickest and best online channel.
“We want to make sure our customers get deliveries as fast as humanely possible, we want customers to have their orders delivered on the same day.”
Asked what memories stand out to him, Mr Kennedy cited the early days of the business and how it has grown from being a relative unknown to the most recognisable Irish sportswear company.
“When I started there was lots of unemployment, the Troubles impacted everything. My job in the early days was as a stock control clerk and I used to drive a van to Letterkenny and trying to negotiate checkpoints it was taking me a couple of hours. That would stand out; starting out as a young man and having the craic with all the people in the factory too.
“The expansion from a small converted schoolhouse to an advanced building in Strabane of 15,000 square feet, we thought we’d never fill it but in a year we doubled the size, trebled it in another few years, and we’ve continued to expand.
“When I started it was 7,000 square feet, now we have about 250,000 square feet on about 15 acres, so expansion has been good to look back on and be involved in, and I’m proud of the size of organisation.
“It’s a worldwide name in sport now, back when I started we didn’t even have a presence in Northern Ireland at all. Now we have eight shops here.
“The growing of the online business has been very rewarding too.”