Going against the grain

Gerry McCaughey – Century Homes

Gerry McCaughey has two pieces of paper that reflects his time in the education system. The first is his letter of expulsion from St Mary’s CBS in Monaghan.

The second is the piece of paper that says he has earned a B Comm from University College Dublin. 

Unsurprisingly, for this outspoken businessman and incipient politician, he still reckons that he was in the right and that the school was wrong. The letter giving him his marching orders says he was a “disruptive influence”. His take on it is somewhat different.

“I was outspoken. ‘Disruptive influence’ is a teacher’s euphemism for an outspoken student. I can remember one teacher saying: ‘a teacher’s right even when he’s wrong and I thought to myself ‘what bullshit’. You’re telling a sixteen or seventeen year old getting ready to go out into the world that somebody appointed somewhere has the right to be right even when they’re wrong. Authority is bestowed, but more importantly, it is earned.”

This polemic is delivered with passion and at pace in a quickfire northern accent. Born in Dungannon in County Tyrone, McCaughey’s family moved to Monaghan town early in his early life and this has been his home and base more or less since then. Gerry McCaughey is the CEO of Kingspan Century, Ireland’s leading supplier of timber-frame houses. His family was in the construction business already, but the venture into timber-frame houses was led by Gerry himself.

In a country with one of the highest rates of home ownership in the developed world, Century Homes as it was then, set itself the goal of changing the way Irish people built their houses.

In doing so it has been at the centre of one of Ireland’s most public and contentious business tussles. For Gerry McCaughey has taken on the cement industry and its dominance of construction. The spat has been carried out on the pages of national newspapers with Century’s full page ads extolling the virtues of timber-frame being met with robust full-pagers championing concrete.

We met in Century’s home and HQ just outside Monaghan town. I was early for the interview and he met me early. The receptionist called him up and addressed him as ‘Gerry’. When he arrived to get me he took me, not to his main office, but an office next to the reception. All this struck me as the modus operandi of a practical man, not too concerned about the protocols and processes, more fixed on outcomes and results.

Businesslike, you could say. He traces this attitude or set of attitudes to his upbringing. “I grew up in a business family. It was a risk-taking family. ‘If you ever want to make it in life, run your own business’ was the ethos that was running through the house.” 

Ok but why then, on the day he was expelled from school, would he vow to get his B.Comm? Why would someone bent on plowing his own furrow need the crutch of an education qualification?

“Because I believed that it would make it easier for me to achieve what I wanted to achieve. If I hadn’t got it, it wouldn’t have stopped me. That’s why I would encourage people who get caught at the Leaving Cert level. Don’t let that stop you.”

Indeed, his route to the B.Comm wasn’t the direct one. He attended a two year business course at Dundalk RTC, as it was, and then transferred from there to UCD. I ask him whether he considers the B.Comm an essential tool for his career and whether this is the case for all aspiring entrepreneurs.

“It does make a difference – it makes it easier. But nothing stops a person succeeding if they want to succeed. Say you take two car drivers and give them both formula one cars. If one guy has training and the other guy hasn’t then obviously the guy with training is going to go faster the first day. But it doesn’t mean that in two month’s time that the other guy isn’t going to go faster.”

He talks of the conundrum of the nurture versus nature argument. He believes that his upbringing is an important part of his success but is unwilling to accept the opposite, that a person without such a background is destined for failure.

So he was willing to use the business ethos in his background but not the capital. He didn’t want to work for his father, to have something handed to him. He travelled to America, a choice made easier for him as it was the 1980’s and there was precious little work available in Ireland anyway. He went to Los Angeles and got himself involved in painting houses with a couple of partners. It was a good business for him and he is proud that it is still going under the control of one of the original partners.

His father challenged him to come home and set up the timbre-frame business. He was reluctant but agreed to give it a try in Ireland for two years. And he’s still here.

According to McCaughey, timber-frame has made significant inroads into building in Ireland with 30% of Irish homes now based on timber-frame construction. For this to happen the difficulties were cultural rather than technical. Which suited him as his nous was in marketing rather than engineering.

But the start of his interest in timber-frame technology was theoretical – his college thesis was on the timber-frame industry in Ireland at the time. His conclusion was that the failure of the timber-frame industry was illogical and that there was no reason why timber-frame couldn’t be a success in Ireland. Indeed, that was the substance of his father’s challenge. Why talk about it? Why not come home to Ireland and do something about it?

Century Homes was set up in 1987 and is now Ireland’s biggest supplier of timber-frame buildings. In building up the timber-frame market McCaughey has made an enemy of the cement industry. A very public campaign for the hearts and minds of house builders and home owners has ensued. 

How is the war going, I ask him. “I love it,” he says with a grin. “Actually, it’s the biggest compliment I’ve had in my life. That a company that started with five people in Monaghan could force the concrete industry to run ads to sell concrete is unbelievable. They are having to do it because they are feeling the pain.”

He becomes pretty animated at this point, getting into a flow. He recounts a conversation he has had with a ‘concrete’ executive the week before. The ‘concrete’ man is saying that they are selling as much concrete as ever while McCaughey is telling him he’s losing market share. 

Here’s what McCaughey told him: “Either you don’t understand the concept of market share or else you’re just blind. You’re losing market share and that’s why you are doing what you’re doing. We only say what we say because everything we say is based on technical fact.” 

He recounts with some relish the nasty things the concrete industry has had to say about timber frame construction. “They tried to make people believe that timber-frame houses would blow down – they don’t. They tried to say they would rot – they don’t. They tried to say they would go on fire – they don’t. They tried to say that they wouldn’t last – but they do. And now their arguments are shot and they can’t stand the fact that their dominance on this island is over.”

Come on now Gerry, stop beating about the bush.

The latest battle ground on which the concrete-timber war  is being fought out is on the environment. He, naturally enough, is well versed on the advantages of timber.”Every tonne of Portland cement produces one tonne of CO2. One tonne of processed timber has absorbed one tonne of CO2. So there’s a two tonne swing between switching from cement based products to timber based products and, in that sense, everything is going our way.”

Very convenient then, I point out to him, that he’s in the timber business. Where’s the evidence that the company has a real interest in the environment? He sticks out his hand and spreads his fingers in order to begin counting.

“This company is ISO14001 registered, in the first one hundred companies in the country to be registered. We recycle 76% of our industrial waste. We have a cradle-to-grave record for all our materials. All our electricity use has been switched from coal-fired to gas-fired generation and we’re in the process of sourcing wind power. And we have forest stewarded certification on all our timber so that we know it’s coming from managed resources.”

(Interview by Niall Gormley)