Ash Technologies in Naas, Co Kildare was co-founded in 1994 by Hugh Maguire to design and manufacture a range of electronic magnifiers for people with visual impairment. When that market became overly competitive, Hugh decided to pivot the business.
Today, with a staff of 29 and an annual turnover of more than €4m, he has repositioned the company to become a leading supplier of digital microscopes and measurement equipment to industrial clients across a wide range of sectors, from medical device and electronics, to life sciences, automotive, aerospace and engineering – anywhere high magnification and precision measurement are required.
“In the medical device sector, you can imagine just how small and intricate items such as cardiovascular stents and pacemakers are. To be able to properly inspect these items, manufacturers need high-quality magnification tools to inspect, verify and record, and that’s where our specialist equipment comes in,” says Hugh.
Among the company’s growing list of customers are leading names such as Medtronic, Boston Scientific, Apple, Flextronics, Analog Devices, Lockheed Martin and FoxConn (China). They also work in the conservation space with the likes of the Chester Beatty Library and The National Museum Dublin where their equipment is used to inspect rare and precious documents. They even supply Formula One racing companies such as Ferrari and Red Bull Racing, which use their equipment to examine small but extremely expensive engine parts.
“When I sit back and wonder how I ended up here, I’d have to say it was anything but planned,” says Hugh. “It has been a real rollercoaster of survival with occasional outbreaks of success thrown in. However, we survived because we succeeded in changing our business model and entering a whole new sector.” Impressively, today 90pc of all their products are exported to more than 35 countries around the world including the UK, US, China and Japan.
Hugh’s journey has been an interesting one.
He grew up in Dublin’s Templeogue where, from an early age, he developed a curiosity in taking electronic devices apart. He went on to complete a diploma in electronics and telecommunications in DIT before getting a job with Fujitsu in Tallaght, where he worked on the production line as an assembly technician. He moved to Braun in Carlow. Then, in 1984 he moved to the Irish manufacturing division of US company Visualtek, which supplied video-reading devices for people with low vision. He remained there for the next 10 years until the US parent company decided to close down its Irish operation.
“Having gained significant experience in the sector, myself and two of my colleagues joined forces and set up Ash Technologies with a view to designing our own range of low-vision electronic magnifiers,” says Hugh. Their business grew until 2011, when new entrants meant that it became increasingly difficult to complete against cheaper, lower-quality imported items. “We were manufacturing high-quality products but couldn’t match these lower prices without sacrificing quality, so we realised we needed to find a new business model,” says Hugh.
Serendipity intervened and later that year, they were exhibiting at a trade show in the NEC in Birmingham when visitors in the hall next to theirs dropped over to view their products and began to question Hugh and his colleagues about the potential of using Ash Technologies’ magnifiers as inspection devices in an industrial context.
“That’s when we had our light-bulb moment,” says Hugh. “We realised that there might be better opportunities in supplying industrial clients rather than individual users and so we switched our focus in that direction instead.”
They immediately moved to develop a range of rapid prototypes which were exhibited in Germany. When he returned home from the show with over 300 enquiries for his new products, he knew they had made the right decision. “With the low-vision market drying up, it was like finding an oasis in the desert,” says Hugh. “However, changing from a B2C to a B2B business model while still trying to keep revenues coming in from our existing products often felt akin to trying to change a plane’s engine while still flying.
“After all our years supplying low-vision products, it wasn’t easy to give up making these but we couldn’t do both. We had come to the realisation, as the Chinese proverb puts it: ‘He who chases two chickens catches neither’. We had to choose one. At the time it felt somewhat akin to drowning your favourite pet. But it was our only option if we wanted to survive and thrive”.
Having completed a Masters’ Degree in Management Science in IMI and Trinity College, Hugh was invited to participate in a management-development programme in the famous IMD business school in Lausanne, Switzerland, as part of the Enterprise Ireland supported Leadership for Growth programme. It was then that he really came into his own as a business leader. “It totally changed my perspective on business and gave me the opportunity and the tools to think more strategically. That’s when I decided to restructure, buy out my remaining business partner and drive the business forward myself,” he says.
Hugh put in place a whole new senior management and began to focus on creating a new company culture based around innovation and teamwork. “Up to that point, I had always found it hard to define or articulate what I thought culture actually was,” says Hugh. “When you are in survival mode, your focus tends to be on winning the next big sale in order to keep the organisation alive and the wolves away from the door.
“However, from my involvement in the programme, I began to realise the important role that culture plays when you are trying to lead, transform and grow an organisation. Now, I understand that ‘culture is what people do when you are not there’. So I believe we have now succeeded in embedding a positive culture in the organisation and one that is performance driven and supports innovation but at the same time also promotes the self-development and empowerment of its people. Having changed direction, the key to our long-term growth and sustainability now lies in making sure that we are always adding value to both our customers and our team,” says Hugh.
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