WHAT would you do if a Ferrari-owning American you barely knew offered you a briefcase full of US dollars?
That's just one of the many questions Tullamore man John McDonald had to grapple with in the course of an immensely eventful career in the engineering business.
From ploughing fields with horses in Co Kildare, convincing Bord na Mona there was a better way to build a sausage turf machine, and helping Germans rebuild roads after the fall of the Berlin Wall, John McDonald really has done it all. And much more.
He recently told a little of his life story at a Friday evening gathering in Eugene Kelly's public house in Tullamore and among the many stand-out tales, the one where he sold machinery to a man in Long Island, USA was especially memorable.
John (or Johnny as he is perhaps better known locally) had established his own engineering business after leaving Bord na Mona and by the 1987 his ambition had brought him to the United States.
He had designed and manufactured a machine for the quarrying business called an Ultrascreen, a screener so big that there was no market for it in Ireland. Through a contact at a trade show in England he was put in touch with an American businessman.
“The minute the show was over I got on an airplane for New York and stayed in the centre of New York,” said John.
With no sat-nav and “no mobile phones either”, he found the man he was looking for at a “big sandpit” and showed him a black-and-white photograph of the machine McDonalds had built in Tullamore.
The man said he was interested and they did a provisional deal, though John was relieved when on arrival back at his hotel that night at the end of another long drive, there was a message waiting for him that the Long Island customer might buy not one, but two of the machines.
The agreement was finaised the following day when he met the man who “had a Ferrari”. “I'll never forget this. We were sitting in the Ferrari and then the next thing he said was, do you want the money now?” John said.
“I said 'Yeah!' and he had a briefcase that was bulging. He opened it and said, 'Here you are, whatever is in that, count it and take it and that'll pay for one of the machines. And maybe a deposit for the other one'.”
As tempting as the prospect of handling a briefcase full of cash must have been, John explained to the man that he couldn't bring the money back to Ireland and instead would have to lodge it in a bank and transfer it. And that he did, after making contact with a US-based Irishman working for a rival engineering firm.
“That was the start in America for us,” said John. His company soon picked up business in Chicago, New Orleans and all over the US, visiting “almost every state”.
“I used to fly out on a Saturday, because if you flew out on a Saturday that time you got a cheaper fare and then you'd start work at 6 on Monday morning. On Saturday night we'd go down town in New York, I got to know it fairly well. I'd meet all the Irish guys, including a lot of guys who worked in our place [in Tullamore]. And then go to Gaelic Park on a Sunday and kick football at half-time with the boys.”
In his early years, John lived with his parents and grandparents on a farm in Co Kildare and went to school in Edenderry.
The compulsory tillage policy meant there was never any shortage of manual work and that work ethic stood to the young McDonald when he got his first proper job, at what was then probably the best known, and highly regarded, engineering works in the Midlands, Hursts in Tullamore.
Frank Hurst ran his business like a military operation. “You were there at 8 in the morning, not 5 past 8, not 5 to 8,” John recalled. “And you never finished work at lunchtime until 1 o'clock, you were back at 2 and you did not close your toolbox until 6 o'clock or even after it.”
He learned the trade of high precision engineering on Hurst's lathes and milling machines, always aware that a mistake could result in a meeting with the boss and at best a suspension, or at worst, “a week's notice”.
Instead however, John impressed the owner and became assistant foreman in the machine shop, where all manner of machinery was repaired, especially threshing mills in an era before the combine harvester became commonplace.
After five years in Hursts he moved to Bord na Mona to work as a fitter and turner before his interest in design saw him attain a post at the drawing office in the firm's Dublin headquarters.
Once again, John McDonald's talents were recognised and he advanced quickly.
“I was only about 22 at the time but I had men working under me, 50 years of age and nearly 60. Some didn't like it, more did,” said John.
“But I learnt how to work very hard in Hursts, very hard. Military training was what we had in Hursts. You didn't walk down the workshop in Hursts, you walked, 'left-right, left-right', and you didn't walk with one hand in your pocket and your head down.”
The regime in Bord na Mona was different, and perhaps a little easier for the workforce.
“I had a different view, I went in to learn as much as I could, as quick as I could and in doing that I climbed up the ladder pretty quick.”
Clearly a man who sets himself high standards, John soon saw that the quality of machinery being used by Bord na Mona, especially that coming from contractors, was not up to scratch. Aged 26, he set up a meeting with the then managing director Louis Rattigan to talk about his ideas.
“I went into this big room, a big long mahogany table, and my knees were shaking. He was sitting at the far end of the table, he didn't know what I had in mind.”
John put it to Mr Rattigan that he not only wanted to leave Bord na Mona, but that he'd be looking for engineering contracts from the giant turf company.
Bord na Mona didn't want him to leave, and an offer of a works manager post in the future was mentioned, but John left the secure job and struck out on his own. And he won those contracts he wanted.
In the same year he formed the most important partnership of his life when he married Noeleen. She became much more than his wife; she worked as McDonald Engineering's first financial controller and to this day she is company secretary at McDonald International.
It was the early 1970s, a time of bank strikes, cement strikes, the international oil crisis and the Troubles in the North.
But at a small workshop on the Rahan Road in Tullamore, John McDonald “worked day and night” for customers in the land reclamation business like Johnny Hanlon, Jim Plunkett and Johnny Condron.
He assembled a team of six men and quickly had to expand, building a “much bigger” workshop and taking on clients like DE Williams, Irish Mist, Galvin's and Cappincur Joinery. The latter firm was run by the Spollens and when they sold it and moved into the quarrying business, another opportunity opened up for Johnny McDonald.
Spollens told him all of their crushing and screening plant was manufactured in Northern Ireland or Britian and they asked him if his company could do it instead. “I said, certainly we can,” replied John.
“Spollens ended up with about six locations and every plant they owned, down to the signs on the gate, we built them. They were very good to us and we were very good to them.
“We built the last big plant for Spollens and it was in Hanover Quay in Dublin, the first computerised plant in the UK or Ireland.”
After that foray into import substitution, John McDonald repeated the exercise with concrete truck mixers, linking up with a former Roadstone design engineer Normal Slack, and coming up with one which was superior to the UK equivalent.
“We came along with a truck mixer that we designed, a hydraulic-driver truck mixer, the very first of its kind in England or Ireland.”
That production lasted for about 10 years and John remembers offloading the final few mixers to Saudi Arabia just before the recession of the 1980s. His keen eye for a turn in the market came to the fore again.
He had an idea for a large screening machine, bigger and more efficient than anything seen in the quarrying business in Ireland before, and which could screen up to 500 tonnes of rock an hour.
There were no buyers at home so he marketed it at the Hillhead Show in England and it was from there that he ended up in Long Island and made the breakthrough into the American market.
A keen international traveller, John had also been to Germany on several occasions and had passed through Checkpoint Charlie into East Berlin. “I went wherever the job was, wherever the action was, I was there. If the ball was up the other end of the field I'd go up and bring it down with me.”
When the Berlin Wall came down in November 1989, McDonalds were ready to reap the benefits of German unification the following year, winning contracts for rubble recycling plants as the new country ripped up Nazi-era concrete roads in the east.
“We'd build [the plant] here, send out a team of men on a Friday evening and we were able to erect it and finish the job and then come home the following Friday,” he said.
The Great Recession of 2007 was the most severe he had ever experienced and he had sleepless nights as construction died and it “went very hard” on him to tell people they had to be laid off. McDonald International's employment numbers fell as low as 25 but the company remained in business.
Once again, its founder hit on another market winner, waste recycling plants. The waste management business in both Ireland and Britain was being privatised and McDonalds manufactured plants for Dublin companies like Thornton, Greyhound and Panda, using broadly the same designs which had been perfected in quarrying and construction. The UK market embraced the McDonald plants too and today there are about 60 people working in Tullamore.
The company has its design office and manufacturing centre in Cappincur and investment has ensured it is “second to none”. McDonald International is involved in multi-million euro contracts and one of the challenges is recruiting and retaining engineering staff.
In a tribute to all his staff, John said none of it would have been possible without all who worked for him so closely over the years, especially those most dedicated and loyal who are still with him.
With a shortage of qualified engineers and craftsmen, the company has looked to Poland, Lithuania and even China for expertise. John is so concerned about the issue that he hopes to open an in-house training school in Tullamore and received planning permission for the workshop last year.
The future is bright for this homegrown enterprise but John McDonald, a man who has driven countless miles seeking new business in Ireland, Britain, Europe and America, has one key piece of advice: “Don't give up, that's the one thing, I never give up. No matter what way things are going, don't give up.”
John McDonald was speaking at Founder Friday, an event organised by the Junction’s Caroline Spollen, Offaly Local Enterprise Office, and sponsored by the Bank of Ireland, Tullamore.