Bright idea to leave sunglasses firm put recruitment sector in my sights…
When Kieran McKeown goes out on his lunchtime walk, he is still working. “I look at the lorries passing by to see what name is on them, so I can find out if we have their account,” he says.
Matrix Recruitment, which was formed in 1998, has been through the dotcom bust and the global recession — and survived both.
The company’s founder was a late starter. McKeown, from Fermanagh, qualified as an accountant and spent his early years working for multinationals such as Henkel and Organon. His interest in recruitment began as a candidate.
“I made a promise to myself very early on that every two years I’d go out into the jobs market and see what was happening,” says McKeown.
The approach took him to Waterford with Bausch & Lomb, the Ray-Bans manufacturer. He joined as financial controller and moved into supply chain management. When the opportunity to take voluntary redundancy came up in 1996, he jumped at the chance.
“I had 20 years in industry and I had always been thinking about starting my own business,” says McKeown, whose father was a “turf accountant”. He considered buying a bar and setting up a pizza restaurant, but “when I tried to imagine myself working in them, I just couldn’t.”
McKeown opted to provide management accounting services to businesses in Waterford. “With the euro changeover on the way, there was plenty of work. But it was bits and pieces, and there was nothing concrete.”
A chance meeting prompted a change of tack. A friend said he was bogged down while trying to recruit accountants for clients. The work was time-consuming and he wondered whether McKeown had experience in the area.
The pair set up Matrix, with the accountant friend providing introductions to multinational clients. The business was established as a co-operative, which enabled the duo to get European Union funding for the development of co-ops.
“Four of us started in the business at the beginning and we each put in a small amount of money, which enabled us to qualify for the funding,” says McKeown.
“If it hadn’t been available, the business wouldn’t be here today because there are no supports or grants for service start-ups.”
Matrix remained a co-op until 2001, when it turned into a limited company. “A really good job in Kilkenny came in and my partner decided to keep it for himself, so I bought him out.”
Initially, Matrix specialised in recruiting accountants and supply chain managers. Within months, McKeown had opened a second office, in Tullamore. “To be honest, I chose it because I was determined to visit home in Fermanagh more, and it was on the way.”
The Waterford office was kept busy with a stream of new clients, including biotech specialist Genzyme. McKeown looked after Genzyme’s recruitment and payroll services.
In 2006, we closed the Tullamore office to open two new offices in Athlone and Carlow, and two years later had 22 staff.
When the recession came, it hit recruitment — a bellwether industry — in its early days. Staff numbers at Matrix fell to nine, and all employees were put on part-time hours. “If we hadn’t done that, the business would have gone too.”
Of the 14 sectors serviced, including hospitality, retail, logistics and transport, the company cut back to four: medical devices, pharma, food and traditional manufacturing.
In 2009, a manufacturing facility was being set up in Wexford, and Matrix became an approved supplier of its recruitment services. It saw the company through the worst of a downturn, in which turnover fell by 70%.
Today Matrix employs 25 people and has offices in Dublin, Waterford, Athlone, Carlow and Galway. Average year-on-year growth has been 18% for the past three years. Turnover in 2016 was €5.3m.
Stung by bad debts during the downturn, Matrix has made more rigorous credit control the biggest legacy of the bust. McKeown, 60, has also implemented a programme to eliminate waste and boost efficiency.
Systems and processes are in place to ensure the business can stand on its own without him, he says.
“I’m open to all options, but we have a strategic plan in place, good reserves, we’re well set up. And there’s a great buzz about the place.”
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