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Family business ethos contributes to world beating formula

Burnside Autocyl is a world leading manufacturer of hydraulic cylinders, firmly rooted in the county Carlow engineering tradition. Founded in 1974 by the four Byrne brothers, Burnside initially started out supplying local Carlow machinery manufacturers, such as the Armer Salmon division of Irish Sugar, and has since gone on to become one of the world’s leading designers and manufacturers of hydraulic cylinders. Today, the combined group of Burnside businesses is one of the largest employers in county Carlow, with exports to industry leading customers in 16 countries around the world.

Mobile machines utilising Burnside cylinders can be seen working on roads and building sites, as well as warehouses and docks, throughout the world. Burnside cylinders are used as actuators and lifting devices on a variety of machinery, including aerial work platforms, construction and earthmoving equipment, warehouse equipment and recycling vehicles and many others. Simply described, they are the muscles on mobile machinery. 

Looking back on the origins of the company, Caroline Kelly, Sales Leader with Burnside Autocyl, based in Tullow, Co Carlow, explains that Armer Salmon, the Irish Sugar beet harvesting subsidiary, was struggling to source hydraulic cylinders for its machinery at the time. “My father spotted the business opportunity and he set up a business with his brothers to respond to that need,” she said. And, it wasn’t long before export markets came on the horizon. 

“We always had an eye on export markets. Ireland wasn’t a large market for hydraulic cylinders. Today, 80 per cent of our output is exported.”

1978 saw Burnside’s first foray into overseas markets, and that’s when its long-standing relationship with Enterprise Ireland began. “They saw the export potential of the company and we formed a really good relationship with them. Our first export market was the UK and we enjoyed early success there. We moved onto Scandinavia after that,” she outlines.

The company gradually expanded into the rest of Europe. “Back in 1978 we didn’t think we’d be able to sell into a market like Germany,” Kelly points out. “It’s a highly industrialised country surrounded by a very sophisticated supply chain. But at the end of the 1980s we began to explore it. We’ve been very successful there ever since. That’s very typical of the Burnside mindset. We see a target and go out and address it.”

The next major milestone for the company came in 1998. “The four brothers decided to demerge the original Burnside Engineering business for succession planning purposes and facilitate greater focus on specific market segments. There are lots of opportunities for our products in different market sectors, but to be able to cater to a diversity of needs is quite challenging. The family therefore created three separate entities to drive growth.”

What started out as a single company has today grown to become six separate companies - Burnside Autocyl, Burnside Eurocyl, Burnside Hydracyl, Kelly Precision, PB Machine Tech and Burnside America. “Each company is independent all the way to the bank,“ she explains. “It is a family with multiple businesses in the same sector that cooperate and collaborate very closely. They operate in slightly different markets, and they all have space to grow their businesses. 

“We work together on purchasing to get the best deals and there is a lot of corporate knowledge sharing. That combined capability and knowledge is a great resource and risk mitigator for our customers. They know if there is a disruption to production at one plant, there is another nearby that can step in.”

Burnside America, a wholly owned subsidiary of Burnside Autocyl, was established in 2014 as a result of years of forging good working relationships with European clients, who often had US parent companies or affiliates. “Entering the US market was a big decision for us,” she says. “We did it to serve our customers and offset risk. You can be overexposed to a market sector, a geography, or a single customer. But being on two continents helps to mitigate that risk, and makes us more attractive to global companies.”

The US presence began with warehousing and aftermarket service support and was followed by the establishment of a manufacturing facility in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. “The US move has paid off for us,” she explains. "It has given us new opportunities to sell into OEM manufacturers that would have been very hard to engage with from a European base.”

She attributes much of the company’s success to its family ownership. “Being a family business means that we have a quicker decision-making process than companies with different structures. We put huge emphasis on staff and customer retention. We believe our family business ethos delivers a unique experience for our customers and a lot of them have been with us for 30 or 40 years.”

Innovation is also critically important. “It’s in our DNA. We invest heavily to support the development of our products and processes. Our products need to meet ever more exacting quality standards. Enterprise Ireland has been there all along to support us with R&D and innovation, and now on sustainability and the environmental viability of the business. A lot of our customers have net zero targets for 2030 and we have to feed into that.”

Looking to the future, she notes that the global hydraulic cylinder market is worth €14 billion at present and is expected to “increase to €18 billion over the next five years or so”. 

“Looking ahead to our next 50 years, we will continue to scale the business. We very much look forward to working with Enterprise Ireland on realising our ambitions to double revenues across the group of companies over the next 10 years.”

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