Ireland’s biggest sportswear manufacturer has switched up their operations in order to provide much needed Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. O’Neills International Sportswear are now assisting Ireland’s essential frontline workers on both sides of the border.

Ordinarily, O’Neills produce sportswear for much of Ireland’s sporting codes and teams, making their diversification a reflection of a society collaborating to overcome a common foe: Covid-19. In this case, in the words of their slogan, O’Neills are proving themselves to be ‘The Choice of Champions’.

O’Neills have long been a part of the fabric of Irish society, pardon the pun. Founded in 1918 as a manufacturer of gaelic footballs, they are now the largest sportswear manufacturing company in Ireland, with a global customer base. Their sportswear is donned by athletes from varying sports including Gaelic Games, Soccer, Rugby, Boxing, Basketball, Athletics, Special Olympic Athletes, Hockey and Netball, with UCD’s sports teams also donning the brand. O’Neills employ over 900 people across Ireland, the UK, France, Australia and beyond, although most are employed at the Strabane and Dublin manufacturing plants.

Kieran Kennedy, the Managing Director of O’Neills International Sportswear, has taken their Strabane manufacturing plant to new heights, from 7,000 square feet to 250,000 square feet. First starting with O’Neills at the age of fifteen, Kennedy represents an amazing case study of loyalty, hard work and ability. The Sion Mills man’s thirst for the coalface of business fuelled his desire to leave Omagh CBS early and began working in the business with a wage of £22 a week.

Kennedy’s meticulous focus on standards is evident when he said, “do what you have to do, to the best of your ability”. This honesty of effort requires no specific talent but goes a long way to achieving business success. Kennedy’s basic requirement to do your best aligns with his business mantras to, “never refuse an order” and “never let a customer down.” The customer-centred culture of O’Neills drove the expansion of production facilities to meet consumer demands.

The quality which Kennedy values most in business is common sense. “One of the most important aspects that you need to have is common sense and I believe that stood to me through my whole career,” said Kennedy. This indicates that in an era of instantaneous statistics, your gut instinct still has an important role to play in business.

“I have 680 staff to try and manage, so you’ve got to be able to manage people. One of my biggest learnings throughout my career is empathy,” said Kennedy.

His caring approach to his staff is refreshing and it is noteworthy that in the cut-throat world of business, humanitarian leadership has an important part to play. This is reflected in Kennedy’s mantra, “I would never ask anybody to do anything I wouldn’t do myself.” Additionally, Kieran says that, “giving people a job” remains his primary motivation, further illustrating his people-focused approach.

Kennedy referenced how their domestic-based production methods saves fossil fuels by avoiding aircraft deliveries from Asia. Hence, O’Neills are well prepared for a ‘green era’ with an environmentalist perspective gathering pace among younger generations.

Nevertheless, despite the ethical disposition, there is also an underlying ruthlessness that all great leaders need, and he believes, “If you can’t change people, change people”; referring to the humility and coachability he encourages in O’Neills employees.

Kennedy’s visionary leadership has been central to the staggering growth of O’Neills. He highlighted the significance of being “one step ahead”. O’Neills are highly innovative in their approach to selling sportswear which has kept them at the forefront for 102 years.

E-commerce now accounts for 40% of their sales and they deploy modern methods, such as artificial intelligence, to maximise online sales. There are approximately ten different artificial intelligence programs operating on the O’Neills website, while they further deploy technology in stock management systems and in internet search engines to ensure O’Neills products are the first listed, if they match the search.

Technology has allowed for specialisation and flexibility in producing sportswear as well as greater speed in the production process. The unquenchable hunger to stay abreast with trends is further represented in their research into ‘technical fabrics’. Kennedy believes that GPS monitoring chips will eventually be embedded into the fabric of jerseys (currently a sewn pocket in the neck area holds them).

Indeed, it is not just the company which strives for improvement, as Kennedy places a huge personal emphasis on continuing professional development. He studied a leadership programme at Queen’s University Belfast which gave him the opportunity to experience alternative ways of doing things. Furthermore, he completed a ‘Leadership for Growth’ programme in IESE Business School, spending 3 weeks between Barcelona and New York at the number 1 ranked university in the world for executive education, with 39 other CEOs.

Kennedy encourages people to stop “looking in the rear-view mirror.” This is commensurate with the positive, forward-thinking attitude he pervades and can be an inspiring message for UCD students to look to the future with excitement and a determination to strive for success.

Most recently, O’Neills came to the forefront of global culture as Paul Mescal has been sporting their shorts in the TV series ‘Normal People’ which has reached large audiences via RTE in Ireland, BBC in the UK and Hulu in the US. The shorts have become such a fashion statement that Gucci moved to exploit the market with a €550 lookalike. As the O’Neills Twitter account attests to, ‘Only 102 years ahead of ye lads at Gucci, we’ve been keeping Ireland stylish since 1918’.

Ruairi McCormack – Business Reporter