When Donal Kelly left school at the age of 16, he emigrated briefly to London. Then he spent three months working in America. When he went back to Donegal, he set up a business Seamless Aluminium, that designs, manufactures and distributes high quality rainwater systems across Ireland, the UK and Europe.
Donal one of eight children born to Denis and Brigid Kelly. He still lives and works where he was born and reared, at Laheen, Cavangarden, just outside Ballyshannon.
He has fond memories of attending Behey NS, which closed in the 1960s. “The two teacher school was a great thing. It was all very local. We used to walk to and from school. You’d have your slice of bread in your hand - there was no such things as canteens.”
His time at the Vocational School in Ballyshannon left him with mixed views however. “I enjoyed doing carpentry work and metal work but I didn’t like the fact that there was a bit of snobbery back then. I felt the town people were better looked after than the country people.”
Donal says he learned a lot from his father. “He was a blacksmith and had a forge. As children, we used to enjoy blowing the bellows and watching him work. He’d retired by the time I started my business but he gave me great help. He was very mechanically minded. If a machine broke down, he could usually fix it. And he was a great man for talking with the customers.”
When Donal finished school, he went to London. “I was 16 and worked on the roads, making pre-cast concrete beams for flyovers. I enjoyed that - it was the very top end of that type of work and I was very lucky to get the job,” he recalls.
After just six months, though, he came back home. “I went home because the rest of the family, except my parents, had emigrated. “The eldest, Mary, when to the US when she was 16, to relations in New York. Then Ann followed and Noreen went next. Sean went to London, then Liam, Eileen and Kathleen all went to New York.
“At that stage, my parents thought they’d go too. They put the place up for sale. When I came back, in 1975, they decided they would stay.
“I started up the concrete business then, Denis Kelly Concrete. There was a bit of work out there but it was very slow to build up.
“In 1976, I went over the the US for three months and worked in the aluminium business - soffit fascia and guttering. I knew it was a great product with a lot of potential so I brought it back and showed samples to architects. It wasn’t even in this country at the time.
“It was a very hard sell because it was a new idea but I managed to get an architect in Ballybofey, Paddy Carr, who was very switched in. He saw the potential and the beneifts, and specified my products in all the new buildings and renovation projects he worked on.
“I got the machine in America and bought a van for it. We used to have to travel from Malin Head to Mizen Head, building up the business. We’d get up at 5am, drive for a few hours, work all day, maybe you’d get two houses done, and then drive home.
“Word of mouth was great. People would see the materials coming out of the van - it was like a factory on wheels, we used to say.
“At that time plastic guttering was everywhere but it would only last a couple of years and it was prone to leaking as well. The seamless aluminium was far better. I’ve buildings around here where it’s lasted 40 years now. Plus, it’s virtually maintenance free.
“We grew the business throughout the country. People wanted to set up in the business so we helped them and so gradually we stopped fitting and concentrated on manufacture and supply. It was tough because the margins were tight and cashflow was a big problem. “We had to pay for materials upfront. I used to go to America at the weekend to load up a container. I’d pay for it, come home and be back at work on the Monday morning. The banks wouldn’t give us any support.
“Then an American company I bought indirectly from, Englert Metals Inc., got in touch and asked me to meet them. They collected me in New York and brought me to New Jersey, asked how much I was buying and how much the business could grow if they gave me credit. They gave me $100,000 credit over three months. When I paid it, they upped the credit to $200,000. To this day, we still buy from them.
“The credit gave me the free hand to go out and sell. We set up more agents throughout the country and started to export to England in the 1980s. Englert backed me there to. Alcan wouldn’t deal with me but Englert put up a £100,000 personal guarantee to Alcan, so we could get coil more quickly.
“The Norwegians heard about us and a French company, and asked if we would buy from them. They were both keen to do business with us because we were a Triple A company by then, and we still deal with those companies today.
“By 2008, we had 35 people working here, compared to when we started, just me with my father, in 1975. With the downturn, we’ve had to reduce our staff numbers. We have 17 people working here now and another 10 at our place in Birmingham, which we opened in 1982.
The success of the company is down to the loyal, hard-working staff, some of whom have been with us for over 30 years.
“It’s the exports that are keeping us alive. Around 55-60% of our business now is exports. But we still do the trade shows, like the Self Build and Improve Show in Dublin. It means travelling and working all weekend on top of the regular working week, but that’s what you have to do to.”
Donal married local girl, Anne Magee from Bunahill in Ballyshannon. “She was a nurse who trained at the Royal Victoria in Belfast and then went to Saudi Arabia to work for three years. I knew her before she went,” he smiles and you get the sense that he knew he was going to marry her before she went too!
The couple have three grown children: Sara, who is in her final year at Sligo IT studying Business and Accounting; Denis who is studying Art in Galway; and Katie who is studying Business and Law at NUI Galway. They all want to start their own businesses by Donal advises against it. “My advice to my family is not to even think of setting up a business because you’re tied 7 days a week, 365 days a year. You can’t even take holidays. I’ve only started now, when I’m nearing retirement age, taking one week a year.”