An electric forklift silently glides to a stop between two rows of pallet racks. The machine then raises both its load and the driver in his cab 15 metres into the air, where he slots the pallet into a top position on the nine-storey-high shelving unit.

Just another day in the office for the team of 30 workers at Nolan Warehousing and Logistics’ new giant Wexford warehouse, which began operating in October and was officially opened this Wednesday. Some day, they will probably hand over the handling of the 22,000 pallets that can fit in here to robots – the facility’s smart warehousing system is ready for automation, with sensors built into the floor to guide driverless forklifts.

The family of 13 siblings who own the Nolan Transport group named the building Johanna 1: Johanna after their mother, who co-founded the business with her husband Jimmy and was due to perform the grand opening but passed away last month, aged 86; number one because this is the first of a five-phase warehousing development on the greenfield site between Wexford town and Rosslare harbour.

Nolan siblings and co-directors Sally, Richard, Kevin, Noel and Joan Jr, with Wexford County Manager Tom Enright, pay tribute to Joan Nolan Sr (on screen). Photo: Thomas Hubert

Several of the family directors’ voices caught when they paid tribute to their mother while addressing several hundred guests at the ceremony inside the building. Yet its name and location, a half-hour drive away from Nolan Transport’s headquarters in New Ross, mean more than a nod to family roots.

They also illustrate how the business, which marks 60 years in existence this month, intends to leverage the scale and experience built to date in a shifting logistics market disrupted by Brexit and widespread supply chain overhauls.


A retired milk lorry driver in Wexford, met by The Currency independently of this week’s company celebration, remembered Jimmy and Joan Snr (Johanna) Nolan’s arrival on the scene in his industry in 1963. He recalled they were first to take the risk of carrying a second stack of milk churns on the back of their vehicles. “Imagine the pressure that truck was under,” he said. Then he added what else impressed him in the Nolans: “They were f*ckers for work.”

Speech after speech, the second generation of Nolans claimed the same combination of innovation and work ethics – “leaving nothing to chance,” as Noel Nolan put it. The middle child of the 13, he has spent the past 40 years heading up the family’s UK business and is now director of the burgeoning warehousing division.

Nolan Transport now employs over 1,000 people and runs a fully owned fleet of 2,000 trailers and 700 trucks, according to company figures. The privately held group does not report financial performance.

Asked by The Currency how the new Wexford development fits into the business of the existing haulage-focused Nolan group, Noel said: “We were already doing some warehousing in new Ross – not at this extent. We want to become a one-stop-shop for our existing and potential new customers.”

Nolan Warehousing and Logistics’ Johanna 1 building in Wexford. Photo: Thomas Hubert

The new facility’s location 20 minutes away from Rosslare is obviously ideal for European traffic, but he said the business also intended to attract transcontinental shipments arriving at Dublin Port, for which Nolan provides in-house customs clearance. From March, an automated emptying system will allow two people to unpack shipping containers instead of six currently. “Getting employees here, like anywhere else, is difficult,” Nolan said.

The business can now store clients’ goods in Wexford and redistribute them through its existing network. “It’s the part we were missing,” he said. “We now feel we have a complete package to offer our customers.” Although Nolan wouldn’t name any of those that have already filled more than five of the 32 bays in Johanna 1, they were visibly stacked with products carrying the brands of high-tech global electronics and mechanics components suppliers Amphenol and King Slide.

He said: “The sectors we’re looking for are pharma and high-end, highly valuable goods” – though he was happy to talk to anyone, whether they use Nolan’s haulage services or not. “We work with many industries: building construction, pharma, high-end computers… You name it, we carry it, from cornflakes to timber,” Nolan said.

“Unprecedented demand for warehousing”

Nolan’s new investment responds to “unprecedented demand for warehousing facilities caused by changes in customer needs and disruption in the supply chain stemming from Brexit and Covid,” according to a company presentation.

The deeper trend was confirmed by Jim Woulfe, who retired last year as chief executive of the Dairygold co-op after a long career as customer of Nolan Transport. “All this kind of work is being outsourced,” he told The Currency while visiting Johanna 1. “Margins are so tight you need professional people like Nolan’s to do it.” The growing level of technology involved in efficient freight handling and temperature control is one of the factors driving dairy processors and other industries towards external warehousing providers, he added.

Woulfe named PRL and Shannon Transport and Logistics among a number of other Irish companies growing in this industry. “The uniqueness of Nolan’s is that it’s family-owned,” he said. He added that warehousing space with customs clearance services near ports was sought after for the efficiency it brings. And this is where Brexit comes into play.

A worker operates a forklift at Nolan Warehousing and Logistics’ new facility in Wexford. Photo: Thomas Hubert

“We were going to do this anyway, but Brexit accelerated it,” Noel Nolan said. To illustrate his point, he grabbed my notebook and said: “Before Brexit, you could order that in Manchester and have it in the morning.” Border checks and delays mean this is not the case anymore.

As recently reported, direct sea traffic from Ireland to continental Europe has increased in part as a result of many Irish exporters giving up both the UK landbridge through Britain as a transport route and British companies as distributors of their products in the EU. “This has been an opportunity for Irish companies to regain control of the distribution of their products,” said Yvan Gomel, business development manager at Dunkirk Port in France, which has captured a portion of this new business.

The same applies the other way. Imported goods previously distributed by British-based logistics providers on a UK-and-Ireland basis now need to be stored on this island by companies ready to dispatch them nationwide at short notice. Nolan Warehousing and Logistics was created to tap into this growing market.

“We knew that if a Yes was triggered, things were going to change.”

Noel Nolan

The Nolans were on the ball early. They bought the 35-acre Wexford site in 2015. “In 2016 we closely monitored the lobbying and vote for Brexit,” said Kevin Nolan, the sibling in charge of the group’s European business. “My thinking back then was whatever way it eventually ends up, Nolan Transport was ideally positioned to get through Brexit and grow.” Noel added: “We knew that if a Yes was triggered, things were going to change.”

The family business already had a base on the continent, with an office in France’s Cherbourg port opened in 2008 and warehousing in the surrounding Normandy region. During the Brexit transition period, they shifted up the gears.

Kevin said the company knew existing direct roll-on roll-off shipping routes to the continent would not have enough capacity. “During this pre-Brexit period, we sat down and intentionally sought to partner with various shipping lines. We had indeed many meetings with them,” he said. “We agreed and committed to support planned new services operating between Ireland and Europe, I am glad to say all of these have proved to be successful.”

Nolan Warehousing and Logistics’ Johanna 1 building in Wexford. Photo: Thomas Hubert

Nolan Transport also opened new offices in Valencia in southern Spain, from where it transports mainly fresh produce to Ireland, and booked warehouse space in Madrid and Bilbao along the way. Earlier this month, the company opened its first Dutch office in Roermond, near the German and Belgian borders, and is planning to unveil another one next month in Rotterdam.

The Wexford warehousing complex at the heart of this expanding network is planned in five phases. Johanna 1 is the largest in size, according to plans presented this week, and has cost €12 million, Noel Nolan said.

“We’re debt-free,” he added, with all Nolan Warehousing and Logistics development to date funded by the group. Asked about the payback time for Johanna 1, he said: “On paper, it’s 10 years, but we would hope to have it paid back in five years.”

Rail and renewables

New development means additional capacity can be tailored to customers’ needs. The current building includes an isolated space for 1,000 pallets that can be turned into a customs-bonded warehouse or a clean-room environment. The next phase will include temperature-controlled storage, which in itself adds around €1.5 million to the cost of a comparable warehouse, he said.

Further plans presented by his sister Joan Jnr, the Nolan group’s finance director, include bringing the number of warehousing blocks to a total of five, with a proposed rail link as well as renewable energy assets including solar panels on all roofs and potential wind turbines.

Noel Nolan said the entire site was zoned for commercial development and the company would go back to Wexford County Council soon for its next round of planning permission. There was visible support from the local authority with chief executive Tom Enright speaking at Wednesday’s event.

He outlined the developments planned to support logistics in the county:

  • a €30 million new access road to Rosslare Europort to start construction next year, in parallel to the expansion of the port by its operator Irish Rail;
  • the completion of the motorway link from Belfast to the harbour with the €400 million Oilgate-Rosslare section due to go to An Bord Pleanála this year; and
  • future prospects for the region to become an offshore energy hub with the establishment of the Maritime Area Regulatory Authority in Wexford this year and plans to deploy and service future wind farms out of the harbour.

Nolan Warehousing and Logisitics plans to spend a total of €50 million to develop its entire Wexford site, with phase two due to start in the second quarter of this year. This won’t remain debt-free – the family is considering funding from a range of sources including bank or hybrid debt and the disposal of other assets.

The time horizon is to complete all five phases between three and five years from now. “Generally, when we make a plan, we stick to the plan,” Noel Nolan said.