On July 20, the news broke on the Stockholm Stock Exchange. NIBE Industrier, a €16 billion-market-capitalisation Nordic sustainable energy giant, had bought Ceramicx, an infrared heating technology company based in a factory not far from the west Cork village of Ballydehob. 

The Swedish giant was excited at the prospect of acquiring Ceramicx, a business founded thirty-one years ago by Frank and Gráinne Wilson. “With this acquisition, we are further complementing our product portfolio within industrial electrical heating,” said Gerteric Lindquist, the chief executive of NIBE Industrier. “This sector is assessed to be undergoing strong growth due to society’s aim of reducing CO2 emissions and reducing dependence on oil and gas.”

Ceramicx employs over 100 people and had sales last year of over €10 million, generating profits of more than €1 million. The business exports more than 95 per cent of what it makes, and for the last 17 years it has sent goods to China. “Not that many manufacturers export to China!” Wilson said.

Nestled in the townland of Gortnagrough, Ceramicx is not a household name in Irish business. Yet it has a global reputation in its niche and it exports to 85 countries infrared ceramic and quartz heating elements and components used in industrial heating. 

Ceramicx is a supplier to five different companies in NIBE, which employs 19,000 people, so the two parties knew each other for many years. 

The deal agreed with NIBE is that it has acquired 77.5 per cent of the pioneering business now, with the remainder by 2025. Frank Wilson will continue to lead the business until then, and the new owner is committed to all the jobs in the business, and may well hire more. The sale is the lastest successful exit to a major multinational by a company in rural Cork following Global Shares in Clonakilty to JP Morgan, and Spearline in Skibbereen to Silicon Valley customer service firm Cyara.

The price being paid for Ceramicx was not disclosed in the announcement. But including cash reserves in the company plus the remaining shares to be bought, it could be a deal worth between €15 million and €20 million. How did it all happen?

A hell of a hound dog

When Frank Wilson takes my call in his office in Cork, I make the mistake of asking him if he grew up in Dublin as I knew he had attended Blackrock College, a private school there. 

“No I did not!” he reassures me. Wilson admits to attending the school, but it was as boarder. He is firmly from west Cork, and grew up on a farm north of Bantry. Wilson tells me he was the only person in his year who went into industry, with law and accountancy being the preferred careers for his peers. 

“Now that is a story that needs to be told!” he laughed. “Something that needs to be told is to go around the schools in this country and find out what schools are actually producing people that generate jobs.” Wilson’s own track record of creating jobs in West Cork is impressive. He has a team of over 100 skilled people hailing from 14 different nationalities. 

His wife Gráinne is very involved in the business, and the two previously ran a fish shop in Schull, which they expanded to supplying restaurants. They then sold this business and got into making infrared heating products after they bought some equipment from another business that was relocating to Wales. The business was originally called Ceramics Ireland, but they added the X to make it clear to tourists they were not making crockery.

Wilson said the decision to sell Ceramicx was not an easy one. They had looked at various options before appointing Raymond Donegan, a managing director of corporate financiers IBI, to advise the company. “We knew from the past NIBE would be interested in us,” Wilson said. “We put Raymond in to help us… He is a hell of a hound dog. He works at it and he gets results.” 

“We discussed the different market potentials because there’s a limited number of people who would be interested in a niche company like ourselves in infrared heating.” As a long-term supplier to NIBE, they were an obvious fit, and gradually the deal came together.

“Michelangelo was an artist before he was an engineer”

Wilson said his experience growing up and spending time with his father in Libya where he worked as an engineer working for an oil company gave him the confidence to believe he could set up the business in west Cork. “I always had a belief that the Irish could do anything they wanted to do as long as they had the equipment and the means to do it,” he said.

Wilson said Ceramicx had equipment that was as good or better than any multinational. But having solved that problem, he still had to find the skilled employees required to manufacture the goods he wanted to.

“We have 14 nationalities working for us,” Wilson said. He said Ballydehob did offer a good quality of life, but it was hard to find the right people. “I went to Tunisia to fight like hell to get the work permits for our people,” he said. “People said to me ‘Why are you going to Tunisia?’ and I said: ‘Did you ever hear of [the ancient city of] Carthage?’ These are very well qualified people who speak French, Arabic and English. Any technician who starts by speaking three languages is pretty qualified! I can’t explain how you go and find Armenians who have incredible craft skills. You have to be aware and awake… Some of the work we do here, you have to find alternative means to do the work.”

Frank and Gráinne Wilson ran a fish business before co-founding Ceramicx. Photo: Carlos Benlayo

Wilson said Ceramicx had a van that went around the local area delivering and collecting products for people to work on. “There’s a factory below in Turkey where we send some work for pre-assembly. Some people say ‘Well you’re taking low-cost labour!’ Under no circumstances. I am essentially chasing technical capability from people and I am adding reasonable cost labour to highly automated processes.”

Frank Wilson feels that Ireland could do more to help industrial businesses become multigenerational. “Companies that are my competitors in the likes of Germany and places like that are protected, and they are encouraged to continue into the next generation and the generation after that.”

“In this country, it is the opposite. You end up in a situation where you’re better off selling to a multinational,” Wilson said. “We have a situation in this country where we have foreign direct investors generating wealth in this country and repatriating it. The number of indigenous companies that do that are few and far between. My feeling is that there’s no votes in looking after Irish businesses.”

Wilson said the state could do more to aid manufacturing businesses. “In Germany, they are chasing around like lunatics to invest in equipment. Taxes in other countries are constantly evolving and helping companies develop to keep productivity levels high, but we have none of that here in this country,” he said.

Would Wilson prefer if Ceramicx wasn’t sold? “I want to ask that question to myself,” Wilson replied. “It is the very best thing for my family at the moment. It is the best thing I can do with the tax system that exists in this country. But if the question is if there was an alternative where I could have been more assistive to my family would I have done it? Possibly.”

“I got an awful lot of support from Enterprise Ireland, but if you spoke to some of the people from there they would say the same thing as me. We need to do more to support the purchase of equipment and machinery, and the tax system should be changed, but it hasn’t been done.”

“We’ve more customers than we can shake a stick at.”

Frank Wilson

Ceramicx has invested in research and development, but in a capital-efficient way. “I believe in development and research. I don’t believe in research alone – that is for universities, not for industrialists,” he said.

“Always remember that Michelangelo was an artist before he was an engineer,” Wilson added. “So in other words, if you can conceive and you can understand what you’re trying to achieve then you can put the engineering in and you can put the rest around it.”

Wilson said he believed NIBE would allow Ceramicx to grow more. “They will definitely invest more,” he said. “I’ll be in charge here for the next 20 months and I’ll try to build up the numbers that I’m producing. We need more product as we’ve more customers than we can shake a stick at.” He said he had new products, too, that he would like to develop.

“I have a lot of products in my head. I have no shortage of them, and I will put them on paper for NIBE,” he said. 

A return to farming

For the next 20 months, Wilson intends to lead the business he co-founded. But what about after that? “I will leave industry,” he said. “I will go back to farming. I used to farm in the mountains, sheep and dry cattle. I have always had a grá for it.” 

“I am also qualified to train horses and I love them. When you go into a job like this, it consumes every moment you have. I will move on. I am just filling in and hiring more at the top first as I was a bit light at the top.”

“You get to a point in life where you are taken out. The company is on a huge trajectory upwards. I am happy with what I achieved. I have not been penny pinched in regard to valuation and the net result was the Wilson family came out very well but it’s been a long journey!”