Tom McGuiness, CEO of Horseware Ireland, is the quintessential Irishman with a ready smile and thick Irish brogue. We spoke to him in his self-proclaimed “cockpit” in his Wellington, Florida, home. With a computer at each hand, he uses Lynx and Skype to keep a finger on the pulse of his operations in Cambodia, China and Ireland—yet he’s never far away from his polo ponies and his daily stick-and-ball with the lads.
It’s through no luck of the Irish that this hard-working missionary-turned-entrepreneur earned his personal pot of gold, but he is quick to share in order to make the world a better place. Happy 30th birthday to Horseware Ireland, Tom. Sláinte!
EquiSearch: It’s been 30 years! How did the whole idea of Horseware Ireland get started?
Tom McGuiness: I dropped out of college when I was 20 and became a missionary. My wife and I got married quite young and went to South America. When we came back to Ireland, I took over the family business running a riding school. I ended up becoming a reasonably highly qualified riding instructor.
So I was taking care of 15 horses and ponies and it was a lot of work, including dealing with the rugs. They were always falling off, they were dirty, they would rip, the horses would eat them. I figured there must be a better way, and we’d had our first child and I thought, “I’d better become serious here.”
So I spent three months making the first blanket. I was completely focused on it. I was like a bloodhound. Every day, I’d go meet people and ask questions. It was amazing how helpful people were.
From being a missionary, you have a drive and your faith. That’s a vision and a belief. You don’t know how you got there, maybe, but you know what you want. So that’s how I started. I just kept at it.
ES: You had the will. What was the way?
TM: I was going to local pony club championships, so I made a questionnaire. I spent three days asking people about blankets. What I thought people wanted was really what they wanted—something that wouldn’t fall off, that looked good, that was relatively inexpensive, that could be washed and that was light.
The first thing I had to do is figure out how it would fit on the horse. I realized you don’t need a back seam. I changed where the neck was. I made a system that you could open.
I got a sewing machine and made 55 blankets. They weren’t pretty, but they worked. I went to a show and put up a big sign that said “£35. Guaranteed not to move or your money back.” I sold them all in an hour. I took orders and it was this hand-to-mouth thing for years. After a couple of years, I turned the riding school into a factory.
ES: What kinds of challenges did you have along the way?
TM: One problem was making a waterproof blanket. I eventually heard about this new technology called hydrophylics. It’s basically a solid polymer that acts like a sponge. It absorbs the water, and the heat on the inside pushes the water vapor out. At the time, I was doing most of my work in Scotland and they were weaving fabrics and doing a lot of work making police uniforms and vests. I asked for a couple meters of it−remember, it was orange.
I went home and I made a little blanket for my daughter’s pony, called Pip. So I put it on Pip, and then I put a big, heavy blanket on top of it. I came back in the morning, put my hand in and Pip was dry and it was like, “Wow! This works.” I cracked the design, I cracked the fact that it wouldn’t move and now I had another piece of the jigsaw.
I sent it over to a friend, and he sent it to Practical Horseman. So, in the middle of October of that year, they published a one-page review on the Rambo rug. It was so positive it was embarrassing. From there, everyone wanted one, and my business took off.
ES: When did you start venturing into the Far East?
TM: In 2004, I went out to China and I bought a factory and I brought some guys I was working with out there. I dismantled one of my factories and sent my most modern machinery.
We said from Day One in China we are going to have the same conditions, the same machinery, the same systems as we do in Ireland. Now we have two factories in China with about 200,000 square feet of manufacturing.
Then we set up in Cambodia almost four and a half years ago. I had been going to Cambodia for awhile because my sister was living there. This opportunity came up to start up in a place in the south of Cambodia, on the coast. We leased a 65,000-square-foot building and my son and another Irish guy went there and set it up. Now we have 130 jobs there. We just bought 30 acres and we are going to build our own factory and be fully operational by next year.
ES: We know you are involved in helping the people in the communities where you have established factories. What do you do there?
TM: In Cambodia, we are working with Just World and we helped build a school. They are an extraordinary organization. I’d love to do more.
We are also very focused on malaria—it kills a lot of children and women and older people.
We set up a program where they bring young people into the company to give them real-time experience and let them work at a variety of different jobs with a mentor.
We have another program in Cambodia: When employees work for us for a year, we subsidize their kids to go to school. There’s a non-governmental organization that actually monitors them and monitors the teachers.
We also have a very exciting thing in Cambodia where we bought mobile homes.
These homes aren’t very big; they are the size of a normal stable, 12x12. They are on stilts. They are dry. They’re insulated. They have electrical solar power. Underneath, there is a living area open on two or three sides. Now we are making them available to employees.
ES: What’s next for Horseware Ireland?
TM: I’m always making life easy for the horse and rider. It’s not just the blankets. We spend a lot of money on research and development.
I bought a clothing factory three years ago. We have probably the best competition jackets on the market. We also have an air-mesh fabric on the market now. You can actually feel the breeze when you are riding. We are coming out with a kind of knitted fabric and we’re working on fabric for riding jodhpurs.
I think with breeches, the stretch is really important, and the feel. Now, if you fall off in some of these arenas, it’s almost impossible to get the stains out; [it 's] as if the footing has a dye or something. If we can get to where we can seal the ions, that would help with that.
We’ve started our own glove department. It took us about a year to get the training and the quality right.
We have the largest selling bridle in the world. The flash is set higher and the horse can breathe. You are not clamping the mouth closed. He can move his tongue. It’s a phenomenon. Even I’m amazed.
In the last few years, we’ve started to go into other areas. The Ice Vibe—that was developed by an employee who came up with an idea. We’ve got the Rambo Ionic, which is negative ion therapy. I started using it on my knees for polo. I put it on underneath my riding boots. It’s low key and non-invasive, the same way as Ice Vibe.
We are also looking at products for horse health: horse monitoring, respiration, pulse, temperature and movement. Hypocare is an advanced wound and infection therapy. It’s 80-300 times more effective at killing the bacteria than hypochlorite or bleach, but it doesn’t harm healthy tissue. It doesn’t slow down the healing process and doesn’t sting. It’s going to be a massive product but it’s going to be a hard sell. People will think it’s too good to be true.
ES: You are the consummate horseman. You’ve done eventing, showjumping, endurance and now polo. When did that obsession begin?
TM: Polo—that started in 2008. I had a lot of friends who moved on to polo. I really didn’t like ball sports, but I went to one lesson just to see and I thought it was nice. Then, I went to another one. The person I was taking lessons from was leaving to go to Argentina. My twins were on a mission trip there and I needed a break, so I went to Argentina.
I arrived on a Thursday. I played my first game of polo on Friday and on Saturday I went to the Argentina title match. I couldn’t believe what they were doing on horses. I was hooked!
It took me a couple of years, but in 2010 I went out and bought some horses and that’s when I really started in earnest. When you are playing here in Florida, it’s as tough as anywhere. I just love the horses running down the field. It’s so much fun!
ES: So what’s the Tom McGuiness secret to success?
TM: People always say, “You have a successful company. What’s your secret?” There isn’t really one secret. You have to do all the things well. Not just making a blanket.
One thing with these projects is you have to have a driver. I know that every day the employee who thought up Ice Vibe will get up and wonder what she can do with Ice Vibe today. I call her the stone in my shoe. She will bug everybody to get things done, but she is in charge and she gets it done. That’s a secret to my success!