SIS Pitches is the one-stop-shop for sports surfaces & landscape products, from manufacture and supply to installation and maintenance.
George Mullan is the founder and owner of SIS Group, a manufacturing and sports construction company with offices in Europe, Asia and Africa. George’s background is as a turnaround specialist, having completed turnarounds in South & North America and Europe for a major US multinational. He is a private investor in start-up companies in Ireland & the UK covering such areas as information technology, drinks and LED lighting. The SIS Group has constructed sports surfaces for some of the greatest names in sport across the globe. Their client list includes world renowned soccer teams such as Barcelona, Real Madrid, Manchester United and Juventus. SIS has been selected to install pitches for some of the most prestigious sporting events worldwide including the World Cup Finals, the African Cup of Nations, The European Championships, the champions League and Heineken Cup Rugby. The company has completed construction projects in some challenging markets such as Iraq, Angola, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia and, in 2014, will complete projects in Russia for the 2018 World Cup and in Scotland for the Commonwealth Games. George is a graduate from Trinity College Dublin and has an MBA from the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom.
SIS was founded in Amsterdam in 1999. George Mullan purchased the company in 2001 whilst based in Holland. At that time, the company turnover was €200,000 with a staff of three.
Today, SIS Group employs over 200 people and has a projected turnover for 2014 of €34.3m.
SIS Group is a world leader in synthetic and natural sports surfacing. They design, manufacture and construct sports surfaces for a wide range of sport venues ranging from international stadiums to community projects. SIS Group Ltd has offices in Ireland, UK, Holland, Turkey, Russia, UAE and Angola. SIS has constructed new pitches at Santiago Bernabeu, home of Real Madrid and at Camp Nou, home of Barcelona FC, as well as built pitches for the World Cup Finals, African Nations Cup and European and Asian Football championships. The Group have also supplied 5 new pitches for the UEFA Champions league finals. In addition to this, SIS designed and constructed the first synthetic pitch for professional rugby players at Saracens RFC in London and has just completed at Spartak Moscow the first World Cup pitch for 2018. This pitch will host the group games and one of the semi finals of the World Cup. Later this year, SIS is set to install new pitches for Glasgow Celtic and Hampden Park following the Commonwealth Games in Scotland. In Ireland, SIS supplies synthetic pitches through their distributor Pride Sport & Leisure who work exclusively for SIS. They are the largest supplier of synthetic grass pitches in Ireland, having supplied synthetic pitches to over 50 venues in Ireland both North and South, with projects such as Sligo Rovers, Clones, and Newbridge College. Later this year, SIS will invest in the first turf farm in Angola which will supply landscape and sports turf to the market in Luanda, increasing their employment numbers in Angola to over 100 people.
– ENTREPRENEURIAL INSIGHTS –
What vision/lightbulb moment prompted you to start-up in business?
My goal was always to work for myself. However, I was actually working for a US multinational carrying out turnarounds in North & South America and Europe when the opportunity came to purchase a company that was going into administration in Holland.
How did you secure your first investment?
The company was started with my own funds and does not have any borrowings or loans.
What was your “back-to-the-wall” moment and how did you overcome it?
When we acquired our factory in the UK, we supplied our largest customer with a product that failed in over 40 of their pitches. I overcame it by making a personal commitment to remove and install all 40 pitches without damaging his business. It cost SIS £450,000 and today, 7 years later, we still have the same client.
What moment/deal would you cite as the “game changer” or turning point for the company?
SIS won the contract to build 14 pitches for the African Nations Cup in Angola, the second largest football tournament in the world. After 27 years of civil war, little infrastructure and shortages in materials required by SIS, it was an enormous challenge. The project took 11 months to complete and took SIS out of our comfort zone. We had to develop new designs, new construction methods and build self-sufficient teams in four locations in a country twice the size of France. It challenged every aspect of the company but the lessons we learned have allowed us to expand into Eastern Europe and the Middle East. It opened our minds to new ways of working and, today, SIS has a very successful business, employing over 100 people in Angola.
Were there any interesting or unusual circumstances surrounding the inception of the company or its evolution?
Buying companies in administration always throws up unusual circumstances and when you work in Iraq, Angola, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan and Saudi Arabia, the challenges are enormous. The stories are endless!
What are the biggest challenges you face now?
Identifying and hiring people who have the same passion for quality in the products and services we deliver to our customers. Expanding overseas and opening new offices requires finding staff who can work within our culture. SIS works in some markets where there are cultural and logistical challenges, such as Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Iraq, and Angola. Our employees have to be able to handle the pressure of delivering a perfect sports surface which will be viewed by millions and which is of major importance to the country.
What is your biggest business achievement to date?
Moving back to the North West of Ireland and continuing to grow the business. That, and creating strong management teams.
What were the best & the worst pieces of advice you received when starting out?
Worst: To be an excellent turnaround specialist you should use your own money-wrong, always use somebody else’s!
Best: Make sure you can always go back to your customer time and time again.
What top tips would you give entrepreneurs starting out today?
- Test your product/idea early with potential customers, the feedback is invaluable and you will build relationships early on in the business.
- Eat, sleep and breathe cash flow. You should know the cash flow numbers as well as your family. Always have a Plan B for cash flow as not all customers pay on time!
- Do not spend all the sales and marketing budget on generating new sales leads. Focus on your current customers, exceed their expectations and let them spread the word. If a customer you have sold a product/idea to does not come to reorder but goes to a competitor you have a hell of a problem. Solve it before chasing new sales leads.
Were there any early signs that you would eventually follow an entrepreneurial path?
My family were in the cattle business and I was surrounded by buying and selling all the time. It seemed natural to me to follow the same path as my father.
Has anyone acted as a mentor to you?
Not really, unfortunately I tend to learn through making mistakes.
Has your “Irish-ness” contributed to your success?
Absolutely, we have an ability to mix and communicate regardless of the cultures we are dealing with. The majority of our business is overseas and I believe being Irish is an advantage in winning contracts in these markets.
How do you generate new ideas to stay ahead of the curve?
We employ people who are the best in their field and encourage them to improve the way we do our work. In 2015, SIS will introduce a unique machine which will allow us to dominate the reinforced pitch market. SIS has developed machines in-house which are not available to our competitors and these machines are one of the factors that have allowed us to stay ahead of our competitors.
When making a new hire, what key characteristics do you look for?
The ability to move up the ladder in the organisation and honesty are both key. Being prepared to both challenge and take decisions is also important.
Have you started to feel the effects of the economic upturn within your sector/industry?
No, our business actually grew faster during the recession in Europe.
What do you believe it takes to be a successful entrepreneur?
Persistence – the business plan you write is a guide book not a bible. In the marketplace, it is war and if you do not have the persistence to fight again and again, you will lose. Hard Work – it is not a 9 to 5 day, you will work harder for yourself than any other company. You can work smart but it will still mean long nights and weekends. Listen – entrepreneurs like to believe they are the experts and know the marketplace. Listen to your employees and your customers, they actually have the information you need to make the right decisions.
If you were to invest in a sector, what would you consider the next “big thing”?
In Ireland, the agricultural sector has strong companies who have a global reach and will continue to grow sales and profits.
What do you believe is your company’s competitive advantage?
Our relationships with our customers are stronger than that of our competitors. We view a customer as someone that we can do business with over and over again and who has to be respected at all times. Our competitors are multinationals who have layers of management and cannot make decisions quickly. Our employees are empowered to make decisions and are given the responsibility to take decisions.
SIS has a reputation for delivering innovative solutions, whether it is removing and installing a new stadium pitch in 17 hours so Ajax can play three hours later, or building a grass pitch on top of a synthetic pitch for the European Women’s championships last year in Sweden. We are risk takers.
What sacrifices have you had to make to get your business where it is today?
Time with your family is restricted as you grow the business but you have to work harder when you are with your family.
How do you recharge your batteries?
I do about 6 or 7 triathlons each year around the West of Ireland, this keeps me sane and also hopefully fit. Spending time with the family is fun and much more so now that they are all able to tell me how to run my business!