Trade focus: No hiding from big-brand takeovers on home turf

Heading into Kilrush from the Limerick side, there is what you might assume to be a modest local tractor dealer who gets by selling a few machines from behind a garage forecourt and shop.

This assumption would be a mistake; Joe Whelan Ltd Garage is a well-established Massey Ferguson dealership in the midst of a long-term development that has seen €450,000 invested in the premises alone – and the project is not finished yet.

Joe Whelan Ltd

Holding two major franchises for well-respected marques would also suggest that they mean business; both Massey Ferguson and Fendt insist on a certain level of competence before they lend any dealer credibility by appointing it as an agent.

The company is now run by Joe (pictured below) and Kevin Whelan – the sons of the founder Joseph Whelan. He is still involved but not on a daily basis.

Joe Whelan Ltd

2018 is the year in which they will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the company although, strictly speaking, it was in 1967 that Joseph took his first tentative steps into the tractor business.

Joseph was then a trainee mechanic with the Air Corps in Dublin and, while there, he got to know the then Irish Zetor importer – who soon offered him the agency for Co. Clare. With his father’s help he bought himself out of the service and set up shop in Kilrush.

Fords were also sold alongside the Zetors for a while; then came Renault (which eventually morphed into Claas).

Joe Whelan Ltd

Joe and Kevin had become involved with the business at that point. Finding that the new agreement with Claas was not entirely to their satisfaction, they fell into the open arms of Massey Ferguson and now have absolutely no intention of moving elsewhere.

The relationship with Massey Ferguson has been a fruitful one, allowing the business to open two further depots – one at Ennis and the other at Loughrea. These branches are run as autonomous units and are apparently doing well, but Joe does not see any further outlets being established.

Joe Whelan Ltd

“Consolidation of what we have is the way forward,” he pointed out, while Kevin noted: “Getting the right staff for a new branch is a major concern.”

Joe also considers consolidation of the farm machinery trade on a larger scale as being on the cards.

He can foresee a time when there will be just a handful of super-sized dealers covering the whole of Ireland.

This would be very much in line with the American model and the tendency of manufacturers to appoint large dealers to new or existing territories, where established distributors have no immediate succession strategies.

Joe Whelan Ltd

On the other hand, it is the smaller, family-owned business which actually does a more effective job he believes. Quite where these two opposing philosophies will meet is anybody’s guess.

While looking into the future, Joe added he would not be surprised to see the diesel engine disappear from farms. This, it must be said, is a matter of debate within the family. Whether the internal combustion engine stays or not, Joe is convinced that electricity, fed from the tractor, will start to play an increasing role in powering implements – in addition to just controlling them.

He is not alone in making this prediction.

Joe Whelan Ltd

While none of this is causing him sleepless nights, he does have some concerns over disposing of traded-in equipment. Trailed mowers are a particular heart-breaker at present.

“Farmers are increasing their workload by expanding their herds,” he explained. “Consequently, they haven’t the time they had for other tasks and so are putting more work out to contractors.

Contractors use large machines for which they are the only customers, so they have little trade-in value.

It’s a viscous circle but, as yet, he doesn’t see any move towards contractors keeping their machines for longer. However, the trend towards large, mounted mowers may yet prove to have a natural limit – due to small field sizes in the west of Ireland.

The arrival of cheaper, non-western tractor brands into the Irish market doesn’t faze Joe to any great extent.

“With the new EU regulations coming into force you can’t build a cheap tractor,” he said. Yet, he is concerned about the insistence on dual-line brakes, which he sees as becoming a nightmare for the farming community down the line – as tractors and implements may no longer be as readily compatible as they are today.

Joe Whelan Ltd

“It needs to be standardised,” he insisted, pointing to the harmonisation of front loader brackets as an example to follow.

As to the company’s own future, the latest round of investment will see a generous new workshop being opened and an expansion of the parts store. Spare parts account for a large chunk of turnover, with items from all makes being stocked and frequently exported.

The yard will also be enlarged and re-organised – to better show the tractors and equipment being stocked.

Joe Whelan Ltd

The new workshop will be a much-appreciated improvement over the present arrangement. Having been involved with fixing machinery since he was a young lad, Joe retains a strong interest in how workshops function, how they are arranged and the process of servicing a tractor or implement.

Joe Whelan Ltd

This practical outlook has led to as great a focus on after-sales service as it has on glossier sales facilities. The Whelans appear to pursue growth based on quality of service, rather than sharp-suited salespeople – an approach that has obviously worked for them in the past.

‘Only two balers that work in Ireland’

Progress and innovation have been the reason for the success of Massey Ferguson, Joe maintains. He welcomes the ‘cross fertilisation’ of ideas that is coming to the fore within the wider AGCO group. He is also delighted to see the Lely range come under AGCO’s wing.

“There are only two balers that work in Ireland,” he mused. “They are Welger and McHale; we sell what is still a Welger baler.”

AGCO, it must be said, are past masters of brand management; yet, dove-tailing the Lely purchase neatly into the company’s portfolio is a complex process that is taking a little while.

Joe Whelan Ltd

Joe and Kevin have no such hesitations; both are determined that with Massey Ferguson, Fendt and now Lely-manufactured machines available at all three branches, they will continue to forge ahead.