“Forty years, it does sort of hit you.” Aidan Walsh is not one for looking back or for slapping himself on the back.
“I’m aware that a kick in the arse is never far from a slap on the back,” he told this reporter with a mischievous smile.
But after 40 years at the helm of Naas-based Texacloth - Ireland and Britain’s leading wool exporter - behind him, he’s taken a little time out to mark that milestone – although he remains wary of celebrating it. If anything he’s just surprised it’s been that long.
He’s not really somebody given to blowing his own trumpet, not one to go running to the press with every new deal or move by the company.
“The last time I spoke to the Leinster Leader was in the early 1980’s, to (the late) Sam Weller.”
That’s not to say that he’s a bad interviewee – he’s nothing if not jovial company. with a life spent in business, agriculture and in politics, he’s generous with the great stories he’s gathered along the way.
He’s been to China 68 times since the early 1980s and has watched both China and Ireland’s relationship with China develop over that last 30 years.
When he first flew into the city of Qingdao the airport was a former military one, with no arrivals or departures section. Now it’s state of the art.
“It’s been a culture shock. They have made strides in every way.”
He started in the wool business in the market in Smithfield where he went for a summer job in the 1960’s. “I went up to sell the wool, ended up with a summer job.”
He liked it very much having come from a farming community in Naas and Sallins.
At the time, Ireland was a different country. It’s hard to imagine now but there was “hardly a town in Ireland that didn’t have a woolen mill north and south”. His time in gave him contacts all over the country.
He ended up after some time working under Sir Kenneth Parkinson at the McAuley Wool processing plant on the Long Mile Road.
“I was always going to go out on my own and I felt I needed to know more. My father wasn’t pleased,” he admits. So he was hired as the MD’s gofer, that was, until the MD got a heart attack “and suddenly I was I charge”.
The plant had 300 people working there and with the figure of Sir Kenneth Parkinson on the phone to him “for two or three hours a day”, he soon got the hang of the job and the industry. By 1972, he and a friend, David Maher, set themselves up in a backbedroom in a house in Clondalkin. They were very successful very quickly and bought John M Joyce wool merchants in Brunswick Street in Dublin.
“Then we took over Jack Yates in Enniskerry (Ivan’s father),”
In the late 1970s he got involved in property buying up 650 houses all over Dublin.
At a certain point the pair amicably went their separate ways. David Maher’s interests lay in property whereas Aidan Walsh felt his future was in wool and he became the sole owner of Texacloth.
The move into the British wool market happened in the early 1980’s. There, the British Wool Marketing Board is, by law, the only organisation permitted to buy wool for the domestic market. It was a wartime law to guarantee a supply for the mililtary.
In 1983, in what he calls “a flash of genius” he took a copy of the legislation with him on holidays and read it at the beach. He discovered an amendment which stated that the one exception to the compulsory acquisition of wool in the UK was if a farmer wished to export his wool.
“And I thought Eureka! “So we started in Scotland.”
In fact it was the current Naas-based TD Anthony Lalor who went to Scotland to run the operation for Texacloth. “We had great fun and games with Anthony. He was with us for 10 years.”
Having started the ball rolling in Scotland, they expanded into Wales and England, and to this day, Aidan’s sons run the operation in the UK which is a huge part of their business.
It may interest some, but not surprise many that Texacloth doesn’t sell an ounce of wool in Ireland. It all goes to China or India.
“In the far east they still use wool to make carpets, and carpets are coming back into vogue,” he explained, adding that the fashion for wooden floors is waning.
He also revealed that airlines tend to change the carpets in their aircraft every 16 weeks – and the same in trains – and this is a major market for the wool.
Now that his four children are grown up they are dispersed throughout Ireland and Britain running the various operations with his daughter Anne Marie running the office from her home in Carlow, while he keeps an eye on things from his home in Millicent.
This interview was conducted in advance of his a get together by old acquaintances from the 40 years in business. He mused that it would be “interesting and emotional – we haven’t seen them in so long”.
But he’s taking nothing for granted. He’s still very involved in the businesses and is aware that things can go badly.
“We got killed in 2004 – in four days in January we were knocked for half a million.”
Every year, from June until Christmas, Texacloth is flat out. “It’s seven days a week on the coal face, from 7am until dark buying wool from farmers. Then from January 1 until the end of March we can take a break – it’s badly needed – where we do nothing at all.
Be that as it may, it’s hard to imagine Aidan Walsh twiddling his thumbs.
During out interview, our conversation veered way off course, entertainingly so, into such subjects as politics (he is also a friend of Charlie McCreevy, having working with him for many years), international relations, governments (“I’m cynical of them all”), horse racing (he owns a leg), the rise and fall of the Irish economy (“madness”), Bertie Ahern, gambling in China and much else besides.
He’s full of energy and an irrepressible sparkle, undimmed after 40 years.