FOR THOSE WITH even a passing interest in video games, the name Atari is a renowned one.
While many are aware of the company’s role in the development of the computer games industry – being responsible for Pong and the iconic 2600 console – the firm also at one stage had substantial operations in Ireland.
Atari had large facilities in Tipperary and Limerick, which helped to produce the company’s famous games consoles and grew as the company found success in the late 70s and early 80s.
However, as its business started to flounder with the ‘video-game crash’ of 1983, production slowed and Atari began looking at cuts.
Bill Doherty, 60, who now heads up the Irish arm of multinational giant Cook Medical, trained as an engineer but decided to move into management in his mid-20s, joining Atari after completing an MBA in 1982.
“Initially I would have been managing a group of 90 people, but by the time I became manufacturing manager I was responsible for about 400 people,” he tells Fora.
“We had about 600 people in Limerick when we closed.”
Grappling with falling sales, in 1984 Atari decided to scrap its operation in Limerick in a move that was devastating to both workers and the wider region.
“It was just before Christmas, in December 1984,” Doherty says. “It was tough. I was standing at the top of the room when the managing director made the announcement.
“You’re looking at people who you know well, you know their circumstances, that their job may be the only one in their family, and you know the impact it will have and that some will struggle.
“It is a day that I will remember forever and one that I hope never to repeat.”
Doherty says that the closure brought home to him the fact that all industries can be “transient”.
“Atari had the tech to become one of the first PC manufacturers. They could have developed it, but they were too slow and suddenly it went from a games market to a PC market,” Doherty says.
“You should never take what you have for granted. (In business) there is a need to stay competitive and make things better. Standing still is not an option.”
This view has helped him in the expansion of Cook Medical in his native Limerick.
‘How will they speak Spanish?’
After Atari shut, Doherty went to work for Digital Equipment Corporation in Galway before moving to defense technology firm EG&G, picking up more of the experience in manufacturing and management that would eventually lead to Cook coming calling.
“I got a phone call from a headhunter who said that he had a med-tech company that was looking for someone to head up their operations in Ireland,” he says. “They had bought the site here in Limerick, but they hadn’t decided on what they wanted to put in it yet.”
Based in Indiana, medical device maker Cook Medical, one of the world’s largest private companies, had been considering establishing a straightforward manufacturing facility in Limerick.
However, following his experience with Atari, Doherty pushed head office to make the Irish branch more diverse.
The firm hired several engineers to work in research and development as part of its initial team of a dozen staff, something which Doherty says has stood to Limerick as R&D continues to be a big focus.
The Limerick facility continued to expand after officially opening in 1996, with Doherty always keen to add more services at the base.
“I realised manufacturing on its own probably wasn’t enough of an anchor, so I forged links with sales and marketing (in head office),” he says. “We translated stuff for people and started helping there.”
The centre started providing more services for the wider business. When the company was doing a big restructure in the mid-2000s, consolidating many of its European business operations, Doherty again pushed for a greater role for Limerick.
“We had a good track record in manufacturing and the R&D side, and with our knowledge of sales and marketing we were in a good position. The decision was made to put the EMEA shared service centre in Limerick, so that all of the customer-facing activities would be based here,” he says.
“That would be scary for a lot of companies because Limerick isn’t exactly the centre of the world. People would think: ‘How will people speak Spanish? How will they talk with French doctors?”
Despite some apprehension, the move paid off for Limerick. The facility was expanded from just over a dozen people to one that now holds about 880, making it one of the largest employers in the south-west.
As well as its service functions, like dealing with customer issues, Limerick also manufactures many of the thousands of devices that Cook offers in specialist fields like gastroenterology and urology.
According to Doherty, one of the most important devices made at the plant is a special stent used to treat people suffering from poor blood flow in their legs due to a build-up of plaque.
“When a person starts walking they suffer cramps if the muscles don’t get enough blood. If left untreated the plaque gets worse and can lead to amputation if infection sets in,” says Doherty.
The company’s stents hold open arteries and clears them of plaque, allowing doctors to better treat the ailment.
“Historically, the only treatment was to cut open the leg and cut out the infected artery; our device is an elegant solution,” Doherty says.
“We didn’t develop it ourselves, but we have done an awful lot of work on it and we are working on the next generation of it.”
Cook mainly sells to hospitals, although Doherty says that medical practitioners, like doctors and surgeons, are the company’s real customers.
He doesn’t give a list of all the countries that the business exports to but says that it sells to nations around the world from its Limerick base.
“We are the only ones making many of the devices and we ship worldwide, we go to every major market in the world,” he says.
Limerick also provides customer support for the EMEA area, with Doherty saying that the facility gets daily calls in 13 different languages, as well as a variety of different services to other Cook subsidiaries.
“We have areas like event management, where we run training events, our own travel company in-house for any physicians who we are going to meet, a legal department that provides support to EMEA operations, and most of the recruitment is run out of Limerick,” he says.
Ireland is a location of choice for many med-tech companies, and several of Cook’s biggest competitors have operations located down the road from the firm.
Doherty says that Cook distinguishes itself from the likes of Medtronic or Boston Scientific by the fact that it is a privately owned firm – as opposed to its publicly held rivals – and doesn’t necessarily have to work to quarterly deadlines.
“Being private allows us to take a longer view and invest in technologies where we don’t see an immediate payback but you know it’s the right thing to do,” he says.
“The likes of Medtronic tend to grow by mergers and acquisitions, but because we are private we don’t have the cash reserve and can’t raise it, so all of our innovation comes from within; it means that we have to stay flexible and innovative.”
While Doherty declines to reveal profitability targets, the company’s Irish arm is in the black.
According to accounts for Cook Ireland Limited, the company took advantage of an exemption that means it didn’t have to break down its €559 million turnover in the year to the end of 2015, so it’s not clear in which operations the money is generated.
Regardless, the firm made a €27 million profit during the period, reversing a €1 million loss the year before and bringing accumulated profits to €150 million.
Doherty says that the firm now wants to keep a big focus on its R&D operation in Limerick, where it will hope to generate some useful intellectual property for the wider business.
“The medical device industry is driven by IP, if you can continue to generate IP and commercialise then you can differentiate yourselves from lower-cost competition from the Middle East and China,” he says.
“If we can generate and commercialise IP in Limerick then we will be a significant contributor to the global company and we would have a very bright future.”
Although now in his 60s, Doherty says he has no plans to retire any time soon as long as he can “last and contribute something”.
“I won’t be going anywhere else, my hope would be that whenever I do retire that I can hand over in good shape to the next generation,” he says.
“We will all be patients one day and we will all need some of these devices. At the end of the day the stuff that we’re shipping out of here will help someone tomorrow.”