Speaker for 3rd October 2017
Coleraine Probus visit Armstrong Medical
When Coleraine Probus Club member Eric Fulton, asked his long time friend John Armstrong if he could come along to a club meeting to give a talk about his company, John said 'Yes, but why not come to the factory, and see what I'm talking about?'. And that is exactly what happened; the club members met at Armstrong Medical for one of the most interesting, and in many ways inspiring, talk and tour of the Wattstown site.
John Armstrong began his talk with a short history of how and when the company began about 34 years ago. Working as a telephone engineer (where he met Eric) and wanting to supplement his income for a growing family, John had the idea of sourcing and supplying essential surgical equipment. The idea was partially a consequence of 'the troubles' - in 1984 many company 'reps'/salesmen were reluctant to visit N.I. and often would only get as far as the airport, where they could meet a local wholesaler, arrange the deal and get the next plan out. John was quite happy to visit the hospitals, get the orders and go to the airport, then make the deal and await the delivery.
From small beginnings, John got to see how some of the supplies could be improved. A 'workshop' was made from a garage at the back of his house in Portstewart and 'Armstrong Medical' (A.M.) began to take shape. Over the following years, with more chance improvements - an injection moulder purchased by chance at a sale for a 'knockdown price' and no idea at the time what to do with it - the company began to grow. Eventually a business unit was obtained at Wattstown and by 2007 A.M. had 65 employees and a turnover of about £8m. The future looked bright, until the fire!
On Friday 4th May 2007 almost all the factory buildings were destroyed by a fire. Flames reached 70 feet into the air and a toxic smoke cloud reached up to 15miles from the site. Many local people were evacuated from their homes and it certainly looked the end of Armstrong Medical, especially when, at that time, John Armstrong was in the Causeway Hospital needing urgent surgery. However, through the determination of John and the company staff and management - and a chance hospital meeting with another patient called 'D J'* - customers were contacted; insurance firms negotiated with; banks consulted; development plans drawn up and the site started to be cleared for rebuilding the future.
The effort and dedication has truly paid off over the last ten years. Armstrong Medical now employs around 125 people, trades with medical centres in 64 different countries around the world and has a turnover raising above £12m. The company is not only a huge success for Coleraine, but is a flagship enterprise for Northern Ireland - it even has a growing market IN China, not many firms can say that they SELL to China!
And for the Probus Club, the 'icing on the cake', after such an uplifting talk, John Armstrong took the members on a conducted tour of the factory site. This was a fascinating experience and an introduction to the wonders of the modern production techniques used at A.M. The club 'meeting' was deemed a great success and left the members thinking where they would like to explore next?
*PS - And just who was the young man 'D J', that John met in the hospital? And why was he important to John and the rebuilding of A.M.? John explained that D J was in the bed opposite to John. He had no hands or feet, yet he can feed himself and even ride a quad bike. He has determination and he doesn't give up, and that was an inspiration to John. 'I had a medical condition that was being cured and a factory that could be rebuilt, why should I feel sorry for myself? why should I give up? D J has become a friend and almost a role model for John, as they both fight to overcome adversity.
If you would like to take a look at the members 'look' around Armstrong Medical, then 'Click' on the first photo below and see what 'Ken's Kamera' has picked out from the tour:
For more information about Armstrong, 'Click' the second mini photo below (this one will open in a new window):
How BBC Ulster news covered the fire on the 4th May 2007:
Police are investigating what caused a toxic fire at a factory which led to hundreds of people spending the night in hotels or with family.
Up to 600 houses in the Coleraine area had to be evacuated due to smoke from the fire at a medical equipment plant.
John Armstrong, managing director of Armstrong Medical, said much of the plant in Wattstown Business Park would have to be demolished.
He said the fire may have been caused by an electrical fault in a trailer. "The main warehouse and the main administration block have been totally destroyed," he said. "I can't say categorically that there will not be job losses, but it is certainly our intention to minimise them."
About 80 firefighters tackled the blaze at the warehouse. Peter Reilly of the Fire and Rescue Service said smoke from the fire had drifted for up to 15 miles.
"This fire, which was quite substantial, gave off large volumes of thick acrid smoke because it specifically involved plastics," he said. "The smoke could be seen as far away as Lough Neagh and unfortunately for us it was descending into local housing estates and could possibly affect the health of the residents."
About 175 homes in the Windy Hall estate and another 400 homes in Knocklynn and Newbridge were evacuated until residents were allowed to return at about 0700 BST on Friday. Residents had spent the night at an arts centre in Portstewart and Coleraine Leisure Centre. The blaze broke out at about 1730 BST on Thursday and when fire crews arrived they found a well developed fire in a large two-storey warehouse building. The fire was brought under control but a large store at the back of the plant has been destroyed.
Armstrong Medical was established in 1984 to manufacture and sell respiratory disposable products for critical care applications. Ulster Unionist Norman Hillis expressed fears for the jobs of almost 70 staff at the plant. He added: "The fire could leave the immediate future uncertain for staff at Armstrong Medical Services. "The company is one of Coleraine's most successful businesses and it has only recently expanded premises at Wattstown Business Park. "The extent of the damage is not yet clear but certainly it is a major blow to this progressive company."