Smarter Staff
Smarter Writer

This article has been written by the Smarter Business™ Staff Writers

Smarter Staff
Smarter Writer

This article has been written by the Smarter Business™ Staff Writers

Dr Barry McCleary has made his own path in the world, and since winning the Telstra Business Award in 1993 he's been a very successful entrepreneur. Read on to hear how he keeps himself passionate and his business thriving.

Today, Dr McCleary is asked for something that many wine drinkers are curious about, the scientific explanation for why some wines can cost $100 a bottle? 

“What determines a $10 bottle of wine and a $100 dollar bottle of wine is very fine tuning in terms of ferments. It’s probably a little more luck than anything else that you end up with a $100 bottle of wine rather than a $10 bottle. They’re not things that are easily analysed or easily altered,” says McCleary.

However, it takes far more than chance to create a successful company, he says.

Megazyme International Ireland is a biochemical company that started with three staff working from a couple of garages in Sydney’s Northern Beaches in 1988 and became a successful international supplier of test kits for monitoring food quality. Today, it has 40 staff and its methods for food testing are recognised by Codex Alimentarius – a joint body set up in 1963 by Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations and the World Health Authority to monitor and provide a harmonised international standard of testing.

barry mccleary in lab

The epiphany that started a business

That’s pretty good for a company that started as a means for a humble biochemist looking to make the leap from government research to industry.

Up until 1988 McCleary was principal research scientist with the NSW Department of Agriculture. After taking a year off to work in various prestigious research laboratories around the world and a biotechnology company in Ireland, he had an epiphany. “I realised I preferred research work in industry to research work in government." 

“When I came back I started winding up the research projects I had with the department. In 1988 I resigned and started Megazyme,” recalls McCleary.

Back then Megazyme was primarily a biochemical consulting firm and McCleary says it had “little more than two coins to rub together”. The business was stable and successful but McCleary still wasn’t content. “After two years, I decided I didn’t want to consult any more – I wanted a range of products,” he says.

How Barry McCleary increased profits by 300% in 12 months

He started to divide the company’s efforts evenly between consulting and developing enzymes for laboratory research and carbohydrate testing.

By 1993, when Megazyme became one of Telstra’s first business award winners, it was turning over close to a million dollars per year – a three-fold increase in its revenue from just 12 months before. At the time, the operation had just moved out of two garages attached to McCleary’s Cromer home and into a factory unit in Warriewood. Wine testing kits weren’t the first food testing products that Megazyme developed. When it first began developing testing products in 1990, it was focused on grain and plant products. 

“We spun across eventually into wine quality, but initially it was about grain quality and dietary fibre; starch and various other carbohydrates and enzymes in grain that affected quality,” McCleary explains. For personal reasons, McCleary moved the business to Ireland and settled in Dublin. Once there he established a 10,000 square metre factory and continued to develop test kits for measuring grain quality − basically the quality of all plant products.

In 2005 Megazyme International Ireland established a molecular biology division in order to genetically engineer enzymes that went into its test kits. It recently trebled its fermenting capacity and built facilities to practice synthetic organic chemistry.

“I don’t expect it to be paying for itself in a major way for another four or five years. By that stage I’ll probably be semi-retired but it’s a very important thing to move the company forward,” he says.

There is a price to be paid for building up a small company because it just isn’t easy, but I wouldn’t do anything else.

- Barry McCleary, Megazyme International Ireland

Barry's critical factor that drives success

McCleary is reluctant to discuss the company’s current financial performance. “Let’s just say that, financially, it’s a very successful company. We’ve done very well in a very difficult set of circumstances,” he says pointing to challenging global economic conditions over the last decade. He is saying this while he is at Sydney University making a beeline from the car park toward his old faculty which has honoured him with an alumni award.

However, you’d be lucky to find a trace hubris or chutzpah in him. While he says that it’s critical that people are prepared to take risks to succeed he seems painfully circumspect about his own.

“I hear people say to me that I’m very lucky to have a successful business, but I think about all the others who worked just as hard as I did and just didn’t get the breaks, didn’t make the right decisions and they weren’t successful. So, it’s not all luck, it’s about working hard and making the right decisions,” says McCleary, adding that companies looking to expand should avoid the temptation to spend their profits on luxuries and be prepared to plough money back into the company.

“Move ahead modestly so you can sleep at night, but be willing to take a risk with what you can afford to lose,” he says. Business owners should also be wary of taking on excessive debt or carrying investors for the sake of expanding.

What McCleary learned from Christ

“I think it’s very important to maintain ownership of your company as long as you can because, if you do, you won’t lose interest in it. If you have a partner that’s getting 50 per cent of the profits for doing nothing you may lose that interest. Once you do, it’s gone,” he warns. In a candid moment he also says that business owners need to be aware that building up a business could take a toll in the personal sphere. It’s not clear whether he’s hinting at his own.

“There is a price to be paid for building up a small company because it just isn’t easy, but I wouldn’t do anything else. I’ve absolutely loved the time developing products and creating things that are of value to people. If I had the clock to turn back I probably wouldn’t change anything,” he beams.

Asked which of his awards he values most his answer is clear: “Even JC himself said you’ll never be a profit in your own land so winning an award from your own faculty is very sweet”.

Passion is power

McCleary attributes a large portion of his success to maintaining ownership of his company, stating that he never lost interest because he has always been actively involved.

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